Ask a Brazilian for a brief rundown on Creation, and the answer will be unanimous: ‘God made the world in six days; the seventh, he devoted to Rio.’ Flying into the city, over its towering granite peaks, golden beaches and blue oceans, it’s easy to see where this reverent pride comes from. But it’s not until you’ve touched down, and immersed yourself in Rio de Janeiro, that you’ll understand just how much there is to get excited about in the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City).
Rio has an almost unsettling ability to surprise you around every corner, making it the perfect destination for jaded travellers who feel they’ve seen it all. Open up what looks like a small papaya, and you’ll find it’s a passion fruit instead. Head off to the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian, and rather than finding a domed basilica you’ll be treated to a conical giant more reminiscent of an Inca pyramid. The city has a distinctive scent – a mixture of granadilla, garlic and other unidentifiable aromas that seems to seep from the streets themselves.
It’s hard to pick one thing that defines Rio. It is shaped by contrast and, even from afar, the populous city is half urban sprawl, half mountainous jungle. It’s this embrace of nature, which is lasciviously big and bold, that is one of Rio’s most alluring attributes. So much so that the entire natural landscape was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, while the Rio Harbour was recognised as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
With 80 kilometres of coastline to choose from, in Rio you’re pretty much defined by which beach you head to. While Copacabana is definitely the go-to place for tourists, not to mention young prostitutes and their balding admirers, spending a day there is a rite of passage for visitors to the city. The 4km stretch of beach has a micro-economy of its own, with vendors pushing ice cold beers, prawn skewers, sun block, caipirinhas, fresh fruit, colourful sarongs and even toasted sandwiches – cooked on the spot on portable coal fuelled ovens. An ideal afternoon involves renting a deckchair, placing your refreshment order, and catching a bit of futevôlei – the amazing hybrid of soccer and volleyball that’s unique to the city. Just one cove away, Copacabana’s equally famous neighbour, Ipanema, offers a less frantic experience and the added advantage of its beautiful-people watching.
While most travellers are experts in the art of people watching, in Rio it’s easy to take it one step further and allow yourself to be subsumed in the culture. The pride that Cariocas (Rio locals) have for their city is infectious, and anyone from taxi drivers to fellow diners will be quick to engage you in conversation, waxing lyrical about their hometown. While the language barrier is pretty extreme (it helps to have a few basic Portuguese phrases handy), one thing that comes across clearly is the welcoming and carefree nature of the average Carioca. The city has a unique energy, and most people will tell you it’s because difference is appreciated here. Rich and poor live a hair’s breadth apart, while people of all shapes and sizes feel free to bare their bodies on the beaches, and race is a concept that’s been slowly obliterated over the centuries. It’s the Carioca way to accept you, no matter who you are – and even tourists are made to feel welcome.
Visiting a favela might not be at the top of most South Africans’ bucket lists, but considering that some 20 per cent of Cariocas live in slums, they are definitely part of the experience. Favela residents will be quick to tell you about recent pacification programmes that have cleaned up these notoriously violent areas. The result has been a significant decrease in crime, and a boost in tourism, as mom-and-pop restaurants, guesthouses, and music venues with gritty charm and unparalleled views are attracting visitors, Brazilians and foreigners alike, to the hillside communities.
Rio’s favelas aren’t the only neighbourhoods being given a face-lift. The hilltop district of Santa Teresa, once a neglected suburb with disintegrating mansions, has come back to life with museums, bed and breakfasts, and bohemian restaurants and bars, where you’ll find some of the best live music in town. In fact, there aren’t many places in the city where you won’t find a good meal, an ice-cold beer, a live act and a spectacular view. Most views in Rio include the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, and you don’t have to be religious to appreciate its impact on the city, nor its inclusion as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. At almost 40 metres tall, it’s the largest Art Deco statue in the world, and its benevolent open-armed form is just as much a work of art as it is an engineering feat.
It is all these factors, the nature, the music, the culture, cuisine and energy that make Rio such an exhilarating city. It’s inspired more songs than can be counted, whole music genres, movies, novels and artworks. It’s even been honoured as far away as Mars, where Brazilian NASA scientist Paulo Souza named a rock after the famous Sugarloaf Mountain. You only need visit the city once to understand why this is one of the most exciting places on earth. But a word of warning – Rio gets under your skin, and for most people, there’s no such thing as visiting just once.
WHERE TO STAY
Our pick of three top hotels in Rio de Janeiro.
The first boutique hotel of its kind to open in the city, La Maison is an explosion of colour and style located in Gávea, one of Rio’s most affluent suburbs. It’s just a 10-minute drive from Ipanema and the trendy neighbourhood of Leblon, yet with its breathtaking views and quiet, cobbled surroundings, it could be a world away from the bustle of the city. With only five rooms, the attention to detail and personal service is exceptional, and owner Jacques will give you all the info you’ll need to maximise your stay in the city. lamaisonario.com
Arguably Rio’s most exclusive hotel, the Fasano is a Philippe Starck- designed marvel right on Ipanema beach. The interiors, which were inspired by the Brazilian-style salsa dance, bossa nova, are a slick blend of 1950s furniture, hardwood panelling and Art Deco touches. If its unique style doesn’t get you drooling, the hotel’s exceptional cuisine and rooftop pool most certainly will. If you’re willing to splash out a little, this is the spot to see and be seen in Rio. fasano.com.br
This cliff-top villa is located in Joatinga, a suburb affectionately known as the Beverly Hills of Rio. It’s a fair drive from the centre, but what it lacks in proximity it makes up for, tenfold, in vistas. La Suite boasts panoramic views of Rio and, sitting on the terrace, you’re faced with Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, and some of the city’s most dazzling beaches. The guesthouse boasts seven gorgeous suites, each with a different colour theme, and an array of first-class amenities such as a spectacular pool and heavenly cuisine. lasuiterio.com
This article was originally featured in the November 2012 issue of House and Leisure.