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Rio de Janeiro: The Full Guide Of An Unforgettable Location

Centro – Rio’s often-maligned historical centre has undergone a renaissance, thanks to the Olympics. The focus has been on the Porto Maravilha area, with the Museu do Amanha (‘Museum of Tomorrow’) extending from Maud Square into Guanabara Bay. The museum’s high-tech look at sustainability is ideal for families, but it’s the architecture that’s the real jaw-dropper — a sinuous Santiago Calatrava creation cantilevered over the water. On the other side of the square is the new Museu de Arte do Rio — the views from its sixth-floor terrace stretch as far as Niteroi. As the starting point for new tram lines, the Praca Maua is the hub of the ‘new’ Centro, luring weekend crowds to a city centre previously empty (and dodgy) outside of office hours.

Centro’s other main development is the area around Santos Dumont, the domestic airport overlooking Guanabara Bay. The newly revamped airport is now linked to a new shopping mall, while restaurant group Best Fork plans to turn the roof space into a vast Asian-themed restaurant and nightclub, opening at the end of 2016 with 360-degree city views. And it’s not just new-builds causing a stir in Centro; even traditional sites are getting in on the act. The Real Cabinete Portugues de Leitura, a colonial-era library, has just reopened after a refurb. And while many of the buildings from Rio’s past as Brazil’s capital have long been converted into art galleries, they’re pulling out the stops with blockbuster exhibitions this year — the Paco Imperial, for example, is currently hosting a Picasso exhibition.

View of Ipenema Beach, looking towards Leblon
View of Ipenema Beach, looking towards Leblon

Lagoa & Gavea – Lacking the knockout coastal views of Ipanema and Copacabana, the area around Rio’s lagoon has traditionally seen fewer visitors; but neighbouring areas Lagoa, Gavea and Jardim Botânico are now firmly in the global spotlight following the lagoon’s starring role as the rowing venue for the Games. A largely residential area — and a wealthy one at that — there are few hotels, but it’s worth staying here to see an entirely different side of the city. La Maison By Dussol, for instance, is a five-room boutique joint that spills down the steep hillside in Gâvea, with views of the mountains and Corcovado from the rooms, and Rocinha, the city’s largest favela, from the pretty garden.

This is also one of the best areas for shopping — from the Shopping da Gavea mall, filled with Brazilian labels, to Rua Lopes Quintas, which recently eclipsed Ipanema’s Rua Visconde de Pirajâ as the trendiest place to shop. In the past few years, former houses have been transformed into independent boutiques. They include Brir, whose beautiful handmade jewellery is Rio to the core — bright and outre, but beach-ready and laid-back — using materials like rope, string and beads instead of precious stones and metals. Sardina is another single-room shop in a first-floor apartment, with brightly patterned clothes made by the owner.

Dona Coisa, one of the first shops to colonise the street, has a huge stock of local designers’ clothes, accessories and homeware, and even launched its first menswear collection just in time for the Olympics. Oba!, meanwhile, is an architects studio-cum-children’s design store that’s definitely for grown-ups too, with furniture designed in-house, lighting (including lamps shaped like wellies and dogs), and cushions made from bright fabrics that owner, Leila Bittencourt, picks out on her travels.

Nightlife here revolves around the Jockey Club, Brazil’s largest racecourse, with race meetings on weekend afternoons and Monday and Friday evenings. The track is lined with some of the area’s best restaurants and bars — Palaphita is the place to go for drinks overlooking the course, while Rubaiyat Rio combines superb steak with astonishing views of the mountains and Corcovado beyond. Beside the paddock area, is known for its weekday lunchtime buffet, showcasing dishes from five regions of Brazil.

Santa Teresa – Perched on a hill above the historical centre, boho Santa Teresa is getting more hipster by the day. And night, too — this, along with neighbouring Lapa (the two are connected by the 215-step Escadaria Selaron staircase) is the place to go for an evening of bar-hopping or a weekend retreat, as the locals prefer.

Pedra da Gavea mountain

By day, there’s a laid-back, village feel to Santa Teresa’s brightly coloured, 18th-century villas and cobbled streets – by turn, artists’ studios (the Arte de Portas Abertas Festival, every July, involves around 80 local artists), bars and small boutiques. Baoba Brasil, which opened earlier this year, is a pop-up-style shop in the corner of a bar — its ‘urban Afro’ fashion takes fabrics from Mozambique and sews them into modern pieces, to eye-popping effect. It sits within Sao Joaquim, an armazem cultural (‘cultural grocer’) — a bar, restaurant, jazz venue and cultural centre.

Down the street is Cafecito, a restaurant-gallery in an old villa, with a coffee shop in the garden under an almond tree. Armazem Sâo Thiago—another former grocer’s, retaining its original 1920s style — is another popular stop, as is Aprazivel, a bar and restaurant styled like a treehouse. The views from here rival even those from Corcovado, and the best place to see them is the Parque das Ruinas, which offers sweeping views of the Sugarloaf, the Zona Sul and Guanabara Bay from a ruined villa repurposed as an art gallery. Next to it is the Museu da Chacarâ do Ceu, the former home of businessman Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya, now a museum preserving his art collection, which includes works by Modigliani, Picasso and Chagall. It reopened fully after renovations earlier in the summer.

While evenings in Santa Teresa revolve around Largo dos Guimarâes and Largo das Neves, down in Lapa, Rua do Lavradio is going from strength to strength as Rio’s alternative nightlife hub. A pedestrianised block is filled with offbeat bars such as Rio Scenarium (a samba venue in an antique-filled villa), Santo Scenarium (kitted out with religious art) and Atelie Belmonte, an antique shop by day and bar by night. Soon, there’ll be somewhere to stay within stumbling distance, too — next year, Le Paris By Dussol is set to open at the far end of the street.

Zona Sul – Most people, of course, come to Rio for the beaches, but step away from the sand and you’ll find there’s more to the Zona Sul (‘southern area’) than sand. The three main resort areas — Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana each has its own distinct personality. Copacabana has sunk far from its heyday, Ipanema works the young, trendy and LGBT scenes, while Leblon caters to a more sophisticated crowd, with some of the best restaurants in Rio. In Leblon, Giuseppe Grill is known for its booze (92 brands of cachaga and one of the finest wine lists in town) and its meat — it even serves its own signature cuts, like the picanha, a type of rump steak.

Fish is hyper-local, supplied by individual fishermen; several dishes are made from staff members’ family recipes; and the signature ‘Romeo and Juliet’ dessert (soft cheese with guava jam) is handmade by a housewife in Minas Gerais province. Other Leblon stand-outs line Rua Dias Ferreira, the main dining drag — Zuka is one option with a fantastic modern Brazilian menu. If Leblon is the place to eat, Ipanema is the place to shop. Rua Visconde de Pirajâ is Rio’s answer to Oxford Street—a never-ending strip of Brazilian stores, from skincare brand Granado, upmarket jeweller H Stern in Rio, Havaianas (which cost a fraction of the price they do in the UK) to a mini mall filled with bikini shops: Ipanema 2000, which includes Salinas (an iconic store said to stock the best bikinis on the planet) and Bumbum.

Escadaria Selaron
Escadaria Selaron

Trendy but longstanding is the way in Ipanema. The Philippe Starck-designed, Sao Paulo-operated Fasano has long been the most stylish hotel in Rio, with a rooftop pool and bar that’s open only to guests; locals walk the neon catwalk to the Baretto Londra bar, decorated with a giant Union Jack and rare rock ’n’ roll LPs on exposed brick walls, and the Fasano al Mare restaurant — an outpost of the legendary Sao Paulo restaurant—offers some of the best Italian food in town, with signature dishes including mozzarella-stuffed ravioli, as well as local fish. Two blocks away, the Casa da Feijoada was Rio’s first restaurant devoted Brazil’s national dish, feijoada (a stew of beans with beef and pork), when it opened in 1989, and it’s still going strong.

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