I stared at her, unsure of what she’d said. “Inglés?”
“You speak English?” she asked, her eyes widening with excitement. “My mother is an English teacher. You have to meet her! What do you have planned for your time in Rio?”
I confided in her that I didn’t have much of anything planned. And this is how I got to experience Rio de Janeiro from a local point of view with my new best friend Clarissa leading the way.
What is so unique about the city of Rio de Janeiro is its beautiful beaches, cosmopolitan architecture, lush forests and unique mountains that can all be seen from any one vantage point. It’s also home to very friendly people, as Clarissa explained to me that the locals excitedly showing strangers around the city for no reason is “so Rio.”
I noticed the locals I met were very proud of Rio’s beauty, culture and heritage, and with good reason. While the other big Brazilian city of São Paulo is well known for its over-the-top work ethic and fast-paced style, Rio de Janeiro is more relaxed with a natural attractiveness.
Just because Rio is a beach town doesn’t mean there aren’t historical and educational sites.
For those coming to the city looking to learn about history, there are many options that even the residents consider worthwhile. Rio de Janeiro itself is historical, as it used to be the capital of Brazil until the government realized it wasn´t a good idea to have a capital that was so “exposed.” This is why they moved the capital to Brasília, an area located in the center of the country.My favorite historical site to visit was the Forte de Copacabana (pictured above), a military base located in the southern part of Rio de Janeiro. During the twentieth century, it was built to protect the coast and harbor from attack. Unfortunately, in 1922 rebel officers aimed the fort’s cannons at Rio de Janeiro during a revolt for social change. While the fort is no longer used for coastal defense, visitors can still go and check out the old cannons, architecture and a museum. There is also a charming outdoor restaurant called Confeitaria Colombo (pictured right) that serves a massive brunch with tea, coffee, chocolate, breads, cakes, cereals, yogurt and jams for 39 Reais (roughly US$21) for two people. Confeitaria Colombo has been around since 1894 and you can sit with a peaceful tree-lined avenue and the fort on your one side, and Copacabana Beach and the city skyline on your other. Surfers, kayakers and stand up paddle boarders provide entertainment during the meal.
Clarissa also told me about all of the old churches located in the city, the oldest one being Candelaria. It was the first church in Rio de Janeiro with its construction spanning from 1775 to the late nineteen century. The architecture is a baroque design and the structure itself is massive. While the building was home to many important historical events, such as massive protests and the devastating Candelaria Massacre on July 23, 1993, it is also a very sacred space. Whether you’re into history or not, I would recommend visiting the site and touring both the inside and outside, as it is a beautiful church that locals are very proud of. While telling me about the site, Clarissa also added that if you want to get married in Candelaria you should expect to pay an exorbitant amount of money.
I also enjoyed a visit led by my spontaneous local guide to the Teatro Municipal. It’s a theater located in the city center that was built in the early twentieth century. The building’s design was based on the Paris Opera, and the venue is a big part of the city’s art and cultural past in terms of foreign operas and symphonic orchestras. Today, the program of this grand theater has expanded and ballet and classical pieces are popular. If you don’t want to see a show, simply visit the theater to see the luxurious interior and grand design, or visit at night when it is all lit up.
While many tourists head straight to Ipanema near Vinicius de Morais – a street named after the composer of the 1950’s hit song “Girl From Ipanema” – there are many other beautiful beaches with unique personalities. Start at Copacabana Beach (pictured right), which features impressive city-like architecture, the historical Copacabana Fort, impressive works of colorful sand art and an array of water and land activities. This beach is low-key and attracts a diverse crowd.
If you’re in the mood for a more VIP experience, make your way to Ipanema or Leblon Beach. Both are in upscale, expensive neighborhoods and attract only the most beautiful people, with these trendy, sexy beaches being no different. There are also very classy restaurants and lounges in the area, but only go if you have money to spend. On Sundays in Ipanema there is an excellent market from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in General Osório Square.
Barra Beach, although a bit hard to get to due to its traffic-heavy location, is in a more commercial setting. What’s great about this beach is it’s in completely open sea and away from the favelas. It’s also known for having very clean water and big waves that attract international surfers. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, head a little farther to Reserve Beach, which is in a completely protected area and has a very relaxed, calm setting. This is one of the beaches most loved by locals.
Once you get into the more mountainous, forest-covered areas, you will feel like you’re in a different city. The rare stretch of beauty starts with Macumba Beach, which is not only secluded within nature, but also a popular camping area. Next is the beach known by many locals as “the most beautiful beach in Rio,” Prainha Beach. Prainha is excellent for surfing and has a very small-town feel. Nearby, you will find an enormous flat rock in the water where locals sunbathe and try to catch fish. Pass a large mountain on your right and you will come to another amazing spot, Grumari Beach. This area is so hidden and off-the-beaten path that Argentine football (soccer) player Lionel Messi goes there to hide out. And if you’re feeling a little frisky, the nude beach is only seconds away behind the nearby rocks.
As Rio de Janeiro is located in a very mountainous area, it’s no surprise that hiking is such a big part of local culture. While almost everyone has heard of Sugarloaf Mountain (pictured right), there is an array of worthwhile trails to discover. Pico Da Tijuca, located in an urban forest, is beautiful and easily accessible. It’s in a protected area and local fauna can be found like monkeys, snakes, frogs, birds and butterflies. Corcovado is another rare treat, as a trek to the top will bring you face-to-face with Jesus Christ himself – well, an enormous statue of him, anyway. The views from the top allow you to see the entire city at once.
The above-mentioned Sugarloaf is another great hike, and tourists and locals alike love the experience. Made of granite and quartz, the sugarloaf-resembling mass rises 1,299 feet above the Guanabara Bay with sweeping views of land, sea, forest and hills. Another unique formation is Pedra da Gavea, which resembles a sleeping giant. Here, trekkers can hike up a massive “nose” while wondering how such an odd shape could have been created by nature. There are also cryptic carvings and ancient inscriptions that make the site even more mysterious.
For an interesting mountain view, check out Two Brothers. While you can’t climb this unique natural formation, the two Siamese mountain twins make for a great photo, especially when viewed during a sunset from Ipanema Beach.
While you can find great food all over Rio de Janeiro, if you’re looking to dine where the locals do and eat typical Brazilian specialties, there are a few worthwhile places Clarissa introduced me to. For those wanting to sample famous Brazilian churrascaria, get dressed up and visit Churrascaria Porcao. Located near the airport in Flamengo, the traditional BBQ venue attracts high-class clientele and business people. Moreover, like most churrascarias you should expect to pay 80 Reais (roughly US$44) or more. While pricey, the meat, salad and seafood buffet is worth every penny, especially since there is a wall made of glass offering gorgeous views of the water. For something a little less traditional but just as classy and delicious, try Rio Brasa. Located in both Leblon and Barra, this trendy BBQ restaurant offers some of the best tasting meat in the country.
Another local dining trend in Rio de Janeiro is to go to a restaurant where you can enjoy imported beers, handcrafted brews and caipirinhas, and creative appetizers with an international and local fusion. One place to try this is Academia de Cachaça, which features outdoor seating and an array of specialty caipirinhas. I tried a peanut-infused one as well as one flavored with passion fruit and realized that, while I have sipped on cocktails in the United States that went by the same name, you’ve never really had a caipirinha until you’ve visited Brazil. They are extremely strong and flavorful, and just one will knock you right off your chair. For an appetizer, Carissa and I shared manioc balls baked with cheese and served on a bed of sweet chili sauce (pictured above). They reminded me of very delicious sweet and spicy tater tots. Devassa is another chain eatery with a similar concept, although a bit quirkier. The name literally means “horny,” and when ordering beers, patrons are asked questions like “would you like a horny blonde?” or “are you in the mood for a horny brunette?”
There are generally two areas that locals go to for nightlife: Lapa and Ipanema/Leblon. Both attract two different crowds. Lapa is where you should go if you’re looking for a casual but lively atmosphere where anything goes and everyone is accepted. All styles of music are played and it is truly a cultural experience. If you’re looking for something trendier with a more upscale crowd and sexy people, Ipanem and Leblon are where you’ll want to go. The venues are fancy, but you’ll be immersing yourself in a very classy and luxurious atmosphere. Before choosing your main spot for the night, pre-game at the ultra sexy Veloso in Leblon, which is where the most beautiful and hip people go. For something a bit more touristy but still enjoyed by locals, you can also head over to the Feira de Sao Cristovão. Here they bring the foods, music and dance from the northeast region of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro. While the party goes on every night from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., the weekends are where you’ll experience the most music and dance. Just be sure to take a taxi home and be careful, as the area surrounding the fair can sometimes be dangerous.