It may have always been the promised land of sunshine, beaches and tiny, tiny bikinis, but as Rio gears up to host the 2014 World Cup and the Olympic Games two years later, its hitherto hidden depths have been multiplying, blessing the city with a sharp new cultural edge. Millions of dollars of investments are transforming what was once a proud but insular city into a genuine global force, with all the modern trappings that go with it.
A newly renovated, state-of-the-art football stadium, gradually improving public transport system and greater safety on the streets are just some of the reasons to be cheerful. Many of the hillsides are thriving in their new-found security, now places to be safely explored and their views savoured, not least by the new cable car slicing across the once-notorious Complexo Alemão favela.
Centro may be the blustering home of big business and the ramshackle Saara – block after block of shops and stalls full of carnival-costume kitsch – but it is also the site of countless cultural riches. The recently renovated Theatro Muncipal stands proudly once more while, next door, the Odeon cinema is the last vestige of a once thriving cinema scene, stubbornly continuing the tradition as the epicenter of the city’s numerous film festivals. Dotted throughout the region, dozens of lavishly decorated churches and monasteries rub shoulders with the stark modernism of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
A 15-minute stroll north along Avenida Rio Branco and the cultural revolution is in full swing. Where stereotypically seedy bars and clubs once dominated the portside, the gleaming Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR) now stands over Praça Mauá, the flagship project of the Porto Maravilha urban intervention and the city’s first public museum for 70 years. Soon to be joined by the City Museum and the Museum of Tomorrow, film and television studios and artists’ workshops, the port, already host to the annual super-events Fashion Rio and Arte Rio, is taking the first steps towards becoming the city’s own take on London’s South Bank in the UK.
The beauty of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches aside, Tijuca Forest is the most glaringly obvious example of the city’s natural bounty, a protected national park boasting 32 square kilometres of mountainous Atlantic rainforest with spectacular city views in all directions.
On its eastern edge stands the ever-present statue of Christ the Redeemer, an enjoyably tough two-hour hike from the beautiful Parque Lage for the adventurous (the quaint tram from Cosme Velho offers a less strenuous route up), while the striking flat-topped monolith Pedra da Gávea represents an even stiffer hiking challenge, but rewarded with even more beautiful views along the sweep of the city’s longest beach, Barra da Tijuca.
A more casual stroll can be found at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain or along the sculpture trail in Parque Catacumba, but even here, within just 20 minutes you are afforded fine views of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, another stunning natural landmark splitting open the city.
Eating and drinking in Rio can be as informal and early (10am breakfast hops isn’t considered drinking as such) or chic and late-night (‘until the last customer’ is a popular official closing time) as you wish. Hole-in-the-wall pé sujo (literally ‘dirty foot’) bars are found in every neighbourhood, but it is hard to beat Copacabana’s Pavão Azul for an ice-cold hops and a fried shrimp pastel.
Almost as prevalent is the boteco pub, of which Aconchego Carioca is one of the best outside of Zona Sul, and the Belmonte chain is the most dependable citywide. In Santa Teresa’s atmospheric Bar do Gomez, locals and the occasional tourist mix under the spell of its simple yet abundant charms, or for somewhere a little sharper, look down the hill to Lapa, where Barzinho keep things moving until late.
The ever-popular Olympe and Le Pré Catalan’s tasting menus provide the opposite end of the palate-pleasing, wallet-bothering scale, while a new breed of chefs are bringing a more affordable spirit of adventure to the city’s palettes. Irajá Gastro and Oui Oui are among the best to have opened in recent years and continue to draw crowds to the offbeat gastro-hub on the edge of Botafogo and Humaitá.
The terrace at Amazonian fish specialist Espírito Santa is a perfect way to finish a day spent exploring bohemian Santa Teresa’s hills and meat lovers will find the perfect steak just across from the stunning botanical gardens at File de Ouro, or at the timeless all-you-can-eat churrascaria (barbecue house) Porcão.
Need to know
Emirates flies direct to Rio de Janeiro from Dubai, from Dhs6,375.
Dubai to Rio De Janeiro
Flight time: 14.5 hours
Time difference: six hours behind
Dhs1 = 0.63 Brazilian real