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Rio de Janeiro is a land of contrasts and diversity, making it a city that’s hard to define. On the one hand, it has sprawling forests and wealthy, cosmopolitan neighborhoods. On the other, it has a bustling city center and tightly-packed communities living in favelas. While learning what Rio is all about is no easy task, one thing’s for sure: only in this unique city can you have these unforgettable experiences.
The most famous dish in Brazil is feijoada, a slow-cooked bean and meat stew. While each state and city has its own unique dishes, feijoada is one of the few meals that is considered truly national. Restaurants throughout Brazil serve it, though there’s no better place to try an authentic feijoada than at a samba school such as Mangueira. The feijoada is dished out from huge steaming pots onto simple plates and served with rice, fried kale and farofa. The atmosphere at the samba schools is animated and friendly, so grab your feijoada and settle down for chit-chat among the locals while watching jaw-dropping samba dancing.
There are probably few places in the world that you can go trekking in a jungle and visit a 16-floor abandoned hotel right in the middle of it. Carefully climb the long flight of stairs of the Gavea Tourist Hotel and enjoy the incredible, rarely seen views from the top. This hotel is just one example of the various types of Rio’s unique architecture, showcasing just how seamlessly man and nature blend in this city.
Rio de Janeiro is the only city in Brazil where you can safely visit a favela. Try taking a favela tour in Vidigal or Babilonia in Leme to safely experience the life and culture of one of Rio’s most fascinating communities.
Watching the sunset from the Sugarloaf Mountain is in almost every guidebook, but watching the sunset from Arpoador is a more local experience and one that is truly rewarding. Arpoador sits at the end of Ipanema Beach, known as a popular surfing spot with crystal clear waters. The best way to make the most of it is to go there for a day of sunbathing before heading to Arpoador Rock at late afternoon to witness the dazzling sunset across the ocean. Take some drinks and when the last slither of sun drops behind the horizon, join in with the appreciative clapping from the others gathered there.
The Garota de Ipanema bar in Ipanema is the spot where Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes first spotted the 17-year old Helô Pinheiro, who unintentionally inspired their next song, The Girl From Ipanema. Now it’s a popular restaurant serving typical Brazilian food and great picanha (a Brazilian cut of steak).
The extravagant Carnival parades broadcast on TV are open to the public. For a certain fee and a commitment of a set number of weeks (defined by the samba school and varying greatly), willing tourists can rehearse and practice to be part of the parades during Carnival, which includes getting fitted for a costume that you get to keep at the end.
A region that is barely explored by tourists is the west zone of Rio, which is a great pity as for those that venture there will discover untouched beaches, wild forest trails and blooming mangroves. Head to Barra de Guaratiba and do stand-up paddling among mangroves, keeping an eye out for local wildlife including capybaras, burrowing owls and the occasional snake. Or explore the TransCarioca hike, a 180-kilometer hike that begins in Rio’s west zone and finishes in Urca by the Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s a relatively new hike that even locals don’t know about and gives a refreshing opportunity to experience a side of Rio that few have seen.
A significant part of Rio de Janeiro’s history is the era of slavery when millions of slaves were brought to the city’s port area. The facts about this time are barely talked about nowadays, yet given its importance in shaping the culture of Brazil today, it is worth discovering. To scratch the surface and delve a little deeper into the complex history of Afro-Brazilians, visit the Instituto Memória e Pesquisa Pretos Novos or IPN, a small museum that not only provides facts and figures of past slavery in the country, but is also the final resting ground of tens of thousands of slaves that didn’t make the journey from Africa to Brazil. It’s a chilling yet profound attraction, leaving you with a better understanding of Brazil’s history.
For a glimpse into true Brazilian passion, watch a football match between two Brazilian rival teams at Maracanã, when the atmosphere of the supporters in the stadium is truly electric.
A picturesque lake in the south zone of Rio, Lagoa is the perfect spot to pull out a picnic rug and spend a pleasant afternoon eating and drinking in the tranquil natural surroundings. For a truly authentic experience, go to any one of Rio’s abundant bakeries and get a handful of baked and sweet goods to take away. Pair with a chilled bottle of Brazilian white wine and you have the makings of a pleasant day. Hang around Lagao at the end of the afternoon to catch the dreamy sunset there.
Pedra do Sal is the outdoor event that brings together Rio’s best samba musicians for an impromptu samba jam. It takes place every Monday and Friday with animated music, lively dancing and an endless flow of potent caipirinhas.