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Though Rio de Janeiro‘s Zona Sul – or ‘South Zone’ – is famous for Copacabana beach, a delicious food scene, and an abundance of iconic attractions, those who explore beyond its boundaries will be inspired by vibrant samba schools, authentic cuisine, and untouched beaches. Here’s everything you need to know.
Looking for stunning beaches in Rio de Janeiro? The ones in the south zone such as Ipanema and Copacabana won’t fail to impress. Yet the truly untouched beaches that conjure most people’s definition of paradise are found in the west of Rio. Barra da Tijuca (often shortened to Barra) beach is the first of a long stretch of beaches, and while it still borders high-rise apartment blocks, it doesn’t attract the same heaving crowds of the southern shores.
Head further west to find Recreio’s beach, known for its impeccable surfing conditions and empty sands. For a truly paradisiacal experience, go further still to find the rarely-visited Praia Funda, Praia do Meio, and Praia do Perigoso. These beaches you can only access by hiking the Transcarioca trail, a 180 km (112 mile)-hike that winds along Rio’s western coastline before drifting off into the depths of the Tijuca Forest.
Nature is the main appeal here with glorious hikes and viewpoints such as Pedra do Telegrafo and Pedra da Tartaruga. Go to Barra de Guaratiba for stand up paddling (sometimes known as ‘sup’ in Rio) through mangroves followed by a fresh seafood lunch in one of the handful of simple, local eateries dotted throughout the area. If you love a challenge, try stand up paddling to Ilha Tijucas in Barra, an uninhabited island 4 km (2.5 miles) from the coastline. For culture-vultures, go to Cidade das Artes in Barra to see various art exhibitions and live music – a highlight is watching the Brazilian orchestra. For wining and dining, be sure to check out one of the area’s many restaurants, bars, and clubs.
The north zone of Rio de Janeiro is replete with attractions that represent life in the city better than the monuments in the south. Head to Maracanã, the largest stadium in Brazil, to watch a local football game to experience the true passion Brazilians have for the game. For shopping, Feira de São Cristóvão promises a stimulating experience. The largest indoor fair in Rio is full of items, souvenirs, and food inspired by the northeast of Brazil. Eat the local food there – try the carne do sol with rice and beans – while watching the live forró performances which include animated music and lively dancing. While in Rio, watching a samba performance is a must and there are few better places than at Portela samba school in Oswaldo Cruz. Watch the samba rehearsals where dancers impress with lightning-speed footwork followed by traditional, homemade feijoada that they serve there.
Things to do
Being away from the coastline, Centro has everything for those looking for a culture fix with its collection of museums, art galleries, and theatres. The area is also rich in historical significance from the Portuguese colonisation to the remaining scars of decades of past slavery. For weekend nightlife, skip Lapa and go to Arco de Teles instead on for all-night outdoor parties on the cobbled streets with live Brazilian music. Head further inland to the hills of Santa Teresa. With its bohemian vibe, it seems another world from the body-conscious shores of the south and is an area replete with art studios and artisanal shops.
By all means, have fun in the south zone of Rio – it is, after all, a tourist hotspot for many wonderful reasons. However, you don’t need to stay there to enjoy the best of Rio. Hop on a bus at the Rodoviária (the main bus terminal in Rio) in the north zone and go exploring some of the nearby points of interest.
For mountain charm, go to Petropolis, the home of the former Emperor of Brazil and pleasant spot for forest hikes and classic Brazilian restaurants. For a tropical retreat on a paradisiacal island, take a boat to Ilha Grande, an island known for some of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches, marine-rich waters, and jungle trails. Alternatively, escape the crowds at the peaceful Paraty, a beachside colonial town known for its locally-brewed cachaça, dozens of waterfalls, and island-hopping boat trips. Finally, there’s Buzios, former fishermen’s village that is now an upscale seaside town known for its high-quality seafood restaurants and thriving nightlife.