Where Christ the Redeemer is ever present, Sugarloaf beckons and the Samba resounds.
Last year this time I was preparing for a trip to Rio de Janeiro from where I was to report from the Cape2Rio 2020.
Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro is famed for its Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, Christ the Redeemer overlooking the city from the top of the Corcovado Mountain and the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain. Not to mention the unmistakable rhythm of the Rio Carnival and energy sating samba.
Copacabana beach in Zona Sul first gained fame in the 1920s after the opening of the glitzy Copacabana Palace Hotel, which fast became a favourite with the world’s most glittering celebrities.
Today, sun worshippers flock to its warm waters and 4km stretch of light drenched shoreline in search of those Halcyon days, soaking up the atmosphere of the promenade famed for its black and white mosaic tiles that lead to endless restaurants and bars.
Locals gather to play beach volleyball and football, top up their enviable tans and catch waves, with mobile vendors trading in grilled cheese, salty fried sardines and ice cold caipirinhas.
The quintessential Rio Bairro, Copacabana consists of 109 streets with more than 350,000 people living in high-rises overlooking the Atlantic Ocean – the beach is their escape to open space. Summer days bring a sea of colourful umbrellas, while live music and pedestrianised streets (on weekends) create that permanent holiday feel.
Similarly, Ipanema has undergone an explosion of development over the years. Highly romanticised in the 1960s, Ipanema was known to draw Rio’s free thinkers and intellectuals to sidewalk cafes where they would gather to theorise and debate, defining the liberal spirit of the people of Rio de Janeiro.
The mighty Sugarloaf Mountain on Guanabara Bay rises 1,300 feet high and you can take a cable car to the top and walk the paths that lead to various viewing points. The ascent goes in two stages – first to neighbouring Urca Hill, then another steep journey up to Sugarloaf – while the panoramas of beaches, skyscrapers and hills unfold beneath you. It is most spectacular by twilight with restaurants near the cable car stations serving drinks and light meals as the setting sun turns the sky to orange.
Beyond is the expansive Guanabara Bay with over a hundred islands, some with popular shorelines attractions, other historic cathedrals, some remaining untouched and uninhabited.
In the Centro are buildings from the colonial era with many historic churches and monasteries as well as Rio’s cathedral that reminds of Brazil’s strong catholic influence. The Museu de Arte Contemporânea is one of Rio’s more interesting buildings and was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, one of Brazil’s most renowned 20th-century architects.
The city is encircled by the urban forests of Tijuca National Park – the largest urban park in the world – and Floresta da Pedra Branca, which makes for welcome retreats to nature. This 33-square-kilometre reforested area has restored land previously destroyed by coffee plantations and today is home to hiking trails and waterfalls, with quite few of Rio’s most popular spots partly in the forest including the Botanical Gardens and Parque Lage.
Christ the Redeemer
Rio’s Christ the Redeemer is Brazil’s most famous monument and is listed as one of the seven new wonders of the world. Casting a watchful eye over the city from the summit of Mount Corcavado – Hunchback Mountain, the Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ stands 38m tall with outstretched arms that span 28 metres and took its proud position in 1931. There are three ways to get to the top, by train through the forest (my recommendation), hiking or taking a guided van transfer.
The Rio Carnival
Sending a vibrant passion-filled tempo into the air since 1723, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival is held each year before the start of Lent. The biggest festival in the world with performers thrilling millions of people with their exuberant floats, displays, flamboyant samba dances, street parades and costume balls – all connected by the unifying beat of the steel bass drum and the sweltering heat.
There are more than a thousand favelas – or slum areas in Rio – and almost a quarter of the Cariocas live in them and have done so since the 19th century. It was in favelas that former African slaves and their descendants first created the music we know as samba. Most of the city’s renowned samba schools that compete in the annual carnival are located in favelas, or nearby, including Mangueira, Salgueiro, and Unidos da Tijuca. Should you wish to learn more about these neighbourhoods, do take a guided tour but don’t consider visiting on your own.
My Insider Tips
The Royal Portuguese Reading Room or Real Gabinete Português da Leitura is a gothic-renaissance-style library that opened in 1837 to bring centuries of Portuguese literature to the newly independent nation of Brazil. Now the eighth biggest library in the world with more than 15 million items, the building is magnificent, graceful and welcoming, the smell of books dizzying. There are many great spots to enjoy a pastry and cup of coffee nearby.
On Sunday mornings head to the ‘Hippie Market’ or Feira Hippie de Ipanema on the Praça General Osório near Ipanema beach. Rows of stalls sell handcrafted jewellery, clothing and souvenirs and there are food stalls to appease the appetite. From there walk along the Ipanema boardwalk towards Copacabana, stopping for a swim and refreshment should you wish.
Arguably one of the best spots for sundowners is the city is at Mureta da Urca, a wall on the shoreline of the quiet and traditional Urca neighbourhood. A classic and traditional option, the adjacent Urca Bar and Restaurant that dates back to 1939, serves a natural place to continue to.
The former home of iconic Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, Casa das Canoas was designed by him in 1951. Following recent renovations, the building’s white contours, slender steel columns and glass walls are textbook Niemeyer, well worth lingering over and very photogenic.
Even if just for the Instagram moment, visit the colourful tiled steps of Escadaria Selarón. The work of artist Jorge Selaron who wanted to create a tribute to the people of Brazil by using the colours of the Brazilian flag. The step’s magnificence has expanded to include colours of other countries.
Mercadão de Madureira was built in 1929 and after a fire in 2000 was rebuilt to house moreover 580 storeowners selling a variety of products and services. Around 80,000 people are said to visit each day, including tourists and locals.
The Museum of Tomorrow is an impressive structure that resembles a futuristic spaceship and seems to float above the regenerated port zone. Planned by Santiago Calatrava and built around the time that Brazil hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, Museu do Amanhã takes you on a journey into the future with insight into current social-environmental and sustainability points of view.
Where to Stay
Botafogo and Urca are beachfront neighbourhoods that overlook Guanabara Bay. Santa Teresa is where you’ll find dilapidated grandeur and resplendent street art, while Ipanema and Leblon, Copacabana and Leme are best for beachfront accommodation. The Belmond Copacabana Palace is likely the most renowned hotel in Rio, perfectly positioned and very impressive.
The Emiliano Rio has a contemporary style with vintage chic, ocean views and a champagne bar. The MGallery Santa Teresa Hotel is a refined, hillside, rustic-chic hotel close to the Christ the Redeemer statue. Also in Santa Teresa is Mama Ruisa, a boutique hotel in a renovated mansion that blends an exotic sense of Brazil with exquisite French touches. There are numerous well-priced luxury self-catering apartments and villas to rent across the city.
Rio de Janeiro has an efficient metro system and bus service. For ease pick up a free metro and bus guide as soon as you arrive. Prepaid cards are available, which you can recharge at any kiosk. Buses are the most affordable way to get around Rio and will take you almost anywhere. The city has plenty of bike paths and bike-sharing options. Rent a bike from Bike Itaú using the App Bike Itaú, select the station closest to you and enter the code generated by the application next to the chosen bike. It couldn’t be easier. Uber works well and is very well-priced, as do the regular taxis.
Rio de Janeiro is home to the Rio de Janeiro-Galeão International Airport (GIG), a 20-minute drive from the city centre. GIG serves many airlines including Emirates, KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa and LATAM. For South Africans, flights to Rio depart from Johannesburg and Cape Town, and often take you via Sao Paolo. If you are staying on the Sugarloaf side of the city, coming on a domestic flight or from within South America, consider flying into the smaller Santos Dumont (SDU) airport.
When to visit Rio de Janeiro
It is always a good time to visit Rio and the weather is warm to hot throughout the year. Between April and September, the city is calmer and there are excellent specials, the milder climate better suited to those wanting to spend time biking and hiking. High season is December to March when the days are longest, with the Rio Carnival held each February. Visas: South African passport holders are granted visa-free entry into Brazil that is valid for 90 days.
A city that left me feeling alive, as I was infected by all the vibrancy it holds.
* This post forms part of my 100x Magical Places series which offers an introduction to my favourite destinations.