Rio de Janeiro: A Travel Guide to the Top Areas

First trip to Rio? Our neighborhood and area guide will help get your bearings, between the well-known sights, the city, mountains and sea.

Even those who know nothing else of Brazil will have heard of Rio de Janeiro, its Mardi Gras carnival, spectacular beaches and mountain scenery. Rio de Janeiro is also a state, which boasts beaches, forests and mountains. The southern coast, Costa Verde, is fringed with emerald-green coves and bays rising steeply to hills pocked with national parks. Mountains swathed in coffee plantations sit behind Rio itself, with hill retreats once favoured by the imperial family, dotted throughout their valleys biodiverse forests covering parts of their slopes. Northeast of the city lies a string of surf beaches and little resorts, including Búzios, a fishing village put on the map by Brigitte Bardot in the late 1960s, now a chic 
little retreat for the state’s middle classes.

 Cable car up to Sugarloaf Mountain (©John Copland/iStock/Thinkstock)

 

Central Rio and Lapa

Hot and sweaty Central Rio spreads back from Guanabara Bay in a jumbled grid of streets between Santos Dumont Airport and the Jesuit Mosteiro São Bento, some of dating from 1567. Even thought areas have been modernized, it’s still Rio’s historic center, with distinguished colonial buildings, Manueline follies and neoclassical facades alongside apartment blocks and Le Corbusier-inspired concrete.

The greatest concentration of historic buildings lies south of the city center, near Santos Dumont Airport and around Praça 15 de Novembro, from where Rio de Janeiro grew in its earliest days. Here you’ll find most of the museums, beautiful little churches and colonial buildings such as the Paço Imperial and the Palácio Tiradentes. The city’s main artery is Avenida Presidente Vargas, 4.5 kilometers long and more than 90 meters wide, dividing these northern and southern sections. It begins at the waterfront, splits around the Candelária church, then crosses the Avenida Rio Branco in a magnificent straight stretch past Central do Brasil railway station.

 

Santa Teresa

A bus or tram ride from Rio’s centre or Guanabara Bay suburbs to Santa Teresa is a magical experience. It winds up the hilly streets lined with pretty colonial houses and lavish mansions towards the forested slopes of Tijuca National Park, and with sweeping views of Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf Mountain. At the summit of Morro do Desterro hill, where Santa Teresa lies, you pass the Largo do Guimarães and the Largo das Neves, little praças of shops and restaurants with a village feel. Santa Teresa has a strong community identity forged by one of the highest concentrations of artists, writers and musicians in the city. They congregate in bars like O Mineiro, on the Largo do Guimarães, Bar Gomes and Bar Porto das Neves, on the Largo das Neves. At weekends the lively nightlife spills over into clubs and into neighbouring Lapa, a five-minute taxi ride away.

 

Glória, Catete and Flamengo

The city center is separated from Copacabana and the other ocean beaches by a series of long white-sand coves that fringe Guanabara Bay, and which are divided by towering rocks. The first is the Enseada da Glória, fronting the suburb of the same name and sitting next to the Santos Dumont Airport. Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, a broad avenue lined with a mix of grand houses and squat office blocks, leads from here to Flamengo beach. The suburb of Catete lies just behind Flamengo. These three areas were once the heart of recreational Rio; the posing-spots of choice for the belle-époque middle and upper classes and perhaps the most coveted urban beaches in the world.

Sugarloaf Mountain looms over the bay of Botofogo

Pão de Açúcar, or the Sugarloaf, looms over the perfect wine-glass bay of Botafogo. Huddled around the boulder’s flanks is the suburb of Urca, home to a military barracks and a middle-class neighbourood. Remnant forest shrouds the boulder’s sides and a cable car straddles the distance between its summit, the Morro de Urca hill and the houses below.
 

Christ Statue At Corcovado And Cosme Velho

 Cristo Redentor overlooking the bays

The view from Corcovado mountain is one of the world’s greatest, particularly impressive at dusk. Almost 1km above the city at the top of a high peak in Tijuca forest stands O Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), lit in brilliant xenon and with arms open to embrace the view. At his feet to the west are bays, fringed with white and backed by twinkling skyscrapers and the neon of myriad street lights. To the east lie long stretches of sand; in front and to the south is the sparkle of Niterói watched over by low grey mountains and connected to Rio by a 10km-long bridge.

At the base of the mountain is the sleepy suburb of Cosme Velho, leafy and dotted with grand houses, museums and a little artist’s corner, Largo do Boticario.

 

Copacabana and Leme

Cafes lining Copacabana Beach

Copacabana beach, called Leme at its northern end, epitomizes picture-book Rio: a splendid broad sweeping crescent of fine sand stretching for almost 8 km, washed by a bottle-green Atlantic and watched over by the Morro do Leme—another of Rio’s beautiful forest-covered hills.

Behind it, a wide neon-lit avenue is lined with high-rises, the odd grand hotel and various bars, restaurants and clubs. Until the turn of the 21st century, Copacabana and Leme were a little tawdry. New beach cafés, paving, a clamp-down on the unpleasant street-walking and targeted policing have made the beach far and safer. While the water can be dirty when the currents wash shoreward, Copacabana and Leme are now as pleasant places to relax in the sun as neighboring Ipanema. And they’re a good deal cheaper.

 

Ipanema and Leblon

Like Copacabana and Leme, Ipanema and Leblon are essentially one long curving beach enclosed by the Dois Irmãos rocks (west) and the Arpoador rocks (east). Ipanema and Leblon have long regarded themselves as Rio’s most fashionable and cool stretches of sand. This neighbourhood is wealthy, pricey, predominantly white, and sealed off from the realities of Rio in a neat little fairy-tale strip of streets, watched over by twinkling lights high up on the flanks of the Morro Dois Irmãos which are actually from one of the city’s largest favelas.

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