48 Hours in: Rio de Janeiro
Brazil’s ‘marvellous city’ is as flamboyant, dramatic and seductive as ever — even in the South American winter. Sophi Lam reports from the always-vibrant capital
Why go now?
The sun is shining again in Brazil's most flamboyant city — and new flights should mean lower fares. After landslides devastated parts of Rio in April, the former capital is back to its vibrant self. Even in Brazil's so-called winter, you can soak up the beach life, mountains, forests and party spirit of the self-styled Marvellous City in pleasingly balmy temperatures.
TAM (020-8741 2005; tam.com.br) starts non-stop flights from Heathrow on Tuesday, competing with BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Air France, Iberia and TAP Portugal fly from the UK via their European hubs. Tour operator Hayes & Jarvis (0871 664 0246; hayesandjarvis.co.uk) offers seven-night twin-centre packages to Rio and Iguazu Falls from £1,099 per person, including flights and transfers.
The international airport is officially named after Antonio Carlos Jobim (composer of The Girl from Ipanema) but everyone knows it as Galeao. A taxi to the beaches of Copacabana or Ipanema will cost about 80 Reais (R80/£30) and take at least 25 minutes.
Get your bearings
Rio's dramatic topography makes it one of the most mesmerising cities in the Americas. Neighbourhoods are pocketed between haphazard peaks, favelas (shanty towns) stack up on hills, vertiginous mountains fold into the haze, and everything spills down to dazzling Atlantic beaches.
This also makes it a bewildering city to get to grips with. The Centro business district edges north up Guanabara Bay, but the biggest draws are south of here. Work your way to the mouth of the bay via Sugar Loaf Mountain and the beaches — Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon — start trailing west. Rising behind all of this are the elevated Lapa and Santa Teresa districts, with the forested peaks of Tijuca National Park looming in the background.
The main tourist bureau, Riotur, is at 125 Rua Mexico (00 55 21 2333 1037; rioguiaoficial.com. br), with a kiosk on Copacabana beach .
Contemporary, high-end accommodation has until recently been notably lacking in Rio. Happily, Hotel Santa Teresa at 660 Rua Almirante Alexandrino (00 55 21 3380 0200; santa-teresa-hotel.com) filled the gap in bohemian Santa Teresa last year. A former coffee plantation mansion has been given a slick makeover and now offers a milieu of tropical hardwoods, designer furniture and hammock-strewn verandas. Doubles from R750 (£270), room only.
Down by the ocean, check out the framed signatures on the wall at Hotel Fasano, 80 Avenida Vieira Souto (00 55 21 3202 4000; fasano. com.br) and you'll soon realise you're in good company. The glossy address is where Coldplay, Francis Ford Coppola and Madonna stay when in town. However, Philippe Starck's 1950s-inspired design doesn't translate to Fifties prices: doubles from US$552 (£368).
At Bonita Ipanema, 107 Rua Barao da Torre (00 55 21 2227 1703; bonita ipanema.com), once the home of Antonio Carlos Jobim himself, you can hum The Girl from ... shamelessly while enjoying the guesthouse's colourful but unpolished interiors. B&B from R160 (£58), dorms R40 (£15).
Take a hike
Even now in winter, temperatures nudge a comfortable 25C. To catch the breeze, do as the Cariocas do and head to the beach. Copacabana has lost its glamorous edge. Instead, focus on the three-mile stretch of soft fawn sand and emerald waves split between hipster-central Ipanema and exclusive Leblon — punctuated by the rocky outcrop of Ponta do Arpoador, a popular spot for sunset-seekers.
Amble along the retro black-and-white mosaic promenade, dodging the pseudo-catwalk of joggers, and note the different lifeguard posts. Each traditionally attracts a different crowd: seven is for surfers, eight's rainbow flag attracts a gay crowd and nine is for the jet set.
Just after the channel separating Ipanema and Leblon you'll come to post 10 and the futevolei courts, where elastic men play an enthralling cross between soccer and volleyball that goes some way to explaining the national football team's legendary skills.
Shake the sand from your Havaianas and continue your exploration of Ipanema and Leblon, where Leblon Shopping, 290 Avenida Afranio de Melo Franco, can be found. It's stuffed with luxury brands as well as local names such as Bum Bum Ipanema (for “dental floss” bikinis) and Osklen (contemporary fashion). A Hippie Market takes place each Sunday, 9am-5pm, on Praca General Osorio in Ipanema.
Lunch on the run
Where were Coldplay spotted before playing a concert at the enormous Sambadrome earlier this year? At Sushi Leblon, 256 Rua Dias Ferreira (00 55 21 2512 7830; sushileblon.com). After Japan itself, Brazil is home to the world's second-largest Japanese population, so sushi is both ubiquitous and good. Tuck into tuna and salmon maki rolls, sashimi, teppanyaki, tempura ... even miso-marinated salmon and foie gras. Dishes range from R22 (£8) to R51 (£19).
Image-conscious Cariocas can also be found lingering at one of the open-fronted suco (juice) joints, such as Bibi, at 591 Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva in Leblon.
In anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Rio hums to the sound of regeneration — that's to say, demolition and construction. Copacabana is aiming to shake off its seedy image with a new Museum of Image and Sound (mis.rj.gov.br) on which New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (responsible for the Big Apple's High Line park) began work earlier this year.
Until that is unveiled, make for the Instituto Moreira Salles, 476 Rua Marques de Sao Vicente in Gavea (00 55 21 3284 7400; ims.uol.com. br), where the modern garden and ceramic fresco were designed by Roberto Burle Marx, the man behind the city's iconic mosaic pavements. The house was built for the father of acclaimed film director Walter Salles, and now is home to engaging cultural exhibitions, from film to music and visual arts. Open daily except Monday: weekends 11am-8pm, from 1pm on other days; free.
Start off with a cold beer at the Devassa microbrewery at 1241 Avenida General San Martin (00 55 21 2259 8271; devassa.com. br) — with several other outlets in the city. A chopp, or small draught beer, starts at around R10 (£3.70). Later in the evening, the place to be is Rio Scenarium at 20 Rua do Lavradio (00 55 21 3147 9005; rioscenarium. com.br) in lofty Lapa. The old mansion-cum-antiques-market-cum-bar heats up with music, dancing and caipirinhas from around 9pm.
Dining in style
Zaza Bistro Tropical, 40 Rua Joana Angelica (00 55 21 2247 9101; zazabistro.com.br) delivers a hit of sultry Ipanema romance. The building feels like a cross between a fairytale grotto and your grandma's house, heaving with fairy lights, ferns, candles, retro and religious curios. Fresh, organic ingredients are used to create fusion dishes such as seared tuna with seaweed, tapioca, horseradish mash and sesame broth; and lamb shank with truffle cream and pasta. A three-course meal will cost around R70 (£26) per person, without drinks.
Sunday morning: go to church
Surrounded by Centro's 1970s structures, the baroque façade of Candelaria church (00 55 21 2233 2324) manages to hold its own. Built in 1775 on the site of the city's first church, work continued on it sporadically until the late 19th century. The limestone cupola was sent from Lisbon. Open 9am-1pm Sundays (7.30pm-4pm Monday to Friday, 8am-noon Saturday; free).
Take a view
To get a grip on Rio's topography, aim high. The 396m graphite monolith of Sugar Loaf Mountain serves well to offer spectacular views from its position at the mouth of Guanabara Bay. Start the two cable-car journey from the station at nearby Praia Vermelha (00 55 21 2461 2700; bondinho.com.br; 8.10am-9pm; R44/£16.30).
Take a ride
The steep cobbled streets, colourful mansions, buzzy cafes and clattering 19th-century trams combine to bestow quaint charm on Santa Teresa. The most charismatic way to reach this elevated, arty district is by the canary yellow Bonde trams that heave up from Carioca station to Largo dos Guimaraes via the top of the 18th-century Lapa viaduct; R0.60 (20p) one-way.
Out to brunch
The Brazilian equivalent to a Sunday roast is feijoada. Vegetarians might want to pass on the pork- and beef-heavy stews, accompanied by clay pots of black beans, pork scratchings, rice, cabbage and fried cassava. Plenty more might want to pass on the “noble meats” (tail, feet, tongue). A popular spot for this heavy meal is Bar do Mineiro, Rua Paschoal Carlos Magna 99, Santa Teresa (00 55 21 2221 9227). R40 (£14.60) for two.
A walk in the park
The precipitous folds of Tijuca Forest form a verdant national park harbouring waterfalls, wildlife, leafy trails and, of course, that statue. The crowning glory of the 710m-high Corcovado Mountain, Christ the Redeemer was clad in scaffolding until earlier this month when a £2.7m restoration was unveiled. If the walk up is too daunting, take the train that climbs through the rainforest from Cosme Velho train station; prepare to queue (00 55 21 2558 1329; corcovado.com.br; daily 8.30am-7pm; R36/£13.30 return).
The icing on the cake
On the opposite side of the lasso-shaped Guanabara Bay is the city of Niteroi, whose icon is the Museum of Contemporary Art (00 55 21 2620 2400; macniteroi.com.br; 10am-6pm Tues-Sun; R5/£1.85). It was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect responsible for much of the 50-year-old capital, Brasilia.