Overview

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—sensuous, chaotic, sophisticated, open and friendly—is one of South America's gems. The Cidade Marvilhosa (Marvelous City), as Brazilians call it, displays a unique blend of contrasts: old and new, tremendous wealth amid crushing poverty, an urban metropolis nestled around mountains and a huge forest.

All of Rio de Janeiro is symbolically embraced in the outstretched arms of Cristo Redentor, the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain.

The 2016 Summer Olympics were held in Rio, making it the first South American city to host the Olympic Games, and tourism to Brazil is has increased significantly.

Even with financial cutbacks and public skepticism, Rio undertook major infrastructure improvements at a blistering pace in efforts to upgrade its transportation system and adopt environmental initiatives in preparation for the Olympics. According to the Brazil Tour Operators Association, hotel capacity has more than doubled. Football (soccer) stadiums were rebuilt, world-class sports facilities have been designed, and the historic quarter and port area have been rejuvenated.

Rio de Janeiro plays host to what some call "the biggest party in the world" during the five-day holiday that is Carnival, which takes place just before Lent in February or early March. Street parties take place throughout the city, and the colorful samba schools parade through the city's Sambadrome to the sound of heavy drum beats.

But if the buzz of the city becomes too much—during Carnival or otherwise—there's always an easy escape to the beautiful coast or to the lush Tijuca Forest that surrounds Rio de Janeiro's mountainous slopes, where you can hike, bike or jump under a waterfall.

Geography

Rio lies on the southeastern coast of Brazil. The city has everything it could want within arm's reach: ocean, mountains and the world's largest urban forest (in Tijuca National Park). The city is divided into four parts: Zona Sul (South Zone), Zona Oeste (West Zone), Zona Norte (North Zone) and Centro (downtown).

Bordered by Zona Sul, Zona Norte and Guanabara Bay, Centro is the commercial and historic heart of the city. Edging Zona Sul, with beaches fronting the Atlantic and extending southward on the coast, are the famous bairros (neighborhoods) of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. The Barra da Tijuca, with its giant malls and extensive beaches, is farther southwest, in Zona Oeste.

Rio's slums, called favelas, are found throughout the city. Many are in Zona Norte, but the largest in Brazil (and in South America) are in Zona Sul.

History

The name Rio de Janeiro, which means "River of January" in Portuguese, alludes to the fact that Portuguese sailors thought Guanabara Bay was a river delta when they first sailed into it on 1 January 1502. After successfully battling the French for control of the bay, the Portuguese established a fortified city, which in 1568 became the city of Rio. Initially eclipsed by Salvador, Brazil's first colonial capital on the coast to the north, as well as other cities in the gold-rich interior, Rio became the capital of Brazil in 1763.

With the beginning of the coffee boom in the early 1800s, Rio began to prosper. In 1808, the Portuguese royal family fled from the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and settled in Rio, initiating one of the city's golden ages. For more than 10 years, Rio was the seat of the Portuguese empire, which turned the colonial outpost into a cosmopolitan city.

In 1822, when Portugal granted independence to Brazil, the king's son Pedro stayed in Rio and was crowned emperor of Brazil, making him the only reigning monarch in the Americas. As an imperial capital, Rio had a population of more than 100,000 and was one of South America's busiest ports, shipping Brazil's rubber, coffee and sugar to the rest of the world.

Over the following decades, the government widened avenues, filled in swamps, eradicated yellow fever and even tore down bothersome hills to make space for construction. The formerly bucolic colonial capital of low, tile-roof buildings and dirt streets increasingly resembled a modern metropolis, and by 1920, its population had swollen to 1 million people.

After World War II, the city was further remodeled to make space for the automobile. A growing middle class began to abandon traditional Zona Norte enclaves for Zona Sul neighborhoods—Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon—that were rendered more accessible by buses, cable cars and automobiles. In 1960, Brazil finished the construction of the new inland national capital, Brasilia, and gradually moved most government offices to the planned city. Though some say Rio has never recovered its lost prestige, it remains Brazil's main tourist destination and cultural center.

Sightseeing

Rio is a feast of natural and urban attractions that can be enjoyed as sweeping panoramic views or inspected up close. Most visitors opt for a panoramic view as an introduction to the city. The best spots are Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf) and Corcovado Mountain, though the more energetic might choose to hike up Gavea Rock. A gondola can take you up Sugar Loaf for a 360-degree view of Rio and Guanabara Bay.

The landmark statue of Christ with outstretched arms on Corcovado Mountain is reached via a funicular train. On a clear day, you'll be rewarded with wonderful views of the city, the bay and Tijuca Forest. For Gavea Rock, it is best to go with a local friend or a tour guide.

When you're ready to examine the city in more detail, head for the legendary beaches in the Zona Sul neighborhoods. The most famous beaches are Copacabana and Ipanema, though Leblon (next to Ipanema) and Leme (next to Copacabana) are worth experiencing also. Cariocas, as residents of Rio are called, are fun-loving and charming, and the cast of colorful characters you'll see strolling and lounging on the beach is just about the only thing that can compete with the city's spectacular natural setting. The beach is often known as the most democratic place in Rio.

You can combine people-watching and sightseeing by taking a walk through several neighborhoods. Rio's Centro is a great place to see a mix of old and new, colonial and modern. The Arcos da Lapa—arches that were part of an immense aqueduct built in the 1700s—are at the center of Lapa, a bohemian neighborhood in Centro that has made a full comeback after years of neglect and has a number of good antiques stores, bars, clubs and restaurants.

West of Lapa is the hilly Santa Teresa neighborhood, with its narrow, winding streets, stone stairs and late-19th-century houses—it has an artistic, counterculture feeling, and there are many interesting small galleries and museums to explore. You can take the scenic bondinho (streetcar) or a cab up to Santa Teresa.

If you choose to spend some time indoors, you'll find that Rio's museums run the gamut from the culture-oriented Edison Carneiro Folklore Museum to the campy Carmen Miranda Museum. The National History Museum and the National Fine Arts Museum are must-sees, as is the Contemporary Arts Museum in Niteroi.

For a look at Rio's religious heritage, visit the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Gloria for its art and impressive architecture, as well as the Sao Bento Monastery.

Sooner or later, you'll be drawn back outdoors: Two good spots are the Jardim Botanico and the massive Tijuca Forest (keep an eye out for monkeys).

Nightlife

If you want to taste Rio's nightlife, check out live music of all genres in small clubs or the avant-garde dance clubs that showcase the latest in modern rhythms. The city's nighttime offerings reflect the free-spirited and easygoing nature of Cariocas and cater to all tastes and budgets. Be sure to try a caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail that is made with cachaca (a rum made from sugarcane), sugar and lime.

Nightclubs and many bars are open until at least 3 am, even during the week. Some clubs have a cover charge, and others have a consumacao minima system in which you have to spend a certain amount on drinks. The most expensive places have both. Take cash; few places accept credit cards, so call ahead to check.

Dining

Eating well in Rio is a pleasure equal to what you will experience in any of the world's great cities. For a classic local favorite, go to a churrascaria, a Brazilian barbecue restaurant. Most of them operate under the rodizio system (all-you-can-eat, served at your table). Fans of Japanese food will be pleased to know that many churrascarias in the Zona Sul have sushi and sashimi as well. We also recommend you try a restaurant that specializes in comida baiana, a spicy African-influenced cuisine from Bahia (in northeastern Brazil).

The national dish, traditionally eaten on Saturday, is feijoada, a delicious black-bean stew made with large pieces of pork, sausage and smoked meat. It is served with rice, farofa (toasted manioc meal), kale and—to refresh the palate—pieces of orange.

For a fast, cheap meal, go to one of several restaurants that sell meals by the kilo (comida a kilo). Food is arranged buffet style, and you help yourself. What you pay depends on the weight of your plate. Vegetarians will usually find one hot dish and a good variety of salads in any of the more upscale comida a kilo restaurants in the Zona Sul or Centro.

Juice bars are ubiquitous in Rio de Janeiro, especially in the Zona Sul. Be sure to sample Rio's overwhelming variety of tropical fruits and fresh juices (suco), served at juice bars on just about every corner. The caipirinha is also found everywhere: It's made with cachaca, a rumlike liquor made with sugarcane, mixed with crushed ice and lime juice.

Like southern Europeans, Cariocas eat late, often dining after 9 pm. Many a la carte dishes are for two people to share, so it's a good idea to confirm this before you order. Most menus will also include cheaper individual meals (pratos executivos) at lunch. Lunchtimes are busiest noon-2 pm. Some Cariocas start the day with breakfast in a bakery (padaria). There is a padaria on virtually every street, with mouthwatering displays of food.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than R$40; $$ = R$41-$75; $$$ = R$76-$125; and $$$$ = more than R$125. Some establishments don't accept credit cards, so call beforehand to be sure.

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