The ocean breeze lifted the curly tendrils that escaped my ponytail, a cool respite from the tropical heat wafting off the beach. I dug my toes in the sand, hugged my knees, and giggled out loud. I was in Rio, the “Rio” and the excitement was nothing short of intoxicating. It was the week after Carnival, and I’d missed the most extreme of the festivities, but it didn’t matter. The lingering vestiges of that steamy, sexy, never-ending party were enough to satisfy me. I was in Rio.
With the hosting of the 2014 Soccer World Cup and upcoming 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro has become even more fascinating and desirable as South America’s “must-go” destination.
Best known as the world’s wildest Mardi Gras party, Rio de Janeiro is so much more than that. The postcard-worthy landscape with craggy mountains enveloping dazzling turquoise harbor, natural parks and rainforests, colorful culture and architecture, and samba obsession all contribute to the almost mythological aura of Brazil’s gem city.
The city was discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese. Rio de Janeiro, also known as “cidade maravilhosa” or “marvelous city” is the second-largest city and was the capital of Brazil for more than two centuries. Search as long as you like – you won’t find a more stunning metropolis setting.
If you are lucky enough to travel to Rio, here are my top ten suggestions for what to see and do:
The biggest party of year is open to all in the streets of the city. Dating back to 1773, the streets are filled with live bands, parades, elaborate and barely-there costumes, this world-famous festival is held before the Catholic observance of Lent. Anyone can jump in and join the street revelry. Brazilians consider Carnival a national holiday. The festivities start on Friday night and continue non-stop until Wednesday, and many times beyond that. More than half a million foreign tourists travel to Brazil just to be part of Carnival every year.
2. Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor)
The iconic125-foot tall Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ with outstretched arms is instantly recognized as the symbol of Rio. The statue, which rests at the peak of Corcavado Mountain, was created by French sculptor Paul Landowski and built as a collaboration between Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa and French engineer Albert Caquot. Over 300,000 visit the statue every year by taking the country’s oldest train to the top, some 2,330 in elevation. The statue is considered the largest statue in the world and is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
3. Ipanema and Copacobana Beaches
The 1960’s bossa nova song “The Girl from Ipanema” put this white-sand crescent-shaped beach on the map. It’s still one considered not just one of the best beaches in Brazil, but in the world.
To the west of Ipanema is Copacabana Beach, an equally beautiful beach but with a slightly more active ambiance. There are lots of food vendors here, and if you’re looking to take part in a beach volleyball game, you’ll likely find it here.
4. Futbol (Soccer)
The Brazilians are fervent about this sport, and going to a game at the Maracanã Stadium is a high-energy, fun activity for everyone. Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you can’t help but be drawn in by the boisterous and frenzied atmosphere. The stadium holds 80,000 spectators – the largest in South America – and is one of Rio’s great landmarks.
5. Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar)
Towering 1,299 feet over Guanabara Bay, the vista from Sugarloaf is something to behold. Glass-walled cable cars pull spectators to the top, where the sunset is one of the most stunning anywhere.
For full flavor of Rio, a visit (or two, or three!) to this vicinity is a must. Located in “centro” or downtown, this Bohemian neighborhood was once a red-light district of run-down 19th century mansions. A renaissance ensued and the area was rehabilitated. It’s now a hot-spot chock full of nightlife, pulsating music and samba dancing, spilling out into the streets. The landmark Escadaria Selarón is a colorful and often photographed set of steps.
7. Jardim Botânico
This sprawling natural reserve encompasses 340-acres with more than 8,000 species of exotic flora. The garden was created in the early 1800’s and opened to the public in 1822. The avenue of towering palms, the 600 species of orchids, fountains and lily pond are some of the biggest tourist draws.
8. Churrascaria (Brazilian BBQ)
A churrascaria is a Brazilian-style rotisserie where huge chunks of high-quality meat are skewered and slow-roasted over open charcoal fires. The technique originated from the gauchos in the southern part of the country. When the top layer is done to melt-in-your mouth perfection, the server slices it off with a razor-sharp cleaver and the roasting continues. The result is juicy, mouth-watering and addictive. This may be the only country in the world to surpass the huge, carnivorous appetite of Americans.
9. Samba Three Ways
A visit to Rio would be remiss without experiencing some sort of samba. Samba dancing is a fusion of Portuguese and African influences. One way to experience it is to book a dinner show. Carnival-costumed dancers gyrate across the stage effortlessly to the rhythmic music. Another way to experience samba is by experiencing the nightlife in the Lapa neighborhood’s live band dance clubs. There is usually a small cover charge and some clubs have dance floors that take up the whole club. The third way to samba is by taking a lesson. The steps aren’t hard and there are several places for tourists to take a crash course so they can take part in the nightlife while in Rio.
10. Tijuca National Park
This park is one of the largest urban forests in the world. Making it to the peak will reward hikers with a stunning panoramic view of the city and bay. The walking paths include the 100-foot Cascatinha Waterfall and the Mayrink Chapel’s hand-painted murals.
Rio de Janeiro will likely offer more to do than time allows, and will inspire visitors to make plans to return even before they leave.