There is not other way of putting it, Rio de Janeiro is one of the world’s best cities. It’s equal parts first world and third world, part European, part Latin, and part African. It flows to the beat of Samba and Funky, and enjoys hands down the greatest setting of any city in the world. It is far from perfect, the crime rate is high, the poor are mistreated by the military and police, and the economic disparities are some of the most extreme on the planet, but it is those exact tensions and contrasts that make Rio endlessly fascinating. At the end of the day, Cariocas (a resident of Rio) seem to put these differences aside in favor of white sand beaches, the warm Atlantic water and the vibrant nightlife.
The upper middle class neighborhood of Urca is an unexpected delight. It has beautiful treelined streets with local neighborhood restaurants and bars (make sure to check out Bar Urca where you can sit on the sea wall overlooking of Rio and the Christ the Redeemer statue). But what makes this neighborhood great is its setting. It is situated on the end of a narrow peninsula between the iconic Pão de Açúcar/Sugarloaf mountain and the bay.
Things to see:
- Pista Cláudio Coutinho
- Praia Vermelha
- Pão de Açúcar/Sugarloaf mountain
This is the most typical of neighborhoods on this list, but it must be mentioned. This is what Rio de Janeiro is famous for; if you’ve seen this city in a movie or on a postcard, it was probably from Copacabana. Here lies one of the greatest stretches of urban beach anywhere in the world. One minute you are underground, packed like a sardine at rush hour on a crowded subway car, and the next minute you are riding waves in clear, warm water with white sands, palm trees and blue skies. An added bonus is that the people are beautiful, the juices are plentiful and otherworldly and the setting is spectacular. This is why people come to Rio, and I can understand why.
For a city of 12.5 million, the downtown of Rio may seem disappointing at first (the skyline could be compared to a mid sized American city such as Cincinnati or Denver), but what it lacks in soulless skyscrapers, it makes up for with history and old world charm. This is the historical heart of Rio de Janeiro, and some might argue all of Brazil, but this isn’t like the tacky tourist joints of the North End in Boston, or Midtown Manhattan where teeshirt shops outnumber locals, these streets are rough, with homeless men smoking crack, people shuffling through garbage and the walls are covered in graffiti. But pause for a second and you will find over 400 years of Portuguese and Brazilian history all around you.
Things to see:
- Mosteiro de São Bento
- Centro Cultural Banco Do Brasil
- Travessa do Comércio
If there is a crazier party strip in Latin America I’d like to see it. Lapa is where Cariocas of all walks of life come to party and be merry. The sounds of Samba flood into the street, strangers meet and begin dancing, people sip caipirinhas while chewing on grilled meat from migrants from Brazil’s Northeast, transsexuals sell themselves on street corners in skimpy dresses, and in the shadows crack dealers sell their goods. It’s a crazy mix that must be experienced, preferably with a sweet caipirinha in your hand.
#1 Santa Teresa
This bohemian hood of narrow, 100 year old cobble stone streets is Rio’s crowned jewel. This is a neighborhood of poets, writers, artists, and those who inhabit crumbling, turn of the century mansions. This neighborhood would certainly take the cake as one of the worlds great neighborhoods. Make sure to check out Largo do Guimarães and Largo das Neves, two old squares with bohemian bars (Bar do Gomez) and restaurants (Bar do Mineiro). Our personal favorite is Largo das Letras, a wonderful place where music dances through a library like setting and caipirinhas flow freely.
Stay tuned for our neighborhood review of Sao Paulo.