“Rio seemed boundless.” Antonio Cicero wrote that line in a poem called The City and Its Books. The verse recalled the downtown bookstores of Cicero’s youth, but it could describe the thoughts of many a visitor to Rio de Janeiro.
Songwriters from Tom Jobim to James Taylor have composed lyrics in homage to the city’s rough physical beauty, where rainforest covered crags shoot down to meet the sand, and the vibrant yet laid-back demeanor of the “cariocas.” Derived from the name given by the original natives to the homes of the Portuguese colonists, the term “carioca” is more than a label for a local; it also describes an affable lifestyle where work has its place but is never all consuming.
Rio de Janeiro is virtually synonymous with Carnaval, the city’s pre-Lenten festival procession far surpassing in opulence and spectacle anything found elsewhere. Fourteen groups, called Samba Schools, each with 5,000 dancing participants, parade through permanent bleachers, the concrete Sambadrome designed by modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. “Each school prepares an entire opera,” says Joãozinho Trinta, an acclaimed “carnavelesco,” a Carnaval stage director. “It is considered the greatest show on earth,” he adds, without apology to P.T. Barnum.
Whether native or, like Joãozinho Trinta, adopted, cariocas easily lapse into hyperbole when describing their hometown. “I fall in love again every time I arrive by plane,” says frequent flyer, journalist and hardcore carioca Scarlet Moon de Chevalier. Designer Gilson Martins has built a thriving career by selling handbags and other accessories featuring Rio icons like Sugarloaf to residents and tourists alike.
The popularity of Martins’ creations among visitors should come as no surprise. Outsiders succumb easily to the city’s charms. Despite tales of drug lords run amuck and endemic urban violence, Rio remains the destination of choice for foreigners: 37% named Rio as their main destination in 2003, compared to 19% for the second-ranking city, according to a national tourism board study. Of 23 cities around the globe, Rio de Janeiro ranked as the world’s friendliest city in a study by a group of social psychologists led by Robert Levine of California State University at Fresno.
The city’s allure is growing as the cariocas rediscover part of a distinctive heritage that had devolved into disuse. Always forward-looking, enamored with youth, fashion and the avant-garde, Rio de Janeiro razed in successive frenzies of 20th century urban renewal both its birthplace, a hill called the Morro do Castelo, and a landmark of its life as the national capital, the Monroe Palace which housed the Senate. Perhaps wishing to forget its loss of economic primacy to São Paulo in the 1950s and the subsequent loss of capital status to Brasília in 1960, citizens hardly noticed as their historic downtown crumbled. But during the last decade a “cultural corridor” project has begun to revitalize the old haunts of sambistas, artists and politicians – bringing nightlife back home to quaint old central districts.
Lodging in Rio de Janeiro
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A municipal survey turned up 1,638 tourist attractions in Rio de Janeiro – enough to fill a lifetime. After the obvious, Sugarloaf, the Christ statue on Corcovado hill, and a match at Maracanã Stadium for soccer fans, no trip to Rio de Janeiro is complete without a visit to the beach. The safest and most convenient spot might be right in front of the hotel, but visitors should be aware that different groups stake out their geographical hangouts and return repeatedly to the same sections of sand.
There are other vantage points from which to view Rio’s coastline and rugged, foliage covered foothills. From the air, for instance. “The first thing I’d do is take them on a helicopter ride above the city, to get them oriented,” says Stuart Mickle, an advertising consultant and a former creative director at the New York agency J. Walter Thompson. (For a preview of the helicopter ride, see the opening scene of the Brazilian documentary film Bus 174.) “Then,” Mickle adds, “I’d take the more adventurous ones hang-gliding.” Except for winter sports, just about every outdoor activity known to humankind can be practiced in or around Rio de Janeiro.
Few cities can match Rio de Janeiro’s natural beauty. But most important protected area, the Tijuca Forest, the world’s largest urban forest, is not primary growth. The hillside was practically deforested by the mid-19th century, first for lumber, then for coffee plantations. But in 1861, when city fathers realized that the deforestation was causing a decrease in local rainfall, leading to a shortage of potable water, they ordered the area reforested. The Botanical Gardens, founded in 1808 by King João VI, who escaped to Brazil when Napoleon invaded Portugal. It boasts 7,000 varieties of plants, including 30-meter high royal palms and specimens of the now endangered Brazilwood tree that was once so plentiful that it gave the country its name.
Clients who visit investment bank UBS Warburg’s Rio de Janeiro digs near Botafogo beach often get treated to a short road trip to the Pedra de Guaratiba hillside, overlooking a nature reserve. “The drive itself is spectacular,” says Stephen Graham, a Rio-based UBS Warburg director and telecoms analyst. The first stop is generally for Bahian-style seafood at the Restaurante do Bira with its open-air tables. “You’re surrounded by forest,” says Graham. “Orchids, bromeliads, butterflies, monkeys.”
That’s not all. “To really impress,” as Graham puts it, the bankers take visitors another kilometer up the road to the Casa de Burle Marx, the country home of the legendary late landscape designer. “I’d say that Burle Marx has to rank among Brazil’s greatest artists, and in a marvelously Brazilian medium, landscaping,” says the analyst.
Rio’s common denominator is the beach. Landlocked Amazonian Indians head straight for Ipanema when they hit town. Entrepreneurs of the sand abound: one vendor “rents” sunblock by the squirtful and sunglasses by the day. A life-sized statue of poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, sitting on a bench in a characteristically timid pose with his back to the beach can be found in Copacabana. “Your buzz is your charm,” wrote poet in an ode to his adopted Rio de Janeiro.
An eclectic crowd, with thinly clad beautiful people of all ages, concentrates around Posto 9 and Posto 10 in Ipanema. Heading out of town, and only accessible by car, Joatinga beach offers tranquility and a great view. Surfers and assorted health nuts flock to Prainha, even further down the road.
Ipanema beach is lined with tents selling food and drink and renting beach chairs. One good place, run by Jorge, is located between Postos 9 & 10, right in front of the Caesar Park hotel. It's called Ordem & Progresso (Order & Progress, the motto from the Brazilian flag), and the employees wear shirts in the Brazilian colors of yellow and green. Give your name to Jorge at the tent, and you can run a tab to be settled when you leave the beach. Until then just wave, and their folks will bring sandwiches, soft drinks, beer, caipirinhas, piña coladas....the latter comes in single (served in a cup) or double (served in a pineapple) - delicious (and huge). The sandwiches are tasty. Best of all, the folks are cheerful, quick, and honest. On Ipanema Beach in front of the Caesar Park hotel.
Rio Restaurants and Dining
As a port city and former national capital, Rio de Janeiro has received so many culinary influences that it is difficult to identify a peculiar local tradition.
The city sports over 900 restaurants of just about every species, according to the Rio Convention and Visitors Bureau. Visitors can experience all varieties of Brazilian regional specialties, and chefs at many exclusive restaurants, once dismissive of Brazilian culinary traditions, are adding local elements to their creations. “Among the most refined restaurants, there isn’t a single one that isn’t mixing in something,” says Leonardo Braga, owner of three distinct Brazilian-style restaurants in Ipanema.
Many Brazilian recipes rely substantially on the beef, pork and, less often, chicken. The mainstay in seafood, Bahian cuisine from the northeast, is prepared in the West African tradition using palm oil.
The Brazilian national dish is a black bean stew called feijoada. Sundry cuts of meat, from jerked beef to spare ribs, sausage and pork extremities, are simmered for hours. In the down-home establishments, the pieces are served together with the beans in a pot. In upscale places, the different pieces are often separated out and served buffet style. Rice, shredded kale, sliced oranges and manioc meal usually accompany the dish. According to legend, feijoada is an invention of slaves forced to make the best of it with pork leftovers. Leading Brazilian scholars agree, however, that feijoada is a descendent of European recipes that customarily used less noble cuts of meat. In Rio de Janeiro, feijoada is on the menu at lunch on Fridays and Saturdays. Many hotel restaurants offer feijoada buffets on Saturdays.
Originally from the pampas in Rio Grande do Sul, but whole-heartedly adopted by cariocas is the “rodízio” churrascaria, the all-you-can-eat barbeque steakhouse. These restaurants feature assorted grilled meats seasoned only with coarse salt. The word “rodízio” means “in turn” or “rotation.” Waiters, often dressed in typical cowboy garb, bring skewers of select cuts to the table one-by-one. A beef-eater’s paradise, of course, but most top churrascarias have excellent salad buffets that will please even the most radical vegetarian.
Bacalhau, a Portuguese dish made from died codfish, is popular in Rio de Janeiro, as is the heavy pork-based fare that sustained farmers, miners and sojourners in Minas Gerais state. Typical Brazilian deserts feature fruit preserves prepared with ample amounts of sugar.
The national mixed drink is called the “caipirinha” (literally little hick). It consists of crushed lime wedges, sugar, ice and cachaça, the Brazilian sugarcane brandy. The sweet and tasty caipirinha can sneak up on the unsuspecting.
Rio de Janeiro’s corner juice bars are rivaled only by those in the Amazonian cities of Belém and Manaus. Favorites include juices made from passion fruit, mangoes and sundry mixtures. A popular soft drink called guaraná is made from an Amazonian berry of the same name; like cola, guaraná is a mild stimulant. Another Amazonian berry, Acaí, is increasingly popular among the health conscious either juiced as a health drink or in pulp mixed with granola.
Aprazível – This restaurant is located in Santa Teresa, a village-within-a-city replete with cobblestone streets, 19th century mansions, and artist ateliers. The intrepid will catch an old streetcar behind the Petrobrás headquarters downtown and clatter up the hill. It features choro on Thursday nights. “It is a spectacular setting,” says ad man Mickle. “With the choro it makes for a beautiful evening.” Rua Aprazível, 62, Santa Teresa. Telephone: 2508-9174.
Azul Marinho - You'll find seafood recipes from throughout the country, with a contemporary but always Brazilian touch. Set on a beachfront side street that makes you feel as though you've slipped into a seaside village. The decoration is by a regional artist who uses only environmentally friendly wood. Rua Francisco Bhering, Praia do Arpoador, Rio de Janeiro. Telephone: 3813-4228.
Casa da Feijoada - Brazil's traditional black-bean stew is customarily eaten on Saturdays, but at this place you can order the feijoada any day of the week. Also on the menu are regional dishes from throughout the country. Rua Prudente de Moraes 10B, Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro. Telephone: 2247-2776.
Il Nonno - An Italian restaurant that seats 80 and is located within easy walking distance from the north end of the main Metrô line in Saens Pena. Pasta in various flavors (including squash and spinach). They specialize in galeto (small chickens). Rua Conde de Bonfim, 601, Tijuca. Telephone: 2208-5189
Marius Carne - This is one of Rio's best churrascarias. More than a dozen kinds of grilled meats, including lamb, frog legs and the coveted picanha (choice marinated sirloin). Meat is brought to the table already cut - as opposed to the traditional way of taking still-sizzling meat on a spit to your table and cutting it to order. Marius also has a seafood restaurant next door. Avenida Atlântica 290, Leme, Rio de Janeiro. Telephone: 2104-9000 or 0800-707-9001 (toll free).
O Plebeu - This is an eating and drinking establishment for the young and modern - a casual restaurant catering to the twenty-something set. Good food, inexpensive, relaxed atmosphere, well-chilled beer. Try the Frango à Cubana (Cuban chicken, with palmito and banana). Rua Capitão Salomão, 50, Botafogo. Telephone: 2286-0699.
Osteria Policarpo - An intimate Italian spot (seats 20 about), with excellent appetizers, pasta courses, main courses, and desserts, and reasonable prices. Close to Cobal, an open-air gathering place to drink and socialize into the early hours of the morning. Largo dos Leôes, 35 (continuation of the Rua São Clemente in Botafogo), Humaitá. Telephone: 2579-0051.
Restaurante do Bira – Have lunch with the orchids and monkeys. Estrada da Vendinha, 68a, Barra de Guaratiba. Telephone: 9962-0161.
Rio Botequins, Bars and Hangouts
Adega da Velha - A restaurant specializing in food from the northeast: carne seca, carne de sol, aipim. Very reasonable prices, large portions, and in addition to the beer on draft you can choose from a huge list of tropical juices to wash down your food. Rua Paulo Barreto 25, Botafogo, five minutes walk up Rua Voluntários from the Botafogo Metrô station. Telephone: 2286-2176
Bar do Mineiro - This traditional watering hole, with its tiled walls and delicious bar menu, is one of the most charming and authentic bars in the bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood. Try the pasteis (deep-fried pastries with a variety of fillings), feijoada (on Saturday) or shredded sun-dried beef served with pumpkin and kale. Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno 99, Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro. Telephone: 2221-9227.
Bar Luiz - This traditional bar dates back to 1889 and is reputed to have the best chopp (draft beer) in town. Lots of Carioca characters. Rua da Carioca 39, Centro, Rio de Janeiro. Telephone: 2262-6900.
Cobal, Humaitá - A large open-air space in Humaitá - between Rua Voluntários da Pátria and Rua Humaitá (which is the continuation of Rua São Clemente). At night hundreds of cariocas are out eating, drinking, and being social at the four restaurants which serve the outdoor tables: Pizza Park, Galeto Mania (specializes in chicken), Espírito do Chopp (a varied menu including an excellent “picanha na pedra” steak, as well as crepes), and Manekineko (sushi). There’s a nice view of the illuminated statue of Cristo Redentor immediately overhead. Between Rua Voluntários and Rua Humaitá. Frequent bus service.
Confeitaria Colombo - This belle-époque jewel is an absolute must. It's a traditional spot for cakes and breads, and on Saturday there's feijoada. The impressive interior has chandeliers, a beautiful glass ceiling and marble floors in the true European-coffeehouse tradition. Rua Gonçalves Dias 32, Centro, Rio de Janeiro. Telephone: 2232-2300.
Drinkeria Maldita - In the tradition of Baixo Gávea and Baixo Leblon, the Botafogo neighborhood is developing a number of more upscale hangouts in the cultural hotspot of the neighborhood, the block of Voluntários da Pátria between the Metrô station and the Praia de Botafogo (the shore of the bay). The Drinkeria Maldita creates a modern atmosphere for twenty-somethings and more elaborate drinks than you find at the usual restaurant or bar. Nearby Odorico, with more focus on food but the same attention to interesting potations, opened almost across the street, next to the Unibanco cinema complex. Rua Voluntários da Pátria 10, Botafogo. Voluntários da Pátria between the Metrô station and the beach, the Praia de Botafogo. Telephone: 2527-2456.
Rosa do Adro - You can find codfish balls (bolinhos de bacalhau) as snack food at bars and restaurants all over Rio, but those served at Rosa do Adro, a far-from-pretentious botequim on Real Grandeza in Botafogo, are exceptional - piping hot, delicious, and with an ample quantity (two dozen). Be sure to ask for the incendiary pepper sauce to dribble on top (caution is advised). The service is as friendly as you will find anywhere, and the bottled beer is "stupidly cold." Rua Real Grandeza 74, Botafogo. Telephone: 2286-7942.
Rio Cultural Centers
Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil - Located in the majestic building of the Bank of Brazil (built 1880) on Avenida Presidente Vargas. Excellent offerings in theatre, music and the visual arts. Rua Primeiro de Março, 66, Centro. Walking distance from the Uruguaiana stop on the Metrô. Telephone: 3808-2020
Theatro Municipal - If the opera is in season, don't miss the excellent productions at the Belle Époque opera house in downtown Rio, the Theatro Municipal. Even without an opera on stage, it is worth taking a tour of the lovely building, filled with stained glass and architectural detail. On Avenida Rio Branco, directly across from the Cinelândia station of the Metrô. Praça Marechal Floriano, Centro. Telephone: 2262-3935
A cliché, perhaps, but no trip to Rio is complete without music. A style suited to sophisticated entertaining is samba’s erudite cousin, choro. With roots in the salon dances of the late 19th century, choro emerged when original keyboard compositions were arranged for flute, cavaquinho (a relative of the ukulele), guitar and tambourine.. The godfather of contemporary choro was Rio native Pixinguiha (1897-1973). Enjoying a revival, choro can be appreciated at several Rio watering holes.
Viva Musica! - A comprehensive website listing classical concerts in Rio - many more events than you will find in the limited space in the newspapers.
Classical Concerts at UniRio and URRJ - The music department of the University of Rio (UniRio) hosts weekly free concerts, usually of chamber music, in the entrance hall of the nearby Museu de Ciências da Terra do DNPM. The Federal University (UFRJ) hosts weekly free concerts just down the street at the Salão Dourado of the Forum de Ciência e Cultura da UFRJ. UniRio: Avenida Pasteur, 404, Urca (the avenue that leads to Sugarloaf); concerts on Mondays, at 6:30 PM during term (March-June, August-November). URRJ: Avenida Pasteur, 250, Urca, Thursdays, at 7 PM. Bus Service from the Botafogo Metro Station.
Na Roda offers music lessons with top Brazilian musicians and teachers.
Rio Clubs and Dancing
Carioca da Gema - One of Lapa's favorite bohemian addresses features live samba music, along with delicious snacks, such as sun-dried beef with onions and bacon, that are inspired by classic Carioca sambas. Avenida Mem de Sá 79, Lapa. Telephone: 2221-0043..
Rio Scenarium - This late-19th-century mansion is furnished with antiques that are often rented out for TV and film productions. This relaxed bar draws a colorful crowd with live performances of Brazilian music. Rua do Lavradio 20, Lapa. Telephone: 3852-5516.
Samba School Rehearsals – The community-based groups that compete in the annual Carnival parade are called “Escolas de Samba,” literally Samba Schools. In the months running up to the pre-Lenten festival, the schools organize weekly rehearsals-cum-parties called “ensaios” in their neighborhood headquarters. They’re open to the public. Though generally located in poor districts, these places are safe for visitors on ensaio nights. Among easiest to reach from most hotels are Salgueiro and Vila Isabel, the 2006 champion. Two of the most traditional and popular schools are Manguiera and Portela.
Rio Outings and Activities
Casa de Burle Marx – The gardens sport more than 3,500 species of plants from Brazil and around the world. Tours must be scheduled in advance. Veteran visitors like UBS Warburg’s Graham suggest calling at least two weeks ahead. Estrada da Barra de Guaratiba, 2019, Barra de Guaratiba.
Riozoo- The country's oldest zoo is home to more than 2,100 animals. But it is more remarkable for the folklore that surrounds it than the caged wildlife. The famous “Jogo do Bicho” (Animal Game), Brazil’s illegal but officially tolerated numbers racket, was inspired by contests that raised money for the zoo. Decades later, fed up with traditional politicians, voters cast 400,000 votes for a write-in candidate who resided in the zoo. A chimp named “Tião,” which means “Big Uncle” in Portuguese, once took third place in the balloting for mayor. Parque Quinta da Boa Vista, São Cristovão. Telephone: 3983-8400.
Urban Hiking in Rio de Janeiro
Find Brazilian handicrafts online on Novica.com.
Rio de Janeiro has been compared with pre-Katrina New Orleans – not only for the Carnaval-Mardi Gras but also as a shopping city. Both cities are characterized by large numbers of transient tourists and poor residents. Shopping opportunities tend to reflect those demographics.
If that analysis seems overly negative, it must be remembered that Rio de Janeiro can be a fascinating city for niche shopping. Items to watch for include gems and jewelry, beachwear (especially bikinis and the hugely popular Havaiana flip-flop rubber sandals), Brazilian music CDs, local musical instruments like the cavaquinho and single-stringed berimbau, antiques (including many European-made items that are nearly impossible to find on the market on the old continent), coconut-based skin lotions and conditioners, and – if you know what you’re doing – medicinal herbs.
Most Brazilian handicrafts available in Rio de Janeiro come from the Northeast or the Amazon, and can be found more cheaply in those regions. Those who will not be going further a field into Brazil should keep an eye out for clay figurines from the Northeast, lacework from Ceará, leatherwork, native pottery and necklaces from the Amazon, soapstone carvings from Minas Gerais, tiles and ceramics, African-style items from Bahia and hammocks from the Northeast (hooks for hanging them can be purchased in the local hardware store).
Rio de Janeiro is home to the global headquarters of the internationally renowned gem and jewelry producer H. Stern. Its shop and museum can be found astride the designer boutiques near the corner of Rua Visconde de Pirajá and Garcia D’Ávila in Ipanema. Shopping malls dot the southern zone of the city and are generally the best places to find clothing and accessories.
For serious antique shopping, the best bet is to head for the Rua do Lavradio, near the intersection of the Rua do Senado near the Metropolitan Cathedral. The district is lined with antique shops. On the first Saturday of each month, the retailers sponsor the Feira Rio Antigo, when cultural activities mix with an antique street market.
Rio de Janeiro’s most popular crafts fair and flea market is the Hippie Fair that takes place on Sunday in the Praça General Osório in Ipanema. Now a major weekly event, the fair had a curious beginning. A group of bohemian artists and intellectuals liked to gather on weekends at the Jangadeiro bar, then located across the street from the square. One of the patrons, avant-garde jewelry designer Caio Mourão, began bringing some of his creations to sell out front of the bar. An artist friend followed suit. Soon the Hippie Fair was going at full steam.
Rio Video Rentals
Cine Clube São Clemente - a little family-run video rental spot with an excellent selection of international films on DVD. Reasonable prices, and friendly service. They will deliver and pick up rentals within Botafogo. Five minutes walk up the Rua São Clemente (away from the bay) from the Botafogo Metrô station. Rua São Clemente, 172. Telephone: 2526-2506
Dentistry in English
Sometimes you need a dentist right this instant - it might not wait till you get home. If you need a dentist in Rio, the team at Odonto Consulte is highly recommended. Dr. José Jorge speaks English. You can tell them Tom the Gringo sent you. They’re at two convenient locations: in Centro and a block from the beach in Leblon. Rua do Rosário, 151, Suite 603/4 (telephone: 2509-7710) and Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva,1079, Suite 910, Leblon (telephone: 2529-8670).
The yellow taxi service is excellent in Rio. Dishonest drivers are rare. You pay only what is on the meter - no tipping is expected (although people often round up to the next real).
If you need a taxi to the airport, schedule one with Libertaxi. Registered clients get a discount of 20% off on fares over 15 reals. If you meet a driver you particularly like you can negotiate with him for a rate for a full day of driving around the city, or even up to Petrópolis (the former summer capital) and back. Rua Cirne Maia 100, Cachambi. Telephone: 2105-0500.
Rio For Partiers - a guidebook with attitude.
Rio Botequim - a guide to Rio de Janeiro’s top down-home bars called botecos (in Portuguese).
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