Brazil’s brashest city will sweep you off your feet with its natural beauty, endless beaches and effervescent locals – especially if you share their passion for samba and football. Huw Hennessy helps you join the party
Blessed with a breathtaking natural setting and balmy climate, Rio is a city devoted to good times. With much of their life revolving around the beach, Rio’s residents – Cariocas – make the most of their idyllic surroundings.
Theirs is also a busy working city of seven million inhabitants, and perhaps nowhere else in Brazil illustrates its wealth gap so starkly. As Ipanema’s jetset sip cocktails on roof terraces, lights twinkle across the bay from some of the city’s 800-plus favelas. About 20% of the population lives in these shantytowns, where life is harsh and harassed by violent drug-fuelled gangs. Most of the time, rich and poor coexist peacefully in all of Rio’s neighbourhoods, but crime is a problem: be alert for pickpockets and bag-snatchers, especially in crowds.
Come to Rio with plenty of energy – the 24/7 pace of life is demanding, from early morning hikes in tropical forests to all-night dancing in samba clubs. Just as well, then, that there are gorgeous, sandy beaches to relax on after your exertions. Dress down as the locals do. Learn some Portuguese; just a few words will help you make friends – and possibly avoid unwanted attention. When you plan, allow a day or two to take it easy and acclimatise to the sub-tropics.
And if you have come for the Olympic Games, don’t be too daunted by all the bad news, warning of political protests, the Zika virus and contaminated water supplies. Throughout Rio’s long and sometimes turbulent history, its residents have learned to roll - or rather samba - with the ups and downs. However hard the problems they have to face, Cariocas can be relied on to party even harder.
Read Ruy Castro’s Rio de Janeiro – Carnaval Under Fire (Bloomsbury) for a Carioca’s witty insights into his beloved city, and for deeper analysis of the living city behind the bikini-clad stereotype image seek out Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City, an excellent new book by former government minister Luiz Eduardo Suares. Rough Guides’ Music of Brazil: Rio de Janeiro is an excellent primer, with selections of samba, bossa nova, choro and carioca funk.
A Carioca woman waves the Brazilian flag (Dreamstime).
Antonio Carlos Jobim International (also known as Galeão, its former name) is 20km north of the city. There are usually long queues at immigration, giving you time to fill in the entry forms handed out on the plane.
In the arrivals lounge there are several banks and bureaux de change/câmbios, where you can buy Brazilian Reais with US$ cash, debit or credit cards. The exchange rate at the airport is not very good, though, so if you can, get enough Reais before you leave home, to keep you going until you get in to the city.
There is a Riotur info desk; ask for the useful Guia do Rio guide, available in English and Portuguese, with maps and What’s On listings. Hotel booking agencies also have desks, but you’re better off booking ahead online.
The cheapest option is the Real Auto bus (R$16/£3.70), which stops in the city centre and at major hotels in the Zona Sul beachside districts (including Flamengo, Copacabana and Ipanema). There’s a ticket desk in the arrivals lounge; departures are around every 30-40 minutes, 5.30am to midnight; journey time is approximately 45 minutes to Flamengo and one hour to Copacabana (often considerably longer during rush hours).
Take a taxi if you arrive late at night; buy a pre-paid ticket from the official Aerotaxi desk in the arrivals hall for the yellow-and-blue taxis that queue outside. The fare to Copacabana is about R$70 (£27). The trip into town passes the docks, now reborn as Porto Maravilha, part of the multi-billion Reais urban regeneration programme set up for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Long-distance coaches arrive at the Rodoviária Novo Rio bus station downtown; be very alert with your valuables here, especially after dark. Cruise liners also dock near the city centre, at Pier Mauá; again, this is a dodgy area to wander at night.
The best way to get around is on the Metrô, Rio’s subway system, which is cheap, efficient and air-conditioned. Single tickets cost around £1, though the Metrô Rio Card is much more convenient if you’re likely to be travelling around the city for a few days or more.
First, get a bird’s eye view of the city so you can piece together its layout by taking a morning ride up Corcovado, the hunchbacked mountain topped by the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue. A cog railway climbs from Cosme Velho station (R$68/£16 return; www.corcovado.com.br). From up here you can see the city spread out below. To the north is downtown, Santa Teresa and Lapa, the buzzing nightlife district; stretching west along the coast are Copacabana, Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca. Across the bay, linked by a 13km bridge, is the city of Niterói, with its modern art museum, MAC, a stunning ‘flying saucer’ design by Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s most famous modern architect.
Walk down from Corcovado through the rainforest to Paineiras station to catch the train back to Cosme Velho; it’s not far but it’s not lit up so avoid going after dark on your own. From here it’s a short taxi ride to one of Rio’s classic tearooms, Confeitaria Colombo, near the Cinelândia area of the city centre. Lunch in belle époque style among gilt-framed mirrors, chandeliers and polished brasswork.
Relax on the beach after lunch – take the Metrô to Botafogo from Cinelândia station, and then a short taxi ride to Praia Vermelha, an uncrowded little stretch of sand at the foot of Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf, above). From here you can hop on a cable car to the summit and spend a couple of hours soaking up the magnificent views – from the opposite direction to Corcovado on the horizon – then watch as the city lights up at nightfall, one of Rio’s greatest spectacles.
Copacabana and Ipanema’s many hotels are mostly high-end, while arty Santa Teresa has boutique hotels and B&Bs. Cama & Cafe has rooms in local artists’ homes and studios. The districts of Catete and Flamengo are backpackers’ haunts.
Top end: Fasano (Av Vieira Souto 80) Ipanema’s coolest and most luxurious hotel, designed by Philippe Starck in retro ‘50s and ‘60s style, has spectacular views from its rooftop infinity pool. Twin rooms from US$470 (£355), or suites from around US$1678 (£1269).
Mid-range: Copa Sul (Avenida NS Copacabana 1284) Modern 16-storey hotel one block from Copacabana beach; with muted but tastefully decorated rooms and good buffet breakfast. Doubles from US$73 (£55).
Budget: O Veleiro Rua Mundo Novo 1440 casa, Botafogo) Lovely B&B on a hillside overlooking Botafogo beachfront, with pool, tropical garden and great breakfast. Welcoming owners also run tours. Doubles from US$60 (£45).
Stay, no question – for a week if you can. Visit the MAC Modern Art Museum across the bay at Niterói (go via the bridge, return by ferry); take in a football match at the Maracanã or other new stadiums with expert expat guide Rob Shaw (email@example.com); hike or hang glide in Tijuca National Park (guided walks with Rio Hiking, or tandem hang gliding with Just Fly). Sip cocktails with Ipanema’s beautiful crowd at trendy Baretto-Londra in the Fasano Hotel; owner Rogério is an Anglophile, hence the Beatles album covers and giant Italianised Union Jack flag. Samba all night in Lapa, Rio’s hottest live music district. Browse Porto Maravilha, the brand new regenerated dockside area, with seafront boulevards, Rio Art Museum, shops and restaurants.
Rio de Janeiro state has some lovely spots within a few hours’ drive: west along the Costa Verde highway is Paraty, a historic fishing village; east on the Costa do Sol is Búzios, a chic beach resort. About 75km inland is Petrópolis, former summer residence of the Portuguese royals; further inland is the Vale do Café, a lush region of coffee plantations with grand old mansions from the colonial era.
Make the most of hotel buffet breakfasts, and eat your main meal at lunchtime – either at por kilo restaurants, where you pay by the weight of your food, or by having the prato feitos/executivo (set lunch), which is much cheaper than choosing á la carte.
Beware of pirate taxis at the international airport. Take only the licensed yellow-and-blue cabs. An increasing number of people have been held up by car-jackers on the way into town. Security has been massively tightened up in readiness for the Olympics, but use sensible precautions, such as leaving expensive jewellery behind if you’re out clubbing, and beware of spiked drinks in less salubrious bars.
Even if you don’t have tickets to the sports events, you can join in the fun for free at Rio 2016 Fest, offering live sports action on giant screens, as well as concerts, fireworks and other cultural activities. The best place to go is Porto Maravilha, the brand-new dockside area; or visit Parque Madureira for a more local experience in Zona Norte, an inland suburb.
Getting around the city should be easier too, with new metro-bus links to the main Olympic Village in Barra, and the new BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), with high-speed links on exclusive bus lanes.
Population: 7 million
Time: GMT-3 (Oct-Feb GMT-2)
International dialling code: +55 (21)
Visas: Not required by UK nationals; fill out a free immigration entry form on arrival, valid for up to 90 days
Money: Brazilian Real (R$), currently around R$4.30 to the UK£
Highest viewpoint: Pico da Tijuca (1,022m), in Tijuca National Park, is the city’s highest point, but the best view for finding your bearings is from the summit of Corcovado (710m).
Health issues: Tap water is drinkable but heavily treated; bottled water is inexpensive and preferable. Food is generally safe. No vaccinations are required, and Rio is malaria-free. There are occasional outbreaks of dengue fever and the Zika virus has caused worldwide concern, with particular risks to pregnant women. HIV and AIDS incidence is fairly high; use a camisinha (condom), widely available in pharmacies.
Travel guides: Rio de Janeiro Rough Guide – best e-book; Time Out Rio de Janeiro – best online listings; DK Rio de Janeiro Top 10, best compact guidebook for short visits.
Web resources: www.ipanema.com – best insider tips from a native-born Carioca; www.rioguiaoficial.com.br – the official guide of tourism authority Riotur is reliable and up to date.www.rioguiaoficial.com.br – the official guide of tourism authority Riotur is reliable and up to date.
iPhone app: Tripwolf – guide to Rio de Janeiro and region.
Climate: Rio is warm year round. It’s also humid, with rainfall possible any time, particularly October to March. Temperatures can reach mid to high 30s, and the sun is powerful so use high-factor block. The busiest season is from mid-December to late February, and at the Carnaval which takes place in cities across Brazil each year . The best time to come is March to May or August to October, when it’s less crowded and temperatures are most comfortable.