Fun and Games the inside track on Rio de Janeiro

Five insiders reveal how to run with the locals in the Olympics host city a spectacular tropical metropolis with great beaches, music, views and food

If the Olympic movement is having a hard time of it, consider the year the host city is having. In the build-up to the 2016 Games, Brazil is sinking under a tickertape parade of bad news. Given stories of polluted water, gang and police violence, an economy in freefall, the Zika virus, terror attacks and a president impeached, the reports of unfinished infrastructure for the Games almost pale into insignificance.

The Rio de Janeiro area

Lovely Rio, its easy to imagine, might just think twice given the chance to bid for the Olympics again. And yet, despite everything, the metropolis remains arguably the most beautiful city in the Americas, if not the world: whatever might happen in the sporting arenas, the Olympics has never had a backdrop as stunning as this.

The view over Rio from the Vista Chinesa. Photograph: Alamy
And despite all their worries, most cariocas, as Rios residents are known, are proud of their amazing city. As they prepare to welcome half a million visitors to the Games, we asked five insiders to talk us through the best of their tropical seaside home.

Eating out

Rafael Costa e Silva, chef-proprietor at Lasai, one of the citys five Michelin-starred restaurants

Rafael Costa e Silva Photograph: Claire Rigby

So Paulo has more options than Rio in terms of cuisine, but we outshine them when it comes to avant garde, contemporary local food. As well as Lasai, we have Olympe, owned by the chef who pioneered the fusion of Brazilian and French cuisines; Roberta Sudbrack, with a bistro feel and sophisticated, eight-course tasting menu. Also Oro, which reopened in Leblon recently, is extremely creative.

Were closed on Sundays and Mondays, so those are the nights we can get out to eat. For special occasions, we love Olympe; but we often go to Azumi (on Facebook), a Japanese restaurant in Copacabana. The broths, the udon and the soba there are great (12-21).


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Bar Urca looks out over Guanabara Bay.

Bar Urca is a Rio classic highly recommended for visitors. The food isnt the greatest, but you go there for the ambience to meet friends and drink beer sitting on the wall outside, looking out over Guanabara Bay.

Theres a restaurant in Centro, the old commercial heart of Rio, where I dont go as often as Id like, but that I love Escondidinho (on Facebook). My dad used to go when he was young, I go there sometimes, and probably my son will go too. Its a traditional lunchtime restaurant going since the 1940s and known for its beef ribs in broth, with fried cassava and watercress (32, serves two or more). The meat starts to fall off the bone before youve even picked up your knife and fork.

We have a culture of botecos, classic neighbourhood bars where you grab a beer and a snack say a pastel (a small meat or cheese pie) or a coxinha (chicken-and-cassava fritter). Theres a great one in Praa da Bandeira (in north Rio, very near the Maracan stadium, which will stage the Games opening ceremony) called Aconchego Carioca that does all our national dishes and snacks very well indeed.


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Aconchego Carioca in Praa da Bandeira

A more rustic, classic boteco is Bar da Gema in Andara. They do fried polenta with oxtail stew on top (10), and you eat it with your hands. Its amazing. They also serve pastel de feijo gordo (1.50), little pies filled with feijoada black-bean stew, our national dish. They are so good I could eat about 10 of them.

Brazil isnt so strong on street food, but the Saturday morning farmers market in Jardim Botnico, on Rua Frei Leandro, opposite Olympe restaurant, does a great tapioca, a kind of cassava pancake. It serves up a version with cheese, tomato, onions and oregano, using a cheese called queijo minas meia-cura, whichmelts perfectly when it hits the griddle.

Bars and nightlife

Alice Guedes, bartender at Brigites, a bistro in Leblon. She has twice finished in the top 10 in Brazils best bartender competition


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Alice Guedes at Brigites. Photograph: Claire Rigby

Musically, Rio is incredibly rich its often music that gets people out at night. Monday is outdoor samba night at Pedra do Sal, in Largo Joo da Baiana, 10 minutes walk from the new Museum of Tomorrow (which is definitely worth a visit). Musicians go straight there to play after they get off work, from about 7pm. They play old-school, very traditional samba. Take a taxi if you dont know this area.


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Samba dancers at Pedra do Sal. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

And on Wednesday nights at Praa Tiradentes theres a jazz scene in the middle of the square, just people hanging out and playing and listening to jazz. Its free. They just turn up and start playing, and if you get there at about 9pm, its generally in full swing. Cariocas are experts at making something happen out of nothing.

Praa So Salvador in Laranjeiras is another one: on Friday nights, the square gets packed with hundreds of people getting together in the open air, and guys selling beer from ice boxes. Everyone loves it.

Mixing is a kind of speakeasy in Rio Comprido, between Centro and Tijuca. During the day its a school of mixology, but on certain nights it transforms into a bar. Youd never guess it was there from the outside you go through a garage, up some stairs and along a corridor and there it is.

Traditionally, Rio has always been about caipirinhas and chope (light draft beer) but theres a growing cocktail culture. The challenge for Rio bartenders is to convince cariocas to go for drier, more complex drinks as they tend to veer towards sweetness. Bar DHotel, inside Marina All-Suites, has one of the best drinks menus in Rio; another is the new Bar Astor inside the Astor hotel, on the Ipanema seafront. Theyve brought high-level So Paulo-style mixology to Rio, which I love.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> In Rio, music on the street is enough to get the party started. Photograph: Felipe Dana/AP

The new Atlntico Rio de Janeiro in Barra da Tijuca is one of the most Rio-spirited bars I can think of, though its owner isnt even Brazilian. Tato Giovannoni came from Buenos Aires, where he owns the bar Floreria Atlntico, and just did something different created a really good beach bar with amazing cocktails and fresh seafood.

He makes a dry martini with a tincture of sea salt, right there on the beach, and serves oysters at about 1 each. Theyre also doing a pop-up bar during the Olympics, at Clubhouse Rio.

For me, the best saideira (nightcap) is at Galeto Sats , open till late in Copacabana. Lots of bartenders and chefs go there after work for beer and grilled chicken. Its a tiny, old-fashioned joint where people spill on to the pavement. My order is a shot of good cachaa and a plate of grilled chicken hearts.

History and culture

Luiza Mello, art producer, Automatica, which produces the annual art event Travessias in the Complexo da Mar favela in north Rio


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Luiza Mello. Photograph: Claire Rigby

A place I love to take visitors is Instituto Moreira Salles. Its a wonderful example of modernist Brazilian architecture, with gardens by Roberto Burle Marx and a beautiful panel by Cndido Portinari, facing the pond. It was once the home of a very wealthy family, but today its a cultural institution with an impeccable programme they hold great exhibitions, plus theres a photo collection, a music collection and a photography magazine.

Parque Lage is always good another very beautiful place, home to the EAV School of Visual Arts, with an interesting gallery in the former stables, called Galeria das Cavalarias.


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Young people contemplate leaping into the sea by the Museum of Tomorrow Photograph: Alamy

Culturally, Rios downtown area, Centro, just gets more and more interesting. There is a great area around Praa XV, with art galleries, cinema and theatre in the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil ; the former imperial palace Pao Imperial, which is one of the citys most historic buildings and now a cultural centre; and the Casa Frana-Brasil, a contemporary art space in Rios oldest neoclassical building. The Candelria and Carmo churches are also both worth seeing.


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An exhibition by veteran Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Centro has another cultural hub now: Porto Maravilha, Rios regenerated port district, with the MAR Museum of Art and theMuseum of Tomorrow. Close to that but less well-known is Cais do Valongo, the archaeological site of Rios former shipping wharf, where hundreds of thousands of the slaves brought to Brazil came ashore. Theres also the Galeria dos Pretos Novos, an art gallery, and part of a memorial complex on the site of an ancient slave cemetery.


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Pao Imperial on the Praca Quinze de Novembro. Photograph: Alamy

Pedra do Sal is another historic site in the area, where there was once a quilombo, a community of former slaves and their descendants. Its just behind the MAR, and a very interesting place to visit.

Beaches and nature

Nicole Casares, blogger, Cariocando no Rio. She runs tours of some of her favourite places, booked via her site


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Nicole Casares at Parque Lage. Photograph: Camila Neves

Rio is full of quiet spots from which to observe the citys curves, the contours of the hills and the green vegetation against the ocean. There are lovely parks, such as Parque Lage and the Jardim Botnico, and even the gigantic tropical rainforest, Floresta da Tijuca invades the city limits. Or just being in the sea is a peaceful experience.


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Palm tree avenue at the Jardim Botnico Photograph: Alamy

If you only go to one beach, Id recommend Ipanema, at Posto 10 (postos are the beaches demarcation points and come every kilometre). Its one of the safest parts of the beach, and it attracts a lot of young, cool people. Theres a good place just across the road for lunch called Balada Mix, with great sandwiches and juices, including aai. Arpoador, a headland between Copacabana and Ipanema, is special too you have to see it at sunset, when people climb on to the rocks to look right down Ipanema beach to the sun setting behind the Dois Irmos peaks.


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Surfers on Prainha beach, Barra da Tijuca. Photograph: Alamy

I also like the long beaches to the west: at Barra da Tijuca and also Praia da Joatinga, where the water is a beautiful green colour and there are no crowds. To reach it, you follow a steep trail down on to the sand. Some of Rios very best beaches are even further west, on the very edge of the city, like Praia do Secreto and Prainha.

Because of all the mountains dotted around, Rio must have the most spectacular views of any city in the world. My all-time favourite view is from Mirante Dona Marta. Its breathtaking you can see Sugarloaf Mountain below, with the sea all around it, the boats in Botafogo harbour and all the way across Guanabara Bay to Niteri. And in the other direction you can see Christ the Redeemer close up.


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Rio must have the most spectacular views of any city in the world. This view is of Sao Conrado beach and the Rocinha favela. Photograph: Alamy

This unique topography means you can also hike and climb within the city. Of Rios best-known hikes, Dois Irmos is light to moderate, about 45 minutes climb from the top of Vidigal favela (which is safe to visit). You can take a van to the foot of the trail, or a motorbike taxi. Or inside Parque Nacional da Tijuca, Pedra Bonita is a nice, easy walk, about 40-45 minutes. Its steep, but if you take it slowly, its fine, and the view are similar to those from the top of Pedra da Gvea, which is a far harder climb.

One of my favourite, lesser-known trails is the Trilha do Morro da Babilnia. Its really easy only 30 or 40 minutes and has great views of Praia Vermelha beach and Po de Aucar. You start at Ladeira Ary Barroso in Leme, and walk up into Chapu Mangueira favela. Guides from <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Coop Babilnia, a residents cooperative, will take you up the trail for about 14. Its best to go early in the day, and make sure to be out of the community before evening.

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