WHY WE LOVE IT
- Vibrant doesn't begin to describe the beach-bound city of cariocas, Corcovado, caipirinhas, and Carnaval.
- Show off your toned-up-for-the-wedding selves on two of the most famous beaches in the world: Copacabana and Ipanema (plus 40 more miles of sand).
- The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado: one of the new Seven Wonders of the World?
- Arrive at the only airport with its own song: "Samba do Avião," by (who else?) Antônio Carlos Jobim.
- Visit the 14 Grupo Especial samba schools in the new Samba City if you can't make it for Carnaval itself.
- Good buys: beachwear from the bikini store of the real "Girl from Ipanema," Heloisa Pinheiro; CDs—samba and anything by Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil; bateria instruments; trinkets from the Hippie Fair.
WHEN TO GO
High season is summer and October through March, peaking for the feast of Iemanjá on New Year's Eve and Carnaval, when rates can triple. Keep an eye out for spring bargains in August and September.
ZAZÁ BISTRÔ TROPICAL
Rua Joana Angelica, 40
The top floor at this hip, postbeach restaurant with multinational grazing menus is supersexy, with its mountains of pillows, candlelight, and no-shoe rule. Ordercaipirinhas de saque; made with sake instead of cachaça; to wash down your ceviche and dim sum.
Rua Dias Ferreira
This street is gastronome-central, so if you don't like the look of this rival to Sushi Leblon (long the hot spot) or if the DJ's turned up the volume too far, just wander on down the block.
Rua Custódio Serrão, 62
Red banquettes, white slatted blinds, and wood floors are all part of the modern backdrop for the most celebrated chef in town, Claud Troisgros. Come here to woo each other with food: beef carpaccio with white truffle oil and quail's egg; grouper with caramelized bananas.
LE SAINT HONORÉ
Hotel Le Meridien
Av. Atlântica, 1020
For its views alone—sweeping across Copacabana Beach from the 37th floor—the Le Meridien restaurant would make a grand night out, but there's more: The place was recently redecorated and reinvented with menus by genius French chef Paul Bocuse.
Rua Aprazível 62
Tel: 55-21-2507-7334 or 2508-9174
Boho, cobblestoned Santa Teresa is an essential stop (get there bybondinho—the tram). Have lunch at this adorably homey (it actually was someone's home) traditional Brazilian place. Try to get a table on the mango-tree-shaded terrace for a heart-stopping view of the city spread below.
Rua Barão da Torre
With walls half-crimson, half-glass, and multihued mid-century armchairs, the surroundings are as au courant as the menus—by foodie-beloved Bolivian chef Checho Gonzalez. He makes tropical-Carioca food like ginger-coconut salt-cod fritters. You'll eat surrounded by the great and the good.
LOCANDA DELLA MIMOSA
Alameda das Mimosas, 30
Vale Florido Petrópolis
Drive about an hour to this ultraromantic deluxe rural retreat centered around a chic restaurant with brass sconces, gilded mirrors, and trendy seasonal menus. Everything served is handmade by the Italian expat owner/chef. Since the wine cellar is spectacular, you might even consider staying overnight in one of the six gorgeous suites.
Av. Atlântica, 1702
A glamour-puss again—since its 1990s rebirth and with further improvements in progress through fall 2006—this Copa classic modeled on the Negresco and the Carlton in the Côte d'Azur is great for the megapool, rooftop tennis court, the excellent (pricey) Cipriani restaurant, and beach-view rooms. Don't even think about the rooms at the back.
Av. Vieira Souto, 460
Frequently top-rated, this high-rise has somewhat dowdy Louis XVI-style decor and a penchant for the business guest. On the other hand, it's on the beach in the best part of Ipanema, most front rooms have balconies, and there's a great pool and bar on the roof.
HOTEL MARINA ALL SUITES
Av. Delfim Moreira, 696
Praia do Leblon
Tel: 55-21-2172 1100
This 38-suite, family-owned hot spot is the hipster-model favorite— as is its restaurant, Bar d'Hotel. Do splurge on one of the eight special gemstone suites with their funky-chic modern style and beach views. The rooftop "Health Floor" has a small pool, a coed steam/sauna, a gym, and massage tables.
PORTINARI DESIGN HOTEL
Rua Francisco Sá 17 - Posto 6
Design's important to these folks (gee, you think?), so they got well-known Brazilians to do up different floors. The sexiest rooms are Hélio Fraga's tropical style (floors five and six) and the most romantic are Luis Fernando Redó's candy colors and carved wood (floors nine and ten). The rooftop restaurant (with hot tub) is lovely. It's one block from Copa Beach.
SHERATON BARRA HOTEL E SUITES
Av. Lúcio Costa, 3150
To free up more of your budget for nightlife, this new (2003) pair of towers is worth considering. The 293 bright, modern, well-equipped rooms all have ocean-view balconies, and the pools and ten-mile beach are great. On the downside, it's not the right beach. Far from downtown, it's in a fast-growing neighborhood consisting largely of malls.
The 45 miles ofpraia, presumably a large reason for your choosing Rio, are the veins, arteries, and heart of the city. You will probably not stray from the Zona Sul, site of the most famous beaches in the world: Copacabana and Ipanema, along with their quieter neighbors, Praio do Leme and Leblon. Be warned: You should take very little to the beach, and certainly no valuables. Vendors will offer you everything from kangas and beer to massages and MP3 players—that's part of the fun.
The point separating Copa and Ipanema is a magnet for competitive, daredevil surfers—as globalsurfers.com puts it: "You've got to be very good just to make it through the locals to the line up at the back of the rock." So just hold hands and watch from the observation platform. Though the surf is floodlit, it's not the best place to be at night.
Ferries and hydroplanes
Departures: From Praca XV de Novembro every hour from 5:15 a.m.; last departure from Paquetá, 10:15 p.m.
If the frenetic Carioca pace gets wearing, take a catamaran (90 minutes) or hydrofoil (30 minutes) to this peaceful, car-free island in Guanabara Bay. Once there, the most romantic way to get around is by horse-drawn carriage.
It happens for four days starting the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, though there's at least two weeks of buildup. The Samba Parades in the Sambodrómo are the central events, which some Cariocas consider overpriced and underwhelming (hint: the concierges at the Copacabana Palace are known to be able to score tickets even last minute; sector 9 is best), but Carnaval is everywhere and most of it's free. Information at carnaval.com and ipanema.com/carnival.
Rua Cosme Velho, 513
The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, 98 feet tall, with a chapel under his feet, stands 2,330 feet above sea level on Corcovado and provides an awe-inspiring view of ocean, mountains, and city. Save your lungs and make the ascent by train. Open from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Tel: (Business hours) 55-21-2511-2141 (Weekends and holidays) 55-21-2542-7895 or 2259-6995
A special way to pay your respects to the Christ statue on Corcovado and get the thrill of seeing the incredible topography of this sprawling, beautiful city from high above. Helisight has aerial tours lasting from six minutes to an hour, taking off from four helipads.
CHÁCARA DO CÉU MUSEUM
Rua Murtinho Nobre, 93
This compact museum has a small but sophisticated collection, including works by Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, and Courbet, plus Brazilians Candido Portinari, Emilio di Cavalcanti, and Albert Guignard. To get there, take Rio's only remaining tram, spectacularly routed over the Arcos da Lapa, the giant aqueduct that is in itself a noble sight.
Tel: 55-21-3322-2727; Cell: 55-21-9989-0074/9772-1133
Rio's 600-odd favelas are not all about drugs and guns, as you'll see on this tour, a privileged insider's view of Vila Canoas and Brazil's biggest favela, Rocinha. Marcelo Armstrong is one of the most respected and respectful guides around; you'll be talking about the tour for months.