It may have always been the promised land of sunshine, beaches and tiny, tiny bikinis, but post-World Cup, its hitherto hidden depths have been multiplying, blessing the city with a sharp new cultural edge. A newly renovated, state-of-the-art football stadium, gradually improving public transport system and greater safety on the streets are just some of the reasons to be cheerful. Many of the hillsides are thriving in their new-found security, with places now safe to be explored; no longer content with being São Paulo’s happy-go-lucky, sun-kissed neighbours, the native cariocas are craving something more substantial than sambas about love and sunshine. But don’t say it too loudly – for every forward-thinker, you’ll still find a handful of trunk-wearing, beer-swilling ’80s throwbacks on a Copacabana street corner shouting over a game of football – but Rio is undergoing a seismic cultural shift.
Centro may be the blustering home of Rio’s big business and the ramshackle Saara – block after block of shops and stalls full of carnival-costume kitsch – but it is also the site of countless cultural riches. The recently renovated Theatro Muncipal stands proudly, while next door, the Odeon cinema is the last vestige of a once thriving cinema scene, stubbornly continuing the tradition as the epicentre of the city’s numerous film festivals. Dotted throughout the region, dozens of lavishly decorated churches and monasteries rub shoulders with the stark modernism of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
A 15-minute stroll north along Avenida Rio Branco and the cultural revolution is in full swing. Where stereotypically seedy bars and clubs once dominated the portside, the gleaming Museu de Arte do Rio now stands over Praça Mauá, the flagship project of the Porto Maravilha urban intervention and the city’s first public museum for 70 years. Soon to be joined by other museums, film and television studios and artists’ workshops, the port, already host to the annual super-events Fashion Rio and Arte Rio, is quickly becoming a cultural hub.
The beauty of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches aside, Tijuca Forest is the most glaringly obvious example of the city’s natural bounty, a protected national park boasting 32 square kilometers of mountainous Atlantic rainforest with spectacular city views in all directions. On its eastern edge stands the ever-present statue of Christ the Redeemer, an enjoyably tough two-hour hike from the beautiful Parque Lage for the adventurous (the quaint tram from Cosme Velho offers a less strenuous route up), while the striking flat-topped monolith Pedra da Gávea represents an even stiffer hiking challenge, but rewards you with beautiful views of the city’s longest beach, Barra da Tijuca.
A more casual stroll can be found at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain or the sculpture trail at Parque Catacumba, but even here, you’ll get great views of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, another stunning natural landmark.
Food & Drink
Eating and drinking in Rio can be as informal and early (a 10am breakfast beer isn’t considered drinking as such) or chic and late-night (‘until the last customer’ is a popular official closing time) as you wish. Hole-in-the-wall pé sujo (literally ‘dirty foot’) bars are found in every neighbourhood, but it is hard to beat Copacabana’s Pavão Azul (Rua Hilário de Gouveia 71, +55 21 2236 2381) for an ice-cold cerveja (bottled beer) and a fried shrimp pastel.
Almost as prevalent is the boteco pub, of which Aconchego Carioca (Barão de Iaguatemi 379, Maracanã, +55 21 2273 1035) is one of the best outside of Zona Sul, and the Belmonte chain (Praia do Flamengo 300, Flamengo, +55 21 2552 3349) is the most dependable citywide, endlessly serving Brazilian-style chopp draught beer. In Santa Teresa’s atmospheric Bar do Gomez (Rua Áurea 26, +55 21 2232 0822), locals and the occasional tourist mix under the spell of its simple yet abundant charms. For somewhere a little sharper, look down the hill to Lapa, where the cocktail menu and DJs at Barzinho (Rua do Lavradio 170, +55 21 2221 4709) keep things moving until late.
Like drinking beer, dining out is an everyday occurrence for most cariocas, with the huge array of por kilo (self-service buffet) restaurants offering the best value for money. The ever-popular Olympe (Rua Custódio Serrão 62, Jardim Botânico, +55 21 2537 8582) and Le Pré Catalan’s (Avenida Atlântica 4240, Copacabana, +55 21 2525 1160) tasting menus provide the opposite end of the palate-pleasing, wallet-bothering scale, while a new breed of chefs are bringing a more affordable spirit of adventure to the city’s palettes. Irajá Gastro (Rua Conde de Irajá 109, +55 21 2246 1395) and Oui Oui (Rua Conde de Irajá 85, + 55 21 2527 3539), both on the edge of Botafogo, are among the best to have opened in recent years and continue to draw crowds to the offbeat gastro-hub.
The terrace at Amazonian fish specialist Espírito Santa (Rua Almirante Alexandrino 264, +55 21 2507 4840) is a perfect way to finish a day spent exploring bohemian Santa Teresa’s hills, and meat lovers will find the perfect steak just across from the stunning botanical gardens at File de Ouro (Rua Jardim Botânico 595, Jardim Botânico, +55 21 2259 2396), or at the timeless all-you-can-eat churrascaria (barbecue) Porcão (Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, Flamego, +55 21 3461 9020).
Nightlife & Music
First came the restaurants, then the arts and now the music and underground party scenes have exploded. It seems like no disused space is safe from the plugging in of a few thousand watts of impromptu late-night fun. Two beautiful converted mansions – Bar Bukowski (Rua Álvaro Ramos 270, Botafogo, +55 21 2244 7303) and Casa Rosa (Rua Alice 550, Laranjeiras, +55 21 3079 0550) – offer a more accessible insight into the city’s alternative scene playing everything from indie, samba-rock and hip hop to Balkan beats, but it is to the glitzy 00 (‘Zero Zero’, Avenida Padre Leonel Franca 240, Gávea, +55 21 2540 8041) or the grittier, more underground Fosfobox (Rua Siqueira Campos 143/22a, Copacabana, +55 21 2548 7498) you must head for a weekend slice of house music hedonism, Brazil style.
Live sounds will always hold a cherished place in Rio’s musical make up, and Carnival’s numerous bloco bands, attracting tens of thousands for their annual seasonal blowout, take to stages like the outdoor, palm-lined weekend favourite Circo Voador (Rua dos Arcos, Lapa, +55 21 2533 0354) throughout the year. The weekly outdoor roda de samba at Pedra do Sal (Rua Argemiro Bulcão, Centro) is also an unbeatable slice of the city’s nightlife.
Similarly mixing live music and diverse parties from Tuesday to Saturday, the beachfront Studio RJ (Avenida Vieira Souto 110, Arpoador, +55 21 2523 1204) has developed an untouchable reputation among Ipanema’s surprisingly scarce nightlife, and the beautifully restored villa Casarão Ameno Resedá (Rua Bento Lisboa 4, +55 21 2556 2427) is boldly leading an after-dark revival in Catete with a strong live music line-up and an excellent French-helmed restaurant.
For its part, Lapa by night, particularly on a Friday or on the eve of a public holiday, is the epicentre of all things samba and street party. Just beyond the iconic white aqueduct stands Carioca da Gema (Avenida Mem de Sá 79, +55 21 2221 0043) where every night of the week bands play and locals dance like they’re floating on air.
Shopping and Style
The great outdoors is everything to cariocas, so the nomadic markets that tour the city are similarly cherished, from antiques and art (Saturdays in Centro’s Praça XV and Sundays in Gávea’s main square) to the entire block-swamping markets of organic fruit and veg held in various neighbourhoods throughout the week (www.abio.org.br). The pick of the bunch, however, is the monthly Feira do Rio Antigo (Rua Lavradio, +55 21 2224 6693) in Lapa, when local antique furniture stores turn their wares out onto the pavement, with art, crafts, record and photograph stalls galore.
The region around Ipanema’s Rua Garcia D’Avila bursts with exclusive brands and hip street-wear alike, the latter best represented by Homegrown (Rua Maria Quitéria 68, +55 21 2513 2160), where regular art shows supplement rows of trainers, t-shirts and graffiti paraphernalia.
Swimwear designers Lenny (Rua Garcia D’Avila 149a, +55 21 2227 5537) and Blue Man (Rua Visconde de Pirajá 351c, +55 21 2247 4905) take care of the fashion-conscious beach-goer with stylish designs crafted to show maximum flesh and rails and rails of çungas, the ever-present trunks worn on Copacabana high street and beach alike. Foch (Rua Visconde de Pirajá 365b shop 10, +55 21 2521 1172) and Mr Cox (Rua Visconde de Pirajá 188n, +55 21 3795 6698) pack in bolder, gay-friendly fashions perfect for the Ipanema beach set hanging out on the sands.