13 Things To Do In Rio… When You Want To Do It All by Lawrence Lui
One of the most fabled destinations on earth, Rio De Janeiro can make even a seasoned traveler feel a bit overwhelmed. As an outsider, how does one approach this richly multifaceted sprawl of a city, filled with sensory delights in music, food and people? I took a whirlwind 9 day trip there that straddled the city’s New Year’s celebrations, reputedly the largest in the world, with nearly 4 million revelers on the beach enjoying fireworks and music. Here are the 13 things to consider if you choose to scale the heights of cidade maravilhosa.
1. First off… prepare!
Get a visa: yes, you’ll need one if you’re from the US. Which means paperwork, a fee and a consulate appointment. All doable, but give yourself plenty of time or you will be freaking out.
Also essential: tank tops, suntan lotion, sunglasses, flip flops. Rio in the winter months is almost psychedelically hot, especially if you are coming from the frigid north. So the less clothes the better. And do yourself a favor: download the free Duolingo app and bone up some basic Portuguese, it’s a fun and lyrical language to learn, plus an ounce of effort is worth a pound of goodwill from the cariocas.
2. Go up high at least once
Rio is one of the most uniquely picturesque urbanscapes in the world, carved like a jeweled necklace of lights between the ocean and the mountains. There are plenty of stunning lookout points, but the higher up you go, the more breathtaking it is. I went up Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain), but the view from Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) is even more vertiginous. If you don’t fancy a hike in 100 degree weather, cab it to the hilly Santa Teresa district and check out Parque das Ruinas, a gutted mansion with a panoramic view of the city. Pro-tip: nothing beats drinking chilled coconut water directly from the shell after a long day in the rainforest.
3. Street parties
To get a feel of Rio’s unique vibe from ground level, hit one of the weekly blocos. The balmy weather and fun-loving culture give the streets an electric air of adventure. Each party has its own particular flavor and flow. Baixo Gavea on Thursdays is casual and laidback, with students, locals and tourists buying drinks from vendors on a street filled with traditional eateries. Check out Pedro Do Sal to experience samba in a charming historic setting; it was packed even on a rainy Monday. And then there’s Lapa, where every weekend is like 6th Street during SXSW, aka a bit of a shit show but worth experiencing to cross off the bucketlist. I also went to some great one-off parties that were almost hard to find, until you suddenly found yourself dancing amid hundreds of your new best friends. Music can range from Baile Funk to the more traditional sounds of Forro, Brazil’s accordion-heavy “country music”.
4. Jardim Botanico
The lush tropical flora of Rio’s botanical gardens, Jardim Botanico, provides a meditative respite nestled in the shadows of the nearby mountains. Watch out for the gangs of monkeys swarming the trees like exotic squirrels.
5. Gilda no Cantagalo
To get to this semi-hidden spot, you need to find an unmarked van on the edge of the Cantanglo favela, and pay the driver a few reals. He then takes you on a steep and narrow ride through the area, a fascinating journey in and of itself. You are dropped off in front of a vast indoor basketball court, where you climb up a warren of alleys, ruined underpasses and stairs to the entrance of this sunset club with a spectacular view, great music and exceptional pork sanduíches. There’s something about sipping a caipirinha with friends old and new as the DJ drops Claptone’s remix of ‘Liquid Spirit’ while the sun dips into the ocean, sparkling over the dancers. It’s the kind of moment that makes all the jetlag and hassles of getting there worth it.
6. My Thai
A peaceful antidote to the wear and tear of full-tilt tourism, I came here at lunchtime for a nice plate of green curry veggies to detoxify the body and soul. Located in the pleasantly residential Botafogo area, My Thai’s meals were also hearty enough to jumpstart my disco nap.
7. Arpoador Rock
Was here once for an impromptu bit of night swimming and again at twilight on another day. Located on the elbow between Ipanema and Copacabana, Arpoador is one of the best spots to experience sunset over Rio and the lights from Vidigal twinkling in the distance. Don’t forget to check out the statue of Tom Jobim, the patron saint of bossa nova, where I felt a pang of the lineage of musical culture vibrating through the world and coming up to the very point where I stood, like ocean waves crossing space and time.
8. Void General Store (locations in Ipanema & Botafogo)
A solid pre-game spot, Void is a tiny clothing boutique…with pizza…and beer. Everyone just hangs outside on the sidewalk, plotting the evening’s coming shenanigans. I randomly met an Irish MMA fighter here and we gabbed about Conor McGregory’s recent win. All part of my strict venue policy: always befriend the toughest guy in the joint. Just in case.
9. Comuna Burger
A hipster greasy spoon with wonderfully bespoke burgers, Comuna is pure balm for the jetlagged soul, with a convivial outdoor alley and a more intimate indoor space.
10. Carioca da Gema
Carioca da Gema is a small, bustling club in the heart of the Lapa nightlife district with live samba music. The crowd here seemed evenly divided between curious tourists, and locals who knew every word of every song. An important stop for anyone with even a passing interest in the breezy and infectious rhythms of samba, Brazil’s national music.
11. Instituto Moreira Salles
A quiet art gallery and cultural center on an unassuming street. The starkly modernist architecture housed some fascinating Brazil-centric exhibitions, as well as a sleek outdoor garden. Entry is free.
12. Bar Bukowski
A club of contradictions, Bar Bukowski attracts a young crowd dancing to hoary indie classics (think Blur, Morrissey, Iggy Pop). It’s a weird hybrid of sticky-floored dive bar and super-club, a multi-level maze with suited bouncers that is also as grotty and unkempt as its namesake, featuring jukebox music played by serious DJs. Packed to the wee hours, Bukowski is a bit dazed and confused, with an anything goes energy that most clubs kill for.
13. Bar do mineiro
One of Brazil’s signature dishes is feijoada, a rib-sticking bean and meat stew, and Bar Do Mineiro, a rustic cantina in Santa Teresa is supposed to have the best. Everything was delicious here, making a seat here worth the wait.
Lawrence Lui works in the music industry and loves doing stuff. Follow him here on instagram.com/lawrencelui.