Rio de Janeiro – City of God

8 Nov

Rio de Janerio is a city living life at full throttle. It’s energetic, vibrant and dedicated to pleasure. Famous for its hedonistic carnival, fanatical beach culture, pulsating music and passion for sport, nothing is ever done half-heartedly. Rio’s intense urban beauty is also nothing short of mind-blowing. Undulating mountains covered in lush forests overlook curving bays of golden sand and sparkling blue sea. Old districts with colonial mansions and leafy parks blend seamlessly with soaring skyscrapers and modern stadiums. Even the ramshackle favelas stacked high into the hillside add colour and life to this diverse and open-minded city. Locals love to boast, with a cheeky smile, that “On the eighth day, God created Rio” and it’s easy to believe this city has truly been blessed.

Rio may have lost the title of ‘Capital’ to purpose built Brasília in 1960 but it remains Brazil’s number one city and one of the world’s top tourist destinations. There is so much to see and do here that weeks could pass by and you’d only scratch the surface of what’s on offer. Some of Rio’s attractions are strikingly obvious such as a visit to Christo Redentor towering above the city for all to see, but others less so.

We spent five days in Rio during January and initially we found it a little overwhelming to know how to make the most of our experience. We’ve listed our top ten suggestions to help tailor your visit no matter how long you plan to spend in the city.

Watch the sunset from Sugar Loaf Mountain

Situated in the neighbourhood of Urca with its beautiful houses and charming restaurants, the monolithic Sugarloaf mountain rises from a peninsular on the edge of Guanabara Bay. It’s one of Rio’s most popular attractions having received roughly 37 million visitors since its opening in 1912!! The Portuguese pronunciation Pão de Açúcar literally translates as loaf of sugar and owes its name to the history of Brazilian sugar production when traders transported sugar in mountain-like blocks. The gigantic chunk of granite rock is encircled with tropical vegetation and home to monkeys, parrots and toucans.

It’s possible to spend several sweat inducing hours trekking through forest to the summit or if you’re feeling super energetic you can rock climb the sheer side of the mountain with ropes and harnesses! For most folk riding the panoramic glass-panelled cable car is the only way to travel. The base station is located near to Vermelha beach where tickets can be purchased.

The first leg of the journey climbs to Morro da Urca, the smaller peak at 220 meters. From the ground the mountain’s bare domes don’t look particularly spacious so you’ll be surprised as we were to discover a café, shop, small museum and even a heli-pad located at the summit of the smaller peak. The views at this point are already jaw dropping with the city centre at your feet and Copacabana beach to the west. From the first peak another cable car reaches up and across to Pão de Açúcar at 395 metres.

The 360 degree views from the top are simply mesmerising and a contender for one of the finest views in the world. Looking towards the city, yachts bob in the tranquil harbour and the wide-armed Christo Redentor welcomes visitors from on top of the Corcovado. Curvaceous bays with golden beaches are lined with skyscrapers and the distant jungle covered peaks of Tijuca National Park offer a unique backdrop.

The best time of day to visit is in time for sunset when the sun kisses the hazy silhouette of the surrounding mountains and sends purple and orange streaks across the sky. Arrive at least an hour before the sunset to admire the views from numerous beautiful vantage points and linger after the sun has completely disappeared to watch the city lights being turned on, sparkling like a million tiny stars.

Feel the force of Christ the Redeemer

Rio really is the Garden of Eden with the son of God watching over the city. Strategically placed on the top of Mount Corcovado, Christ the Redeemer’s open arms can be seen from every part of the city. It is one of Rio’s and perhaps the world’s most iconic sights. The enormous 30 metre tall statue stands atop an 8 metre pedestal and welcomes residents and visitors alike to the city with outstretch arms spanning 28 metres. Representing peace and togetherness, no matter what your faith or background, you can’t help but be impressed.

The Art Deco styled statue was built over nine years by local engineer Heitor da Silva Costa and French sculptor Paul Landowski and was opened to the public on 12 October 1931. Neither had suspected that nearly a century later the landmark would receive three million visitors per year as it currently does!

The statue’s creators thought concrete would be too rough and basic for the statue so they used soap stone mined from nearby Minas Gerais. The stone was broken down into hundreds of tiny tiles and local women painstakingly stuck them to strips of linen cloth creating a shimmering mosaic effect.

You can walk or ride on a bus to the top of the Corcovado but the most interesting mode of transport is the funicular railway which climbs through the lush greenery of Tijuca National Park and drops passengers just behind the statue. Newly installed elevators transport visitors to viewing platforms which curve around the base of the Christ and afford million dollar views in every direction. Don’t expect to find peace and serenity at the top but the birds eye views of Sugar Loaf mountain, Copacabana beach, Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and the Maracanã Stadium more than make up for the crowds.

Rio’s tropical climate means the city frequently witnesses violent lightning storms and the monument has been struck many times. A week before we arrived in the city a finger on the right hand of Christ was hit and damaged during an electrical storm. Maintenance work is regularly carried out on the statue but due to the scarceness of the original soap stone, you’ll notice some darker patches.

At night powerful lights shine onto the statue giving it a celestial glow that can be seen across the city.

Iconic Beaches: Copacabana & Ipanema

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The thought of Rio’s beaches sent tingles of excitement down our spines. Throughout the decades these golden crescents of sand have been etched by artists, showcased in movies and immortalised by songs but nothing beats the feeling of wiggling your toes into the sun-baked sand and soaking up the buzzing atmosphere.

Locals and tourists bronze themselves as the mercury levels rocket skywards with figure hugging shorts and tiny bikinis resembling dental floss the norm! Behind the sunbathers energetic games of football and volleyball are played with skill and precision. Families cool off in the sea jumping into the waves. Kids from favelas flip and twist on boogie boards in the churning surf close to shore whilst toned surfers catch the bigger breaks further out.

Along the promenades at the edge of the beach, there are endless cafes, restaurants and bars serving everything from hamburgers to oysters and tropical juices to decadent ice-cream. For the body beautiful crowd there are free open-air gyms and enthusiastic joggers, cyclists and roller-bladers perform a zig-zag dance to avoid collision. There is a noticeable police presence at the beaches so it feels incredibly safe but don’t leave valuables unattended when you go for a swim or they might not be there when you return!

The skyscrapers lining the four kilometre stretch of Copacabana are starting to look a little grey and tired but with such superb views of Sugar Loaf Mountain all can be forgiven. Whilst Copacabana retains a laid-back, family friendly air, Ipanema has taken the title as the most upmarket and trendy neighbourhood. It attracts beautiful young people to its boutique shops and swanky cocktail bars. You might even bump into a local celebrity as we did – I literally had to pick Dan’s jaw up from the floor as he met with Brazilian World Cup winning footballing legend, Ronaldo!

Along Copacabana & Ipanema specific sections have been claimed by different groups – young families, surfers, sporty and gay friendly so pick your ‘posto’ to suit your mood. Both beaches also host nightly gatherings to watch euphorically beautiful sunsets.

Climb Escadaria Selarón

The vibrant Escadaria Selaron, also known as the ‘Selaron Steps’, link the neighbourhoods of Santa Teresa and Lapa. They were created in 1990 by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón who lived in the area at the time and who hoped to rejuvenate the neglected steps. The brightly decorated ceramic tiles covering the steps were initially scavenged from construction sites around the city and when word spread about this project, other countries started to donate tiles. The steps became a life-long work for Selarón and many people would make an annual pilgrimage to see their organic evolution. Selarón passed away in 2013 but his legend lives on with 250 steps covered in over 2000 tiles from over 60 countries.

Explore bohemian Santa Teresa

The tree lined hills of Santa Teresa were originally one of Rio’s wealthiest areas, offering a more favourable climate than the muggy coast. Its location on top of the Santa Teresa hill means it offers unique and beautiful views over the city. The area has resisted development and preserved much of its colonial charm making it a great spot to spend the afternoon exploring the winding streets and mansions which now house boutique shops and restaurants. The bohemian vibe attracts creative types. Art, writing and music flourish here, with some lovely galleries and handicraft stalls to browse.

Many of Santa Teresa’s architectural gems such as the Convent and the Cassa Navio can only be seen from the outside but they still offer a vision of the glory days of the belle époque. At the time we visited, Santa Teresa’s famous yellow tram cars (bonde) had been suspended from service pending renovations but they are set to make a full return in early 2016 so we’ll save our ride over the Lapa Arches until the next time.

The Largo dos Guimarães is a small plaza at the heart of Santa Teresa which has a village-like feel. Take any of the cobbled streets leading off the plaza to find the area’s best bars and restaurants. Don’t miss Bar Gomez, which was opened in 1919 as a grocery store to service the area’s migrant population, and is now a characterful bar where locals and tourists share a beer in amongst original tins and jars still on display,

Get swept up in Carnival fever

Carnival is synonymous with Rio. For two weeks every February the city comes alive. Partygoers dress up in extravagant costumes and members of local samba schools compete against each other in the most glittering of displays. Brazilians instinctively know how to have a good time and Rio’s carnival is one of the biggest street parties on the planet. Live bands play every kind of music, streets are thronged with carefree revellers and curvaceous ladies dance in sequined bikinis behind trucks carrying massive sound systems!

If your trip doesn’t coincide with carnival or your budget simply won’t stretch to the extortionate prices charged in the city at the time, don’t despair.  The rehearsals for carnival last for many months in Rio and impromptu parades and free drumming concerts are common place. For more details on carnival events contact the organisers ‘Riotur’, check with your hotel or visit a samba school.

Take a breather in beautiful Parque Lage

Rio is a hot, frenetic city which never seems to stop, so when you need to take a breather, there’s no better way than heading to a leafy park or tropical garden. One of our favourites was Parque Lage. With its shady avenues, beautiful flower-filled gardens and green lakes it has a distinctively European feel. A grand stone house at the centre of the park houses the Escola de Artes Visuais (School of Visual Arts), which hosts free art exhibitions and theatrical performances. It also has a particularly good café serving coffee and cake in a peaceful courtyard. The park is the starting point for demanding hikes up Corcovado through native Atlantic rainforest. Keep your eyes peeled for monkeys swinging through the tree tops and squawking parrots.

Check out the historic buildings and futuristic skyscrapers of Centro

Centro is the historic heart of the city. It marks the spot of Rio’s first settlement and nowadays beautiful colonial buildings and baroque churches intermingle with futuristic looking skyscrapers. The area is fast becoming an entertainment and cultural hotspot with some of the City’s best museums and art galleries in easy reach. Both the National History Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts are well worth the trip.

Explore beautiful São Bento monastery with its golden baroque interior, stop off and enjoy the Biblioteca Nacional with the largest collection of books in all of Latin America and look around Paço Imperial which was the stately home to the monarchy and which now hosts numerous art exhibitions and concerts. Across from the Palace wander along Travessa do Comercio, a quaint cobblestone street filled with cafes and restaurants buzzing with chatter. A whole afternoon can be whiled away along colonial Rua do Ouvidor with its fine selection of second hand bookstores, antique shops, funky cafes and live music performances. In contrast, the pedestrianised area in Centro called Saara is the daily home to a giant street market packed with discounted stalls.

Dance the evening away at samba clubs in the Lapa

Once upon a time, the Lapa was a poverty stricken area brimming with sordid drinking dens and brothels and the home to impoverished artists. Nowadays, it’s a lively and bohemian area with quirky shopping and artistic cafes by day and electric entertainment by night. The Lapa offers a distinctly Brazilian vibe with many historic colonial buildings now converted into lively restaurants and bars. Samba, Bossa Nova and forró music radiates from clubs housed in old warehouses so float between then to find your preferred spot. Even the streets are filled with music, electric energy and dancing for which Brazil is famous.

Take a Favela Tour

Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies in the world and nowhere is this more obvious than Rio where million dollar beach front apartments and glitzy malls have been built a few blocks away from the entrance to favelas where people live in abject poverty. The favelas were built in the hills surrounding the city by former slaves who were without land or work, and grew hugely due to mass urban migration in the last half century. The word favela literally translates as ‘slum town’ and here thousands of residents cram into tiny single room houses, often with no electricity, no running water and no sanitation. Despite these terrible conditions it’s estimated that a fifth of Rio’s five million inhabitants live in the favelas, so for many it’s a very real way of life.

Once lawless areas associated with drugs and gang warfare, the police have in recent years taken huge steps to reduce crime and violence. Favela tours, led by local residents, have become very popular and can offer a rare insight into the darker side of the city. A guide is essential as often the rabbit warren of steep and twisting alleyways do not appear on maps and going alone can still prove very dangerous. Hotels and guest houses will be able to arrange tours (roughly two hours) costing around R80 per person including transfers from your accommodation.

Tours often include visits to schools and community centres where kids are taught practical skills such as mechanics, cookery and art to keep them from joining gangs and a percentage of the profits from these tours go to funding these ground breaking projects. Learn more about our visit to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro with 300,000 residents, in our next post.

We LOVE Rio

Rio is jam packed with natural and cultural gems. The mountains, beaches, colonial buildings, skyscrapers and favelas knit together seamlessly and offer travellers endless opportunities for adventure. The beating heart of the city is enriched with sport, arts, music and dancing – Rio’s energy levels are through the roof! How ever long you spend in this city and no matter what you experience, one thing’s for sure, Rio will steal your heart and leave you wanting more.

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