Rio de Janeiro: art, style & history
Rio de Janeiro is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Its buildings cling to the coast alongside endless ribbons of beach backed by craggy outcrops. Cable cars swing up to the granite peak of Sugarloaf Mountain, the open-armed Christ the Redeemer stands tall on Mount Corcovado, and a happy madness infuses the streets from Ipanema and Copacabana to the Carnival parade grounds and the roaring stadiums.
If it’s once-in-a-lifetime photos you’re after, there’s a stunning backdrop around most corners, which is why you’ll find professional film and photo shoots going on. You can easily fill a week ticking off the surfeit of sights. Everyone wants a selfie in front of Christ the Redeemer, on top of Sugarloaf Mountain and on the wavy mosaic pavement alongside the beaches. But the more you explore Rio, the more you will find.
Top Tip One: The easiest way to reach Christ the Redeemer is to take the 20-minute cog-railway, where the best seats are the rear-facing ones on the right-hand side of the cars as you look up the mountain. These afford the best views to the right as you reach the ride’s halfway point. Plenty of city tours include ‘Cristo’ tickets, or buy them online for £13 at tremdocorcovado.rio. At the base of the statue, visit the tiny chapel that is built into the foundation.
Top Tip Two: You can see Sugarloaf Mountain from all around Rio and nearly 40 million visitors have taken the two-part cable-car trip to the top. On each three-minute ride, the views are spectacular, so don’t worry where you stand. At the summit you’ll get another set of city and ocean views. And as it’s a top spot for weddings, you’ll often end up photo-bombing a couple’s big day. Cable-car tickets are included on many city tours, or buy online (£20 each) at bondinho.com.br.
Wow-factor: Christ the Redeemer overlooks the Bay of Botafogo towards Sugarloaf Mountain
On the up: The colourful Escadaria Selaron Steps which are the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón
Top Tip Three: Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are the ultimate places to people-watch as you stroll along the sand with a caipirinha in hand. But don’t limit yourself to Rio’s big-name beaches. Head west for ‘secret’ Jurassic Park-style spots where lush, green mountains rise straight out of the sea.
A top choice is surfer-friendly Prainha Beach, a short bike or cab ride down the coast. Like most Rio beaches, there’s a cafe and showers. Most also have outdoor gyms if you want to muscle up before hitting the waves.
Top Tip Four: Not much beats a big, red Brazilian sunset, which is why crowds burst into applause every night when the last rays disappear beneath the horizon. The most popular place to capture the moment is just past Copacabana Fort on the rocks of Arpoador. On a clear night you’ll see the sun frame Christ the Redeemer before the light sinks beneath the mountains.
With 6.5 million residents and 500 years of history, Rio has something for everyone. Culture fans are well served by world-class galleries (favourites include the Museu de Arte, with its curved roof), the brutalist concrete cathedral, the brilliance of the mosaic-tiled Escaderia Selaron Steps, and the gloriously opulent Theatro Municipal, inspired by the Paris Opera (guided tours cost about £5).
Rio is family-friendly, too, with most restaurants serving big portions. And if you struggle to get your children into traditional museums, you’ll score with the high-tech Museum of Tomorrow, with its vast video-screen presentations and Q&A personality tests.
Exotic: Rio Carnival in February attracts vibrant revellers from all over the world
Red carpet: The Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum has a ‘red carpet’ runway outside and the observation area is decked out with 70 angled windows
Top Tip Five: Turn off your mobile phone and step inside one of the world’s most beautiful working libraries, the Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura. Shelves of dark-covered books rise three levels towards a stained-glass dome and students work at 100-year-old mahogany desks. If Hogwarts opened a school in Brazil, this would be it.
Top Tip Six: Coffee is big in Brazil. Drink it with a side order of elegance amid the splendour of Confeitaria Colombo, founded in 1894. Until 1970, men had to wear suits and women needed hats to enter the premises. Today, a pianist plays as you enjoy pastries and admire the gilt-edged mirrors and beautiful Portuguese-style ceramic tiles.
Top Tip Seven: Rio is built on a series of steep hills. Take a historic yellow tram over the Lapa Arches (an old aqueduct) and you’ll go up one of the steepest slopes to the trendy Santa Teresa neighbourhood. Find street art, handicrafts and the ghostly House of Ruins, the former mansion of an eccentric socialite which is now an art space like no other. It’s a live music hub, there are exhibitions in the old cellar and panoramic views from what’s left of the roof.
Top Tip Eight: Surfing doesn’t stop when the sun goes down here. At night, the ocean at the central Arpoador beach is lit up to catch waves 24 hours a day – and there are always spectators watching the nightly shows.
As for safety, recent visitors say they felt safer here than in some European capitals. Stick to busy areas and Rio is no different from any other big city.