By: Regis St. Louis
Editors’ Note: The World Cup begins on June 12, 2014 and Rio is set to see a huge influx of travelers and fans. Clearly the games are the main attraction, but any self-respecting traveler will want to get in a few of Rio’s iconic sights in the spare moments between games. Here, Lonely Planet Rio de Janeiro author and Brooklyn-based writer Regis St. Louis shares his picks for what you can’t miss, no matter your devotion to the game.
– Home to pounding samba rhythms, gorgeous beaches and rainforest-covered mountains, Rio de Janeiro offers tantalizing ways to discover the city. While there’s much to do here, don’t miss these classic Rio experiences, which entail everything from the best places to watch a sunset to the most memorable settings for Rio’s favorite feast, feijoada. Heart-pounding futebol (soccer) matches, mesmerizing Carnaval parades, and soaring adventures over the tropical landscape: just a few ways to experience the so-called cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city). Read my guide, at left, for the complete list.
Escadaria de Selarón
The late Chilean artist Jorge Selarón spent the last 23 years of his life working on this mesmerizing installation — a vibrant mosaic-covered stairway that connects Lapa with the hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Using tiles from all over the world, Selaron created a ceramic tapestry in bold colors that celebrates his adopted homeland and the bohemian spirit of his artistry. You’ll see lots of greens, yellows and blues (the color of the Brazilian flag) on the steps, as well as shimmering red tiles that frame the stairway, and lots of eye-catching works (street characters, landscapes) by the artist.
Although Rio’s beaches hog all the attention when it comes to waterside amusement, lovely Lagoa is a magical place for a sundowner. Located behind Ipanema and Leblon, this saltwater lagoon has a shoreline dotted with outdoor restaurants and cafes that come to life late in the day. Palaphita Kitch is my favorite go-to spot for tropical cocktails (made from exotic fruits of the Amazon) and an outdoor setting along the lakeside with unrivaled views of the mountainous landscape to the west.
Ponta do Arpoador
The narrow beach on the western end of Ipanema is known as Arpoador. Follow this to the end, then walk out on the rocky outcropping (called Ponto de Arpoador) framing one end of the beach for one of the best places in Rio to watch the sunset. Here you’ll find couples, surfers unwinding after a day in the waves, and the odd fishermen, all enjoying the sweeping view across Ipanema and Leblon beaches, to the distant peaks of Dois Irmãos, with the sun sinking just beyond them. Go early, order an agua de coco (coconut water) at one of the kiosks nearby and get ready for one of Rio’s finest free amusements.
Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar)
One thing every visitor to Rio should see is Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), or more specifically, the view from atop this 395-meter-high peak. Staring out over the city, with a cocktail in hand (there’s a well-sited drink stand on the summit), you’d have a hard time imagining a more stunning urban landscape anywhere in the world. The two-stage aerial cable car up to the top adds to the magic, though for those who’d like a more intense workout, you can also climb your way to the top (it’s not as steep on the backside), with a reputable adventure outfit like Crux EcoAventura.
With dozens of picturesque beaches within reach, Cariocas (Rio locals) are spoiled for choice when it comes to fine sands. Ipanema, though, has long been one of the city’s most enticing praias. There’s endless amusement on the sands, from waterside jogs to volleyball games, or the more leisurely pursuit of sunbathing and people-watching. A few strategies for the beach: don’t take anything of value to the beach (just enough cash for the day). Don’t bother bringing a picnic or drinks. There are roaming food and drink vendors and barracas (beach stands) where you can hire chairs and umbrellas and eat something more substantial (like Urugai, near Post 9, which whips up delicious grilled-chicken sandwiches).