Our Local Guide to Rio de Janeiro
As the FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro is kicking off in less than a month, we thought we’d share some of our favourite things to do in Brazil’s sexy seaside city, the things that locals love to do, from sipping sucos to samba dancing. Here’s our local guide to the best of Rio de Janeiro.
Start with a suco
The energy of Rio’s locals is legendary and their secret to surviving the seemingly never-ending days and nights is an energy-packed, vitamin-laden juice or suco. Sipping a suco is a daily ritual and almost every block boasts a juice bar with glass counters decorated with colourful displays of fruit and menus listing countless varieties of freshly squeezed juices, blends, andvitaminas — thick smoothies of juice, milk or yoghurt, honey, wheat grass, and guarana (Brazilian caffeine berry). Our pick is Polis Sucos, opposite the Nossa Senhora da Paz, Our Lady of Peace church, at Ipanema.
Hit the beach
Rio’s beaches are busy from sunrise until sunset, when Rio’s locals — or cariocas, as they are called — are by the beach, on the sand or in the water. When they’re not working they are walking, running, cycling, and skateboarding along the beach promenades of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, or they’re down on the squeaky soft sand, playing volleyball or football or out in the water swimming and surfing, and they’re doing it until the sun goes down when they head home to get ready to go out.
Head for the hills
The hilly, bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa is a lovely place to explore. Wander — or rather, hike — the steep, winding streets, lined with colourful colonial houses that house galleries, craft shops, cafés and restaurants. The locals’ favourite is Bar do Mineiro, hidden around the bend from a handful of more expensive restaurants the guidebooks recommend. Illuminated by fluoro lights, the white-tiled Bar do Mineiro’s walls are covered with black and white photos and its tables are packed with locals. Start with a basket of Brazil’s national snack, tasty bolino de Bacalao (cod balls) and savoury pasties, then order the specialty, most popularly eaten for weekend lunch, the traditional feijoada, a hearty bean and pork stew. You can also learn to make it on one of the most fun cooking classes we’ve ever done, Cooking in Rio.
Sip coconut water
It’s a close call as to whether Brazil’s national drink is coconut water sipped from a straw thrust into a freshly cracked coconut shell or the potent caiparinha cocktail, made with plenty of fresh limes, sugar, and the Brazilian sugar-cane spirit, cachaça. Both are sold for a couple of dollars from the tiny bars dotted along the beaches. We recommend pulling up a plastic chair at one of Ipanema’s many beach bars and starting with a coconut water which you should sip while watching the sky turn pink, peach and tangerine as the sun goes down. Then order a caiparinha.
Sample creative cairparinhas
At nearby Leblon, the shelves of the bar at the Academia da Cachaça are weighed down by dozens of bottles of different types of cachaça, common and rare, most unavailable outside Brazil. Alongside a superb classic caiparinha the Academia mixes up creative cachaça based cocktails such as pineapple, orange and passionfruit caiparinhas, cachaça that has been infused with everything from cinnamon to cashew, and juice-based concoctions like the cocada geladinha, made from cachaça, coconut and coconut juice. Soak up the liquor with some hot fried snacks for which Rio’s bars are deservedly famous, such as the queijo coalha asado (roasted curd cheese) and bolinho de quejo (cheese balls), which are said to be terrific hangover cures.
See some football
Brazilians are passionate about football (soccer) and Cariocas are no exception. While the World Cup is what most visitors in June will be in Rio to see, the most exciting game of the local football season is the clássico or derby between rival clubs such as Flamengo and Fluminense or Botafogo and Vasco da Gama, Rio’s four most popular teams. We saw a clássico between Botafogo and Vasco de Gama from the high seats at Sao Cristovao stadium with a whopping 20,000 people on our last trip. The tension was palpable and the energy ignited well before play by the hardcore fans who beat drums and chanted songs and during the game, cheered, screamed, applauded, hugged each other, danced, and lept in the air. The atmosphere was electric.
Savour serene bay vistas
After the excitement of a football game, you’ll be in need of some calm. At the end of the tranquil peninsula in the peaceful, posh, residential neighbourhood of Urca, you’ll find waterfront Bar Urca. Upstairs is a popular seafood restaurant, but downstairs is a simple bar where you should do as the locals do and buy bottles of cheap icy-cold beer, which the bartender will tops with plastic cups. Order some fried snacks then cross the road to try to snag a space on the crowded sea wall. There you should find locals sitting cross-legged on the wall or swinging their legs over the side, in chatty conservation as they sip beers, while couples will be kissing and cuddling as they watch the planes fly in over the still waters of serene Guanabara Bay.
Sway your hips to some mellow samba
For something livelier and sexier the answer is samba. While you can dance the night away at one of Rio’s most popular spots, like the massive (touristy) Rioscenarium, you could instead opt for something more laidback and low-key — samba’s more mellow cousin pagode. We like Bip Bip, a miniscule botequim or neighbourhood music bar in the backstreets of Copacabana, where it’s played by a motley group of musicians. There, you can help yourself to beers from the fridge at the back of the bar — there’s an honour system and you pay for what you drink on the way out — and sway your hips to the beat of the cuica, a Brazilian drum that sounds like a cross between a monkey and a car horn. While the bar stays open until late most nights, on Sunday the music seems to wind down around 10pm or so.
Do a boteco hop
If you’re hungry after all that football, drinking and dancing, head to a boteco or local neighbourhood bar for more of Rio’s famous fried snacks. Most stay open late, some until the wee hours of the morning, and there’s nothing we like to do more than a boteco hop or bar crawl, a quintessentially Rio de Janeiro ritual. These simple places often have stainless steel counters, retro menu boards, and rickety wooden chairs or plastic seats that are often packed with locals, young and old. We like Rua Visconde de Caravelas in Humaita, home to a handful of bars, and nearby Cobal do Humaita, a fruit and vegetable market with half a dozen bars with outdoor plastic tables and chairs crammed with Cariocas. Leblon is where you’ll find classic old botecos such as Bar Jobi and Bar Bracarense, which haven’t changed their décor — or customers — in 50-60 years. Late at night, among the tanned young locals you’ll find sprightly, silver-haired, seventy-somethings deep in conversation as they sip beers. No doubt, thanks to those vitamin drinks!
Getting there and around
There are numerous direct flights to Rio de Janeiro although we went via Sao Paolo with Emirates. From a rental apartment in Ipanema, we mostly explored Rio independently, however, we did do that fun cooking class as well as an excellent favela tour. For a good Rio guide try Madson Araujo at www.MyRioTravelGuide.com who specializes in private tours taking in everything from football to favelas, markets to beaches. For getting around on your own, use the metro and bus systems by day, but after dark, taxis are safer and fairly affordable.