If the Olympic movement is having a hard time of it, consider the year the host city is having. In the build-up to the 2016 Games, Brazil is sinking under a tickertape parade of bad news. Given stories of polluted water, gang and police violence, an economy in free fall, the Zika virus, fear of terror attacks and a president impeached, worries over unfinished infrastructure for the Games almost pale into insignificance.
Lovely Rio, it’s easy to imagine, might just think twice given the chance to bid for the Olympics again. And yet, despite everything, the metropolis remains arguably the most beautiful city in the Americas, if not the world: whatever might happen in the sporting arenas, the Olympics has never had a backdrop as stunning as this.
And despite all their worries, most cariocas, as Rio’s residents are known, are proud of their amazing city. As they prepare to welcome half a million visitors to the Games, we asked five insiders to talk us through the best of their tropical seaside home.
Rafael Costa e Silva, chef-proprietor at Lasai, one of the city’s five Michelin-starred restaurants
São Paulo has more options than Rio in terms of cuisine, but we outshine them when it comes to avant garde, contemporary local food. As well as Lasai, we have Olympe, owned by the chef who pioneered the fusion of Brazilian and French cuisines; Roberta Sudbrack, with a bistro feel and sophisticated, eight-course tasting menu. Also Oro, which reopened in Leblon recently, is extremely creative.
We’re closed on Sundays and Mondays, so those are the nights we can get out to eat. For special occasions, we love Olympe; but we often go to Azumi (on ), a Japanese restaurant in Copacabana. The broths, the udon and the soba there are great (£12-21).
Bar Urca is a Rio classic – highly recommended for visitors. The food isn’t the greatest, but you go there for the ambience – to meet friends and drink beer sitting on the wall outside, looking out over Guanabara Bay.
There’s a restaurant in Centro, the old commercial heart of Rio, where I don’t go as often as I’d like, but that I love – Escondidinho (on ). My dad used to go when he was young, I go there sometimes, and probably my son will go too. It’s a traditional lunchtime restaurant going since the 1940s and known for its beef ribs in broth, with fried cassava and watercress (£32, serves two or more). The meat starts to fall off the bone before you’ve even picked up your knife and fork.
We have a culture of botecos, classic neighbourhood bars where you grab a beer and a snack – say a pastel (a small meat or cheese pie) or a coxinha (chicken-and-cassava fritter). There’s a great one in Praça da Bandeira (in north Rio, very near the Maracanã stadium, which will stage the Games’ opening ceremony) called Aconchego Carioca that does all our national dishes and snacks very well indeed.
A more rustic, classic boteco is Bar da Gema in Andaraí. They do fried polenta with oxtail stew on top (£10), and you eat it with your hands. It’s amazing. They also serve pastel de feijão gordo (£1.50), little pies filled with feijoada – black-bean stew, our national dish. They are so good I could eat about 10 of them.
Brazil isn’t so strong on street food, but the Saturday morning farmers’ market in Jardim Botânico, on Rua Frei Leandro, opposite Olympe restaurant, does a great tapioca, a kind of cassava pancake. It serves up a version with cheese, tomato, onions and oregano, using a cheese called queijo minas meia-cura, which melts perfectly when it hits the griddle.
Bars and nightlife
Alice Guedes, bartender at Brigite’s, a bistro in Leblon. She has twice finished in the top 10 in Brazil’s best bartender competition
Musically, Rio is incredibly rich – it’s often music that gets people out at night. Monday is outdoor samba night at Pedra do Sal, in Largo João da Baiana, 10 minutes’ walk from the new Museum of Tomorrow (which is definitely worth a visit). Musicians go straight there to play after they get off work, from about 7pm. They play old-school, very traditional samba. Take a taxi if you don’t know this area.
And on Wednesday nights at Praça Tiradentes there’s a jazz scene in the middle of the square, just people hanging out and playing and listening to jazz. It’s free. They just turn up and start playing, and if you get there at about 9pm, it’s generally in full swing. Cariocas are experts at making something happen out of nothing.
Praça São Salvador in Laranjeiras is another one: on Friday nights, the square gets packed with hundreds of people getting together in the open air, and guys selling beer from ice boxes. Everyone loves it.
Mixing is a kind of speakeasy in Rio Comprido, between Centro and Tijuca. During the day it’s a school of mixology, but on certain nights it transforms into a bar. You’d never guess it was there from the outside – you go through a garage, up some stairs and along a corridor and there it is.
Traditionally, Rio has always been about caipirinhas and chope (light draft beer) but there’s a growing cocktail culture. The challenge for Rio bartenders is to convince cariocas to go for drier, more complex drinks – as they tend to veer towards sweetness. Bar D’Hotel, inside Marina All-Suites, has one of the best drinks menus in Rio; another is the new Bar Astor inside the Astor hotel, on the Ipanema seafront. They’ve brought high-level São Paulo-style mixology to Rio, which I love.
The new Atlântico Rio de Janeiro in Barra da Tijuca is one of the most Rio-spirited bars I can think of, though its owner isn’t even Brazilian. Tato Giovannoni came from Buenos Aires, where he owns the bar Floreria Atlántico, and just did something different – created a really good beach bar with amazing cocktails and fresh seafood.
He makes a dry martini with a tincture of sea salt, right there on the beach, and serves oysters at about £1 each. They’re also doing a pop-up bar during the Olympics, at Clubhouse Rio.
For me, the best saideira (nightcap) is at Galeto Sat’s , open till late in Copacabana. Lots of bartenders and chefs go there after work for beer and grilled chicken. It’s a tiny, old-fashioned joint where people spill on to the pavement. My order is a shot of good cachaça and a plate of grilled chicken hearts.
History and culture
Luiza Mello, art producer, Automatica, which produces the annual art event Travessias in the Complexo da Maré favela in north Rio
A place I love to take visitors is Instituto Moreira Salles. It’s a wonderful example of modernist Brazilian architecture, with gardens by Roberto Burle Marx and a beautiful panel by Cândido Portinari, facing the pond. It was once the home of a very wealthy family, but today it’s a cultural institution with an impeccable programme – they hold great exhibitions, plus there’s a photo collection, a music collection and a photography magazine.
Parque Lage is always good – another very beautiful place, home to the EAV School of Visual Arts, with an interesting gallery in the former stables, called Galeria das Cavalariças.
Culturally, Rio’s downtown area, Centro, just gets more and more interesting. There is a great area around Praça XV, with art galleries, cinema and theatre in the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil ; the former imperial palace Paço Imperial, which is one of the city’s most historic buildings and now a cultural centre; and the Casa França-Brasil, a contemporary art space in Rio’s oldest neoclassical building. The Candelária and Carmo churches are also both worth seeing.
Centro has another cultural hub now: Porto Maravilha, Rio’s regenerated port district, with the MAR Museum of Art and the Museum of Tomorrow. Close to that but less well-known is Cais do Valongo, the archaeological site of Rio’s former shipping wharf, where hundreds of thousands of the slaves brought to Brazil came ashore. There’s also the Galeria dos Pretos Novos, an art gallery, and part of a memorial complex on the site of an ancient slave cemetery.
Pedra do Sal is another historic site in the area, where there was once a quilombo, a community of former slaves and their descendants. It’s just behind the MAR, and a very interesting place to visit.
Beaches and nature
Nicole Casares, blogger, Cariocando no Rio. She runs tours of some of her favourite places, booked via her site
Rio is full of quiet spots from which to observe the city’s curves, the contours of the hills and the green vegetation against the ocean. There are lovely parks, such as Parque Lage and the Jardim Botânico, and even the gigantic tropical rainforest, Floresta da Tijuca invades the city limits. Or just being in the sea is a peaceful experience.
If you only go to one beach, I’d recommend Ipanema, at Posto 10 (postos are the beaches demarcation points and come every kilometre). It’s one of the safest parts of the beach, and it attracts a lot of young, cool people. There’s a good place just across the road for lunch called Balada Mix, with great sandwiches and juices, including açai. Arpoador, a headland between Copacabana and Ipanema, is special too – you have to see it at sunset, when people climb on to the rocks to look right down Ipanema beach to the sun setting behind the Dois Irmãos peaks.
I also like the long beaches to the west: at Barra da Tijuca and also Praia da Joatinga, where the water is a beautiful green colour and there are no crowds. To reach it, you follow a steep trail down on to the sand. Some of Rio’s very best beaches are even further west, on the very edge of the city, like Praia do Secreto and Prainha.
Because of all the mountains dotted around, Rio must have the most spectacular views of any city in the world. My all-time favourite view is from Mirante Dona Marta. It’s breathtaking – you can see Sugarloaf Mountain below, with the sea all around it, the boats in Botafogo harbour and all the way across Guanabara Bay to Niterói. And in the other direction you can see Christ the Redeemer close up. You can take a taxi there direct from Botafogo, or via the Jardim Botânico neighbourhood, through Parque Nacional da Tijuca, stopping at Vista Chinesa for another amazing view. Lots of athletes and cyclists train up there, but it’s very steep, only for the super-fit.
This unique topography means you can also hike and climb within the city. Of Rio’s best-known hikes, Dois Irmãos is light to moderate, about 45 minutes’ climb from the top of Vidigal favela (which is safe to visit). You can take a van to the foot of the trail, or a motorbike taxi. Or inside Parque Nacional da Tijuca, Pedra Bonita is a nice, easy walk, about 40-45 minutes. It’s steep, but if you take it slowly, it’s fine, and the view are similar to those from the top of Pedra da Gávea, which is a far harder climb.
One of my favourite, lesser-known trails is the Trilha do Morro da Babilônia. It’s really easy – only 30 or 40 minutes – and has great views of Praia Vermelha beach and Pão de Açucar. You start at Ladeira Ary Barroso in Leme, and walk up into Chapéu Mangueira favela. Guides from Coop Babilônia, a residents’ cooperative, will take you up the trail for about £14. It’s best to go early in the day, and make sure to be out of the community before evening.
Close by is a lovely, easy 20-minute walk to Leme Fort, which very few cariocas know about. You start from Praça Almirante Júlio de Noronha, at the tip of Leme, pay R$4 to go in the fort, and then walk up a trail thick with birds, plants and butterflies – it’s a glorious place.
Out of town
João Vargas, documentary filmmaker and expert on landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx
Historically, cariocas escaped the summer heat in mountain towns such as Petrópolis (briefly the capital of Brazil), Teresópolis and Araras. Petrópolis, about an hour from Rio by road, is an interesting, historic town, with an Imperial Museum and some lovely waterfalls.
The island of Ilha Grande is 100km from Rio, plus a boat trip, but really has to be seen. It has spectacular beaches, and lots of dense, unspoiled Atlantic forest. No cars are allowed on the island. It’s a real paradise, although it was once a hellish prison island where political prisoners were held.
But there are lots of good excursions closer to Rio – across Guanabara Bay to Niterói is Oscar Niemeyer’s MAC contemporary art museum, with magnificent views back to Rio, and some great restaurants close by.
My top recommendation, though, is to head out past Barra da Tijuca and the Olympic Park towards Guaratiba, to visit Sítio Burle Marx, where the famous landscape artist lived and worked.
Rio’s landscape is dotted with his works – he landscaped the square in front of Santos Dumont airport, the gardens of the Modern Art Museum and Flamengo Park. He also designed the famous pavement tiles for Copacabana and Ipanema promenades.
Sítio Burle Marx is a lovely series of gardens, with a small museum and his painting studio, now used for occasional exhibitions. It was a laboratory for Burle Marx, a place to cultivate plants, and to experiment. It goes from sea level to a height of about 300 metres. You have to make an appointment to visit (+21 2410 1412; firstname.lastname@example.org), and it’s one to two hours’ drive, depending on traffic. You can get there faster via the tunnel, but the scenic route along the coast, past miles of restinga – the sandy coastal shrubland – passes a number of beautiful beaches: Praia da Macumba, Praia do Secreto and the nudist Praia do Abricó.
Close to the Sítio, there’s a fantastic restaurant, Bira de Guaratiba, specialising in African-influenced seafood dishes from the state of Bahia. It’s not cheap, but the food is fantastic, the portions serve three or four people (or order a half portion) and the sea views are stunning.
Also on the way is the Museu Casa do Pontal, which has a huge collection of vernacular Brazilian art, and which runs interesting contemporary exhibitions alongside.