Rio de Janeiro city guide: where to stay, samba and more

Stunning sunsets, frenetic carnival celebrations, golden beaches, dramatic football matches, samba till dawn –  these are just a few things that the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvellous City) of Rio de Janeiro is famed for.

With Rio having recently hosted the 2016 Olympics (the first games in South America) there’s even more affection towards Brazil’s most popular city, and there’s no doubt why. A city moulded around the foothills of a mountain range, it has a beautifully diverse topography – arguably one of the most stunning settings in the world – fusing epic natural beauty with a sprawling metropolis. Whether it’s rich colonial heritage, favelas (shanty towns) peppering the hills of the city, miles of beautiful coastline or designer boutiques and bars popping up, Rio is a dynamic city full of captivating contrasts.

Whether you’re seeking beachside relaxation, iconic must-see landmarks or the chance to experience different traditions and colourful culture, we’ve pinpointed some of this spectacular city’s most alluring sights to get you started.

Ipanema stretching to Leblon and Two Brothers Mountains. Image: iStock/Richmatts

What to do (for free)

The beach

Make the most of the laid-back beach culture Rio is known for. Copacabana is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and while its stretch of sand is impressive, boasting the magnificent Art Deco Copacabana Palace, upmarket Ipanema and Leblon are taking over. Not only are the sands and sea much cleaner, but you’ll get to sun-worship with a view of the impressive Two Brothers Mountains. Take a stroll a few streets back from the beach and you’ll be greeted with a hip, fashionable vibe, where designer boutiques and trendy bars line the bustling streets.

Parque Lage

Right in the middle of the city, at the foot of the Corcovado sits tranquil Parque Lage – an expansive public park adjoined to the jungle preserve of Parque Nacional Tijuca. Brimming with lush tropical greenery, with a colonial mansion sitting gorgeously in the midst of it all (you may recognise it from Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s ‘Beautiful’ music video), it offers a peaceful sanctuary from the city chaos. Take a stroll through the foliage and you’ll stumble upon caves, waterfalls, lakes and an enormous variety of beautiful trees and plants – if you’re lucky, you’ll come face-to-face with a monkey or two. For those feeling energetic, there’s a trail leading up to the summit of the Corcovado.

Escadaria Selarón

The world-famous Escadaria Selarón – or Selarón Steps as they’re more commonly known – sit between artsy Santa Teresa and gritty Lapa, and are an absolute gem of the city. Artist Jorge Selarón inspired the whole of Rio de Janeiro with what started out as an accidental project, which he eventually dedicated his life to. There are over 2,000 brightly coloured mosaic-esque tiles covering the steps, which lead up to a wall adorning a giant tiled Brazilian flag. Start from the bottom and work your way up, marvelling at the efforts as you move along. This cultural landmark draws big crowds, so go early to avoid the madness.

Escadaria Selarón. Image: iStock/rmnunes

Rocks of Arpoador

Between Copacabana and Ipanema sits Arpoador – the birthplace of surfing and the most famous spot in the city for watching the glorious sun set. From the rocks of Arpoador, there are amazing views of Ipanema and Leblon, not to mention the Two Brothers Mountains, making the sunsets here truly magical. Depending on when you’re visiting during the summer months, you’ll witness the sun setting either over the South Atlantic – which is a phenomenon in itself considering Brazil’s coast is east-facing – or disappearing behind the mountain peaks. As the skies turn a beautiful pink-orange and the sun slinks away, a round of applause erupts – an electric atmosphere bowing to the spectacle of nature.

The best views

Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Mountains)

For seasoned hikers, this’ll be a walk in the park – but anyone else should prepare themselves for a challenging schlep up Morro Dois Irmãos. The view from the summit is the dictionary definition of breathtaking – you can see everything from Ipanema, Jardim Botânico and Christ the Redeemer to Sugarloaf Mountain creeping in the background. The journey to and from the base of the hiking trail is adrenaline-fuelled in itself, too; take a motorbike taxi (or a minibus, though the first option is way more of a thrill) though the Vidigal favela (Rio’s most tourist friendly favela), winding up and down vertical roads on your way.

Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)

The Sugarloaf Mountain – or Pão de Açúcar – is one of Rio’s most iconic natural beauties. If you stand at the foot of the mountain, you’re in its imposing shadow; take a cable car ride to the top, and you’ll see exactly why it’s one of the city’s top attractions. The first part of the cable car journey takes you from Praia Vermelha to Morro da Urca. The second stage takes you to the top of the Sugarloaf, where you’ll get 360-degree panoramic views of Rio and beyond – Flamengo, Botafogo, Leme, Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, as well as the Corcovado, Guanabara Bay, downtown Rio, Dois Irmãos and Niterói.

Cable car travelling to Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro. Image: iStock/JohnSjolander

Christ the Redeemer

Wherever you are in Rio, Christ the Redeemer can be seen. The iconic Art Deco statue has a birds-eye view of the entire city, and while he may look small up there, he’s bigger than meets the eye. Towering above at 98 feet tall, with outstretched arms spanning 92 feet wide, it’s safely Rio’s most recognisable landmark. There are two ways you can travel up to the summit of the statue – head up in style via the traditional Corcovado train, or alternatively go by minibus, which stops off at the Corcovado helipad en route for views from a different vantage point.

Where to eat

Confeitaria Colombo

The lavish interiors of Confeitaria Colombo in Centro are just as impressive as the baked goods they serve. Feast on pastries, macaroons, custard tarts, cakes and breads while marvelling at the opulence of the Belle Époque structure, stained glass windows, marble countertops and brocaded mirrors. There’s a new site inside the Fort de Copacabana, which shows off beautiful views of the beach – but there’s no beating the elegant original.

Churrascaria Palace

Brazil is known for its sizzling Churrascaria, meaning ‘barbecue’, and Churrascaria Palace is the perfect place to experience this. Located right next to the landmark Copacabana Palace, the set-up here is buffet style, so you can help yourself to salads and sides and then high-quality, piping-hot meat is carved right in front of you. It’s all-you-can-eat, so the meat will keep on coming until you can take no more – order a few caipirinhas or Brahma beers and you could be feasting all night.

Zazá Bistrô Tropical

The colourful and quirky Zazá Bistrô Tropical offers South American dishes with an Asian twist – think pork rib samosas and tapioca crepes. Set in a converted colonial-style house, it boasts an outdoor veranda running alongside the trendy Ipanema streets. Not only are the dishes tasty, using organic ingredients where possible for real freshness and flavour, but they’re beautifully presented – worthy of an Instagram post or two.

Zazá Bistrô Tropical, Ipanema. Image courtesy of Zazá Bistrô Tropical

Bar do Mineiro

For an old-school boteco that serves up traditional feijoada (bean-and-meat stew served with rice), there’s no place better than Bar do Mineiro, located in the bohemian Santa Teresa hills. The food is simple but delicious, and there are some seriously strong caipirinha’s to wash it all down. You’ll get a real buzz from the lively atmosphere too, with people spilling onto the streets drinking and chatting. It’s such a popular place that locals travel from around Rio and the surrounds to savour the food and fizzing ambience – it’s not one to be missed.

Garota de Ipanema

For anyone familiar with the Brazilian Bossa Nova jazz tune “The Girl from Ipanema”, the former bar where the composers frequented, Garota de Ipanema, offers the perfect laid-back setting for lunch. Take a short stroll from the shores and you’ll find the semi-alfresco corner spot sitting charmingly. Expect large portions of traditional, basic Brazilian fare – like Filet Mignon – as well as good Brazilian beers and service that is friendly and attentive. The restaurant kind of serves as a shrine to the song, so it can be busy in high-season, but the chilled vibe and simple yet tasty dishes make it a worthy hang-out.

Espírito Santa

Espírito Santa is a real gem and firm dining favourite of the Santa Teresa neighbourhood. Set in a charming 19th-century mansion just along from the bustle of the main Largo do Guimaraes square, it serves up expertly prepared Brazilian food with an Amazonian flair, focusing on top-class meat and fish dishes. The best seats are out on the intimate al fresco terrace, and with a great selection of wines and unusual cocktails to help wash it all down, you’re all set for an evening of culinary excellence.

Where to drink

Sobe Bar at Jardim Botânico

Located amidst the tropical haven of Jardim Botânico, this mansion-turned-bar provides a charming informal setting for a lychee Caipirinha or Bourbon Bloody Mary. From the street, you wouldn’t know this trendy spot existed, but walk through the weathered arched doorway and up a set of steps and you’re met with a roof terrace, adorned with plenty of fairy lights and bright colours – not to mention a backdrop of luscious palm trees and Christ the Redeemer. Pair all of that with sessions from some of Rio’s coolest DJs, and this al fresco treasure sets a stylish scene for a laid-back evening of fun.

Sobe Bar, Jardim Botânico. Image courtesy of Sobe Bar


Deck Bar at Pestana Rio Atlântica

Deck Bar at Pestana Rio Atlântica is a lively yet sophisticated pool bar overlooking the famous Copacabana shores. When you’re not sipping a drink and watching beachgoers stroll by, soak up the Sugarloaf Mountain views. As the sun sets, the laid-back vibe slips away and a more glamorous atmosphere takes over, with a live DJ playing tunes against a backdrop of twinkling city views.

Riba Bar

Rio’s bohemian vibes are still very present throughout the city, and Riba Bar is the perfect example of modern meets old-school boteco. Inspired by the carioca way of life, this semi-al fresco joint has an informal vibe that’s perfect for chilled-out drinks or an artisanal bite to eat – their sandwiches are a particular highlight. Situated between Ipanema and Leblon, it’s on the corner of a trendy street, with plenty of pavement tables for a typically vibrant carioca atmosphere.

Canastra Bar

Canastra Bar is a hidden gem that sits unassumingly on a side street in Ipanema. Set up by three French men, this unpretentious joint is laid-back and friendly, boasting European flare that’s unique amongst the traditional Brazilian places. It offers everything from cheeses and charcuterie platters to reasonably priced wine and plenty of beer; pull up a seat at one of the tables scattered along the sidewalk and admire this trendy neighbourhood from a different perspective.

Explorer Cocktail Bar

For delicious, picture-worthy cocktails in a relaxed environment, head to the hills of Santa Teresa. Explorer Cocktail Bar sits in a beautifully restored colonial mansion elevated above Rua Almirante Alexandrino, just a short amble from the neighbourhood’s main square. The bar’s outdoor terrace has several levels, complete with intimate seating areas and ambient lighting. It’s the perfect spot for couples or a group of friends looking for a post-dinner tipple.

Explorer Bar, Santa Teresa. Image courtesy of Explorer Bar

Where to samba

Pedra do Sal

Every Monday, the sacred birthplace of samba, Saúde, hosts a street party like no other – Pedra do Sal. Celebrations go on into the early hours, with Cariocas playing live traditional samba music while crowds of people dance and sing up and down the Pedra. The outdoor setting creates an energetic atmosphere, bringing together locals and tourists, rich and poor – every samba lover in the city. While you’re enjoying the vibe, take in the neighbourhood’s long history, which is most evident from the run-down yet beautiful neoclassical architecture.

Rio Scenarium

Rio Scenarium is the number one club in Rio, and one of the top 10 clubs in the world. Located in the downtown Lapa district, this three-storey techno-free zone will treat you to the hypnotic rhythms of live samba forró and gafieira, with the cream of Brazil’s musicians playing here. It’s lavishly decorated with antiques, film props and other historic artefacts, so it’s almost like you’re sambaing in a living museum. There’s a modest stage on the ground floor, with a large surrounding dancefloor for those wanting to get right in on the action. If you’re keen to just sit back and soak up the atmosphere, there’s a restaurant serving everything from Argentinian steak to fresh seafood, with a delectable Latin American wine list to complement the flavours.

Where to shop

Q Chocolate

Q Chocolate is a small chocolatier in Ipanema created by the Aquim family, famous for their gastronomy services throughout Rio. They create the purest chocolate possible – there’s no milk and very little sugar, with grades ranging from 55% to 85%. The shop hosts private chocolate tastings, where you not only get to try the good stuff, but learn about how and where the cacao beans are sourced, including what makes Q the highest quality chocolate. The store also houses a small café where you can treat yourself to coffee and chocolate. The chocolate packaging is so pretty – almost too pretty to open!

Q Chocolate, Ipanema. Image courtesy of Q Chocolate

Feira da Glória

On a lazy Sunday morning, head over to Feira da Glória – a colourful food market brimming with all kinds of fresh, organic produce and sweet treats. You can expect everything from exotic fruits, vegetables and spices to fish, seafood and cheese. There are also street food stands serving up traditional tapiocas (crepe-like pancakes made from manioc flour) and pastels (light, crispy deep-fried pastry, filled with cheese or meat), as well as Caldo de Cana (sugarcane juice) and cachaça alcohol. There’s a vibrant ambience, with friendly vendors and residents joining together in the name of tasty produce.

Santa Teresa

The bohemian hillside neighbourhood of Santa Teresa was once the creative art hub of the city, and today it still retains much of this artsy vibe. The cobbled streets are lined with independent shops, art galleries and artist workshops, selling everything from locally-produced crafts and hand-made traditional souvenirs to canvas oil paintings and watercolour prints. There are also a couple of vintage-inspired clothes shops for the style-conscious retro fiends out there. And if you time it right, you may catch a glimpse of the iconic yellow tram Santa Teresa is known for. There’s also a charming indie cinema right in the centre if you fancy catching a film.

Where to stay

Casa Marques, Santa Teresa

If you’re after a stay with spectacular views, look no further than the all-suites boutique hideaway Casa Marques, situated in the artsy hills of the city. Built on the foundations of a colonial mansion, this hotel is a low-key, high-style oasis that fuses tradition with modern urban life. There’s a stylish, creative vibe throughout the hotel, with artwork by local graphic designers and street artists (including renowned Carioca artist Toz) adorning the walls. And those irresistible views we mentioned? They’re most apparent from the panoramic rooftop pool deck, where sweeping views of Sugarloaf Mountain, Guanabara Bay and beyond are visible, not to mention Christ the Redeemer. Or if you’d rather ogle the vistas from the comfort of your design-led suite, you’re in for a treat, especially during sunrise and sunset.

Casa Marques, Santa Teresa. Image courtesy of Casa Marques

Fasano

Fasano brings celebrity treatment and world-class service alongside a touch of contemporary cool to trendy Ipanema. Its chic signature style is a fusion of Philippe Starck’s original 50s Bosa Nova décor and sophisticated Italian-Brazilian Noughties elegance. Understated luxury and a prime position in the affluent heart of Zona Sul – just a short stroll from the beach – aren’t the only things the hotel boasts. Further thrills include guestrooms with oceanfront balconies, a restaurant serving up inspired seafood suppers, and a marble rooftop infinity pool and bar, with outstanding views spanning the iconic rocks of Arpoador, golden sands of Ipanema and the Dois Irmãos mountains. It’s no wonder it attracts the Giseles and Alessandra Ambrosios of the city, not to mention David Beckham and Beyoncé.

Casa Mosquito

Rio’s first beachside boutique hotel, Casa Mosquito is a place where style, design and comfort all meet seamlessly. Sitting in the cobblestone hills between Copacabana and Ipanema, the restored colonial mansion hotel offers a home-from-home vibe and is central yet secluded, providing a real haven of tranquillity amidst the bustle of Brazil’s favourite city. Edgy yet elegant, sophisticated yet relaxed, this hotel boasts a rooftop infinity-edged pool and bar (the backdrop for many a fashion photoshoot), and a beautiful veranda with glorious views of Copacabana and Ipanema beach. You can expect a modern sense of glamour while still retaining traditional elements and old-world Brazilian charm, from tropical print fabrics to old paintings of Rio. The hotel often hosts pool parties, weekend DJs and live music on select days.

Rio de Janeiro. Image: iStock/Yuri de Mesquita Bar

First time to Rio de Janeiro? Here are a few handy things to know:

  1. The best time to go is during Brazil’s summer months, from December to March. The hottest months are December and January, with temperatures soaring to 40 degrees. February and March are a little cooler but still hot, reaching temperatures of 30 degrees on the hottest days.
  2. Many favelas have been pacified and maintain a strong police presence, with Santa Marta, Vidigal and Rocinha seeing a regular stream of people touring though their communities. If you decide to do a favela tour, make sure it’s an organised one and during the day – don’t go wandering through a favela by yourself or after dark. There are police cars and huts sprinkled around the city, so you’re never too far from an officer.
  3. The waves on Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches are quite aggressive, with red flags lining the sands as a warning. Be mindful or else they’ll wash you out – if you dare go in further than ankle depth, expect the lifeguards to blow their whistles.
  4. Buses are 3.80 Brazilian real, which is roughly £1. Taxis aren’t too expensive and are much safer, quicker and easier to navigate than public transport. For example, a six-mile journey from Santa Teresa to Copacabana costs between 20-40 Brazilian Real (depending on traffic), which is roughly £5-£8. Uber works pretty well and is cheaper than a taxi, but won’t pick up certain locations and you’ll need Internet access.

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