Things I Like to See and Do in Rio: A Personal Guide
If you’re coming to the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016 – the first time the events will be held in South America – check out my personal suggestions for what to see and do in the “Marvelous City” (Cidade Maravilhosa), as we call it. Why would I be more qualified than, say, Lonely Planet to give you tips about Rio? No special reason, except that I happen to be Brazilian and I love the city. So read my comments below, but don’t forget to complement them with the travel guide of your choice. It’s bound to give you more detailed information anyway.
Along with New York, London and Olinda, Rio features among my favorite cities in the world. I visit Rio often and feel totally at home there. It’s located only 600 km from São Paulo, where I live. Rio was founded by the Portuguese in 1565 and was the capital of the country from its independence in 1822 until 1960, when the capital was transferred to the most central city of Brasilia. Today, Rio is the second largest city in Brazil, after São Paulo, with a population of about seven million. Despite the huge population, amid the warmth and friendliness of its people, the Cariocas, you’ll hardly feel out of place there.
There isn’t much space in this blog post for me to list all the places you should visit and all the things you could do in Rio, but I’m sure there will be other opportunities to discuss more options as we approach the Games. So here’s a first look at cool things to do in Rio.
I love the beach. Sunbathing, people-watching and having açaí smoothies on Ipanema Beach are among my favorite Rio pleasures. If you’re like me and need to spend at least a couple of hours near the water every day, I suggest you reserve your afternoons for trips to the beach. If you can stay there until the end of the day, you’ll be able to enjoy one of the most famous sunsets in the country. Sit on Pedra do Arpoador, a huge rock jutting out into the sea, separating Ipanema from Copacabana Beach. You’ll join a crowd of silent worshippers, who respectfully watch the sun sink like a ball of fire into the sea and then burst into applause. It happens almost every day – when it’s not cloudy – but the Cariocas never tire of doing this.
Tijuca National Park
Keep the mornings, which are cooler, for walking or hiking. (Remember that, although the Rio Games are Summer Olympics, they’ll take place in August, at the end of the winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so temperatures are bound to be milder anyway.) I would visit the tourist spots or simply go for long walks or hikes in Tijuca National Park, which boasts the largest urban rainforest on the planet, with an area of 32 km2, home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna. One interesting fact about the forest is that it’s artificial. Tijuca National Park is divided into three areas: the forest itself, Corcovado Mountain and the C sector, a range of mountains including Pedra da Gávea (Gávea Rock, a granite dome of 842m standing near the sea), Pedra Bonita, Cochrane and the Two Brothers.
At the top of Corcovado, which rises 710 m above sea level, stands the 38 m statue of Christ the Redeemer, watching over the city with outstretched arms (but He doesn’t always offer protection against muggers, so be careful!). The statue was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. From the mountaintop, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the city, but make sure you go up there on a clear day, otherwise, you may not see the views at their best. The nicest way to get up there is by taking the red tram from the stop in the Cosme Velho neighborhood. On the way up, you’ll be able to enjoy unique views of the Tijuca Forest. Get your camera ready!
If you’re into more extreme activities, you can take a hike up a trail to the top of Pedra da Gávea or go hang gliding from the top of Pedra Bonita, an experience that will make you regret not having been born a Brazilian bird. Hang Gliding in Rio tours will include photos and video footage in the package, so you’ll have a detailed record of this special adventure to show off to your friends back home.
Friday evenings are the right time to visit Lapa, the bohemian neighborhood of the city, where you’ll be able to dance to the beat of samba and flirt with the good-looking Brazilians who flood the astonishing number of bars, nightclubs and live-music venues. Lapa is located downtown, right below the formidable old city aqueduct called Arcos da Lapa.
Evenings are also the time to explore some of the great restaurants in the city, offering wonderful – but expensive! – Brazilian cuisine. One of these great restaurants is located in hilly Santa Teresa, not far from Lapa. Dating from colonial times, Santa Teresa is the most typical historic neighborhood of Rio. Walking along its cobblestone streets, you’ll be fascinated by the sidewalk mosaics and admire the beautiful period houses and mansions, which have been converted into art galleries, shops and restaurants. The restaurant I particularly recommend in this part of town is called Espírito Santa. It serves delicious Brazilian food with Amazonian roots. It’s a bit pricey, though!
The famous site of Sugarloaf Mountain, a must-see attraction, involves a visit in two stages. As you go up in the cable car from the Praia Vermelha stop, in the residential neighborhood of Urca, you’ll stop first at Morro da Urca; in every direction you look, you’ll get a different and dazzling view of the city below. Then you’ll take the second cable car to the higher stop, the top of Sugarloaf Mountain itself. The experience, on a clear day, will take your breath away, such is the beauty and variety of the panoramic views stretching all around you. You may have watched the animated movie Rio; believe me, the real thing is not much different. If anything, it’s even more enthralling. Note: When you stop at Morro da Urca, you have the option to take a helicopter ride (with different choices of routes) around Rio. It’s an unforgettable (but expensive!) experience.
Pista Claudio Coutinho
Last but not least, as you come down from Sugarloaf Mountain, ask for the entrance to the Claudio Coutinho Trail (or path), a well-kept secret among the locals. It’s a beautiful, quiet 1.2 km trail that starts at the bottom of Sugarloaf and rises gently around it up to a certain point. It’s paved and surrounded by forest, showing you sides of Sugarloaf not usually seen in postcards. You’ll also enjoy views of Praia Vermelha and the sea, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see lots of marmosets (cute little unaggressive monkeys) as you stroll along. Your camera won’t stop clicking!
Watch this space for more tips on visiting Rio as the Olympic Games approach.