As hard as it may be to imagine travelling to far corners of the globe right now, it’s still worthwhile being inspired and to dream about your next travel destination. We spent a few weeks in Rio after the Cape to Rio Yacht Race, and fell in love with this vibrant and diverse place. We share our guide to exploring this amazing city and her surrounds.
We decided to sightsee in one big group, which was both fun and chaotic at the same time. We visited the Sugarloaf and the Corcovado, home to the Christ the Redeemer statue. Our efficient guide fetched us at 7am to get an early start so we could avoid the queues. The views from both sites are spectacular, boasting a raw beauty similar to Cape Town. The botanical gardens, Jardim Botânico, are stunning too, beautifully laid out and peaceful with huge, ancient trees, fountains and a Victorian-style hothouse full of rare orchids. We wandered through the surrounding neighbourhood and indulged in delicious seafood and craft beer at a local restaurant.
We also enjoyed some downtime which included lazing on the beach while drinking caipirinhas at the many beach bars. The Brazilians have such a lovely outlook on life; it’s all about pleasure and fun, and we soon adopted their way of thinking.
Food and dancing
More formal or sophisticated meals are also available and our favourite was the traditional spit-meat restaurant, where they serve different meat courses throughout the evening. These are accompanied by a delicious salad and vegetable buffet. Each diner is given a card with a green and a red side; green side up indicates that you’re ready for the next course. It can take a few hours to get through the menu and you pay a set price per head. Expect a long, lazy dinner.
A visit to Rio wouldn’t be complete without a night of samba dancing at Scenarium. This club is housed in a stunning architectural building 3 stories high, and is situated in the old quarter. Each floor features different music. We danced to mardi-gras-style samba, disco and even popular house music.
Hylton and I represented the Lion of Africa Vulcan team at the Cape to Rio prize giving so we had an extra week in Rio and surrounds. After a few days together in Rio, some crew flew home, some went south to Ilha Grande and others went north to Búzios. We chose the latter not realising that we had chosen a long weekend in the school holidays.
We drove for five hours to complete a trip which would normally take two-hours (think bumper-to-bumper traffic on the N2 to Hermanus from Cape Town over a long weekend) – but it was well worth it. We stayed in a charming beachfront boutique hotel called Pousada Búzios on the outskirts of the main area of town, but it was within walking distance of the busy centre via a winding, cobbled promenade. The town was Brigitte Bardot’s favourite holiday destination in the ’60s.
The beaches were so busy on our first day that we couldn’t find anywhere to sit, eventually claiming a flat rock that was later relinquished for some deck chairs, perched in the water. This is so worthwhile, because you pay a low rate per day for a chair and an umbrella, and you can order drinks and snacks from your vendor while you sit cooling in the water. The Brazilians take entrepreneurship and SME’s to a whole new level! You can buy anything on the beach: prawns on a skewer, hot corn on the cob, grilled haloumi cheese, cocktails, sarongs, hats, jewellery, tattoos, roasted peanuts, sunglasses, beach dresses, bikinis, and so on. Clothes are carried on metal clothes racks, which are placed in front of you with a mirror and a changing tent so you can make your purchase decision right then and there. Water taxis come right up onto the beach to collect you and take you to any other bay. It’s worth the roughly R25 per person to avoid walking in the heat. The town is favoured by cruise ships, which ferry people in and out on little white tenders all day, but it’s less busy before 11am and after 4pm. The boutiques are beautiful showcases for local brands. There are no big chain stores or franchises anywhere, and no western brands at all. Exquisite jewellery, clothes and bathing costumes are on offer. Just the way I like it.
Return to Rio
After four days of relaxation we headed back to our apartment in bustling Rio. We did a few day trips south of the city to Barra da Tijuca, where the 2016 Olympic athletes were housed. The best beaches are here, endless miles of postcard-white sand and clear water. Surfboard shacks, propped up on bamboo poles, shelter from the heat under huge pine trees. These shacks are frequented by the coolest little ‘grom’ surfer kids with shaggy blonde hair and tanned skin.
Landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx’s paving patterns seen on the Copacabana promenade can also be found here, but with variations that include fish and bird designs. We waited out a thunderstorm at a wonderful beach bar, while eating fresh seafood washed down with local champagne.
A balance of culture
We visited the energy-efficient Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) in Centro, near a waterfront neighbourhood upgraded for the Olympics. Incredible three-storey murals and wall art depicting different cultures line the walkway to the museum alongside food trucks selling local fare. Interactive displays reflect environmental issues plaguing the planet, and were very thought-provoking. Check the daily schedule for the latest exhibitions.
Our guide on where to eat, drink, dance and explore
There’s something for everyone in this city.
Rio’s Carioca landscapes between the mountain and the sea encompass a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the harbour is recognised as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
- Walk to the top of Corcovado to reach the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, one of the new seven wonders of the world. At almost 40 metres tall, it’s a feat of artistry and engineering.
- Hike the Pedra Bonita trail through the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, which peaks at 520m. It’s not a difficult walk and will take under an hour.
- For a full-day hike, with some rock climbing, why not take on Pedra da Gávea? The Gavea stone is the largest monolith in Latin America and peaks at 844m.
- You can also take in the majesty of Rio from the sky. Paragliders and hang-gliders swoop over the city and land on Pepino beach in San Conrado. Your guide will meet you there and take you up to the flight ramp on Pedra Bonita. Make booking here.
- For the best waves, try the Prainha and Macumba beaches. Join the locals as they get in some early morning surfing before heading to work. Arpoador rock is also a popular surf spot.
- In Rio, the beaches are demarcated by numbered towers, or postos along the famous wave-patterned boardwalk. The iconic Copacabana well loved by tourists (as well as young prostitutes and their balding admirers says one writer) runs from posto 2 to 6.
- Arpoador rock is at posto 7. It’s a popular beach for surfers, and has floodlights to accommodate surfing at dawn or dusk. Join the crowds who gather every evening to climb up the rock and watch the magnificent sunset.
- Ipanema, starting at posto 8, is famous for its beautiful people, and draws an eclectic crowd. An area demarcated by rainbow flags between postos 8 and 9 is reserved for the LGBT community.
- Head to posto 10 if you’re the sporty type, or if you’re keen to watch beach soccer and volleyball.
- Postos 11 and 12 are in the exclusive neighbourhood of Leblon. These beaches are less crowded and you may rub shoulders with the rich and famous!
Galleries and museums
- The Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) focuses on science, technology and sustainable development. Its exhibitions are ever-changing as they explore the rapid transformation of our world, and investigate possible scenarios for the next 50 years.
- For modern art lovers, the Museo de Arte Moderne (Museum of Modern Art Rio de Janeiro) and the Museu de Arte do Rio (Rio Museum of Art) are home to extensive collections of international and Brazilian modern art.
- The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes showcases Brazilian folk art, African art and contemporary exhibits.
- Take a break and wander through the Jardim Botânico, home to wild monkeys and more than 6 000 tropical plant species. Don’t miss the alley of imperial palms and the orchid greenhouse.
- The Ipanema Hippie Fair takes over an entire city block around General Osorio Street every Sunday from 7am to 7pm. Here you can find everything from arts, crafts and leather goods to paintings, T-shirts, furniture and street food.
- On any night of the week, Scenarium is the place to join the locals and samba the night away.
- Nightclubs Carioca da Gema and Leviano play everything from jazz to samba and heavy electro, and the dance floors are packed almost every night of the week till the early hours.
- Look out for the Jazz me up festa, a series of pop-up electro-jazz/ hip-hop concerts that take place in different venues around the city. Check the schedule on
- The most famous coffee house in Rio is the art-nouveau Confeitaria Colombo. Take in the elegant mirrors and stained-glass ceiling as you sip your coffee and indulge in the sweet and savoury pastries. High tea is served in the afternoon.
- Parquet Lage is a public park housing a mansion previously owned by industrialist Enrique Lage. Music buffs might recognise it from Pharell Williams, Snoop Dogg and Black Eyed Peas videos while others will remember the sight of Christ the Redeemer looming above it at the top of Mount Corcovado. It’s off the beaten track, so it’s not a tourist magnet, and well worth exploring. The Visual Arts Café offers a breakfast menu, iced coffee, lattes and afternoon tea. The mansion also houses an art school that exhibits student work.
- Quiosque (kiosks) along the beachfront serve the best street food, from cold coconuts and caipirinhas to fried fish, squid and anchovies. Don’t miss the pastéis de nata, a deep-fried pastry with a variety of fillings, including chicken, cheese, ground beef, shrimp, hearts of palm and other vegetables.
- Açai na tigela or açai in the bowl is a typical Brazilian dish made from frozen, mashed açaí palm fruit. Served as a smoothie, it is a favourite among surfers.
- Da Roberta, a funky shabby-chic restaurant owned by gourmet chef Roberta Sudbrack, specialises in street food. Situated on Rua Tubira, not far from Leblon beach, it is also known for its local beer and pastrami sandwiches.
- Sucos or juice bars such as Big Nectar in Ipanema and Copacabana are open 24 hours a day. They are famous for blending their juices with guarana for a quick energy boost. Bibi Sucos in Copacabana, Leblon and Jardim Botânico have a larger menu of sandwiches and burgers. bibisucos.com.br
- For the local specialty of spit-grilled meat, and plenty of it, you can’t do better than Churrascaria Palace near Copacabana beach.
- You can also get the full churrasco (barbecue) experience at Rio Brasa in the Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood. Come hungry and pace yourself as waiters keep serving different cuts of meat until you ask for the bill
- When you’ve had your fill of sizzling meat, try Org Bistro, a charming restaurant in Tijuca, where you can sample vegetarian versions of traditional Brazilian dishes.
- Ferro E Farinha serves the best authentic wood-fired pizza in town. This tiny gem is often crowded but their exotic toppings make it worth waiting for a table.
- Voted as one of Latin America’s 50 best restaurants in 2016, Michelin-starred Olympe is fine dining at its best.
Beers, cocktails and bars
- Enjoy a caipirinha at Palaphita Kitch on the edge of the lagoon. It’s a perfect sunset spot too.
- Botto Bar offers a choice of British, American, German and Belgian beer. Unwind while watching football, listen to live rock music on Tuesdays, or enjoy a traditional English, American or Bavarian breakfast on the first Sunday of the month.
- Deck Bar at Copacabana’s Pestana Rio Atlântica hotel has a fantastic view from the 16th floor. Sip your cocktail and be captivated by the view – or the beautiful people.
- Astor, between Ipanema and Arpoador, is a busy post-work party spot. They serve excellent draught beer, strong caipirinhas, and a good Bloody Mary.
- Seu Bar in Tijuca boasts a large patio, big screens showing sport, and plenty of cold beer.