Rio de Janeiro. Somehow the name just stays with you.
As do Copacabana and Ipanema, the famous beachfront neighborhoods that conjure up the iconic images and sounds of bossa nova and samba that cemented the Brazilian vibe with music from Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Stan Getz and others starting in the 1960s.
I flew into Brazil on an overnight flight on Avianca Airways from Medellín, on a pretty-close-to-brand-new plane with lots of sweet touches and choices you just don't seem to get on airlines in the States these days. The very stylish women of the flight crew wore red caps to go with their red capes. Yes, I said capes. It all seemed so effortlessly mod in the key of Rudi Gernreich, that my anticipation about Rio spiked and stayed completely tangible during the five-and-a-half hours it took to get there.
Uber is frowned upon in Brazil, but it is not illegal. Though it can be hard to arrange one at Rio's airport, where you are supposed to be able to summon Uber from the second floor only. Upon arrival, I found that the Uber network seemed to have been suspiciously blocked and was nowhere to be seen on my phone, so I decided to arrange for a cab. There are plenty of "official taxi" representatives wandering the first floor, and you can use them to book to your hotel. At the desk I was told it would be 130 reals (the Brazilian currency, pronounced "hey-als"), which is about $40 American. So, I looked at the woman and said, "One-hundred thirty? I'm going upstairs to Uber." Without blinking she replied, "$100 cash." Point is, if you are going to taxi from the airport in Rio, prepare to be tough in your negotiations. Better yet, make your arrangements in advance—when I returned to the airport in a metered cab arranged by my hotel, I found out that the price should be around 70 reals. Despite that first ride, all subsequent Uber and taxi experiences were perfect.
Copacabana carries a slightly dilapidated grandeur that I immediately felt drawn to and at home with. It is crowded. It is urban. It is on the beach. Big elegant hotels—some quite architecturally interesting or eccentric enough that they would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson film—dot the waterfront, wearing their Atlantic Ocean saltwater patinas with a timeless grace and elegance. As soon as I set my sleep-deprived foot at the door to my hotel, just four blocks in from the water, I felt at home. You may, too.
And yes, by all means enjoy a caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail, made with cachaça (a hard liquor made from sugarcane), sugar and lime. But beware these drinks are designed to change you brain chemistry. And they pack a wallop. You'll find them priced cheaply at stands along the beach—and while these options may not be quite as quality as their spendier brethren at established spots a bit further inland—there is no denying their transformational allure, especially when accompanied by sun, sand, and the hypnotic, swaying sound of waves coming into shore and moving back out again.
It seemed to me that Rio was always looking for opportunities to whisper three words in my ear: Life is simple.
Right along Avenida Atlantica (pronounced At-lantch-ka) are a number of large and often striking hotels (some with striking rates attached). But if you go inland a few blocks, you will find a number of mid-range and even budget options that will suit. At the recommendation of a travel agent friend, I chose one called Augusto's Copacabana Hotel. I loved the old-school style of the place. And while it could probably use a refresh and an additional elevator, I was captivated by its slightly faded '70s to '90s Italianate glamour. My room felt like a cabin on a ship. The air conditioning unit definitely held up, and the linens were nice and soft. After arriving exhausted from my overnight flight they got me in really quickly, which allowed for a quick nap before heading to the beach a new man. They also have a lovely, small, very blue pool and sun deck on the roof that provides 360-degree panoramic views,
A 20-minute walk (or so) from Copacabana lies Ipanema. In general, the hotels, residential buildings and restaurants are more obviously upscale and cared for than in Copacabana. The area is busy but not packed, urban but not gritty, and the beaches are wide and filled as far as the eye can see. In one section, surfers abide. It's polished. It's odd to say, but if you're very lucky (as I was) and you get a day of gentle rain in summer, make it a point to take a walk. And if you have Spotify, give this a listen while you do so.
Sometimes one wants to go to the beach, but not stay at the beach. If this is you, Santa Teresa is perhaps perfect. Located in the heart of Rio's historic quarter and up in the hills, it is sometimes called the Montmartre of Rio. Eclectic and bohemian, it is home to this bit of absolute beauty of a hotel: Casa Beleza, formerly the governor's residence. Close to bars, restaurants, and music, it is on the Metro line with a stop at Gloria.
Eat + Drink
The Necessary Tour
After a much-anticipated meal at a place named one of Rio's 38 necessary restaurants went south, I felt it might be time to seek some expertise when it came to food. So upon the recommendation of a local, I signed up to take a food tour called Eat Rio. As soon as I met up with owner/operator Tom Le Mesurier—and a small group of others slated for the tour—at Nova Capela, a Portuguese restaurant not too far from Santa Theresa—I knew I was in good hands.
Easygoing, charismatic and completely knowledgeable about the food scene in Rio, Le Mesurier led us on a roughly six-hour walking tour through restaurants, food markets, bars, and fruit stands that I otherwise would never have experienced. Among the highlights: a truly state-of-the-art caipirinha (a beautiful thing!); sampling a variety of fruits that included one that tasted like toffee and dates mixed together; a delicious soup called tacacá, which hails from the Amazon region and is full of dried shrimps and numbs your tongue and lips as you eat; a prawn coconut stew; a quesadilla-like pancake situation made from tapioca; and bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod and potato croquettes). Along the way you will also be offered beer, usually a lager or pilsner served, because of the heat, either "bem gelada" (literally well chilled) or "estupidamente gelada" (stupidly chilled). Beers arrive at the table alongside a cylindrical cooler and a small glass they call the copo Americano. The cooler allows you to keep the beer chilled in the heat, while the small glass encourages quick consumption and sharing with your mates before the contents become too warm. It's a perfect two-step combination. This tour brings Rio alive.
Le Mesurier is an experienced travel journalist and writer who has worked for Lonely Planet and other outlets, which may be why the Eat Rio site is a complete resource for any number of things Rio, but definitely food. // eatrio.net
One of the places we did not visit on the food tour, but which Le Mesurier recommended, was Pavão Azul, a real locals' place in Copacabana that serves the aforementioned bolinhos de bacalhau, but without the potato. My first attempt to get in on a Friday evening was doomed from the start thanks to the crowd. So I waited until the next day and went at lunch, where I managed to snag a tiny table for one wedged in a corner amid a noisy-ass and boisterous group. I can honestly say I've never enjoyed any food more than I did that sweltering afternoon. // instagram.com/pavaoazuloficial
Sofá Café is the place to go if you are particular about your coffee. The space is chic and unpretentious, and the owner glides around the room in her flowing skirts and loves to chat about coffee and what they serve. // sofacafe.com.br
Things to Do
If Rio's famous beaches are the top of your list, set up some time to hang out at Copacabana and Ipanema for sure. While the beaches are hot, with temperatures in the 80s, 90s and sometimes higher, the water temperature hovers in the completely refreshing 70s.
In terms of museums, two stand out right away: the Museu do Amanhá (Museum of Tomorrow), an ambitious architectural stunner dedicated to the promise of the future, and Museu de Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art), a cavernous structure dating back to the late 1940s that feels like a time capsule from the era of the great abstract expressionists. A little deserted, with skateboarders using the adjacent grounds for practice and fun, it's a somewhat eerie experience in that it points to a future we've already gone past. That said, the first floor is currently home to an eye-popping collection of contemporary design, mostly furniture.
A trip to Sugarloaf, aka Pao de Azucar is not to be missed. If you are queasy about heights, steel yourself. The trip up in the gondola comes in two stages: Your first stop offers a large space filled with walkways and lookouts, as well as an array of shops and restaurants. It's easy to sit here and relax as you watch raptors fly languid circles and survey the land for their next meal. The second stage is more lacking in open space, and is much higher as well. The topography of Rio, water, mountains and neighborhoods is spread out before you.
Street markets are everywhere. One I particularly liked was the Feira de Copacabana, an especially enjoyable walk-through in the evenings. At the outdoor markets, you may get a discount if you offer to pay cash as credit and debit transactions cost the vendor much higher rates than in the States.
Ipanema is home to many surf shops and more upscale outlets and brands.
Before You Go
Brazil requires a visa when visiting from the U.S. The application is done online, but you will have to appear in person to finish the application, and then return once more to pick up the visa. It's a bit of a process, so allow at least four to six weeks to get this done before your trip. // saofrancisco.itamaraty.gov.br