There’s more to Rio than beaches. Don’t miss exploring some of the city’s museums, colonial buildings, churches (of course) and traditional meeting places—restaurants, bars, shops and street corners. The center of Rio, now a pot pourri of the new and old, still has character and life. Here’s our suggested walking tour.
Take a bus or the metro to Cinelândia and find the main square along Avenida Rio Branco, called Praça Floriano; it’s the heart of Rio today. Towards the bay is the Praça Mahatma Gandhi. The monument was a gift from India in 1964. Behind the praça and across the road, the large airplane hangar is the Museu de Arte Moderna.
Praça Floriano comes to life at lunchtime and after work when the outdoor cafés are filled with beer drinkers, samba musicians and political debate. The square is Rio’s political marketplace. There’s daily speech making, literature sales and street theatre. Most city marches and rallies culminate here on the steps of the old Câmara Municipal.
Across Avenida Rio Branco is the Biblioteca Nacional. Built in 1910 in neoclassic style, it’s open to visitors and usually has exhibitions. The most impressive building on the square is the Teatro Municipal, home of Rio’s opera, orchestra and gargoyles. The theatre was built in 1905 and remodeled in 1934 and shows the influence of the Paris Opéra. The front doors are rarely open, but you can visit the ostentatious Assyrian Room Restaurant & Bar downstairs (entrance on Avenida Rio Branco). Built in the ’30s, it’s completely covered in tiles, with beautiful mosaics. In Avenida Rio Branco you’ll also find the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, housing some of Brazil’s best paintings.
Now do an about-face and head back to the other side of the Teatro Municipal and walk down the pedestrian-only Avenida 13 de Maio (on your left are some of Rio’s best suco bars). Cross a street and you’re in the Largo da Carioca. Up on the hill is the recently restored Convento de Santo Antônio. The original church here was started in 1608, making it Rio’s oldest. The church’s Santo Antônio is an object of great devotion to many Cariocas in search of husbands. The church’s sacristy, which dates from 1745, has some beautiful jacaranda-wood carving and Portuguese blue tiles.
Gazing at the skyline from the convent, you’ll notice the Rubik’s-cube-like Petrobrás building. Behind it is the ultramodern Catedral Metropolitana (the inside is cavernous with huge stained-glass windows). If you have time for a side trip, consider heading over to the nearby bonde (tram) that goes up to Santa Teresa.
Next find the shops along 19th-century Rua da Carioca. The old wine and cheese shop has some of Brazil’s best cheese from the Canastra mountains in Minas Gerais. They also have bargains in Portuguese and Spanish wines. Two shops sell fine Brazilian-made instruments, including all the Carnival rhythm-makers, which make great gifts. There are several good jewelry stores off Rua da Carioca, on Rua Ramalho Ortigão.
Whenever we’re near Rua da Carioca 39 we stop at the Bar Luis for a draft beer and lunch or snack. Rio’s longest running restaurant, it was opened in 1887 and named Bar Adolf until WW II. For decades, many of Rio’s intellectuals have chewed the fat while eating Rio’s best German food here.
At the end of the block you’ll pass the Cinema Íris, which used to be Rio’s most elegant theatre (sadly, it’s now a porno movie and strip joint), and emerge into the hustle of Praça Tiradentes. It’s easy to see that this was once a fabulous part of the city. On opposite sides of the square are the Teatro João Caetano and the Teatro Carlos Gomez, which show plays and dance performances. The narrow streets in this part of town house many old, mostly dilapidated, small buildings. It’s well worth exploring along Rua Buenos Aires as far as Campo de Santana and then returning along Rua da Alfândega. Campo de Santana is a pleasant park, once the scene—re-enacted in every Brazilian classroom—of Emperor Dom Pedro I proclaiming Brazil’s independence from Portugal. Have a wander in the park and try to spot some of the agoutis that run wild there.
Back near Avenida Rio Branco, at Rua Gonçalves Dias 30, hit the Confeitaria Colombo for coffee and turn-of-the-century Vienna. Offering succor to shopping-weary matrons since 1894, the Colombo is best for coffee (very strong) and desserts.
From here, cross Avenida Rio Branco, go down Rua da Assembléia, stop at Riotur and TurisRio if you want tourist information, then continue on to Praça Quinze de Novembro. In the square are the Pyramid Fountain, built in 1789, and a crafts market. Facing the bay, on your right is the Palácio Imperial, which was the royal palace and the seat of government. With independence it was ingloriously relegated to the Department of Telegraphs but has recently been restored.
On the opposite side of the square is the historic Arco de Teles, running between two buildings. Walking through the arch you’ll see, immediately on your left, the elegant and very British English Bar—a good place for a quiet, expensive lunch or drink. The stores along the stone streets here have a waterfront character. There are several seafood restaurants, fishing supply stores and a couple of simple colonial churches. It’s a colorful area. Back at Praça Quinze de Novembro, take the overpass to the waterfront, where ferries leave to Niterói and Ilha do Paquetá. The ferry to Niterói takes only 15 minutes and you never have to wait long. Consider crossing the bay and walking around central Niterói if you have some time (the feel is different from Rio—much more like the rest of Brazil). Even if you return immediately the trip is worth it just for the view.
When you’re facing the bay, the Alba Mar restaurant is a few hundred meters to your right. It’s in a green gazebo overlooking the bay. The food is good and the atmosphere just right. On Saturday the building is surrounded by the tents of the Feira de Antiguidades, a strange and fun hotchpotch of antiques, clothes, foods and other odds and ends.
If you want to extend your walking tour, go back through Arco de Teles and follow the street around toward Rua Primeiro de Março. Walk up along the right-hand side and you’ll come to the Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil (CCBB). Go in and have a look at the building and any of the current exhibitions. Most are free. Then have a look behind the CCBB at the Casa França-Brasil. From there, you’ll be able to see the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Candelária. Have a look inside and then keep going up Rua Primeiro de Março, through the naval area, to Rua Dom Geraldo, the last street before the hill. Mosteiro de São Bento is on top of the hill. To get there, go to Rua Dom Geraldo 40 and take the lift to the 5th floor. From Rua Dom Geraldo, head back toward Avenida Rio Branco, and try to imagine that in 1910 it was a tree-lined boulevard, with sidewalk cafés—the Champs Elysées of Rio.
The beach, a ritual and way of life for the Carioca, is Rio’s common denominator. People of all walks of life, in all shapes and sizes congregate on the sand. To the casual observer one stretch of sand is the same as any other. Not so. The beach is complex. Different times bring different people. Different places attract different crowds. Before and after work, exercise is the name of the game. Tanning is heaviest before 2 pm. On prime beach days, the fashionable pass the morning out at Barra and the afternoon back at their spot in Ipanema.
Every 20 meters of coastline is populated by a different group of regulars. For example, Arpoador has more surfers and people from the zona norte. In front of the luxury hotels you’ll always find tourists and a security force watching over them.
Swimming isn’t recommended at any of the bay beaches because of the sewage and industrial waste that pollutes the water. Work on the long-awaited treatment plants is just beginning.
This popular beach is a thin strip of sand on the bay, with a great view. The park and beach were a landfill project. It’s within an easy walk of most of the budget hotels in Catete/Flamengo. There’s a different class of Carioca here than on the luxurious beaches to the south, and it’s fun to watch them play.
This small beach is on a calm bay inlet looking out at Pão de Açúcar. The Rio Yacht Club and Bateau Mouche are next door.
One of the world’s most famous beaches runs 4.5 km in front of one of the world’s most densely populated residential areas. From the scalloped beach you can see the granite slabs that surround the entrance to the bay—a magnificent meeting of land and sea. The last km to the east, from Avenida Princesa Isabel to the Leme hill, is called Praia do Leme. When you go to Copacabana, which you must, do as the locals do: take only the essentials with you. The area is now heavily policed, so it’s OK to walk around during the evening. Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana is more dangerous; watch out at weekends when the shops are closed and there are few locals around.
There is always something happening on the beach during the day and along the footpaths at night: drinking, singing, eating and all kinds of people checking out the scene; tourists watching Brazilians, Brazilians watching tourists; the poor, from nearby favelas, eyeing the rich, the rich avoiding the poor; prostitutes looking for tricks and johns looking for treats.
This small beach is wedged between Copacabana and Ipanema. There’s good surfing here, even at night when the beach is lit, and there’s a giant rock that juts out into the ocean with a great view.
These two beaches are really one, although the beach narrows on the Leblon side, separated by the canal at Jardim de Alah. Ipanema, like the suburb, is Rio’s richest and most chic beach. There isn’t quite the frenzy of Copacabana, and the beach is a bit safer and cleaner. There are only two sidewalk cafés facing the ocean in Ipanema—Barril 1800 and Albericos—and one in Leblon—Canecão.
Ipanema is an Indian word for `dangerous, bad waters’. The waves can get big and the undertow is often strong. Be careful, and swim only where the locals are swimming.
Different parts of the beach attract different crowds. Posto nine is Garota de Ipanema beach, right off Rua Vinicius de Morais. Today it’s also known as the Cemitério dos Elefantes because of the old leftists, hippies and artists who hang out there, but it’s also popular with the young and beautiful who like to go down there around sunset and smoke a joint. The Farme de Armoedo at Rua de Armoedo, also called Land of Marlboro, is the gay beach.
Under the Sheraton Hotel and the Morro Dois Irmãos, this beach is a mix of the hotel and favela dwellers who were pushed further up the hill to make way for the Sheraton.
Excerpts from Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit, 3rd edition, by Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey, Leonardo Pinheiro, and Robyn Jones. For more information call Lonely Planet: (800) 275-8555. Copyright 1996 Lonely Planet Publications. Used by permission.
Buy it at
Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit
by Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey,
Leonardo Pinheiro, Robyn Jones,