The beach is best for the citizens of this fascinating Brazilian city. Simon Calder enjoys a caipirinha or two
Midsummer in the sunny south of Brazil is always a seductive proposition.
This remarkable city combines sun, sea, sand and samba, which are constantly celebrated by the citizens – notably on New Year's Eve, when two million of them will be on Copacabana Beach. But at any time of year, flying down to Rio has much to recommend it: this is a city that always has a smile on its face and a sun-hat on.
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The easiest way is aboard the new British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) non-stop flights from Heathrow to the city's Galeao airport, which operate three times a week. The alternative is TAM (020-8897 0005; tam.com.br).
From the airport, a cab to the farthest-flung parts of town, Ipanema and Leblon, should cost no more than 50 reais (R50/£14). The journey takes as little as half an hour, though two or three times longer in rush hour.
Get your bearings
Because of the way that steep hills clad in profuse vegetation crowd in Rio, the city has complicated geography. The commercial hub is to the north, with the Candelaria church (1) marking the main crossroads for the city. Just to the east, the domestic Santos Dumont airport (2) is the closest-in of any big city. South from here the beaches begin – Flamengo and Botafogo – before the glorious punctuation of Sugarloaf mountain, the city's symbol. You can get an ideal overview by taking the cable car, in two stages, to the top; it departs from the Praia Vermelha base station (3) at least every 20 minutes 8am-9.50pm daily, for a fare of R44 (£13).
Continuing south, Copacabana is the city's "signature" beach, but many visitors prefer the lower-key charms of Ipanema and its western extension, Leblon.
Where do Duran Duran stay when they play Rio? The Fasano (4), on the ocean at the eastern end of Ipanema, at Avenida Vieira Souto 80 (00 55 21 3202 4000; fasano.com.br). Even if you choose not to pay the $340 (£230) nightly rate, excluding breakfast, to stay at the city's leading design hotel, it's worth calling in to admire the Philippe Starck interior.
A well-located and cheaper alternative is the Ipanema Plaza (5) at Rua Farme de Amoedo 34 (00 55 21 3687 2000; ipanemaplaza.com.br). A double costs $110 (£75) a night, excluding breakfast.
There are plenty of cheap hostels, such as Mellow Yellow (6) at Rua General Barbosa Lima 51 in Copacabana (00 55 2547 1993; mellowyellow.com.br).
Take a hike
Three miles, two beaches, and one long and beguiling stretch of sand: that is the prospect awaiting you at the eastern end of Ipanema beach. Clamber up on to the rocks of Ponta do Arpoador (7) for a fine view of the bay, then wander along the beach noting the numbered lifeguard posts. Each post traditionally attracts a different group of people. Post seven is popular with suburban visitors and is also nearest to Rio's best surfing beach. Eight is the gay post, while nine is for young people and 10 is for the rich and famous.
Once you cross the canal that leads up to the lagoon you leave Ipanema and join Leblon. At the end of this stretch of beach is a statue of a local gossip columnist. Leave the beach here, walk inland for one block along the Avenida Visconde de Albuquerque; turn left for one block and left again, and you will find yourself at the foot of a road which winds up to the mirador (8) where you get a fine view of the city.
Take a ride
Plenty of buses will take you into town, or a cab will cost around R20 (£5.50). Track down Carioca station (9), where Rio's last tram ride begins. They run every half hour, on the half hour, 7am-8.30pm; fare R0.60 (£0.20). People get on and off all the way along, and the rule is that if you ride on the running board then you don't need to pay. This is a remarkable journey, which lifts you across the old aqueduct then takes you rattling up to Santa Teresa, a once-run-down district that is being regenerated and is beginning to attract musicians and artists.
Lunch on the run
Santa Teresa, now the most Bohemian part of town, has plenty of options. If you take the tram to the point at which the lines diverge, at the stop called Largo dos Guimaraes, you will be right next to Jasmine Mango (10), Rua Pascoal Carlos Magno 143 (00 55 21 2242 2605), where good salads and coffee await.
Every day feels like a festival in Rio, but there is only one real carnival – the samba-fuelled five-day frenzy each February; in 2009, it runs from Friday 20-Tuesday 24. But at any time of year you can go to Samba City (11), at Rua Rivadavia Correa 60 in Gamboa, which was reclaimed from an old railway yard three years ago and is now the home of the largest samba schools; this is where they make the costumes and the floats. You can get to look inside this fun factory, where the main product is flamboyance, any day except Sunday (00 55 21 2213 25030; sambacity.info).
If it happens to be Saturday, you will need to get along to the Confeitaria Colombo (12) at Rua Goncalves Dias 32 (00 55 21 2505 1500; confeitariacolombo.com.br) before it shuts at 5pm; it opens 8am-8pm from Monday to Friday. This stunning Belle Epoque café was created at the end of the 19th century when Rio was at the height of her own beautiful era – she was the capital of the biggest country in South America. She lost that crown to the new city of Brasilia in 1960, but here at the Colombo they still party like its 1899, and gaze at themselves in lavish mirrors imported from Antwerp.
If you prefer to start drinking later in the evening, head to Travessa do Comércio, a narrow street lined with bars off the Praca 15 do Novembro in the Central district.
Dining with the locals
You could walk through the early evening light for Rio's best plate with a view. Porcao's Rio (13), at Avenida Infante Dom Henrique in Flamengo park (00 55 21 3389 8989; porcao.com.br; open daily noon–1am), has views across the water to Sugarloaf – try to get a table by the window on the south side.
Start by helping yourself to whatever you like from a buffet spread, then eat your body weight in barbecued meat; wash it down with a caipirinha, a mix of cane spirit and lime. Expect to pay around R70 (£20), plus drinks – expensive by Rio standards, but well worthwhile. If you prefer to spend about half as much, the Barril 1800 – a few yards west of the Fasano (4) is a seafront place with an extensive, good value menu. Or try Garota de Ipanema (14), where "The Girl from Ipanema" was written; there is plenty of memorabilia here, and the address – Rua Vinicius de Moraes 49 (00 55 21 2521 3168; garotaipanema.com.br) – celebrates one of the writers.
Sunday morning: Go to church
The church of Candelaria (1) is the spiritual landmark at the heart of Rio and was built on the site of the city's first church. Despite all the traffic outside, it retains a wonderful serenity.
Look at the magnificent cupola, which was transported to Rio from Lisbon. It opens 9am-1pm on Sundays, 7.30am-4pm from Monday to Friday, 8am-noon on Saturdays.
Out to brunch
The Brazilian family feast, feijoada, is a Saturday event – except at the place where the name is the menu: Casa de Feijoada (15) at Rua Prudente de Morais 10 in Ipanema (00 55 21 2247 2776), which serves the dish daily. Expect a vast amount of meats and sausages in a cauldron, served with black beans, rice, kale and orange.
Rio has some large street markets but if you're only in town for a couple of days then they might be a bit tricky to cope with. Instead, come to the Hippie Market (16) any Sunday from 9am to 5pm for crafts and curiosities.
A walk in the park
Take the funicular railway that heads up to Corcovado (00 55 21 2558 1329; corcovado.org.br) – pausing as you go through the base station (17) to read the information on this fascinating piece of infrastructure. Stop halfway, at Paineiras station (18). This is the gateway to Tijuca National Park, and within minutes you can find yourself in rainforest, with such a profusion of vegetation and fauna that you will find it hard to imagine you are on the edge of a city.
The icing on the cake
Continue by train to the summit of Corcovado – the mountain known as "Pinnacle of Temptation" to the first mariners who came to Rio. It offers fabulous views of the city and has one of the new seven wonders of the world: the statue of Christ the Redeemer (19). This 100ft-high statue was paid for by the people of Rio, who wanted someone to watch over them.