20 reasons to visit Rio de Janeiro

STEVE MCKENNA
Last updated 05:00 01/06/2013
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REUTERS/Pilar Olivares Zoom
"Drum Queen" Patricia Nery of the Portela samba school dances in the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome.

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1 It's the Marvellous City

On New Year's Day, 1502, Portuguese explorers sailed into what they thought was the mouth of a mighty river flowing from a chain of lush hills. They called it Rio de Janeiro (River of January) - though it turned out to be the giant Guanabara Bay. These days Rio is known as the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City). Despite problems with crime, traffic and poverty, it largely lives up to the hype thanks to its sublime natural setting and exuberant culture. Always exciting, Rio is buzzing more than ever as it gears up to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.

2 Copacabana

Teeming with sunbathers, volleyballers and footballers, Copacabana is Brazil's, and possibly the world's most famous beach. Sip a chopp (draught beer) or suco (fruit juice) from the alfresco bars lining its sand-hugging promenade and watch the vivid, scantily-dressed world go by. Across the road - the busy Avenida Atlantica - there's a row of high-rise hotels, including the whitewashed Copacabana Palace, a five-star pad that counts Mick Jagger, Elton John and Princess Diana among previous guests. Its poolside Pergula restaurant does a renowned Sunday brunch. copacabanapalace.com.

 3 Ipanema and Leblon

Many cariocas (Rio residents) prefer the other beaches in the city's Zona Sul (South Zone). Come weekends, the white sands of Ipanema and Leblon are crammed with tanned bodies and roving figures selling refreshments and souvenirs seared with the blue, green and yellow of Brazil. In the backstreets, chic bars and clubs shoulder hotels and restaurants and boutiques stocked with gemstone jewellery, Havaianas and teeny-weeny bikinis. The Garota de Ipanema store is run by Helo Pinheiro, the real-life Girl from Ipanema (garotadeipanemabrasil.com.br). It's next to the bar where the 1962 bossa nova classic was penned by Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. On Fridays, food and flower stalls cover Ipanema's Praca da Paz, while Sundays see a bric-a-brac "hippie" fair on Praca General Osorio.

4 Christ the Redeemer

Arms outstretched, the art deco statue of Christ crowns the Corcovado (Hunchback) hill. One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, it was built to commemorate the centenary of Brazil's independence celebrations in 1921. A cog train chugs up, though, like Sugarloaf, the views from the top are weather-dependent. If it's overcast, you'll be disappointed. On a clear day, however, you'll fill up your camera. corcovado.com.br.

5 Sugarloaf

Sugarloaf marks the point where Guanabara Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Pau-nh-Acqua (tall, isolated, pointy hill) to the indigenous Tupi tribes, this granite outcrop was Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf) to the Portuguese because it resembled the shape of the moulds used to set sugar cane during Brazil's 16th- and 17th-century sugar boom. Launched in 1912, a cable car transports sightseers to the 396-metre peak; bondinho.com.br. Queues swell in late afternoon as it's a wonderful spot for sunset. An alternative is Arpoador Rock, overlooking a popular surf area between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Sunsets are so good spectators often break into applause.

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6 Costa Verde

South-west of Rio, the gorgeous Costa Verde (Green Coast) is the ideal place to wind down after the excesses of the Marvellous City. Jungle-clad hills slope down to pristine beaches and peaceful seaside towns like Paraty, a colonial gem with photogenic Portuguese architecture and uneven cobblestone streets (hint: leave the high heels at your hotel). Offshore, Ilha Grande is a car-free tropical paradise with forested hiking paths, secluded coves and cosy pousadas (guesthouses).

7 Tijuca National Park

The Corcovado juts from the eastern tip of the world's largest urban forest. Tijuca Forest national park is criss-crossed with walking trails; some scaling lookout points via waterfalls and limestone caves; others delving into undergrowth sheltering monkeys, toucans and parakeets. While Tijuca's tranquillity is a draw, you can join guided eco treks with Rio Hiking (riohiking.com.br). Scenic tandem hang-glider flights over Rio launch from Tijuca's Pedra Bonita (Pretty Rock). It's $US169 ($168) for 15-30 minutes. riohanggliding.com.

8 Santa Teresa

A creative, arty vibe fuels Santa Teresa, a hill-top village of winding, cobbled streets and graceful old mansions - some decaying, others restored and home to bars, restaurants, galleries and antique shops. Sleepy on weekdays, it's livelier at weekends, when revellers buzz between the watering holes around Largo de Guimaraes. Getting to Santa Teresa used to be part of the fun. However, a fatal crash in 2011 derailed the old-fashioned tram (bondi). Take a bus, taxi or climb Escadaria Selaron staircase, a thigh-straining passage named after Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron, who has coated the 250 steps in colourful tiles, ceramics and mirrors.

9 Centro

Centro is often ignored by tourists, but beneath shiny skyscrapers and concrete flyovers, you'll find vestiges of Rio's colonial past, quirky modern architecture and some fine cultural spaces. Laced with pretty azulejos (tiles), Santo Antonio is the city's oldest church, while historic Praca XV is edged by handsome buildings once graced by Portuguese royalty. Close to another busy square, Cinelandia, Rio's gaudy municipal theatre showcases ballet and classical music and the national library has sumptuous interior design. The fine arts, modern art and national history museums are all worth seeking out. Ditto the palatial Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil for its superb revolving art exhibitions. Bustling on weekdays, Centro is eerily quiet - and more dangerous - on Sundays.

10 Carnival

A sensual, hips-and-booty-shaking melange, flaunting Afro-Brazilian influences, samba is the symbol of Carnival, a hedonistic week-long festival celebrated across the country, but nowhere more vigorously than Rio. Kicking off on the Friday before Ash Wednesday, Carnival sparks mass street processions, with floats carrying dancers in feather boas, lavish costumes and flamboyant tiaras amid a swirl of drum beats and pulsating crowds. Choreographed all-night parades from Rio's leading samba schools grace the Sambadrome. The best seats sell for $US2500. Accommodation rates can triple during Carnival. Even hostel dorm beds cost about $100 a night - if you can find a vacancy. rio-carnival.net.

11 The beautiful game

Competing with Catholicism as the religion of Brazil, football is beloved by Brazilians, rich and poor. If they're not playing it, they're watching it - either on TV or live. The Maracana, Rio's footballing cathedral, has been closed until recently for renovations, but the Olympic and Sao Januario stadiums host the often-fiery matches of club sides Flamengo, Botafogo, Vasco da Gama and Fluminense. Hotels arrange tickets - with hefty commissions - but you can usually pay at the gate.

12 Favelas

Brazil's booming economy has lifted millions out of poverty, but the country is still scarred by shanty towns (favelas). Most of Rio's nestle on hilltops. Despite a reputation for violence and social problems - depicted in the Oscar-nominated 2002 movie City of God - favela life isn't all bleak. Outsiders can get a glimpse on guided tours to Rocinha, Rio's largest favela. favelatour.com.br. A British-Brazilian-run B&B, the Maze Inn is perched on Tavares Bastos favela, overlooking the middle-class Catete district. It holds jazz nights and offers spellbinding verandah views. Doubles from 150 real ($74). jazzrio.com.

13 Lapa

The steps tumble down to the Arches of Lapa, a Roman-style aqueduct spanning one of Rio's most atmospheric neighbourhoods. Nicknamed the Montmartre of the Tropics, bohemian Lapa is a chilled-out place for a drink midweek - especially along pleasant Rua do Lavradio. On Fridays, it's raucous. Lapa's legendary street party sees tens of thousands of people dancing provocatively, drinking punchy caipirinhas (a jumble of crushed limes, ice, sugar and cachaca) and dipping in and out of bars and clubs booming samba and forro (accordion-driven sounds from north-eastern Brazil). The eclectically decorated Rio Scenarium seduces foreigners and cariocas alike. rioscenarium.com.br.

14 Vintage hangouts

Rio's social scene is fluid (check rioguiaoficial.com.br/en for new bar openings), but some establishments have been entertaining cariocas for decades. Founded in 1887 and 1921 respectively, Centro duo Bar Luiz (barluiz.com.br) and Amarelinho (amarelinhodacinelandia.com.br) serve ice-cold beer and tasty petiscos (tapas-style snacks). Belmonte is a Botafogo institution, with spin-offs around Rio (botecobelmonte.com.br). Copacabana's Bip ip (50 Rua Almirante Goncalves) has soulful live music and a colourful clientele, while Confeitaria Colombo (confeitariacolombo.com.br) is a vintage Centro coffeehouse with memorable desserts and caffeine hits in elegant 19th-century surrounds.

15 The food

Full of cosmopolitan dining, Rio also has heaps of churrascarias, barbecue restaurants grilling everything from hearty steaks to succulent shellfish. You usually pay by the kilo, though some places do all-you-can-eat buffets for 30-40 real. You'll find regional Brazilian fare, including the spicy African-flavoured food of Bahia, across Rio, plus feijoada. The national dish, this garlicky stew of meat, black beans and rice is traditionally eaten on Saturdays, though Ipanama's Casa da Feijoada serves it daily; 10 Rua Prudente de Morais.

16 Portuguese lessons

Despite Rio's popularity with overseas visitors, English isn't widely spoken outside the hotels, hostels and touristy quarters, so a little Portuguese helps. Similar to Spanish on paper, the pronunciation is very different. Rio de Janeiro, for example, is hay-o dee zhah-nay-roh. The currency - the real - is hay-al. Rio has dozens of language schools, with Portuguese lessons priced between 14 and 50 real an hour. Casa do Caminho (casadocaminho-languagecentre.org) and Bridge Brazil (bridgebrazil.com) get good reviews - and arrange homestays.

17 Buzios

Buzios is one of the treats of Rio de Janeiro state. About 170 kilometres north-east of Sugarloaf, it was a humble fishing village until the 1960s, when it was "discovered" by Brigitte Bardot. Now it's Brazil's classiest seaside resort, luring cruise ships and wealthy cariocas, who have holiday homes here. Buzios is much quieter - and charming - during the week, when its lovely beaches are often deserted.

18 Niteroi

A fleet of tourist boats offer leisurely voyages around Guanabara Bay. You can also board the regular ferry from Praca XI to Niteroi, a satellite city that's home to an eye-catching contemporary art museum. Crafted like a flying saucer, the MAC was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who created Brasilia, the purpose-built city that usurped Rio as Brazilian capital in 1960. It boasts Brazilian art, temporary exhibitions and terrific panoramic views of Rio. macniteroi.com.br.

19 Lagoa

A lagoon that filters into the Atlantic via an Ipanema canal, Lagoa is fringed by expensive real estate, gourmet eateries and exclusive new clubs like Miroir (miroirclub.com.br), while its eight-kilometre waterfront pathway welcomes fitness freaks, dog-walkers and arm-in-arm couples. East of Lagoa, the quaint barrio of Humaita is home to Cobal do Humaita, a fresh food market and happening nightspot. To the west, affluent Gavea has upscale shopping malls and the Jockey Club (Rio's prime horse racing track). Close by, Jardim Botanico is strewn with exotic plants and neck-craning palm trees.

20 Flamengo Park

Part-designed by Roberto Burle Marx, the architect responsible for Copacabana's iconic wave-patterned pavements, this lovely park nudges the once-elite beachside suburbs of Flamengo and Botafogo. Running tracks - pounded by rollerbladers, skateboarders, joggers, cyclists and strollers - wind through lawns and palm trees, granting stupendous views of Guanabara Bay. Flashy yachts glide across the water, tattooed bodybuilders pump iron by the shore, families sip coconuts in the shade and two of Rio's unmissable sights loom above.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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