Adventure Awaits, Brazil, South America

The Rio Lowdown

By Monique Vanni | New: Check out Monique’s Brazil Travel Collections!

Brazil is booming. Rio is blooming. The most beautiful place on earth has been scrubbed clean, and the rough diamond of the tropics is reborn a gleaming, extravagant gem. The beaches are clean, the streets are safe, and the tourists are pouring in.

The world’s most famous beach, Copacabana.
Photo by lazslo-photo/Flickr

No matter how many photos of Rio you’ve seen, you’ll only really appreciate how beautiful the city is once you get here, and you take in the full 360 degrees, the succession of white sandy beaches cutting up the Guanabara Bay, the city wedged in between the ocean and the forested hills, that luminosity. I strongly recommend climbing up the “bondinho“, and catching the view from the Sugar Loaf as soon as you arrive. After, head to the fisherman’s village that lies beneath the sugar loaf, and head straight to Bar Urca, for some of the best bar snacks in town. The bolinho de bacalhau, a potato and cod fritter, is famous.

Her name was Lola….and there you have it. Copacabana is probably the most famous beach on earth. In reality, though the beach is still gorgeous, the neighbourhood has seen better days. It’s now the refuge of retirees, trannies, and, well, gringos. I much recommend staying in another, less dodgy part of town. Ultimately, Ipanema, its posher younger sister, is a much better option. Here, you’ll be safer walking around, there’s a ton of hotels, restaurants, and some of the best shopping in town (Osklen does the best “urban chic surfwear” in the World, you’ll blend right in). For dinner, Zaza Bistrôt is a classic, local favourite. For a more informal vibe, you can head to, well, Informal.

The best thing to do in Rio? That’s obvious. The beaches are spectacular. You can lay on the sand, take a dip in the ocean, people watch, without ever getting bored. There’s a constant bustle of vendors, hawking everything from biscuits, iced tea, to pareos, jewellery, newspapers. You can hire a beach chair and a parasol from the “barracas” peppered along the beaches.

The place to see and be seen on the beach in Rio is next to “Posto 9″ in Ipanema. At Arpoador, between Ipanema and Copacabana, you can easily rent a bike and ride on the cycle paths along the beach all the way from Ipanema to Leblon. The more adventurous can grab a surfboard, plenty of lifeguards on call… If you want a more secluded beach hangout, head to Joatinga, it’s incredibly peaceful, and right in the heart of town. Or you can go all the way across Barra, to Prainha, a classic surf point.

Prainha, a popular surf point.
Photo by jlrsousa/Flickr

But Rio is a vibrant, lively town, and there are a ton of other things to do. If you get bored, or sunburned, you can leave the beach alone for a day and check out some culture. I really like the Parque da Laje, a beautiful park around a colonial mansion built in the heyday by a local millionaire for his opera diva wife. The mansion now houses a design school, and there’s also great exhibition space on site.

From there, it’s a quick stroll to the Botanical Garden, Tom Jobim’s hangout of choice, with beautiful native species, and centenary palm trees. Nearby is the “Baixo Gávea” region, whose bars fill up from the late afternoon into the night, spilling out into the sidewalk. A typical carioca night out.

Another great option is to get on the bridge to the adjacent Niteroi, where there is a stunning contemporary art museum called MAC, created by Niemeyer that looks like a spaceship and hosts some cool exhibitions. Niteroi also has beautiful beaches, like Itacoatiara, a surfer paradise.

Museu de Arte Contemporanea (MAC)
Photo by Eduardo Pelosi/Flickr

For more great art spaces, there is also the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, in the old city centre. This part of town is getting a facelift in time for the Olympics, and hopefully it will turn out more Angelina than Joan Rivers. There’s some nice strolling around to do in the region, and the traditional “Confeitaria Colombo” is a great place to stop for a cup of coffee and something sweet.

Confeitaria Colombo
Photo by rbrands/Flickr

Near the old centre are the famous Lapa arches, around which a whole new “scene” has sprouted, with bars with live samba heating up the area. You can take the tram up to Santa Theresa, a hilly bit of town with great views and an artsy vibe, with little ateliers and, well, more bars.

For shopping and eating out, there’s also the upmarket Leblon neighbourhood, with classic restaurants like Carlota and Sushi Leblon, and some of the best bar snacks in the World, at Bracarense… Ahem, yes, bars, bar snacks, a lot of that going on in Rio, I hope you won’t object….

Wear sunscreen, don’t wave your camera around, and enjoy the sunshine. This is the holiday of a lifetime.


Quite the world citizen, Monique Vanni is an international environmental consultant, with a diplomatic background. She’s also a PHD candidate at LSE’s Department of Social Policy, an ashtanga yoga practitioner, likes the odd life drawing class. A bit of a rambling nutter, always chasing the perfect meal and the killer sunset.

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