Rumors abound to how Rio de Janeiro got its name, but one thing is for certain: Guanabara Bay is not a rio (river). Despite the misnomer, the Portuguese settlement went on to become an important city in the Portuguese empire, and later the capital of Brazil when the country gained its independence. Although Brasilia has been the seat of the government since 1960, Rio maintains an important role in the country’s economy and culture, and is Brazil’s second largest city, after Sao Paulo. The city’s tropical savannah climate sees temperatures average 18C/64F year round, with the summer months of December through March experiencing heavy rain.
Rio’s colorful culture, hearty nightlife, and flair for living has earned it the nickname the Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvelous City”) in the country’s official language of Portuguese. Its Carnival is the world’s largest, during which the city is overrun by lavish balls and bandas (street parties). Music plays an enormous role in the everyday life of cariocas (the nickname of city residents), and although samba and bossa nova are the more well-known genres to come out of Brazil, in the northeastern part of the country the most popular style by far is forró, which is a focus of the city’s June festivals. In the on-season, fans converge on Maracaña Stadium, one of the world’s largest, where the city’s numerous football (soccer) clubs face off.
Located on Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park (purported to be the largest urban forest on the planet), the 38-meter-/125-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer is both the most recognized symbol of Rio and the largest art deco statue in the world. Sugarloaf Mountain offers splendid city vistas after a three-minute ride via cable car, featured in the James Bond film Moonraker. Opened in 1877, the Santa Teresa Tram, one of the world’s oldest still functioning, is a nostalgic way to get around town. Eclectic architecture and celebrated ballet and classical music are draws of the Theatro Municipal, where such legends as Sarah Bernhardt and Arturo Toscanini have performed.
The Downtown district contains the highest concentration of attractions, including the ultra-modern Metropolitan Cathedral, the still-operational Monastery of St. Benedict, and the National Museum of Fine Arts, considered to be the most important museum of Brazilian art. The city’s balnearios, or seaside towns, have been the subject of many popular songs. Funky and diverse Ipanema features some of the city’s best dining and upscale shopping on Rua Garcia D’Avila. Flashier than its neighbor directly to the south, Copacabana is famed for its raucous nightlife and decadent New Year’s Eve celebrations. The city’s 600 favelas (shanty towns)—including Rocinha, the largest—are also popular destinations for visitors.