I had remarkably low expectations for Rio de Janeiro, and found myself unexpectedly smitten with what I’ve determined is the prettiest-placed city in the world.
There’s an awful lot of media coverage that paints Rio as a gritty, gang-ridden land of dangerous favelas and rampant crime, particularly as it gears up to host the 2014 World Cup. That rendering of the city was not my experience of Rio de Janeiro — not at all.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s rainbows over Christ the Redeemer and unicorns running across the sands of Ipanema or anything, but, I now know to take the terrifying city overviews with a grain of salt.
To be sure, Rio de Janeiro is a city that does have dirt-poor favelas and crime. It is also remarkably easy to not find yourself in a favela, and to travel safely, using your wits and avoiding situations that may seem even remotely shady. (Read: don’t wander around aimlessly late at night, especially if you’ve had any drinks; don’t get into unmarked taxi cabs; don’t wear expensive jewelry; don’t carry or show wads of cash and credit cards — basically, common sense travel tips).
We planned to spend a week in Rio, giving us plenty of time to explore the town’s sites and restaurants and, as it turned out, fall head over heels in love with the city.
Rio lies tucked into a swarm of lush, jungle-covered mountains that rise jaggedly from behind her foreground. The beaches here are long, wide and curving, with remarkable vantage points from which to watch the evening sunset.
The Brazilians we encountered were warm and friendly and our interactions with them seemed marked by lots of samba music, dancing, singing and laughter. Walking down the street at night you will likely encounter some group of people quite literally dancing in the street. Yes, these are my kind of people.
Whether drinking caipirinhas at a kiosk along the Copacabana promenade, dancing samba in the iconic Lapa neighborhood, staring face to base with Christ the Redeemer, watching this sparkling city unfold beneath you from a tram up to Sugarloaf mountain, or staring at the absurdly tanned and toned bodies on Ipanema beach — everything I did seemed to make my crush on Rio deepen.
A few of my favorite highlights from the city include:
At the Copa, Copacabana
I fell hard for Copacabana Beach. The wide swath of sand stretches 2.5 miles along the coast and is flanked by a promenade covered in mosaics. Kiosks selling food and drinks line the promenade and the walkway is perpetually crowded with locals and tourists strolling, jogging, drinking, listening to music and generally hanging out.
Pro-tip: go at sunset and enjoy a drink overlooking the beach from a kiosk. And make it a coco verde, or green coconut — all the cool kids are doing it!
Christ the Redeemer
You can’t go to Rio and not see Christ. Like, literally, you can’t not see him — he’s hovering on a mountain 2,300 feet above the city and is visible from pretty much everywhere. Any time you’re thinking of sinning (lustful thoughts about the sexy peeps on the beach, anyone?), you will quickly be reminded that, yes, Jesus is watching you.
I highly recommend heading to the statue and taking the small train to the base of the statue. While it’s extraordinary to see this massive rendering (98 feet tall, with an arm span 92 feet wide), it’s also a breathtaking vantage point from which to view the city.
I imagined Ipanema would be my version of heaven, and it was gorgeous, but just a personal preference, I was pretty into Copacabana. Still, this stretch of sand is also a fantastic spot to work on your tan and people watch.
Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (Royal Portuguese Reading Room)
This absolutely gorgeous and dizzying space was built in 1837 and today houses 350,000 books, many dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Centro and the Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião
Rio’s downtown isn’t altogether inspiring, but is well worth a wander. Take some time to visit the striking Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião. It’s a Mayan-Brutalist-Trump-esque architectural tour-de-force if I do say so.
Riding the 2 trams to reach the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain is another Rio must-do. The views are fan-freaking-tastic, and the site itself is really well organized and offers a surprising amount of amenities, including a small museum, restaurants and shopping. If you’re feeling brave, you can opt to climb the mountain or rappel down it. In case you were wondering, no, I was not feeling brave.
The Lapa neighborhood is home to iconic, tiled stairs and a whole lotta samba music and dancing into the wee, wee hours of the morning. Head here on a weekend night to fully appreciate the neighborhood, as locals flock here to let their hair down.
Le Ble Noir
Who would think I’d recommend eating at a crepe restaurant while in Rio? I know, I know. I was dubious when I read that this is one of the city’s most popular establishments. I mean … why?
But seriously, Le Ble Noir turned out to be completely la bomba. There was an hour wait a half hour after the restaurant had even opened. And it was TOTALLY worth the time spent sitting on a curb, hungry.
My personal pick is the crepe with caramelized figs, proscuitto, goat cheese and a port wine reduction. Git in mah belly!