With the Olympics kicking off this week, the bar and club owners of Copacabana and other Rio tourist traps will be licking their lips at the prospect of how much money they’ll make from gullible tourists. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s nothing Cariocas (Rio folk) enjoy more than hanging out in their favourite bar, and the ones we’ve chosen are all classics and integral parts of the neighbourhoods they reside in. Many are small botecos, local watering holes, ideal spots to cool off, hang out and get a beer for under £2 or a caipirinha for less than three.
Bar Brasil, Lapa
Walk into Bar Brasil and you get a snapshot of what the city was like in the middle of the last century, when Rio was still the capital of a booming Brazil and Lapa was its cultural and intellectual heart. This Rio institution opened in 1907, around the same time as the hulking wooden fridge that lurks in the corner and dispenses the beer. With high ceilings, white-washed walls, white tablecloths and old-school bow-tied waiters, the place has an air of Rio’s cool glamorous past about it. At lunchtime it’s full of businessmen from Rio’s commercial centre tucking in to German and Brazilian dishes; at night you get a younger crowd – Bar Brasil has benefited from Lapa’s resurgence over the last decade, which has been led by the fabulous Rio Scenarium music bar nearby.
What to eat: One of the German specialities, such as white salsicha branca de vitela (veal sausage), or the frango defumado (a whole/half smoked chicken).
• Avenida Mem de Sá, 90, Lapa, +55 21 2509 5943
Azul Marinho, Arpoador, Ipanema
In a city with so many bars and beaches, it is uncanny that the two rarely sit side by side. One noteworthy exception is the classy Azul Marinho bar-restaurant on Arpoador beach, an extension of Ipanema, one of the best places in Rio to watch the sun set. Sit at an outdoor table just a few feet from the beach and look along the sweeping stretch of Ipanema and Leblon backed by the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) mountains (pictured). It’s a little pricier than some of the other bars mentioned here but it’s hard to picture a more memorable sundowner. In summer it can reach 40C in Rio, and Arpoador is where Cariocas come to cool down with a beer and a moonlit dip.
What to eat: The restaurant specialises in seafood; try a moqueca (a deliciously rich seafood stew cooked in palm oil and coconut milk) or whole fish baked in salt.
• Avenida Francisco Bhering, Arpoador, +55 21 2513 5014
Bottled cerveja may be the drink of choice in every other city in Brazil, but in Rio it is chope, a light, refreshing draught beer served with a creamy head in tall glasses. And Jobi, a Rio institution dating back to 1956, has quasi-official status as the home of the best chope in town. Sales of around 10,000 glasses of beer per week attest to this, as do the crowds spilling out of the boteco and on to the pavement tables. It is only two blocks back from the beach in trendy Leblon, and gets packed and a bit messy later on – in a good way.
What to eat: The kitchen makes some of the best empanadas in town – try the camarão (prawn) variety. On Saturday there’s a great feijoada, or for a snack the caldo de feijão (the tasty, salty broth skimmed off the top of the beans).
• Rua Ataulfo de Paiva 1166, Leblon, +55 21 2274 0547
It’s small and nondescript, but Bracarense has legendary status among Rio drinkers. That’s probably because it gets just about everything right, from the zinc-topped bar and excellent service, to the cold beer, delicious salgadinhos (bar snacks) and generous measures in the caiprinhas (the waiter almost filled my glass with cachaça from a gallon bottle). There’s a happy hour feel and bawdy mixed crowd, everyone from post-work to post-beach punters, all stopping off for a quick bite and a geladinha (ice-cold beer) on the way home. Though if you’re lucky enough to get a pavement table (there’s often a queue), it’s tempting to stick around for the duration and watch Rio go about its business.
What to eat: Try any of the salgadinhos – bolinhos de aipim or bacalhau (fried cassava or cod balls), or the pernil (pork sandwich).
• Rua José Linhares 85, Leblon, +55 21 2294 3549
Bar do Mineiro, Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa is Rio’s villagey, boho neighbourhood, home to a flourishing artists’ community, and it’s well worth taking the rattly old tram up the hill from the centre to see the many attractive colonial buildings. The place to meet is Bar do Mineiro, a lively, friendly joint with old black and white photos of Rio on one wall and bright colourful paintings above the bar. It serves up hearty meaty dishes from the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais, also the home of Brazil’s finest cachaça (sugar cane spirit). So, as you’d expect from a bar carrying this name (Mineiros are Minas natives), there’s a an extensive selection of cachaças here. My caipirinha was flawless, and the bar also does a batida de gengibre, a ginger and cachaça cocktail – an aphrodisiac apparently. If you’re here late at night, take a taxi back down the hill.
What to eat: Minipastéis de feijão (deep-fried bean pasties). The Saturday feijoada (a bean and meat stew, Brazil’s national dish) is a corker by all accounts.
• Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno 99, Santa Teresa, +55 21 2221 9227
Armazém São Thiago (Bar do Gomez), Santa Teresa
Bar do Gomez, as the locals call it, is the Brazilian boteco straight out of central casting: the location is perfect, on a busy, picturesque corner of a cobbled street; the high ceilings and old photos and bujinganga (a nice word for junk) on the walls give it a timeless feel; and you could bottle the atmosphere and sell it to bars around the world. By the end of the night the pavement was swarming with friendly drinkers who’d had one chopp too many. If I lived in Rio, I’d spend far too much time in here.
What to eat: Whatever’s coming out of the kitchen: emapanadas, meat croquettes with mustard or crisp bolinhos de bacalhau with chilli sauce.
• Rua Áurea 26, Santa Teresa, +55 21 2232 0822, armazemsaothiago.com.br
Bar Urca, Urca
It’s all about the view here – and the legendary salgadinhos. Grab a cold beer and a few nibbles from the selection on offer at the enormous counter, cross the street and sit on the sea wall, watch the fishermen come in and look across the water to Guanabara Bay and Christ the Redeemer. This peaceful area is off the beaten track but worth the stroll once you’re here – it’s close to the city’s naval base, so completely safe to do so.
What to eat: Whatever looks good – the pastel de camarão (fried prawn pasty), or frango (chicken) or siri (crab) empanadas usually are. Or there’s a posh restaurant upstairs.
• Rua Cândido Gaffrée 205, Urca, +55 21 2295 8744, barurca.com.br
These days Copacabana is about as fashionable as the Barry Manilow song of the same name – or Rod Stewart or Mick Jagger, two of the many famous names who have eaten in Cervantes. The tiny 56-year-old bar – round the corner from its equally famous sister restaurant – hasn’t bothered moving with the times either, which is its charm. It’s full of beer-bellied, flip-flop-wearing old blokes shooting the breeze (Copacabana is a haven of retirees, the Brazilian Eastbourne) and, later on, night owls refuelling on the meatiest, tastiest sandwiches you’ll ever eat. The counter is bulging with huge beef fillets and legs of pork and ham, which the waiters hack off and stuff in to a roll with a slice of pineapple. Delicious with a chope. Standing room only.
What to eat: The sanduiche de pernil com abacaxi (pork sandwich with pineapple) is the classic. One would feed two for a proper meal, let alone a snack. The beef looked fabulous, too.
• Rua Barata Ribeiro 7, Copacabana, +55 21 2275 6147, restaurantecervantes.com.br
Bar Lagoa, Lagoa
This beautiful art deco bar overlooks, and takes its name from, the city’s small lake (as if there isn’t enough coastline to keep everyone happy) which will stage the rowing and some of the kayaking events when the city hosts the Olympics in 2016. The pink marble walls and small balcony – where an orchestra once played – date back to the 1930s, when it opened as Bar Berlin. Anti-war demonstrations forced a name change, but it still serves excellent white wurst, potato salad and sauerkraut with kassler, and the draught Bohemia chopp is well-kept, as you’d expect in a German bar. Just don’t expect Germanic efficiency – it’s a longstanding local joke that the grumpy, indolent waiters are part of Lagoa’s “charm”.
What to eat: Any of the above or the steak sandwich.
•Avenida Epitácio Pessoa 1674, Lagoa, Ipanema, +55 21 2523 1135, barlagoa.com.br
Braseiro de Gavéa, Gavéa
Squeezed between the two illustrious neighbourhoods of Jardim Botanico and beach-front Leblon, Gavéa is overlooked by many visitors to Rio, and here lies part of its charm. The Braseiro de Gavéa is unmissable as it is in the area’s main square and always heaving with hopeful diners spilling out across the payment and into the street as they vie for tables inside. To keep everyone happy and well-fuelled, a small bar in a side window dishes out chopp, caipirinha and dishes of grilled sausage and chicken hearts and bolinhos de bacalhau. The small Sunday market in Baixa Gaveá ensures the bar is bustling from the moment it opens, and Monday evenings are traditionally the night for the young and the young at heart to throng to Gavéa. A real Rio joint.
What to eat: Picanha (grilled cap of sirloin) served with rice, black beans and all the trimmings. It will serve three.
• Praça Santos Dumont, 116, Gavéa (+55 21 2239 7494, braseirodagavea.com.br)
• My guide and drinking partner was Steven Chew, owner of the Brazilian Beach House Company, which offers luxurious villas, beach houses and private islands all over Brazil. For more information on visiting Brazil, go to braziltour.com
This article was amended on 1 August 2016. New photos were added and the copy updated