VISIT COPACABANA BEACH
The high energy of famous Copacabana beach, with its never-ending soccer and volleyball matches, joggers, cyclists, sand sculptures and hawkers, bombards the senses. There’s no shortage of restaurants and food and drink stores on the promenade, with something for every budget. (If you’re watching your centavos, the less expensive eateries are further away from the promenade.)
MEANDER THROUGH THE NIGHT MARKET
The night market on Avenida Atlântica between Rua Bolívar and Rua Sá Ferreira is open every day except Sunday. The focus is on Brazilian-cut bikinis, towels, gemstones, primitive art and T-shirts. The market is generally cheaper than the shops and hawkers, but the success of your bargaining depends on how willing merchants are to haggle on a particular day.
The hillside neighbourhood of Santa Teresa was built around the monastery of the Carmelites, the Santa Teresa Convent, in about the 1700s. A walk up this hill on a Sunday morning is well worth the effort to hear the famous Carmelite nuns sing at the convent.
You don’t feel that you’re in the heart of Rio de Janeiro as you explore the narrow, cobblestoned streets. Until the 1900s, the upper class built magnificent mansions in this part of the city, inspired by French architecture. It’s as if time has stopped here – there are no traffic lights, private parking or petrol stations and many of the mansions are now falling apart. However, the area’s been revived as an artistic hotspot and is home to several artists, studios, galleries and museums, as well as intellectuals, academics, politicians and quaint little restaurants.
The colourful 215 steps, tiled single-handedly by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, were a wonderful surprise find. His tribute to the Brazilian people starts from Joaquim Silva and Pinto Martins Streets and ends at the Santa Teresa Convent. The 125m staircase features more than 2 000 mosaics and tiles from more than 60 countries, which Selarón periodically changed as part of his ever-evolving work of art.
A bondhino, a single-carriage open tram, offers an epic ride and views of the city to and from Santa Teresa. The yellow carriage clatters along, creating the exhilarating feeling of being on a roller-coaster as it crosses the 45m-high, 17,6m-wide Carioca Aqueduct.
Taking the cable-car up to Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) late one afternoon was a highlight of our trip. The timing was perfect: we were able to appreciate Rio in full daylight, as well as enjoy the incredible, soft sunset tones and millions of city lights by night. The statue of Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado) was mostly covered in clouds, but we got some spectacular photos in the sunset light.
We chose to go up to the Corcovado with the cog train, which winds through a tropical forest and offers the added bonus of a samba band on the way down. The train departs every 30 minutes from the station on Rua Cosme Velho. Expect thousands of tourists wanting their photos taken on the 220 steps leading up to the statue.
EAT AND DRINK:
Kick off your day with coconut juice served from a freshly chopped open coconut – it sets the scene for the island-style party atmosphere. The standard welcoming drink at restaurants is the renowned caipirinha, a lime- and sugarcane-based tipple with a very more-ish taste and a high alcohol content. Brazil makes some of the best beer or chopp (pronounced “tjoppe”), which – like the glasses it’s served in – is always kept ice-cold for immediate enjoyment in the tropical climate.
The Brazilians’ sense of community and love of food is evident at mealtimes: a dish on a menu is usually intended for two people. Rio has some of the best churrascarias (traditional barbecue restaurants) in Brazil. The menu is set and includes side dishes, salads and perfectly grilled, all-you-can-eat meat. Go hungry to make the most of the more than two dozen varieties and cuts on offer.
EXPERIENCE THE STREET LIFE
It’s incredible to see young and old dancing together or singing unashamedly on the streets, at the beach and even in the shops. Modern Sound is a music store at 502 Rua Barata Ribeiro that converts into a part-restaurant, part-concert venue. Artists perform throughout the day and entrance is free, so it’s a good way to meet people and enjoy the culture and music. Samba, forro and choro are genres that will get you moving in no time!
Lapa, also known as the cradle of bohemian Rio, is the place for live music and dancing. Most of the old buildings have been renovated by antique dealers, lending an old-world flavour to the area. Thursdays to Saturdays are the busiest, but also the best days to go there. The main roads are Avenida Mem de Sá and Rua do Lavradio. Take a taxi as far as traffic permits and enjoy walking among the crowds for the rest of the way.
Rio Scenarium on 20 Rua do Lavradio is an experience not to be missed. The renovated three-floor building has an eclectic mix of art and antiques, with balconies on every level overlooking the dance floor and bands. The restaurant and service are great. Sitting still while there’s music playing goes beyond any carioca’s (local’s) comprehension: we were dragged off our chairs and taught the samba in no time. You don’t need a partner, it’s much easier than it looks and the faster you move, the more enjoyable it becomes.
This is an edited version of the article that appears in the August issue of Sawubona magazine, download here.