It was business as usual for Rio de Janeiro on our week-long stay in town. The Olympics were done and dusted a couple of weeks prior, and aside from the crowds that still gathered around Praça Maua and the dismantling of temporary arenas on Copacabana Beach, you’d think a world sporting event hadn’t even occurred.
We weren’t here for the Games, anyway, so the more ‘normal’ the city presented itself, the better.
Our first home in Rio – yes, there happened to be two of them – was in an apartment hotel one block back from Ipanema Beach. This is a well-to-do suburb, where cashed-up locals live in lofty buildings nestled along leafy green streets with a quaint restaurant on just about every corner.
Flashy jewellery, shiny cars, manicured dogs and activewear are the accessories one simply must have. A far cry from the crusty-heeled, havaiana-wearing Aussie and Kiwi backpackers that just checked into the neighbourhood.
Just as Rio’s locals, or cariocas, consider the beach their backyard, we occasionally felt the same. We’re not used to having the beach so close to home, so a daily walk along it felt like the thing we ought to be doing.
We were staying in world famous Ipanema, after all. A sunrise stroll as toned cariocas jog up and down the sand at low tide, prompting me to suck my belly in a little.
Hold on, nobody cares about how you look in this town. That’s what we were told by Simone de Almeida at Cook in Rio, anyway (relax abdominals)
The yogis are out in full force, soaking up the sun’s energy as others lounge on the beach in chairs, working on their tan lines. Others strut and watch others watching them.
Meanwhile, this pair of travellers is fully clothed and smeared with 30+, sitting beneath a beach umbrella sipping on freshly muddled caipirinhas at Barraca do Uruguay.
This beach barraca is famed for their Uruguayan sandwiches (big thanks to Anthony Bourdain), although I reckon he merely gave them a bit of a boost as they’ve been going at it for decades now.
They may not be the cheapest sandwiches in the world, considering the size, but what they lack in girth is made up in flavour. It’s a meaty affair of sausage, beef or chicken, grilled onions, chimichurri and hot pepper sauce.
Dreamy. Just like a lot of the bodies that populate this section of beach.
Christ the Redeemer.
So what is there to do in Rio? Well, I think the question should be – ‘What isn’t there to do in Rio?’
This city has a wealth of activities that are either free or cover any kind of budget. There truly is something for anyone.
Number one has to be a visit to Cristo Redentor – or Christ the Redeemer – Rio’s most famous icon. He may not be as big as you imagined, but it is worth the time you put in getting up there – be it by local bus and tram or van to the summit of Corcovado. If doing the tram, tickets can now only be purchased online. More info or to purchase, click here.
Once you’re up there, be prepared for a few people. Correction, a lot of people. Getting a shot of the big guy without anyone else in it is virtually impossible. Between hundreds of people posing for photos with outstretched arms and a virtual forest of selfie sticks to plough through, the gaggle of people sure can test your patience.
Get me outa here!
The next big thing to do in Rio would have to be watching the sunset from the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. Personally I’d nudge it up to number one. A statue is a statue, after all.
There are two ways to get up to Sugarloaf. By one cable car up Morro da Urca and then another to Sugarloaf, or by walking up Morro da Urca and then taking a cable car up Sugarloaf.
We did the latter and would recommend it to anyone that likes a bit of a hike and spotting a wild animal or two. It can be a tad steep, in parts. For the walk, simply follow the concrete path that starts at the top of Praia Vermelha for about 5 minutes, then take the stairs on the left up through the forest. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the Morro da Urca cable car. Just buy your return tickets there and take the next one up to Sugarloaf.
Then simply hang around, take hundreds of photos, maybe grab a cold drink and wait for that gorgeous sunset.
Take a bike tour.
When you’re travelling, don’t have a car and you want an easy introduction to the city, I’d say doing a bike tour is a great place to start. It requires very little effort – thanks to no enormous hills and designated bike lanes – it’s interactive and, I’ve gotta say, exhilarating.
There are many companies that do bike tours in Rio, so you can easily find one that suits. We went with the guys at Rio by Bike. They’re absolute pros at what they do, informative, friendly and have a selection of tours to choose from. They even do favela tours.
For more info on the tour we did with them, check my blog post about it here.
Visit a farmers market.
A great way to get a sense of what a city’s food is about is to immerse yourself in one of the farmers markets. Yes, you can walk up and down aisles in a local supermarket (which I also love doing), but a proper market is unbeatable.
We spent a good hour or so walking around Ipanema Farmers Market, soaking in the atmosphere, gawking at fruits and vegetables – many of them from the Amazon – and sampling as we went along. The vendors encourage you to taste before you buy. Not that we really bought anything!
Check my blog post about Ipanema Farmers Market here.
Take a cooking class.
Wandering around a farmers market may give you a sense of what Cariocas eat, but learning how to cook like one is a whole different story.
This is when taking part in a cooking class comes into the picture. A small group of people, one teacher and a whole lot of fun. We joined Cook in Rio – the city’s premier cooking class and had an absolute ball learning and helping to prepare dishes like moqueca, feijoada and caipirinhas.
The best part? You get to eat and drink it all.
Check my blog post to get the full story here.
Visit a museum.
The city has loads of museums and galleries, so choosing where to go would have to be the most difficult part. I guess it all depends what you’re into and how much time you have in town. You don’t want to spend all of your time in Rio indoors, either!
For those that like a bit of science, then heading to the Museum of Tomorrow is worth thinking about. Housed in a striking building on Pier Mauá, expect to see exhibits about advanced technologies, climate change, population growth, human history and the impact we are making to the planet.
‘Ethnicities (Etnias)’ mural.
Created for the 2016 Olympic Games, this 15.5 metre tall, 190 metre long artwork is part of the regeneration of Porto Maravilha, a run-down port area that’s still being revitalised.
The concept is based on the five Olympic rings, except the Brazilian artist behind it wanted to use five different faces to represent indigenous people from five continents – his idea being ‘we are all one’.
It may be the largest mural in the world, but it isn’t the only one in the area. A lot of the warehouses around Olympic Boulevard are covered in murals, so exploring the area is a must for anyone that likes their street art.
Take a favela tour.
The estimated number of favelas in Rio hovers around 750, and while a lot of them are absolute no-go zones, a handful can be visited without any concerns to safely, thanks to pacification.
We visited Santa Marta favela, the one made famous by Michael Jackson in his film clip ‘They don’t care about us’, and had a wonderful time learning about what favelas are, their history and what it’s really like to live in one.
Check my blog post about our tour through Santa Marta favela here.
Anyone that’s been to Brazil and is serious about their coffee probably already knows how hard it is to get a decent cup in this country. It’s cafezinho almost everywhere you turn – an insipid concoction made from low-quality ground beans that are boiled in water, strained and kept hot for far too long. Sadly not one small cup of this stuff was ever strong enough for us, in all of our travels.
One place that does coffee that’s more in tune to my personal tastes is Kraft Cafe in Ipanema. And how ironic that one of the owners is Australian. Looks like someone was missing some good coffee when he settled in Rio.
Expect to find the likes of macchiato, long black, chai latte and ‘cappuccino ANZACS’ on the drinks list – even flat whites for the homesick Aussie or Kiwi. Carioca cafezinho is also available. Can’t have unhappy locals, right?
If you’re up in Santa Teresa, the guys at Cafecito have you covered for all your coffee needs. There’s a nice little terrace a few steps up from the pavement where you can chill with whatever you’re drinking – not just coffee – or you could head upstairs into the stunning old mansion and enjoy lunch in the quirky surroundings.
Settle in here with a drink, something to nibble on and take advantage of the free wifi for a few hours.
Olympic Boulevard and Praça Mauá are a bit of a tourist magnet at the moment, so if you find yourself in the area and start to feel your body’s caffeine gauge plummet, head over to Museu de Arte do Rio and seek out this little trailer near the entrance.
Not sure how permanent their location is, but if you see a black retro-looking trailer parked in the street, get your wallet out!
From coffee van in Centro to coffee shack in Botafogo, this guy serves up some of the strongest espresso I had anywhere in Brazil. We were in the neighbourhood ahead of a tour in Santa Marta favela and I needed a quick jolt as the coffee served at breakfast was, well, pretty foul.
Have it long, or have it short – this fella only serves it black, strong and very, very hot. If you need milk in your coffee, don’t bother. He doesn’t have any.
It may be more of a tourist stop, but the very lavish Confeitaria Colombo in Centro may be worth dropping into for a coffee and something sweet from their extensive range of cakes and pastries. They’ve been going a it since the late 1800’s, from serving up high tea to the city’s elite back in the day, to something as simple as espresso and pastel de nata today.
Expect to pay a little more for your coffee here, though.
Ok, so ordering the above coffee may go against all of my espresso snobbery, but when I saw it on the menu, I simply had to try it. This is what you get when you let a 5-year old loose behind the serving counter. Alright, not true, but it sure does look that way.
Cappuccino Nutella (9.5) is exactly that. A flat, milky coffee with Nutella spewing down the sides of the cup. It really is novelty over sensibility, but as I said, I had to try it.
Aside from getting Nutella from head to toe, these guys have a pretty good selection of edibles like wraps, frittatas and sandwiches, plus a huge cabinet absolutely loaded with cakes and salads.
We went for a couple of tostato sandwiches that are made to order and with a selection of breads. Great place to escape from the bustle outside.
The best coffee that we had in Rio – actually the best during the two months travelling through Brazil – happened to be at one of the countless suco (juice) bars along Avenida Nossa Senhora in Copacabana.
They’re mainly for the takeaway crowd, but seeing there’s a handful of stools at the counter, why not stay for a while?
We didn’t have high hopes at all, but when our guy got onto that machine and poured that espresso, a little bit of magic happened. He even knows how to use the steam wand to produce a thick, creamy consistency in the milk – rather than chopping into it to create burned milk and clouds of froth that many, many other places do.
Juices may be their specialty, so we probably should have tried at least one. Sadly that didn’t happen. The closest to that was an enormous glass of açaí and muesli. We did order an açaí on its own, so when our coffee guy offered muesli, we obliged. Thinking it would come in a bowl, it was blended instead – creating a thick, brain-freezing superfood mountain.
Meanwhile, I was eyeing off a sandwich the guy next to me was chomping into. I needed it. The kilernil sandwich (19) is an huge plate of sliced roast pork and grilled pineapple, toasted and served with fries. A great lunch – or even breakfast!
Focussing more on the food you can have in and around Ipanema and Copacabana – there’s no shortage of options. The streets are filled with restaurants and cafes, so the hardest part is choosing.
Boteco Sabugosa is a small bar on the street that attracts a mainly male clientele. Why? Who knows. The fit-out is all about wood and beer kegs and the drinks are inexpensive and cold. That’s all that matters, right?
Food-wise, there’s a smattering of breakfast items, soups, sandwiches, hearty meals and things to snack on while you drink. Bacalhau fritters or shrimp in garlic and oil, anyone?
We settled with good old galeto com fritas (chicken & chips 25) and a rather delicious fígado com purê (22). My pan-fried liver came topped with onions and lots of creamy mash. So good!
It may have been a little beyond our travellers budget, but sampling a couple of nibbles from the Príncípe de Mônaco menu didn’t rule us out entirely. The menu is predominantly seafood – hence not being able to go crazy with prawns and lobster – but a few little snacks still gave us a little taste.
Chicken empanadas (5), pastel de camarão (5) and some delicious ovas ao vinaigrette (fish roe 22).
As for that hefty lobster the guy was parading, the table next to us ordered it. So jealous.
For a touch of old school Rio from 50 years ago and hefty dose on a variety of proteins, Galeto Sat’s in Copacabana had us well and truly covered. It’s all about old tiles and vintage fixtures, football on the TV and tradies, couples and families chowing on plates piled with whatever the grill master is cooking up tonight.
Clearly a neighbourhood favourite, this glorified roast galeto (young chicken) joint also specialises in cachaça. So much so that they have over 100 to choose from.
It was beers and caipirinhas at our table of two, plus linguiça suína (pork sausage 5), galeto simples (spring chicken 22), picanha suína simples (pork sirloin 32) and coraçâo de galena (chicken hearts 24). All made even better with a dunk into ‘picante’, the house-made chilli sauce that packed a wallop. A bit of a delicious grilled meat-fest that pushed us very close to coma territory.
Part of the Centro district in Rio (NW of Carioca metro station) is a criss-cross of cobbled pedestrianised streets lined with countless national and international retail brands, arcades and shopping centres. It’s here, next to the flower market building, that we stopped for an el-cheapo feed at one of the few ‘lancherias’ that are popular with the local workers.
Bil Lanches is a suco (juice) bar-cum-restaurant that attracts anyone that’s up for a few savoury pastries and freshly squeezed or blended juice to take away, or sit in for a very budget-friendly feed.
We both came out rubbing our very full bellies after devouring bifé parmegiano (24.9) and bifé milanesa (crumbed beef 20.9) – both served with rice, fries and beans. Special mention about the suco limon (lemon juice). It’s basically a lemonade made fresh to order – juice, a bit of ice and touch of sugar – blended. The most refreshing drink for a hot day in Rio.
This is one eatery that doesn’t seem to get trafficked by tourists very much. It can be found in the residential backstreets between Ipanema and Copacabana, somewhere we happened to have spotted whilst in a taxi.
It takes corner position and bustles with locals that all seem to know each other, along with the staff. There’s a cabinet displaying chicken stew, pizza and fried pastels; even a giant 15-litre decanter bottle of organic artisanal cachaça from the state of Minas Gerais.
The menu is simple, local and unfussy and kept us busy with a rather delicious pão com linguiça (grilled sausage sandwich 10) and churrasquinho à cavalo (grilled horse steak with fried eggs, rice, beans and fried eggs. If you’ve never tried horse before, these guys do it perfectly – simple and unadulterated.
Any first time visitor to Rio would be silly to not add Santa Teresa to their itinerary. Rather than spend a few hours in this hilly, artsy and colourfully boho neighbourhood, we decided to make it our home for our remaining two nights in town. Coming from the Inner West in Sydney, we felt a lot more at home here than in high-brow Ipanema down on the waterfront.
Casa Cool Beans B&B is one place to stay for those of us that like to be surrounded by colour. We’d booked one of their regular rooms, but when we arrived we were offered a free upgrade to this gorgeous room as they weren’t fully booked. Now that’s one way to brighten up our wet arrival during a very miserable, rainy morning!
Huge room, big comfy bed and leafy view over the tropical garden and neighbouring rooftops and church steeples.
As with any decent B&B, breakfast was a delicious array of the usuals – pastries, cereals, preserves, cheese and cold cuts. Oh, and the most delicious ham & cheese omelette laced with basil from the potted garden nearby. Pity the weather was on the gloomy and slightly chilly side, otherwise we’d be slipping on our swimmers and taking advantage of the swimming pool. At least we had some seriously speedy wifi to take advantage of.
Aside from walking around the jumbled streets in Santa Teresa and gawking at the stunning old houses, there’s not a great deal to do in this hilly part of town. There’s a handful of galleries and crafty-type shops to poke around, you could take a ride on the free bonde tram that heads into Centro, watch a movie at the small cinema or you could simply eat and drink at its small selection of resto-bars.
Another spot worth checking out is Parque das Ruínas, a once prestigious salon where lavish evenings of music, poetry, fine dining and dancing were held during ball season in the early 1900’s. The building fell into ruin mid-century and now it’s shell has been restored, slightly adapted and used as a cultural space.
There’s not a great deal to see here other than an exhibit on Rio’s history, some art installations and some smashing views over the city from its hilltop location.
Out of the few places we ate at in Santa Teresa, this one was by far our favourite. Two windows and a door is all you see of Nega Tereza Bar, and no signage whatsoever. It’s small, the guy manning the floor is very friendly (and speaks English) and the drinks list far outweighs the food options. There are even 11 varieties of cachaça if you like to keep your spirit choices local.
Meals here are generous and homestyle and the ladies in the kitchen truly deserve a kiss on the cheek for the regional, north-eastern fare they dish up at this cosy little resto-bar. Carne de sol (salted air-dried beef), deep-fried cassava and fish with shrimp sauce are typical staples of north-eastern Brazil, so you can get your fill on a bunch of those as you cool down with a beer, fizzy guaraná or shot of cachaça.
It was all pleasurable moans and groans as we supped up costela (stewed beef ribs 28) and frango com quiabo (stewed chicken with okra 25) with an ice cold brew. Magic stuff.
One place I’d bookmarked was Cafe do Alto, a restaurant that also specialises in regional food from the northeast; even some live acoustic music in the evenings.
The menu is much larger than Nega Tereza and it offers a ‘R$38 dish of the day’, where you can choose whatever it is they have listed on the menu under the appropriate day of your visit. Come on a Wednesday and it’s grilled fish with sautéed sweet potato, and so on.
We skipped that and chose from the individual meals, which appear to sidestep the traditional serving of rice and beans on the side, and put it all on one plate for you.
Arramadinho (42), my pick, is your typical sun-cured beef with sautéed onion, farofa, beans and clarified butter. And Xinxim de galinha (37) – boneless chicken in a cashew, ginger, dried shrimp and coconut milk sauce with dendê oil.
The dessert I finished with outshone the mains by a long shot. Cartola (14), which is an unusual coupling of fried banana and grilled queijo manteiga (similar to mozzarella) with cinnamon and sugar. A really nice combo!
Popular with locals and visitors is this corner institution – Armazém São Thiago, that also goes by the name of Bar do Gomez. Stand outside to drink and smoke ciggies, or nab an inside table in the 1920’s vintage surrounds and get stuck into local or international vinho and tuck into sandwiches, cold cuts or one of 46 petiscos (snacks). The caipirinhas here are seriously good.
The food comes piled nice and high if you order the likes of peril São Thiago (45) – shredded pork shank with olives and cassava chips. Or you could go for costelinha São Thiago (45) – pork ribs with thick-cut fries and Amazonian chilies. Maybe you’ll get some juicy ribs if you ever go, rather than the overcooked and jerky-like specimen my teeth endured.
For caipirinhas that are not only really good, but really cheap, Simplesmente is the place to come in Santa Teresa. It was here that we killed time before heading to the bus station after dinner to continue on with our travels, fuelling up on calabresa pizza (23) and filé mignon (34) weighed down with an obscene amount of fried garlic. Not that I mind. I love my garlic!
Other menu items cover the likes of soups, grilled chicken, fish and pastels.
How we got to Rio from Porto Seguro, via Vitória.
From the Porto Seguro bus station we got the overnight Aguia Branca bus to Vitoria – R$163 pp – departs at 8pm and arrives 7am. There’s a private air-con lounge at the bus station in Porto Seguro just for Aguia Branca customers.
We spent a night in Vitória before getting on another overnight bus from its bus station – booked Aguia Branca luxury flat-bed seats for R$200 pp. Departs 10pm and arrives in Rio at 6am.