Rio is one of my favourite places in Brazil – a city which has fascinated me since my first visit in 2010. Back then I had booked for two weeks and stayed six. The next time I came back for four months to teach English and live the enviable life of a carioca, a native inhabitant of Rio.

ipanema-beach

It is a city where beautiful, lush green mountains clash dramatically with the sea, and sprawling favelas squeeze in between the crashing waves of the Atlantic and luxurious penthouse apartments that stretch along the beach boulevards of Ipanema and Copacabana. Walking along the coast, the gentle sounds of Bossa Nova from the 50s and 60s whistle in the gentle winds. Music resounds throughout the city, from bars and restaurants, apartments and onto the street itself.

Rio de Janeiro is famed for the colorful carnival parades early in the year, but really the city has it all. It is easy to get lost for weeks, but if you only have a couple of days to spend in Rio here is what you should do.

Rio de Janeiro

1) A Day at the Beach – or two, or three

Rio de Janeiro is all about soaking up the Brazilian sun on a nearby beach. Ipanema beach is one of my favorites to acclimatize and enjoy fresh coconut water and ice-cold beers from the lively beach vendors. Copacabana and Praia Vermelha at the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain are good choices too. One of the best spots to watch the sunset is Arpoador, the rock separating Ipanema and Copacabana beach. Every evening without fail the sun gets a round of applause when it sets behind the striking mountains called Dois Irmãos, the Two Brothers. The scene is truly magical.

Rio de Janeiro

If it is Sunday make sure to rent bikes and explore the Zona Sul, the South of the city. The roads along Copacabana and Ipanema beach are blocked from traffic on Sundays and turn into a carpet of cariocas strolling, running, cycling and roller skating. The ride up and down the beaches is pleasant and you can even turn off and cycle around the lake.

 

2) Into the Green

The Botanical Gardens are just the right place to recover from a big night out and enjoy the amazing variety of Brazilian and foreign flora on show. Nearby Parque Lage is situated just at the bottom of Corcovado Mountain and offers a beautiful spot for coffee or a quick snack. There is a café in an old mansion which also houses an art school, so there are regular free art exhibitions on show.

Rio de Janeiro

The park is also a less busy starting point for climbing the mountain top to the famous Jesus statue ‘Christ the Redeemer’ which towers over the city. The walk takes about an hour and at some points you have to pull yourself up with ropes, but the view is all the more rewarding. Also the strenuous climb will make you feel less guilty about all these caipirinhas you have been sipping on.

Rio de Janeiro

3) The City from Above

Leaving the South behind the cable car system is a major attraction in the North of the city, Zona Norte. The Teleférico do Alemao is the first of its kind in Brazil and takes visitors to new heights. Seeing Rio from this angle is alluring in a completely different way and opens up a way to understand the complexity and richness of the city. Below the charming favelas of Rio are bustling with life and neighborhoods are thriving as the improved infrastructure helps reconnect them to each other.

Rio de Janeiro

If you spend the day on Praia Vermelha, plan an ascent of the Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar) just in time for sunset. A cable car runs all the way to the top which offers surely some of the best views over Rio. For an additional workout walk the first stretch up the hill Urca yourself and jump onto the cable car from there.

Rio de Janeiro

4) Explore the City Centre

Rio’s colonial city centre allows a step back in time. First stop is the Confeiteria Colombo, a pastry shop founded in 1894. It seems that time has stood still inside this sumptuously decadent tea room since then. If sweets are not your thing make sure to try coxhina (shredded chicken wrapped in dough and deep-fried), one of Brazil’s famous savory treats.

Next up is the Escaderia da Lapa, beautiful stairs which are covered in thousands of tiles from around the world. This piece of modern art was started in the 1990s by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón. More colorful art can be found inside the Cathedral of Saint Sebastian right by the Lapa arches. Take a look at the stunning stained glass windows!

Rio de Janeiro

5) Brazilian Delicacies

One of the best restaurants in Rio is Nova Capela in the city center. It has been running since 1903 and opens daily until 5am. Their most famous dish is probably the roast goat with garlic and broccoli rice.

For fresh and healthy meals, don’t miss out on Balada Mix. They run several restaurants around the city, but my favourite is in Ipanema, on Rua Aníbal de Mendonça. They have a wide range of smoothies, salads, sandwiches and fruity cocktails to choose from. Try a bowl of the popular açaí with granola, a delicious super-food berry native to South America.

Do not leave the city without trying out Brazil’s national dish, feijoada, a hearty stew made with beans, beef and pork. There are many places where this dish is served, typically for Saturday lunch, but you can find it on every day of the week at Casa da Feijoada in Ipanema.

Rio de Janeiro

6) Day trip to Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa is the neighbourhood on top of Santa Teresa hill and is well-known for its windy cobbled streets, colourful graffiti and crumbling colonial mansions. It is home to the city’s bohemian scene, featuring plenty of art cafés and galleries and bursting with samba and life. The most adventurous way to reach it is by motorbike taxi from outside Glória metro stop – hold on tight!

Whilst there, make sure you visit the Museu da Chácara do Céu – an old colonial house with a small collection of modern art and fantastic views of the city. This part of town is not to be missed! For dinner head to Nega Teresa, a cute little restaurant and just a stone’s throw away Bar da Fatinha serves great drinks and live music on Thursdays and Fridays.

Rio de Janeiro

7) Time for Art

The Centro Cultural Banco de Brasil is a cultural institution housed in a beautiful art deco building which was once the Bank of Brazil in the center of Rio’s former financial district. Admission is free and the exhibitions are ever-changing – make sure to check the website to see what’s on.

Rio de Janeiro

8) Samba, Caipirinhas & Co.

With the sun down, nightlife is waiting and cariocas k.n.o.w. how to party. Music and dancing are essential to life in the city. The place to be is Lapa, which is part of the city center. The lively streets around the Lapa arches offer a particularly high concentration of restaurants and bars, plenty of places to dance the night away. The atmosphere is intoxicating and invigorating, but be sure to keep a close eye on your valuables. A good place to start is the popular bar Arco Iris da Lapa on the main street Avenida Mem de Sá. Bear in mind things do not really heat up until past midnight!

If you thought it was hard to party on a Monday head to Pedra do Sal, which means Salt Rock. This landmark used to be the place where slaves working at the docks used to carry heavy loads of salt up the hill. To ease their work steps were carved into the rock. Nowadays and particularly on Mondays these steps get crowded with locals for the weekly samba dance circle, Roda da Samba. People come here to enjoy themselves, get carried away by the music and sip on maracuja caipirinhas from one of the street stalls.

Rio de Janeiro

The Maze is a unique live jazz club in the neighborhood Catete. It hits all the right buttons if you need a break from caipirinhas and samba. It has a veranda with breath-taking views over the Guanabara Bay, brilliant musicians on stage and delicious cocktails.

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is such a vibrant and alluring city, it is sure to take hold of your imagination as it did mine and leave you wanting more and more. It’s the perfect city to enjoy the beach, fantastic food and drinks, culture, music and also history. So don’t miss out on all there is to see and do this summer, take a break from the football and enjoy the cidade maravilhosa, Brazil’s marvelous city!

guest post by Shakia Stewart. all photos by Shakia except caipirinha via.