Does the party ever stop in Rio? With the host city at fever pitch for the 2016 Olympic Games, Brazilians are poised to samba in the street. Jonathan Franklin has his own take on how to enjoy this fabulously flamboyant locale.
To imbibe the visceral joy that is Rio de Janeiro, you must participate in the street culture. Brazil is all about communal celebrations. What better example than the chorus of a joyous samba band? Or the artistic teamwork of the national football team?
At a football game on Arpoador Beach, as crowds cheer a stunning goal, no-one cares that the star striker is a random 12-year-old from the favela (shantytown). Despite the horrendous gaps between rich and poor, there are moments when Brazilians forget these rifts and launch into carnival mode. The 2014 World Cup was one such event. The 2016 Summer Olympics is set to be another.
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If you’re in Rio for the Games, here’s a guide to the great eats, escapes and places to play. But before you do anything, familiarise yourself with the subway (MetrôRio), which is air-conditioned and allows you to skip the crazy traffic that paralyses the city’s streets most afternoons. As you explore, you’ll become attuned to the animated Portuguese banter coming from the botecos. Sit down with a beer in one of these neighbourhood bars and watch the parade: old men sitting on packing crates, playing cards, or a herd of shirtless, college-aged men strutting like extras from Gladiator.
Everyone, it seems, consumes an insane quantity of chopp (draught beer). It might help to explain why the locals are noisy. From a distance, a street-bar party sounds like a riot or the crowd at a boxing match. But up close it’s back-slapping laughter and never more than a song away from breaking into dance.
Sit at a seaside bistro
Café 18 do Forte (Praça Coronel Eugênio Franco, 1, Copacabana) is a snack spot and microbrewery between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. It’s part of the Forte do Copacabana military base so there’s a small entry fee. Reserve a table for the best views. It’s good for morning, afternoon or early evening and, because there are no vehicles here, it’s great for children. The menu is overloaded with desserts – try the Brazilian ice-cream (açaÍ and brazil nut are best). Or have a refreshing Cacildis golden lager.
Dine with a sacred view
Julius Brasserie (Avenida Portugal, 986, Loja D, Urca), at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, is the perfect spot for ceviche and wine, for lunch or dinner. Reservations (before 1pm) are required at this small venue, where owner Julius is often at the door. Ask for a table with a view of the Christ the Redeemer statue.
Be tempted by tapas
Jan Santos went to Madrid to study for an MBA then quit finance to arrange a merger between Brazilian and Spanish food. Santos now concocts world-class meals at Entretapas in the heart of Rio’s new gourmet corridor – Rua Conde de Irajá – in the Botafogo neighbourhood. Have a red-wine sangria or a caipirinha for starters then, perhaps, gazpacho, jamón serrano and croquetas de chorizo.
Eat famous fried chicken
Less than a block from Copacabana Beach, Sindicato do Chopp (Avenida Atlântica, 3806, Copacabana) offers great service, modest prices and famous fried chicken. And if you ask for Bobby’s Special Shrimp Sauce, they’ll whip up toasted chips and a bowl of spicy shrimp for dipping.
Park and ride
First, explore the immaculate Jardim Botânico – the cactus gardens are spectacular. After your walk? Enjoy iced coffee, gourmet sandwiches or croissants at La Bicyclette (Rua Pacheco Leão, 320, Loja D). The birdlife and secret forest paths make it a natural playground for children.
Go barefoot Japanese
Slip off your shoes, walk over an aquarium swimming with fish and savour fresh tuna, prawns or octopus at Yumê (Rua Pacheco Leão, 758, Jardim Botânico). A wide variety of saké, and candlelit rooms, let you forget the bustle of Rio. Try dish No. 23, a combo of mango and salmon. Trust us – it’s delicious.
Barbecue, Brazilian style
Churrascaria Palace (Rua Rodolfo Dantas, 16, Copacabana) is a high-end classic barbecue restaurant with an all-you-can-eat menu. Located next to the Belmond Copacabana Palace hotel, it’s one of Rio’s most popular steakhouses, best known for its lamb chops and seafood. You’ll need a reservation before you can enjoy a memorable meal here.
Sample the street food
Chef Roberta Sudbrack made her name as a hot-dog saleswoman. Her tasty street food even enticed former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who invited her to the presidential palace. Sudbrack brings her specialties to legions of fans via her Da Roberta food truck (Rua Tubira 8a, Leblon).
Watch the people parade
Local icon Pavão Azul (Rua Hilário de Gouvêia, 71), in Copacabana, attracts visitors of all stripes. Drink a few beers then order the shrimp risotto and settle in for some of the world’s best people-watching. On weekends, the place erupts with live music.
Taste Amazonian fare
Some of Brazil’s finest food comes from the state of Pará and along the Amazon River. At Tacacá do Norte (Rua Barão do Flamengo, 35, Loja R, Flamengo), try the tacacá. The soup is made from cassava, dried prawns and jambú, a leafy green that numbs the tongue with a cooling sensation.
Cycle along the coast
The beachfront bike path allows you to explore much of the Rio beach scene and coastal areas. Go beyond the usual Leblon-to-Copacabana route and head instead to the base of Sugerloaf Mountain. If your legs are holding up, keep going north towards Flamengo. Bike routes are well marked for solo excursions, or Rio by Bike offers guided tours of the city.
Join samba practice
Samba rehearsals – marked by pulsating drumbeats and marimba clacks – are informal. This is one cheerful chorus, with singers belting out the year’s repertoire. Monday nights are best for these simple open-air parties in neighbourhoods like Andaraí. The Renascença Clube (Rua Barão de São Francisco, 54) is far off the tourist track but worth the effort. Shows are held from 7pm to 10pm.
Take a ferry ride
Restaurante Laguna (Ilha da Gigóia, 34, Barra da Tijuca), situated on an island, is well worth the short ferry ride from the main strip of Barrada Tijuca. It has amazing views of Pedra da Gávea mountain and serves seafood specialties. Book ahead.
Find Devil’s Beach
Hidden between Copacabana and Ipanema, Devil’s Beach (Praia do Diabo) is a 250-metre strip of sand astride the rocky Arpoador outcrop. Buy a caipirinha at the vending cart behind the palm trees and watch – or join – the body builders, volleyball players, surfers and exercise buffs who have colonised this beach.
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Try an extreme activity
Want to go diving, rafting or even rappelling down Sugarloaf Mountain? The professional guides at RioXtreme run half-day trips and custom schedules with small groups to maximise safety.
Tour the favelas
Rodrigo at Cariocafreeculture offers great tours of the Vidigal and Rocinha favelas. The local guide mixes the best views of the city with an opportunity to meet the districts’ proud residents. For a stunning panorama from high above Rio, do the jungle walk with its hike to the Dois Irmãos peak.
Bag a unique design
Brazilian designer Gilson Martins has translated Rio’s sensual curves into award-winning handbags, backpacks and other goodies. Bags come with a photo of the artisan, while a portion of profits are returned to communities. Hang around and attentive staff will offer you a mini caipirinha.
Hire a private concierge
Given the huge Olympic crowds, you may want to hire the pros at Rio All Access. With local knowledge of all the hot clubs, Santiago and Arturo can help you avoid the queues and guide you to what’s hot.
Drink and dance
For the over-35 crowd, Rio has limited options but Usina (Rua Rita Ludolf, 47, Leblon) makes up for that with a live samba band and a small dance floor. Beer flows freely and patrons strut their samba moves, embrace in passionate kisses and pose for selfies.
Chill up above
Open 8pm to midnight (and until 2am on weekends), Deck Bar at the Pestana Rio Atlântica hotel (Avenida Atlântica, 2964, Copacabana) is a chic rooftop venue with a pool, perched above Copacabana Beach. It’s a favourite among those wanting a drink in a chic setting with a view of one of the world’s most famous beaches. The bar is often packed so book ahead.
Crash a jam session
Talented musicians cram into Bip-Bip (Rua Almirante Gonçalves, 50, Copacabana), a hole-in-the-wall with plastic tables, terrible service and enough beautiful music to silence all complaints. Beware, as legendary owner Alfredo may throw you out for taking a phone call during jam sessions. Sunday evenings and Mondays are best. ￼Taxis at the airport are the more expensive private cars (red/blue) or the normal yellow taxis.
Hang out at a four-storey party palace
Where else can you sit and listen to great local musicians, play pool or use the cyber café then graduate to the fourth floor for dancing? Lapa 40° (Rua Riachuelo, 97, Centro), in an older part of central Rio, overflows with dancers and revellers every weekend of the year.
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