By Karen Austin
Just mentioning the name Rio de Janeiro
conjures up romantic images of the Pão de Aucar and Corcovado, the beautiful bodies of Ipanema and Copacabana, the samba schools of Carnival, and the football fans that cram into Maracana stadium and almost bring the place down every time there is a game. And while Rio does have all these things, it is also much much more. Beyond the classic attractions are nooks and crannies and hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. The following list of attractions is a good start, but once you&rsquot;ve mastered the basics, make sure to ask the locals where they hang out, and discover the Rio beyond the guide!
First, places you shouldn&rsquot;t miss:Corcovado – Touristy? Yes. Necessary? Yes. Unless you hit a completely cloudless stretch, it’s hard to plan when exactly to head up Corcovado since the summit is often hidden by one stubborn cloud. The best strategy is to loosely plan your day and then head up if the weather is nice (i.e.: the cloud is gone) or reschedule if the view looks questionable. You can go up by taxi or by cogwheel train. The train is nicer as it passes through the forest and a taxi charges the same price per person as the train anyway. Take a cab only if you are pressed for time or the wait time for the train is too long. Near the train station is a Naãve Art gallery, which is worth a stop on the way back.Pão de Aucar – Everyone asks which view is better, from Corcovado or the Pão de Aucar. My personal opinion (please don’t tell the Tourism Bureau) is that if you can really truly only do one of the two, then choose Corcovado as the view looks out towards the bay and is particularly stunning (this picture of Pão was taking from Corcovado). On the other hand, if you are in Rio for work and are only free in the evenings, then head up the Pão de Aucar (the only one of the two open at night) and marvel at the inward looking view and all the twinkling lights of the city. Of course, the optimal choice is to head up Corcovado during the day and then go to the Pão de Aucar just before sunset. This way, you can enjoy the view in the daylight as well as at night.São Francisco da Penitencia – Ever wonder where all the gold in the world ended up? Obviously, it didn’t all end up in this church (the rest is spread out in several other Brazilian churches in Salvador, Ouro Preto and Recife), but, by golly a lot of it did. São Francisco da Penitencia was built between 1653 and 1773 and is a stunning example of Brazilian baroque. Have a seat, be overwhelmed, and wonder what São Francisco, a saint dedicated to a life of poverty, thinks (Carioca Metro Station).Confeitaria Colombo – Confeitaria Colombo was the where’s where of the who’s who in turn of the century (XIX) in Rio. Head there either for lunch or high tea and imagine what life in upper crust Rio used to be like (Carioca Metro Station).Taking a Walk/Jog/Stroll on Ipanema and Copacabana – Rio is about the beach, so take a walk, stroll or jog along two of the city’s most famous stretches. Stop for a refreshing agua de coco or cerveja gelada and enjoy people-watching. Sundays are particularly animated when one half of the boulevard is closed to traffic and the Hippy Fair is in full swing on Praa General Osório.Eating – Rio has some pretty good eateries, so grab a copy of the Quatro Rodas guidebook or a copy of the Rio insert of Veja and enjoy a night of culinary delight – for all tastes and budgets. A particularly fun location is the top floor of Shopping Botafogo, overlooking Botafogo Bay and the Pão de Aucar. Nestled in on the eighth floor is a Japanese restaurant, an Italian cantina, and a rooftop pub – all good choices for gazing over the twinkling lights of the bay (Metro Botafogo).Catching a Show – There is always something going on in Rio, so check the weekly entertainment guide in Veja and catch a concert or show. You never know who will be putting in an intimate performance in one of the city’s locales. Otherwise, just pop into a bar or botequim and catch a local act.
Secondly, places worth visiting:Museum of the Republic – Housed in the former presidential palace, the Museu da Republica and its gardens are worth a visit even if Getulio Vargas&rsquot; bedroom, bloodied pyjamas and single bullet on display are slightly on the macabre side (Catete Metro Station).Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas – Tired of the beach? Head to the peaceful Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in/behind Ipanema and go for a jog or stroll on the 7.2km pathway. At night the lagoon-side bars open making for a nice (if bizarrely isolated from reality) spot for a drink.Shopping in Ipanema – Ipanema and Leblon are the premier neighbourhoods in Rio and boutiques and cafes are chock-a-block on Rua Visconde de Piraja and its cross streets. Enjoy an afternoon of window (or real!) shopping.A Garota de Ipanema – Yeah, it’s touristy, slightly overpriced, and the career waiters seem to have an extra dose of surliness, but the Girl from Ipanema bar where Tom Jobim and Vincius de Moraes spent their days penning their music, is still worth a post-beach stop for a beer and petiscos.
Thirdly, places worth visiting if you have time:São Bento Monastery – Slightly off the beaten track, the Mosteiro de São Bento is another site that ended up being a repository for colonial Brazil’s gold overload. Sunday mass comes replete with Gregorian Chants by the Benedictine monks that run the place. To get there, take the elevator at 40, rua Dom Geraldo to the fifth floor.Candelria – Built between 1775 and 1898 on the site of Rio’s first church, Nossa Senhora da Candelria is an island of calm in a sea of traffic. It is also the spot where a group of off-duty plain-clothes police open fired on a group of sleeping street children in 1993, killing eight of them. Simple painted bodylines offer commemoration to the young lives lost. (Metro Uruguiana)
Nossa Senhora da Glória – another colonial gem with beautiful white and blue Portuguese tiles, Nossa Senhora da Glória was one of the royal family’s favourites during their days in Rio. (Metro Glória)Museums – Rio has tons of museums, many of which are worth a peek: the National Historical Museum (particularly if you are interested in learning more about Brazil&rsquot;s monarchy), the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art to name just a few.Botanical Gardens – Rio’s botanical gardens were founded by Prince Regent Dom João in 1808 in his attempt to Euro-ise Rio. The gardens house over 8,000 species of plants and trees, including a pavilion dedicated to orchids.Floresta da Tijuca – One the world’s largest urban parks, the Floresta da Tijuca is 120 km of Atlantic Rainforest, nestled in the middle of the city. The Visitors’ Centre organizes free hikes and excursions at a variety of levels of ease or difficulty. You won’t even be able to imagine that you are surrounded by a metropolis of eight million people!
Nice to visit, but be careful:Santa Teresa – The bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa is perched on a hill overlooking Rio’s Baia de Guanabara. Formerly home to Rio’s elite, Santa Teresa is now home to ateliers, restaurants, cafs, and a couple of museums. Accessible by Rio’s famous streetcar or bonde (right), Santa Teresa is also infamous for high levels of assaults and robberies. If you go, do not take anything of worth, carry only your cash for the day, and stick to the beaten track, no matter how enticing and safe the side streets look.
And places to forget:A Orla Noite – No matter how romantic it sounds, do not walk on any of Rio’s beaches past sundown. The side/boardwalk is fine. The sand is not.O Centro no Domingo – Rio’s city centre, like most city centres in Latin America, is a place of business and commerce. On Saturdays and especially on Sundays, when businesses are closed, the centre becomes a lonely and isolated place. Best to keep visits to this part of town for weekdays only.Rio: Same City, Worlds Apart.Karen Austin has been living in Brazil since 2004 and is currently based in Recife.