72 Hours in Rio
Discovering Brazil’s samba city.
Rio de Janeiro is a city very much defined by its beautiful beaches and bronzed bodies. But while the as-seen-on-TV images of Ipanema Beach’s golden sands and the lush, green Tijuca National Rainforest are most certainly true, the coastal Brazilian city offers much more than just its looks.
Steeped in history, Portuguese explorers first sailed onto the shores of Guanabara Bay in 1565. The UNESCO World Heritage site’s history can be spotted through its architecture, with Portuguese colonial buildings lining the streets alongside Oscar Niemeyer modernist masterpieces. And even though Rio de Janeiro was stripped of its Brazilian capital status in 1960, when Brasilia was founded, the city nonetheless defines Brazil. Its samba soul and Carnival queen image have even given Rio the nickname the “Marvelous City” — a name with which those visiting the city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games will most certainly agree.
Start your day off right with breakfast at Empório Jardim. Located in the leafy streets of Jardim Botânico, the laid-back, modern café perfectly exemplifies the local Carioca (representative of Rio de Janiero) lifestyle. As the café has no set menu, you can mix and match over 75 items to make your perfect breakfast — to be paired with the variety of freshly made bread, of course.
To digest, take a stroll down to Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro’s botanical gardens. Founded in 1808, the 54-hectare historical gardens are home to over 6,500 species of plants and wildlife. And though they’re located just below the right arm of the famed Christ the Redeemer statue, the verdant surroundings will make you feel as though you’ve been whisked away to another world entirely.
A short walk across the street sits Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the site of the rowing and canoe sprint venue for this summer’s Olympic Games. Take a breather while enjoying a coconut water, paddle out in one of the swan-shaped paddle boats, or even even rent a bike for a lap around the 7.5-kilometer lagoon.
Take a short taxi or bus ride to Rua Dias Ferreira in the upscale neighborhood of Leblon. As Rio de Janeiro’s best spot for culinary delights, the street boasts options from all corners of the globe. Head to Zuka for some Brazilian-fusion cuisine served in a minimal setting, or hit up Sushi Leblon just a few doors down for the city’s best sushi. (Though sushi certainly isn’t synonymous with Brazil, the South American nation is actually home to the world’s largest Japanese Diaspora community, and so it does sushi right in its own unique way.)
After a long and lazy lunch, head to Ipanema Beach for an afternoon of relaxation. The beach is neatly divided into subsections, so that together they offer something for everyone: Arpoador, in the corner between Copacabana and Ipanema, is frequented by surfers; Posto 9, found at the end of Rua Vinícius de Moraes, tends to be the best spot to find toned and tanned bodies; and up past Posto 10 in Leblon is for sports-lovers, as football, volleyball and frescobal (a two-person paddle ball game) matches are ever-ongoing.
As the sun begins to hang its head, stroll down to the small corner beach of Arpoador to watch the colorful display. Winter or summer, the sunset here presents the city’s best, so prepare to be joined by throngs of surfers and others climbing the rocks as the day comes to an end.
Following the spectacle, check out T.T. Burger for a Brazilian twist on an American classic, topped with guava ketchup and freshly made queijo Minas (Brazilian cheese). Founded and run by Chef Thomas Troisgros — the son of French chef Claude Troisgros, owner of the Michelin-starred Olympe restaurant — T.T. Burger offers the same quality ingredients and top-chef experience at a fraction of the price.
Then, head to the boutique-style Ipanema Inn to refresh after a long day on the beach. Dress your best before venturing back out to see what Ipanema nightlife has to offer.
Just a short cab ride away, Canastra off General Osorio Square blends French chic with Carioca casual. Run by three Frenchmen, the bar serves up an extensive wine list and a refreshing tapas (small plates) menu. Tapas here present a nice break from the traditional fried snacks, such as coxinhas (fried chicken dumplings), that are ubiquitous in Brazilian juice bars and hole-in-the wall pubs. Most of the fun spills out onto the street to enjoy the warm evenings with a glass of wine in hand.
If you’re not yet ready to call it a night, grab a quick cab to Empório 37 to dance into the wee morning hours. The most well-known late-night club with free entry in Zona Sul, the bar plays classics to please all crowds.
Spend the day touring the sights about town. Of course a visit to Rio de Janeiro isn’t complete without checking out one of the seven wonders of the world — the Christ the Redeemer statue. Get an early start, or even book your ticket in advance, to avoid long lines. Grab some food and your morning coffee from Da Cozinha Café, across from the statue’s entrance. The café boasts an all-organic menu — from traditional food representing northeastern Brazil to waffles topped with fresh, organic honey. It’s located right inside the Museu Internacional de Arte Naïf, a 19th-century house that caters to hands-on activities for children.
Head down the mountain and take a taxi to Urca, a neighborhood overlooking the historic Guanabara Bay. Enjoy lunch at Bar Urca, a classic establishment that’s been serving traditional Portuguese cuisine since 1939. Sit inside for great traditional service and beautiful views of the bay, or sit out on the sea wall for a real Carioca experience. Whether in or out, the classic bolinhos de bacalhau (cob balls) pair perfectly with a crisp, refreshing beer like Original, a nice lager that goes well with Rio’s scorching temperatures. (Tip: Usually served in 600-mL bottles, beers here are typically shared among a group rather than consumed individually.)
Head up to Sugarloaf Mountain for an afternoon of trail-based activities and to catch a 360-degree view of the city and its surrounds. Stay for sunset, and then take the cable car back down to relocate to Old Rio for the night.
Pack up from the Ipanema Inn and head to the hillside neighborhood of Santa Teresa for a change of scenery at another charming boutique hotel. Once a coffee plantation, the luxurious Hotel Santa Teresa recently underwent a beautiful restoration; think exposed brick walls, exotic woods and a clean, “tropical chic” design.
Once settled, walk down to Espirito Santa for a dinner of traditional Brazilian food, with options representing all of the country’s wide-ranging regions. The Frango à Cajuína, a Brazil-nut-breaded chicken breast drizzled in a cashew sauce, comes highly recommended and offers a nice taste of the Amazon.
Take a short taxi ride down the hill to Lapa, Rio’s nightlife district famed for nurturing samba into the genre it is today. For live music, head to Circo Voador, where high-profile Brazilian and international acts regularly perform. Sitting right behind the Lapa Arches, the open-air venue offers a great view of central Rio and an authentic Carioca feel. (Tip: If you bring a kilo of food as a donation, you get in for half the price.)
For a more traditional Brazilian samba option, Carioca da Gema down the street boasts a live band that plays traditional samba songs — and supplies no shortage of friendly Brazilians willing to teach any visitor how to samba.
Rise and shine at the Hotel Santa Teresa and head down the stairs to Térèze. The in-house restaurant’s extravagant breakfast serves up everything from Iberian ham to a wide array of local Brazilian fruits — including acerola (cherries from Pará state) and the superfruit açaí. Térèze also serves up nice views of Rio from its hillside location, or you can opt to sit poolside by the art deco-style pool.
Mosey down the street to Largo do Curvelo to catch the yellow Bondinho street car across the Lapa Arches. After a few-year hiatus, the historic tram line is now reopened — offering a free-of-charge mode of transportation from Santa Teresa to the heart of Rio in Lapa. Though Downtown Rio has often been overlooked in the picturesque postcards of the city, the prep for the Olympics has ushered in all sorts of transformation — such as a new tram transportation network and a revitalized, pedestrian-only port area.
After a bit of a wander around Lapa and Praça XV de Novembro (which hosts a great antique fair every Saturday), rest for a lunch at Confeitaria Colombo. Founded in 1894, the decadent old Portuguese colonial restaurant represents a piece of Rio de Janeiro history. The upstairs section serves up feijoada, Brazil’s national dish of black-bean stew, every Saturday, but if you opt to stay downstairs in the café, the roast-beef sandwich is a must.
Head to Praça Mauá, an area that’s been overhauled as part of the Rio 2016 Olympics face-lift. Once a slave-trading market, the square was forgotten for decades but recently reopened as the home of such cultural institutions as the Museu de Arte Rio (MAR). The wonderfully curated museum is constantly changing with rotating exhibitions, with more classical art lining the top floors and more modern art spaces on the main. Just across the square sits the Museum of Tomorrow, a science museum inaugurated last December as yet another part of Rio’s central extension ahead of the Games. Around US$2.17 billion will be invested over 15 years into the port rejuvenation project called Porto Maravilha (Marvelous Port), intended to overhaul several neighborhoods that hug Rio’s port.
Keep an eye out for open-air festivals popping up in Praça Mauá. Live music and eclectic food trucks are a regular standby in the square, serving everything from gourmet burgers to new spins on traditional Brazilian snacks like acarajé (black-eyed-pea fritters). If it’s a quiet night though, stop by Restaurante Mauá for some traditional Brazilian cuisine and a few fruity caipirinha cocktails. For something lighter, check out Focaccia for a Brazilian twist on traditional Italian salads and sandwiches.
For your last night on the town, venture to the heart of Old Rio for the perfect final taste of Brazilian hospitality. Trapiche Gamboa boasts three floors of live music that continues late into the night, and Pedra do Sal — said to be the birthplace of samba — hosts free, live, open-air samba on Monday nights (plus Fridays throughout the summer).
As the samba beats begin to wind down, head back out to the street to order a freshly prepared caipirinha from one of the abundant street vendors — a final toast to your 72 hours in the Marvelous City. Saude!
Sheena Rossiter is the co-owner and creative director of Dona Ana Films & Multimedia. She lives in the Marvelous City and particularly enjoys listening to samba music at Pedra do Sal.