These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Captivating beachfront beauty in the cidade maravilhosa
There is an inevitability in the powers of Rio to seduce even the most cynical of travellers with its charms. For starters, Mother Nature halts the march of the city at every turn, from the rainforest that creeps up its rolling hills to the huge lagoa (lagoon) surrounded by the continent’s most expensive real estate and, of course, the most beguiling stretches of urban beach on the planet – Ipanema, Copacabana, Arpoador and Leblon.
Whether it is the statue of Christ perched atop Corcovado mountain or the Sugarloaf cable car, the hoards kite-surfing off Barra beach or dancing to samba on the smooth slopes of Pedra do Sal rock, this is a city and landscape turned playground, where life isn’t taken too seriously and the twists and turns of the daily political and economic soap opera has ingrained a rueful cheeriness and creativity in its people. Pretty much all of the classic Rio stereotypes are true. Fortunately, there is also so much more waiting to be discovered by anybody willing to dig a little deeper.
Hot right now . . .
Doug Gray, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.
Paulistano chef Alberto Landgraf may have learned his craft in London, but the dishes conjured up in his kitchen at Oteque (Rua Conde de Iraja 581; 00 55 21 3486 5758), one of the hottest restaurant openings in the city, are unmistakably Brazilian.
The ever-inventive bunch behind Botafogo’s laidback party spot Comuna (Rua Sorocoba 585, Botafogo; 00 55 21 3579 6175) keep the drinks menu fresh with an array of little-known gins, artisanal cachaças and cocktails. Check the website for some of the best underground parties in town.
Copacabana’s Emiliano hotel (Avenida Atlantica 3804; 00 55 21 3503 6600) – consistently brilliant – has opened their Spa Suite, dedicated to the art of ultra-relaxation. Sink into the massage tub, order from a wide range of treatments and then escape to the seafront balcony where an easel invites you to paint the dramatic sweep of Copacabana beach below.
48 hours in . . . Rio de Janeiro
Rio is a city best explored by foot, but it is also essential to get high up in order to capture a real sense of its remarkable geography. First, take a morning stroll along the Copacabana beachfront in the direction of Sugarloaf Mountain, stopping off at a kiosk for a refreshing coconut water on the way. Two blocks before Avenida Princesa Isabel you’ll find the Praça do Lido square, from where the minibus up Corcovado to Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) in Parque Nacional da Tijuca runs.
Enjoy the air-conditioned drive up through pretty Cosme Velho before arriving at the feet of the Art Deco statue towering above. Gaze down over the city and out to Guanabara Bay, piecing together the neighbourhoods that make up the Zona Sul. Once you have been dropped back, take the short walk back along the beach to the Copacabana Palace hotel (Avenida Atlântica 1702; 00 55 21 3500-0292) and have lunch in the poolside Pérgula restaurant.
After lunch, hop on the Metro five stops from Cardeal Arcoverde to Carioca station. Here, in the home of Rio’s businesses, there are architectural and cultural delights to be found. Walk down Rua da Assembleia to Rua Primeiro de Março, where the excellent Arlequim (Praça Quinze de Novembro, 48; 00 55 21 2220 8471) new-and-used book store is worth a browse on the way to Praça XV, the wide open space where Princess Isabel formally ended slavery in 1888.
Walk through the atmospheric Arco de Teles to the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (R. Álvares Penteado, 112; 00 55 11 3113 3651), where the city’s most important exhibitions are held along with a permanent collection of pecuniary peculiarities from when the building was the bank’s headquarters. Complete the Centro tour with a walk through the chaotic open-air market known as SAARA (R. Regente Feijó, 132). Be sure to check out the vast, one-stop shop Caçula for everything from inexpensive tropical-print textiles to Havaianas and stationery (Rua Buenos Aires 261), and seek out refuge and delicious Middle-Eastern morsels at the unassuming restaurant El Gebal (Rua Buenos Aires 328).
Grab a taxi to the neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. The Bar dos Descasados (R. Alm. Alexandrino, 660; 00 55 21338 00200), within the grounds of the Hotel Santa Teresa, is the ideal spot for an early evening caipirinha as the sun goes down over Centro. From here it is a short walk or taxi to one of the city’s most enduring and beguiling restaurants, Aprazivel (Rua Aprazível 62, Santa Teresa; 00 55 21 2508 9174). The remarkable setting of the hillside terrace is matched by superb Brazilian dishes and national wines, making for a unique dinner; just be sure to book ahead.
From there, it is a quick taxi ride back downhill to experience the very best of the city’s samba, either at Lapa’s cavernous Rio Scenarium (R. do Lavradio, 20; 00 55 21 3147 9000) or the more intimate and rootsy Trapiche Gamboa (R. Sacadura Cabral, 155; 00 55 21 2233 9276) set in a beautiful, century-old mansion in the Saude neighbourhood.
Reflect on the previous day and plan for the next while strolling through Rio’s serene Botanical Gardens (R. Jardim Botânico, 1008; 00 55 21 3874 1808), a vast, palm-lined oasis where even the mid-summer mornings are cool and accompanied by the occasional toucan and capuchin monkey.
After a thorough exploration, including the excellent shop, walk for 15 minutes along Rua Jardim Botânico to Parque Lage (Rua Jardim Botanico 414; 00 55 21 2334 4088), where the Visual Arts School hosts exhibitions of its pupils’ work and the Plage Café (Rua Jardim Botanico 414; 00 55 21 2535 7336) provides one of the most appealing al fresco lunch spots to be found anywhere in the city. Grab a table by the courtyard pool of this stunning 1920s mansion and feast on fresh soups and adventurous salads before a short walk through their own gardens, scruffier but no less appealing than their illustrious neighbour’s.
From here it is a short taxi ride up into the green hills of Gavea, where the Instituto Moreira Salles (Av. Paulista, 2424; 00 55 11 2842 9120) stands. This 1950s architectural beauty is the former home of a wealthy Brazilian banker that now plays home to his enormous archive of photographs, as well as hosting regular exhibitions of images from the lenses of some of the world’s finest photographers and cinematographers.
Afterwards, catch the Metrô bus (there is no underground here) to Baixo Leblon and walk the two blocks to Leblon Beach, where the waters can be perfectly calm or a surfer’s paradise (depending on the current). Grab a deckchair and watch the world go by or take a restorative dip in the remarkably blue (again, current-dependent) waters. A post-beach drink and snack is all part of the ritual around here, so head to Bar Bracarense (R. José Linhares, 85; 00 55 21 2294 3549) for an ice-cold chopp (draft) beer and some crispy salt cod balls with chilli sauce.
Leblon is also home to the city’s most renowned gastro-strip, Rua Dias Ferreira, a short walk that will offer up the best sushi, steaks and cocktails in Rio. Start at the eastern end with a caipirinha at the thoroughly laidback Chico e Alaide (Rua Dias Ferreira, 679; 00 55 21 2512 0028), then hit swanky Sushi Leblon (Metrô Antero de Quental;00 55 21 2512 7830) for some creative Japanese delights with the Rio jet-set.
An after-dinner cocktail at Garoa (Rua Dias Ferreira 50; 00 55 21 3591 7617) will set you up perfectly for a trip to Palaphita Gavea (Av. Bartolomeu Mitre, 1314; 00 55 21 3114 0853), where the famous Jockey Club racecourse is the setting for an entertaining night of DJs and live music. If you still have the stamina, head to the famous Jobi bar (Av. Ataulfo de Paiva, 1166; 00 55 21 2274 0547) for a saideira (last drink) – the ultimate spot for one (or two) for the road.
Where to stay . . .
São Paulo’s Emiliano brand gives Rio’s Copacabana district a boutique edge – enough to rival neighbouring Ipanema. Hotel Emiliano‘s facade breaks up the bland concrete monstrosities of Avenida Atlântica; inside, woven fabrics adorn floors and walls along with wonderfully rough-hewn marble. Opt for the sea-view rooms and be wowed by the panorama before you.
Double rooms from R$1,350 (£350). Av. Atlântica 3804; 00 55 21 3503 6600
Hotel Fasano is elegant to the hilt, and is located in the heart of affluent Zona Sul and on the boundary of the stunning Arpoador and Ipanema beaches. São Paulo’s high-flyers book rooms on weekends just to lounge across the state border beside the rooftop infinity pool.
Double rooms from 2,060 Brazilian reals (£425). Avenida Vieira Souto; 00 55 21 3202 4000
High ceilings, leafy balconies and enormous bathrooms combine at Mama Ruisa, an original hotel in the heart of Santa Teresa, where the rhythm of samba always drifts in the air. It is a gorgeous slice of late 19th-century Brazilian architecture, wrapped by an inviting veranda and filled with a treasure trove of art.
Rooms start from 500 Brazilian reals (£103). Rua Santa Cristina, 132; 00 55 21 2242 1281
What to bring home . . .
A pair of Havaianas might seem the obvious choice, but the limited edition prints that are only found in Brazil, coupled with the low prices, make them an essential purchase. The flagship store in Ipanema (Rua Visconde de Piraja 111; 00 55 21 2247 4713) is a beauty.
Cachaça is still the liquor of choice in Rio, but gin is making a big impression and Amázzoni, the first ever London dry gin distilled in the state, is an excellent take-home oddity. Pick up a bottle at Empório Lidador (Rua do Ouvidor 108, Centro or Shopping Rio Sul, Rua Lauro Muller 116).
When to go . . .
Summer doesn’t really begin in earnest in Rio until late November. As the huge, city-wide New Year’s eve party, Reveillon, draws closer, so hotel prices, in tandem with the temperatures, start to rocket. The inflated charges stay until Carnival (late February or early March), during which time the tourists flock and the beaches are at their busiest, but the parties are also at their best. For three weeks before and a week after Carnival proper, the streets throng with revellers, and chaos ensues.
If that sounds like hell, June and July have cooler nights and daytime temperatures drop from the mid-30s to a more comfortable mid-20 degrees Celsius.
Occasional cold fronts can settle in for as long as a fortnight (even in usually balmy December), when the city seems to retreat into its shell, but as a general rule March and April are best avoided as the famous annual rains bring localised flooding.
Know before you go . . .
British Consulate: Open Mon-Fri, 8.30am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-4.30pm, Rua Praia do Flamengo 284, Flamengo (00 55 21 2555 9600)
Tourist information: RioTur, Avenida Princesa Isabel 183, Copacabana (00 55 21 2541 7522; visit.rio/en)
Emergency contacts: Dial 190 for police, dial 193 for Fire, dial 192 for Ambulance
Travelling time: around 12 hours from the UK
Currency: The official currency is the Real, written R$, and is the only currency accepted in the city
Local laws and etiquette
As the security situation has deteriorated since the 2016 Olympic Games, it is important that tourists interested in visiting the favelas dotting the hillsides only go with a local guide and clear purpose. The people are friendly and views spectacular, but once funding for the UPP police patrols began to run out, many favelas have come back under the control of gangs and the narrow alleys make it easy to get lost. Wherever you are in the city, it is advisable to keep alert to those around you and avoid using your phone in the street, wearing jewellery or taking a full wallet out: only carry what is absolutely necessary. Robberies on the beaches, particularly around Arpoador, are not uncommon, so keep personal belongings within reach.
Doug Gray’s love affair with Rio de Janeiro reaches back to his move there in 2007. Having extensively explored Brazil, it is to the cidade maravilhosa’s eccentric charms, world-class restaurants, and palm-lined beaches that he has always returned.
Experience Rio de Janeiro with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel’s best hotels in Rio de Janeiro, tried, tested and recommended by our Rio de Janeiro experts.