May 11, 2009

10 Reasons to visit Rio de Janeiro

1 – Santa Teresa (pictured above)
Taking a cab up one of the steep cobblestone roads that lead into Rio's most bohemian neighbourhood
, perched on a hill, feels like leaving the city altogether. Colorful townhouses with wrought-iron gates, friendly neighborhood grocery stores and birds chirping in the trees replace the hustle and bustle of downtown. For decades, poets, musicians and other artsy folk have spent a good part of their days debating and drinking chilled beers at the same old bars – Goiabeira and Santa Saideira - their tables and tiled floors worn down by the years. The main square – where lovely old cablecars make stops every half hour - is picture-perfect, with its washed-out little church, a big tree in the middle and the stunning view of the city below. Before taking the cablecar back down to the city, save time for inexpensive lunch at Aprazível or Bar do Arnaudo, Santa Teresa’s most picturesque restaurants.
Rua Aprazível, 62, T: 55 21 2508-9174
Bar do Arnaudo:
Rua Almirante Alexandrino 316-B, T: 55 21 2252-7246,

2 – Sugarloaf

Rio tends to evoke many clichés: samba, girls, soccer and… the Sugarloaf. The landmark deserves its fame: from the top of Pão de Açúcar hill (the Sugarloaf) one has a 360-degree view of green peaks and sea hugging high-rises and the Guanabara Bay. Not surprisingly, the gondolas that take tourists on the two-part trip to the 287 meter-high belvedere are always full on clear days. As the gondola starts to rise and the panorama unfolds, one hears cameras clicking and oohs and aahs in all languages, from German to Japanese. The morning is the best time for photos, with the sun rising from the sea and lighting up the lush green mountains that enclose the city.
T: 55 21 2546-8400

3- Copacabana Palace Hotel

Cariocas, as the inhabitants of Rio are called, have a special bond with this grand hotel, which is the jewel of Copacabana beach. Nicknamed Copa, it is known for its gigantic pool, white stucco façade and, above all, the glitzy gala dinners, weddings and Carnival balls it hosts, attended by Brazilian TV royalty and bejeweled socialites. Extensive renovations, started in 1989 when it was bought by the Orient-Express chain, have restored Rio’s classiest five-star to its former glory. Stop in for a caipirinha cocktail by the pool, or for the traditional – and quite hearty - feijoada (the typical Brazilian stew of black beans with meats, sautéed kale and orange slices), served on Saturdays. Or, if your budget allows it, make it your home base: rates for the stately and elegant rooms start at US$ 270.
Avenida Atlântica, 1702, Copacabana, T: 55 21 2548 7070

4- Posto 9, Ipanema
The girl from Ipanema is now the middle-aged mom of a Playboy cover girl, yet the beach that inspired the tune continues to be Rio’s coolest, even if its waters aren’t always the cleanest. Different crowds – gays, mothers with babies, surfers - hang out at separate spots of this 2-kilometer long stretch of sand. Their “territories” are marked by the tall, numbered towers which house public showers and restrooms. The younger, more scantily-clad cariocas (and tanned, pretty girls from Ipanema) congregate near tower number nine, or Posto 9 . Arrive early, open a tab with one of the beach vendors (who will serve you ice-cold beers and caipirinhas all day), and look around as the beach fills up: this is people-watching at its finest!

5- Gero restaurant
Getting a table at Gero is an exercise in patience. Waits are long not just because this is, hands down, Rio’s best Italian restaurant, but also because it is the best spot in town to be and be seen. The classic Northern Italian menu – think risotto with partridge and raddichio, ossobucco alla milanese, white polenta with squid, etc. – is quite like what is served at the flagship Gero, which has been one of São Paulo’s top restaurants for nearly a decade. Owner Rogério Fasano usually does the rounds of the tables, quietly greeting politicians, socialites and celebrities. Dinner for two with a bottle of wine, at about US$ 100, is relatively expensive, but worth it for the rare glimpse of Rio’s high society.
Gero: Rua Aníbal de Mendonça, 157, Ipanema, T: 55 21 2239-8158

6- Prainha beach

When cariocas want to escape the city and swim in clear, clean waters, they drive about half an hour south to Prainha, which is Portuguese for “little beach”. A favorite of surfers and their bronzed girlfriends, gets as crowded as Barra da Tijuca and other more urban beaches on weekends, when young boys charge as much as US$ 5 to “keep an eye” on cars, but is blissfully quiet during the week. This small stretch of sand and sea is especially recommended to travelers who might feel queasy about the notices that often run in local papers warning that well-known beaches such as Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca are “improper for bathing”, because of polluted waters. Plan on spending the day, to make the long cab ride worth it. For a spectacular taste of home-cooked seafood, drive up a steep cobblestoned hill and have a late lunch at Tia Palmira on the way back. A fixed price of approximately US$ 13 per person buys a true banquet. A succession of shrimp, crab and fish fritters, dumplings, stews and escabeches is served in a sun-drenched patio overlooking the sea. Waitresses will keep on bringing more and more of their tasty shrimp specialties, until you beg them to stop.
Tia Palmira: Caminho do Souza, 18, T: 55 21 2410-8169

7- Bracarense bar

Botequins – casual, cheap bars open to the street, which mostly serve chilled draft beer and finger food – are the soul of Rio. On any given weekend afternoon, the city’s botequins will be filled with loud groups of friends gathered around small tables, many still sporting their bathing suits and flip-flops. The Bracarense
is the most famous and crowded of all, despite the unattentive waiters and the shabby interior. Why, then, is it so successful? Because its draft beer has a deliciously creamy foam and the manioc and shrimp fritters are heavenly. Also, its location, in a leafy block of fashionable Leblon district a mere two blocks from the beach attracts intellectuals and pretty young things alike.

8- Handgliding over the Tijuca national park

Running off a platform mounted on a steep wooded cliff, then gliding over a stretch of tropical forest – even when accompanied by an experienced instructor – is not for everyone. Those who choose to take the plunge, however, are rewarded with breathtaking vistas of the Gavea and Bonita rock peaks, and the magical feeling of floating 600 meters above sea level, without a noise but that of the wind hitting the glider’s colorful wings. Experts agree that Rio is the most gorgeous urban setting in the world for this sport: on a clear day you can see not only Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, but the Sugarloaf and even the skyline of Niteroi, a neighboring city. Outfitters like German sportsman Konrad Heilman charge approximately Can$ 130 for the flight, including the transfer service to and from your hotel in an air-conditioned van. Filmed proof of your courageous adventure, saved on a DVD, will set you back another $ 65.
T: 55 21 9843-9006

9 – Botanical gardens

An alley lined with 137 imposing Imperial Palms divides the beautifully landscaped 141 acres of the Botanical Garden, founded in 1808. Most plant species are cultivated outdoors, around ponds and bronze busts of botanists. One of the prettiest alleys is the one lined with century-old mango trees covered with orchids and bromeliads. A large portion of the garden reproduces a typical Amazonian forest, complete with 30-meter tall trees, waterplants and mangroves. The restored blue-and-white colonial farmhouse where King John VI of Portugal used to stay during his visits now houses a coffeeshop and stores which sell books and souvenirs.
Rua Jardim Botânico, 920, T: 55 21 2294-9349

10 – Dias Ferreira Street

There is no better way to get around Rio’s beaches than on foot (except maybe jogging, if you ask the thousands that go for their morning runs on the well-kept beach boardwalks). That is especially true in Leblon, the tony neighborhood that is separated from Ipanema by a canal. Here you can stroll by most of the city’s nicest boutiques and restaurants. Make sure you don’t miss Dias Ferreira street, which has the city’s highest concentration of top addresses. On it are Rio’s finest ice cream parlor (Mil Frutas), where fresh tropical fruits like açaí and cajú are churned into creamy scoops of heaven, the most popular salad restaurant (Celeiro) and best magazine shop (Argumento) . Other precious finds include the restaurants Carlota and Sushi Leblon.

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