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Essential Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro

The key to having the time of your life in Rio is to mix it up: Pair the blockbuster attractions with visits to insider-y, locals-only spots; explore futuristic museums but keep plenty of free time for hiking and surfing; and splurge on fabulous cocktails at the city’s most stylish bars, but also relax with cheap beer at the beach. It’s a city where the high and the low, the expensive and the affordable and the indoors and the outdoors are in perfect harmony.

Start your trip with the must-sees, a pair of museums that share a plaza. The Museum of Tomorrow opened in 2015 but it’s already an icon, not least because of its eye-catching structure (it resembles a robotic alligator rising from the water), which is covered in solar panels that rotate in sync with the sun’s movement. Inside you’ll get a card that lets you access the enormous floor-to-ceiling interactive displays about the future of the world’s ecosystems and climate change, in Portuguese, Spanish or English. Cool down from this high-tech immersion with an hour or two at the Museu de Arte do Rio, where you’ll find a stimulating and well-curated collection of Rio-themed work by local artists. Around the corner is Olympic Boulevard, lined with colorful, thought-provoking street art on a massive scale—don’t miss it.

Lunch counters—old-school places where the décor hasn’t changed in half a century—are found all over Rio, but Tacacá do Norte is a standout. The dishes here come from the Amazon, and they’re full of fabulous, unexpected flavors. Try the spicy shredded crab, the eponymous tacacá—a shrimp soup made with mouth-numbing vegetables—and fresh Amazonian fruit juices like cupuaçu and açaí.

Work off lunch with a bike ride, taking advantage of the city’s bike share program. There are stands all over the city, but the paths along the South Zone beach boardwalks are particularly excellent; you can cruise right by the ocean and return the bikes when you reach a patch of beach that catches your fancy. A second way to maximize your outdoor time is to hike your way up Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). It’s a tough 1-hour trek to Morro da Urca, the lower peak nestled up against Sugarloaf, but the views of the Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio’s seemingly infinite sprawl and the islands and boats dotting Guanabara Bay are worth it. Alternatively, take the cable cars (timing your visit for sunset is smart, but buy your tickets in advance—it can get crowded) and restrict your exercise to strolling around the woods at the top, populated by tiny capuchin monkeys. When you get back to sea level, stop at Bar Urca, a supercasual beer-and-snacks place that’s a local favorite for good reason: The drinks are, in true Brazilian style, frosty cold; the prawn empanadas are perfectly fried; and you can enjoy your snacks sitting on a wall perched right above the water.

Evenings in Brazil call for cachaça, the sugarcane spirit that pops up in all kinds of drinks. Head to Noo Cachaçaria, a trendy bar that specializes in all kinds of cachaça, spinning the varieties into creative cocktails brightened up with some of the country’s most delicious fresh fruit juices. Excellent meals and snacks include traditional dishes like feijoada (hearty bean stew), a coconut milk-laced moqueca with fish and shrimp, and crispy fried tapioca balls.

It’s unthinkable to leave Rio without some samba time, and the hottest party in town is the Roda de Samba da Pedra do Sal, a free outdoor event held every Monday night on a historic rock slab in the northern part of the city. Musicians take center stage, surrounded by samba-lovers who dance, sing and clap along to the music, somehow managing to hold onto their caipirinhas and barbecued meat skewers. Simultaneously hugely popular and very relaxed, this is street samba—lively, energetic and informal—at its best.

Where to Beach 

The city’s best beaches—you know, the ones they write songs about—are clustered in the southern neighborhoods of Ipanema and Copacabana. Long stretches of pristine sand are packed with locals lounging in barely visible bathing suits, newbies taking lessons at the handful of surf schools and stalls selling caipirinhas, barbecued shrimp and fresh coconuts.

Where to Stay

When it comes to hotels, beachfront is best. In chic Leblon, the Janeiro Hotel has a fashion-y vibe (the owner, Oskar Metsavaht, has his own label) and a rooftop pool with views over the beach below. The Hotel Arpoador is as close as you can get to the sand, with modern rooms in a range of sizes and prices; ask for one with a private balcony and hammock for lazy afternoons. 

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