Tipping the scales at 1,145 tonnes, Cristo Redentor – otherwise known as Christ the Redeemer – is a truly heavyweight travel icon. Soaring high above Rio de Janeiro, it is the world’s largest Art Deco statue and, in 2007, was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Cristo stands 30m tall, on an 8m pedestal, a mighty colossus atop Mount Corcovado. For those who navigate the mountain’s 130-year-old railway system and ascend to the statue itself, the rewards are obvious: sweeping views of Sugar Loaf Mountain, the South Atlantic Ocean and the Maracana Stadium.
Designed by Brazilian-born engineer-architect Heitor da Silva Costa, the statue represents Jesus watching over the city, blessing the land and its inhabitants. It has survived wind erosion, lightning strikes and graffiti to become one of the most enduring symbols of Christianity.
Getting around Rio on foot or by bike is relatively simple as many of the attractions are on the city’s well-pedestrianised south side.
The modest underground network (Metro Rio) is useful for accessing areas between Copacabana and Downtown.
There are a few options for accessing Christ the Redeemer. Cog trains depart every 30 minutes, 8am-8pm daily, from the Corcovado train station in Cosme Velho; journey time is 20 minutes. You can also go by van.
The fit might like to hike up – several (steep) trails lead through Tijuca National Park; the main trail takes around two hours. You still need to pay a statue entrance fee.
When you get to the top of Corcovado, you can either climb the 220 steps or take the lift/escalator to reach the statue’s main platform. The Chapel of Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Our Lady of the Apparition) is at the base of the statue, a place of Catholic pilgrimage as well as being used for small weddings and baptisms.
Sunset is atmospheric time to visit. After dark, floodlights illuminate the statue; during the World Cup, green and yellow floodlights are used, in support of the Brazilian team. To avoid big crowds, steer clear of religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter.
This is a sultry den of masculinity and refined design, with sleek, dark mahogany and miles of soft, toffee-butter leather. An inspired collaboration between Brazilian design heavyweights Isay Weinfeld and Marcio Kogan, this is old-school glamour at its best, encapsulating a bygone era where you half expect to catch Don Corleone sipping the driest of Martinis in a low-lit corner of the hotel’s jazz joint Baretto, where Brazil’s best bossa-nova talents vie to perform.
The 60 rooms, furnished with 1930s design pieces in muted tones, are popular with global big-hitters, who can really relax in the 22nd-floor spa and swimming pool. From here, there are contemplative views over Sao Paulo’s most sophisticated neighbourhood, Jardins, where the streets are leafy, ladies lunch and life feels pretty fabulous.
Bagan – Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar)
Visitors Per Year: Around 2.1 million
Among the plains of central Burma lies ancient Bagan, the remains of a kingdom comprising some 2,000 Buddhist temples. Until recently, visitors were scarce but now the secret’s out…
Front Door: A fee (25,000MMK/£14.44) is charged upon entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Most visitors arrive via a short-hop flight at Bagan Nyaung U Airport. From there, the town of Nyaung U is a ten-minute taxi away, but the majority stay in the resorts scattered among the temples of Old Bagan.
Back Door: Stay in Nyaung U for more of a local feel; it’s also not far from the Irrawaddy River, so end your day with a quiet cruise. Rent an E-bike to explore the temples of Old Bagan away from the tours, while hot-air balloon flights are also a good way to skip the crowds. Be sure to book at least a month in advance; it’s also worth paying extra for the smallest (four-person) basket. Bear in mind also that access to the upper levels of temples is now banned in all but five pagodas.
For the most popular temples (Dhammayangyi, Shwesandaw, Ananda), arrive just after sunrise. The tours leave shortly after the sun comes up and the touts are too drowsy to bother you. After, rent an E-bike and head into the plains to discover smaller sites such as the Nandapyinnya, near Minanthu village, which has some of the best-preserved wall paintings in Bagan and is usually empty.
Head down to the jetty in Nyaung U and hire a boat (from 150,000MMK/£9) to take you up the river to a pair of temples (Thetkyamuni and Kondawgyi) not easily accessed by land. Plan this as an afternoon excursion and you can spend the sunset on the Irrawaddy as well.
“Thisawadi (near New Bagan) is a quiet alternative to catch sunrise/sunset. There are several levels on the way up it, but the highest offers the best shots. This is also one of the few temples still open for visitors to ascend, but less popular than the likes of Shwesandaw.”
There’s no dismissing the carnal, seething, pulsating extravaganza that is Rio’s Carnaval, but these days many travelers are heading north to Salvador da Bahia for a more authentic, participatory, and no less indefatigable pre-Lenten celebration. The infectious rhythm of Rio’s samba is replaced here by African-based axé music that engulfs the 8-mile carneval route snaking from Ondina to Pelourinho.
Through the euphoric crowds, motorized trio elétricos floats carry bands and some of Brazil’s greatest musical superstars (many of whom hail from Bahia and its environs). Carnaval preparations start months in advance, so off-season visitors can absorb some of the city’s myth and magic at the weekly rehearsals of Olodum, Salvador’s most innovative bateria (Carnaval percussion group).
With more than twenty festivals and processions highlighting each year’s calendar, you are likely to happen upon any one of them, especially if you arrive in December, January, or February. The year kicks off on December 31 and January 1 with the Festa de Nosso Senhor dos Navigantes, when the coastal city’s population celebrates the “god of navigators.” Next, Lavagem da Igreja do Bonfim (eight days starting the second Thursday in January) means African hymns and the local women washing the steps of the Church of Bonfim. Then, on February 2, Iemanjá, the African-Brazilian protectoress and mother of the sea (and counterpart to Catholicism’s Virgin Mary), is honored with the Festa de Iemanjá. Exploring the spirituality and religious character of Bahia’s African-based but purely Brazilian condomblé ceremonies is also possible almost any night in the city’s neighborhood terreiros: ask around, but be discreet and respectful.
The Pelourinho district, the architectural enclave and highlight of Salvador’s hilltop Cidade Alta (Upper City), has been reclaimed, restored, and transformed into the cultural heart of a city long famous for the richness of its Afro-Brazilian heritage and colonial history. A wealth based on the unseemly but lucrative importation of African slaves peaked in the early 18th century, when most of Pelourinho’s remarkable gold-drenched Baroque churches were completed. They are some of South America’s most outstanding, clustered around what is now Pelourinho Square, whose name means “the pillory” or “whipping post” (one of the myriad reminders of the city’s historical and emotional ties to Africa and slavery).
The home of Salvador’s affluent European descendants until the beginning of the 20th century, Pelourinho then descended into squalor and physical collapse. But a massive restoration begun in 1992 secured its return as a haunt of poets and artists and a showplace for Bahian craftsmanship. Easter egg-colored landmark buildings now house a number of minor but interesting museums, art galleries, and cafés and restaurants.
When Casa da Gamboa, Salvador’s most famous restaurant, opened a branch in Pelourinho, it further established the neighborhood’s role as a cultural and culinary outpost. There are some large international beachside hotels, but they don’t come close to the character and architectural flavor of the Hotel Catharina Paraguaçu, a pink colonial mansion with rooftop views of the Rio Vermelho beach that’s just a taxicab ride away from Pelhourino.
Cariocas eat as they dress and party – with an enviable sense of abandon, calories be damned. It is this national love of excess that has made rodizio and feijoada the centerpieces of traditional national cuisine. Cariocas have a special affection for their steakhouse-style churrascarias, and Marius, for years the best place in town for rodizio, is an all-you-can-eat carnivorous festival, where succulent barbecued meat is the primary draw. Rodizio, or “rotation,” refers not to the preparation of the meats but the type of service: A troop of waiters carrying skewers of sizzling char-broiled meat circulates in search of empty plates upon which to slice off every imaginable cut of beef, chicken, lamb, and pork. (Pace yourself: The filet mignon always seems to arrive last.)
Churrascarias are not the place for animal-rights activists or vegetarians, although Marius’s long list of side dishes includes great onion rings, french fries, and dozens of salads. It’s amazing to watch the young and hungry who pack this beloved institution of gluttony, seemingly unconcerned that Ipanema and thong bathing suits await them. Perhaps they stop eating twenty-four hours in advance, since they all find room to order the huge crystal goblets filled with Marius’s excellent desserts.
Rodizio is a fun way to spend Friday night with all of your friends, but the great national banquet of hearty feijoada stew is best eaten with your boisterous family at the house of your Brazilian grandmother, who has spent all morning Saturday preparing it. For those who must resort to reliable alternatives, the elegant Petronius, in the Caesar Park Hotel in Ipanema, has long been considered the best spot in Rio. They offer a delectable spread of this folkloric stew, based on black beans and traditionally reserved for lunch Saturday – presumably so one could then sleep it off all day Sunday. Light it’s not (nor particularly attractive); the great Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes said that a feijoada is not complete unless there is an ambulance ready at the front door. More an event than a meal, feijoada is a fun dish, served up in huge black pots containing dried meats, bacon, salted pork, ribs, and different kinds of sausages. All of this is accompanied by white rice, farofa (manioc flour), kale, and oranges. Hotel restaurants like Petronius will usually hold off on certain pig parts (ear, tail, and trotter) unless otherwise requested.
In 1960 two starving local musicians, the now-famous Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, wrote a song about a beautiful girl from Ipanema Beach. They could not have known they would turn this sandy strip into a shrine as inherent to the local character as Sugarloaf Mountain is to the city’s unmistakable profile. Rio’s twenty-three beaches make up a 45-mile stretch of white sand, but Ipanema is its most sophisticated and elite, for those endowed with gorgeous bodies, dental-floss swimwear, and attitudes to match.
Bordering the city’s upper-class neighborhoods, it is the beach of choice for the chic and fashion-conscious, who use it for daily preening, strutting, socializing, volleyball games, flirting, jogging, being seen, and generally showing off. Ipanema is a window, a stage, a microcosm, a study of the exuberant carioca ethos of rhythm and style. After a day here, sunburned visitors walk away with some insight into an unhurried and gregarious way of life that springs from the city’s sensual and age-old love of beaches. It is a party for friends and family – not as rambunctious or boisterous as the street-festival atmosphere at Copacabana, but a party nonetheless, and outsiders need no invitation.
The mesmerizing 360-degree panorama from atop Corcovado Mountain showcases Rio de Janeiro’s beauty in all its heart-stopping glory. This unique, overpowering tableau of curving white beaches, skyscrapers, gray granite mountains, lush rain forest, and the island-studded Bay of Guanabara encouraged Rio’s nickname, Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City).
Corcovado’s summit is crowned by the 120-foot-high soapstone figure of Christ, his arms outstretched to a 75-foot expanse; the very symbol of the city, it was completed (nine years late) in 1931 to commemorate the 1922 centennial of Brazilian independence. Almost twice as high as its rival, 1,300-foot Pao de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), Corcovado offers a view of the gumdrop-shaped Sugarloaf, and confirms that no other major metropolis is as blessed with physical and natural beauty as Rio. The passenger train to the summit makes its steep 2.3-mile, twenty-minute ascent through lush Tijuca National Park, the largest urban park in the world – an 8,151-acre forest of plate-size blue morpho butterflies and refreshing waterfalls.
No less impressive than Rio’s wild and raucous Carnaval celebrations is New Year’s Eve along Copacabana Beach during the exotic, mysterious, quintessentially Brazilian homage to Iemanjá. She is the beloved African goddess of the sea and central deity (conveniently conflated with the Virgin Mary) in such Afro-Brazilian spirit cults as condomblé, macumba, and umbanda. Well before dusk, thousands of her white-clad followers begin to gather on Rio’s many beaches, particularly Copacabana, where macumbeiros baptize initiates while others chant and create candlelit sand altars.
The air is thick with incense as a huge fireworks display turns the thirty-six-floor Meridien Copacabana hotel into a gigantic Roman candle. Cariocas (Rio’s residents) launch small handmade boats carrying their gift of flowers, perfume, lipstick, mirrors, and lit candles – anxious to see if lemanjá will accept them and fulfill their wishes (the boats are washed out to sea and sink into the depths) or reject them (the waves return them to shore). The best view for those not into entranced crowds is from above. If you can’t wrangle an invitation to any of the swank high-rises lining Avenida Atlántica, book a beachside room at the Meridien, but do it months in advance.
The neoclassical-facaded Copacabana Palace is one of South America’s most legendary hotels, and perhaps its greatest. Inspired by the French Riviera’s grande luxe Negresco in Nice and the Carlton in Cannes, it exudes a light, airy Mediterranean feel unique in this chaotic city-resort. And following an extravagant tiara-to-toe renovation, it is once again the most stylish place in Rio. Overlooking the famous beach from which it takes its name, “the Copa” is a veritable pleasure palace: The semi-Olympic-size pool is the best in town for a dip or a high-octane poolside caipirinha break, and the daily tea service has become something of a cultural experience (reservations necessary!).
Inside, the cool marble halls are lined with sepia photos of the Who’s Who that have signed the Golden Book since the Copa first opened in 1923. Here was the backdrop for Flying Down to Rio; the 1933 film that was the first to pair Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers also helped launch the hotel as the favorite vacation spot of Hollywood stars. Ask for suite 751, home to Carmen Miranda for four months. The myth of yesteryear lives on in the ornate Golden Room; its famous glass dance floor is lit from below and is the exquisite location for the most exclusive black-tie Carnaval ball in Rio.