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Get to know Rio de Janeiro

By Martha Hales

Brace yourselves for the time of your life. Rio de Janeiro is a rollercoaster ride of a city, with all the thrills and excitement you could wish for. It’s a strong contender for the world’s most beautifully located metropolis, occupying a jaw dropping bay scalloped with glorious beaches that nestle at the foot of iconic mountains. Rio is perhaps the best advert for urban-coastal city living, and puts a smile on the most world-weary of travellers’ faces. Here is the lowdown on how to make the most of your time in the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’ - the Marvellous City.

Rocinha neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro

Food and Drink in Rio de Janeiro

Saturday is feijoada day in Rio de Janeiro, and restaurants specialising in the meaty stew will be dishing it up all day. Feijoada is Brazil’s national dish and is made with various cuts of meat and sausage cooked slowly with black beans and garlic to make a tasty, rib sticking dish. Served alongside it are the staple sides of plain rice, farofa, a roasted cassava crumble which is sprinkled on the stew, and shredded greens. With these come crisp shards of pork crackling and fried cassava or potato, depending on venue. All of this food is eaten slowly with plenty of rum and sliced oranges to cut through the richness.

Feijoada served in a restaurant

If you still have an appetite after the feijoada blow out, head to a classic churrascaria (the Portuguese word for barbecue) where the norm is to pay a flat fee for as much delicious chargrilled meat, salads and sides as you can manage. Waiters circulate offering various cuts of meat which they slice fresh from the skewer, and you can keep going for as long as you wish. With those two meals under your belt you may never want to eat again, but assuming you do get hungry don’t miss the chance to try some of the city’s delicious street foods such as a tapioca - a type of pancake made from cassava served with your choice of filling, from savoury cheeses, to sweet thickened condensed milk. Alternatively, try a hot pastel -  a deep fried pastry treat which comes stuffed with a variety of ingredients such as chicken, ham and cheese. These are traditionally washed down with a refreshing sugar cane juice.

Meat grilling at a churrascaria

Snacks on the go include popcorn, sold everywhere in sweet and salty varieties, and pao de queijo, little cheesy buns made with manioc flour. Look out for bolinho de bacalhau, or salt cod fritters, served warm with a chilli dip which makes them very moreish. As well as the ubiquitous and delicious Brazilian coffee, fresh coconut water is one of Rio’s favourite drinks. Grab a freshly opened coconut from a beach-side stall or on one of the many animated plazas in the city, pop in a straw and you’re good to go. An ice cold caipirinha, made with sugar cane liqueur and lots of lime, is Brazil’s national tipple and tastes all the better when enjoyed in one of Rio’s many fabulous bars.

Friends cheering their caipirinhas

Rio's vibrant culture

Plenty of museums, galleries, churches and theatres are scattered through the city, all of which merit your time, so we have picked out some of the cultural highlights to help narrow down your list. The figure of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched, can lay claim to being one of the world’s most instantly recognisable sculptures, not least because of its location on the peak of Corcovado Mountain from where the views of the city are nothing short of amazing.

Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain

A distinctive and innovative design marks the dazzling white Museum of Tomorrow out as one of Rio’s most daring architectural projects. Opened in 2015, it is a recent addition to Rio de Janeiro's cultural landscape, focusing on science, sustainability and the future of our planet. Another striking modern building is Rio’s unusual Metropolitan Cathedral - an imposing pyramid shaped building modelled on a Mayan temple. The austere facade hides a serene and lofty interior in which the soaring stained glass panels are a highlight.

Rio de Janeiro's Metropolitan Cathedral

One of Rio’s most photographed sights is the Escadaria Selaron, a flight of steps decorated with a colourful array of tiles from all over the world by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron. It’s a bright and cheery piece of artwork that connects the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods. Finally, Maracana Stadium is a large scale shrine to Brazil’s favourite sport - soccer. It’s the largest stadium in South America and can seat 80,000 spectators after a comprehensive overhaul in time for the 2014 Brazil World Cup.

The Escadaria Selaron in Rio de Janeiro

Carnaval and its fevered run up is perhaps the most exhilarating way to get a flavour of Rio’s cultural character. As well as the famous parades and balls, seek out a block party for an authentic experience of the legendary exuberance that gives the cariocas their flamboyant reputation. This is the time to visit if you love to party, but plan as far in advance as you can as the city will be bursting at the seams for the duration.

Carnival dancers in Rio de Janeiro

Nearby nature

Right on the city’s doorstep, Tijuca National Park, is among the largest urban forests anywhere on the planet, and offers a cool, green escape for locals and visitors to hike or cycle around, visiting waterfalls and viewpoints without having to travel outside the city limits. If you remembered to pack your head for heights, a trip up Sugarloaf Mountain by cable car is a must. The distinctive cone of granite juts skyward straight out of the bay, and after a panoramic cable car ride you can enjoy more of those incredible Rio views from the summit terrace.

The cable car which leads to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain

Rio’s Botanical Gardens are located at the base of Corcovado mountain in the west of Lagoa neighbourhood. More than 8,000 species of plants, including 600 species of orchid, have been grown here since the garden was established in the early 18th century, and there are several ornamental gardens and avenues to explore. Rio boasts lots of local hikes that take you quickly out of the city hubbub and into the greenery and fresh air, so if you crave some natural scenery you will not need to go far.

Rio's Botanical Gardens at the base of Corcovado Mountain

City life and entertainment

A great way to get your bearings is to explore the various beaches and districts of the city by bicycle. Cycle paths are everywhere throughout Rio and the main beaches have long promenades perfect for a leisurely ride. Lagoa neighbourhood is one of the most wealthy in the whole of South America, and has an attractive park based around a lagoon, making it the perfect place to walk, cycle or people watch before stopping off at one of the outdoor cafes for a bite to eat or a leisurely coffee. Lapa is nightlife central in the historic part of the city. Bars and eateries spill out onto the cobbled streets and plazas, making this one of the most convivial and scenic areas of Rio to while away your evenings. Ipanema ‘hippy’ market takes place on Sundays, and makes a great excuse to buy some souvenirs. Leather goods, trinkets, jewellery, clothing, vintage nick-nacks and woodwork are the major items to buy here, but many come for the lively atmosphere and the tasty street food.

Bikes on Ipanema Beach in Brazil

Rio de Janeiro is blessed with many fabulous beaches, each with a personality of its own - Ipanema for sun worshippers, Copacabana for all city life: capoeira performers, volleyball and football players, surfers and hawkers all mingle and extend the social life of the city right to the shore. Barra da Tijuca beach is the longest in Rio, boasting lovely white sand stretching for 17 kilometres and is usually quieter and cleaner than some of its more famous teammates.  

Surfers on Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro

Make it happen

Will you make the Marvelous City your next holiday destination? Rio is one of the world’s must-see cities so what are you waiting for? Our friendly local experts are the perfect team to make your Brazil trip into reality. Get in touch today and they will add their inside knowledge to your plans and create a bespoke itinerary to make sure you get the best of Brazil. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.