Rio immediately evokes sun, beaches, beautiful women, tangas, caipirinhas and football. Most of those are valid for Brazil as a whole but Rio is the most touristic and famous city of the country and gets more credit than the others. Unfair but Rio is indeed a stunning city.
All the images that the name Rio evokes are actually referred to just a part of the huge city. Its metropolitan area is bigger than Paris and Rome yet 99% of the postcard images of Rio come from just 2 main areas: Copacabana and Ipanema. The rest is mostly ignored by tourists and unrepresented in the travel agencies’ catalogues.
I also personally came to Rio with images of the beaches, the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain in english), the Christ of Corcovado and the Maracanà stadium (the football fan in me shows here). Only the latter is not in Ipanema or Copacabana. There are whole neighborhoods that are not considered by most tourists. I made thus a point to visit them during my week in Rio.
But first things first.
Definitely the main tourist area and the one you’ll most probably have your accomodation in, Copacabana is the quintessential Rio postcard: one one side the shape of the Sugarloaf Mountain and on the other the small peninsula that separates it from Ipanema. Most of the touristic restaurants are located here (Marius is extremely touristic but quite an experience) and the area where you go for people watching, other than hosting the most popular beach of Rio de Janeiro.
It is quite crowded any time of the year and relatively small, which was to me surprising. Not like you can walk it all in an hour, Rio is still a huge city so when I say “small” I mean “walkable in one day”. Be sure to spend time on the beach (where else?) and to visit the Forte de Copacabana on the south and obviously the Sugarloaf on the north end. But that’s about it, don’t dwell that much here as there are plenty of other attractions outside.
If you were looking for a more upclass version of Copacabana, Ipanema is for you. There’s not much in terms of attractions or art but the Rio’s jet-set comes here for dinner and drinks, the educational level of its inhabitants is tangibly higher than in Copacabana and even the beach is slightly cleaner than its more famous neighbor’s. If anything, I wouldn’t expect differently from the area that gave birth to one of the most beautiful songs of all time, A Garota Da Ipanema. There is still some of the bossa nova magic to be savored in the streets of Ipanema.
Of course don’t expect anything to be on the cheap side. But quality of food and drinks here is worth spending a few reais more for. And the beach with the peak of Mirante do Leblon on one side is truly gorgeous. I found it also a bit less crowded than Copacabana’s, which never hurts. On the whole I spent more time in Ipanema than in Copacabana during my week in Rio, despite my hotel being in the latter.
Unsurprisingly meaning “centrum”, it is the core financial, political and artistic area of Rio de Janeiro. Forget about beaches here, they are unsuitable for bathing and way less impressive than the oceanic ones anyway. Here you can walk among modern and ancient buildings, seeing attractions like the Catedral Metropolitana, the Aqueduto da Carioca, the Escadaria Selarón, the Theatro Municipal, the Naval Museum, the Modern Art Museum, Tiradantes, Palácio do Catete and Paco Palaces.
During the day here it is crowded and lively, at least on weekdays. On evenings and weekends, the area becomes empty as everybody goes to the south for partying, dining and sunbathing. Taking a stroll through Centro then becomes more manageable but also has a eerie feeling of being the only inhabitant of the neighborhood in a city inhabited by millions.
Either way, I would strongly advise going here for a full day of break from the beaches. It will show the core of the city, its most ancient part, its business section and there are enough attractions to keep anybody satisfied. It shouldn’t be forgot that a trip to Rio isn’t complete without a visit to the Maracanà stadium and the huge Sambodromo, making you learn about two huge passions of the carioca, football and samba. Both are located in the Centro, or more precisely the larger Centro, area but most tourists prefer to pass through the neighborhood to the stadium or Sambodromo, neglecting it. Quite a shame. Art, culture and architecture mix with the business life of Rio in Centro and if you stay only on the bus through here or stick with the beaches, you will have a very partial idea of what the city is like. Personally I devoted 2 full days to Centro as part of my week in Rio.
Botafogo and Flamengo
Stuck between Copacabana and Centro, these are two small neighborhoods that don’t get much joy from tourists either. But they are at the heart of Rio de Janeiro and are much more quieter and laid-back than the hustle and bustle of the Centro and Copacabana.
Their most “hidden secret” is that they have the best views of the Pão de Açúcar from the western side, much prettier than what you can get from the Copacabana’s one. The esplanade of Botafogo is extremely nice, relatively short and never too much crowded. The waters of the bay are hardly to be considered crystal clear though.
Both Flamengo and Botafogo offer also a few villas and museums that have historical importance like Villa Lobos, Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa, Palácio Guanabara. They’re scattered around so book a taxi to make a tour of half a day of them all. You will discover great views of the Guanabara Bay, lovely streets among tall trees and colorful houses. If you want even more of this, go uphill from Flamengo to Santa Teresa, a fascinating area with a bohémien atmosphere and a upscale array of hotels and house of charme. From there you can easily go down again and be in Centro, making the visit of the core of Rio de Janeiro complete.
Just on the seaside down the (in)famous favela of Rocinha, after the mountain on the west of Ipanema, which can be passed with a spectacular short bus trip a few meters from the sea, lays Sāo Conrado. Unimpressive by architectural standards, mostly an area for luxury hotels, it can boast an awesome beach though, that gets barely any love from tourists and locals alike.
Therefore if you are tired of the crowds and having to find a spot at Ipanema and Copacabana, Sāo Conrado beach is the one for you. As I had a week in Rio, that allowed me to go here twice without neglecting the other beaches either. Sāo Conrado is worth such time.
Barra da Tijuca
Even further west than Sāo Conrado is the sprawling area of Barra da Tijuca, just “Barra” for the cariocas. It is of totally modern construction so you won’t find art here but instead skyscrapers, huge shopping malls, upscale apartments and luxury hotels. It is by far the most developed and rich neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, for those curious to see how the wealthiest cariocas live.
The main attraction here for a tourist, other than the vast choice of shopping areas, is the huge beach, stretching for kilometers and large enough to accommodate hundred of thousands. If you want still more isolation from Rio’s centre, there are even more beaches in the next neighborhood, Recreio dos Bandeirantes, and after it.
Barra itself may be unimpressive on the artistic side but it is to be experienced at least briefly to see the recent development of Rio de Janeiro and its most developed face.
Rio isn’t just Ipanema and Copacabana
Don’t limit yourself to Ipanema and Copacabana combo. There’s so much beyond those two classic areas in Rio de Janeiro that it would be a crime not to explore the city in full. That’s my advice for a week in Rio. Why a week? Because it is the perfect amount of time to be able to enjoy what Rio has to offer and have some spare time for experiencing the cuisine (that might be worth a separate article) and hitting all the best beaches around. Don’t limit your time there, unless you plan to return (and I bet you will 🙂 )