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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil



Rio de Janeiro is probably the best city in the world.


Probably.


It's also not for everyone.


There's a saying that was allegedly coined by Tom Jobim (the singer/musician behind that famous Garota de Ipanema song, aka 'The Girl from Ipanema,' aka the most covered and/or reproduced track in Brazilian history), and that saying went like this:


"O Brasil não é para principiantes."

(Brazil is not for beginners.)


Of course, these days there's another more common local rendition which goes, "O Rio de Janeiro não é para amadores," and that means, Rio de Janeiro is not for amateurs.


Why?


Well, because if you don't know what you're doing, and if you don't know where you're going, and if you don't speak Portuguese, then at the very least you're probably not going to have as good of a time as you otherwise might. (Let's just leave it at that for now. Vague is sometimes good.)


Fortunately, however, I've personally spent four or so cumulative years in Rio de Janeiro, so (famous last words, but) I do know what I'm doing, I do know where I'm going, and I do speak Portuguese.


So without further ado, here's my guide to Rio.


Getting in:

If you have the option of flying into the domestic airport Santos Dumont (SDU), that's a time-saver because it's super close to Zona Sul (the south zone), which is probably where you're going to spend a lot of your time, whether you're at the beach in Ipanema, Leblon, or Copacabana, or if you're staying nearby.


Otherwise, the good old "galleon" airport aka Galeão (GIG) is where you'll touch down. Honestly, it used to be a pain in the ass coming into GIG because of the hassle of negotiating a taxi rate beforehand to avoid paying tourist prices, so back in the day I used to take the big blue bus that's colloquially called the frescão ('the big fresh') because of how chilly the A/C was compared to the outside Rio air.


Anyway, these days you can reliably catch a reasonably priced Uber at the Departures floor upstairs shortly after making your way to Arrivals. (That's the official location for Uber pickups btw, it's not just some sly workaround.) From the airport it's about 45 minutes to Zona Sul, if that's where you're headed, depending on traffic. You should probably also account for the 15 extra minutes it takes just to walk through the new-ish duty free shops at Galeão. It's ridiculous.


Getting around:

First of all, walk if you can, but if you don't know the areas yet, you're as safe as you decide to be. Ubers and taxis are generally safer than the roads you don't know. Apart from those options, the Metro in Rio is reliable and can oftentimes be a time saver. Lastly, the orange bike share system is not always reliable, and it's possible that you'll have trouble signing up if you don't have a local SIM card or a local CPF number (which is a tax ID number). You can get SIM cards at most of the local newspaper/magazine stands along the city streets. You might also need a CPF for that. I'm not sure anymore because I've had my own CPF for about 10 years. There's ways to generate them online, I hear, but don't @ me.


Getting back to my point. If you can get those orange bikes to work, girlllll is it fun to ride a bike along the beach or around the giant lake nearby called the Lagoa. There's a bike lane from start to finish at both of those options.


Where to stay:

I'm not going to go into much detail for all of the neighborhoods, but I will say that you might see a lot of attractive options in something called Barra da Tijuca. In my view, that's not really Rio. It's just too far, and you need your own car to live there. I will say that if you go with the classic Zona Sul beachfront locations, in order of lowest price and lowest quality to higher price and higher quality, you have Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. In my view, it's often worth saving and staying in the cheaper areas so you can spend time and money all over the city rather than in one spot.


Two honorable mentions: Botafogo is probably the coolest, still up-and-coming neighborhood that is not at the beach, and Santa Teresa is the most work for the most unique reward, because that neighborhood is so cute and cushy with great views, but it can be a nightmare getting in, out, up and down those hills. (If you know what you're doing and are comfortable taking a motorcycle taxi from Glória, that's a good move for Santa residents.)


What to do and things to see (and things to do and what to see) in Rio de Janeiro:

It's no surprise that tourism is one of Rio's biggest industries (if not the biggest industry). It's somewhat of a surprise that the level of English among the people is still comparatively low, given the level of tourism. Nevertheless, there are many touristy things to do in Rio, a lot of them are worth doing at least once, and you should be fine getting by with English. Just don't be that guy or gal who thinks their C-tier Spanish is going to do anything for them without learning the pronunciation rules of Brazilian Portuguese first. That's how you make a fool of yourself when you go to a bakery to pick up some classic pão de queijo (i.e., tiny Brazilian cheese bread) and end up saying, "I'd like some cheese dick please." (This happens far more often than you would expect.)


Seeing the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue might not be all that worth it once you're there to take your photo, but it totally is worth it if you decide to hike up to it instead of getting a car. The hike starts at a beautiful location called Parque Lage, which is where the Olympic team from Great Britain (and Northern Ireland) occupied during Rio 2016, and it's also where Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams shot their music video for the song, Beautiful.


Personally, I really like the view of Rio when you can still see Christ the Redeemer in the distance, so if you're right up there next to him, that spoils it. Instead, I think it's definitely worth heading over to Urca to check out Praia Vermelha (Red Beach) and the Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf mountain). You'll pay and stand and wait until you can take the bondinho (cable car), and when you finally get to the top, order an overpriced açaí and enjoy the view (because you may never be back). To this day that's one of my favorite views in all of Rio, but another great one is the view atop Morro Dois Irmãos (the Two Brothers mountain). This is another hike, and it starts at the top of a favela called Vigidal, so you either need to walk a shit load, or take a shared Volkswagen van known as a kombi, or a mototaxi to the top so you can start. This is a relatively short and simple hike (though not as simple as Pedra Bonita aka Pretty Rock), and it's the one I've done the most. Simply breathtaking.


Note: I'm not going to dig into any details about the favelas here, but it's up to you if you decide to stay away or go in to them. Not all are safe, and some (such as Vidigal) are typically pacified by police and are typically welcoming to all passersby who are respectful.


By the way, when you're done with Sugarloaf, there's a cool hangout spot for the sunset in Urca called Pobreta/Mureta da Urca, and you can grab some beers and some shrimp pasteís (plural of pastel, which is like a fried pastry or empanada) while watching the colors change over the water.


Depending on the time of year, the sunset at Arpoador is truly one of a kind. Rio de Janeiro has a very unique geographical positioning, in that the city is on the eastern coast of the country, yet it has a sunset that you'd typically only see on a west coast (where the sun sets over the water). It makes sense because the Earth is round, and the sun sets over the ocean while the land on the other side sits just beyond the horizon line. If you can't picture it, go check out a map where Copacabana meets Ipanema. That's Arpoador, and the sun will set over the water to the southwest during many months of the year. Follow that line all the way to Caraguatatuba, which is way beyond our visibility and our ability to pronounce.



When it comes to other things to do in Rio, you obviously need to hang out on the beach during the day (or later afternoon if the sun is your nemesis). Soak in all the noise, watch people play sports, drink an iced tea mixed with lemonade (chá mate and limão/limonada) from the guys wearing orange shirts carrying tanks, eat a cheese on a stick (queijo coalho) with oregano from a guy with a mini barbecue, and NEVER eat the shrimp they sell on the beach. (I've never done that, not even when I was a beginner, but my buddy Billy did once and he missed our New Year's Eve party as a result.)


Before I forget, one of the greatest parts about Rio de Janeiro is that there are so many people doing so many unusual things at an elite level, which means you can take classes or lessons and try something new very easily. (Not saying you'll pick them up easily, but you can easily try). Take a lesson in beach tennis, volleyball, volleyball with feet only (aka futevôlei), a football/soccer juggling game called altinha (aka 'little high' or 'little tall' or 'little keep the ball up in the air by using anything but your hands'), jiu-jitsu, capoeira, samba dancing, kizomba dancing, forró dancing with a partner (which is a style that comes from the northeast of Brazil), surfing, stand-up paddle, and last but not least, take a lesson in Portuguese as well.


Where to go out in Rio:

Rio changes a lot, but something that's always good to check out is a roda de samba, which is a small live band playing samba songs and Brazilian classics. For a humongous roda de samba on Monday nights (and I think Fridays and Saturdays now too), you can check out Pedra do Sal in Saúde, which has an authentic and historically relevant vibe as long as it's not too crowded. Otherwise there's a paid private one I like in Santa Teresa called Samba do Guimarães, usually on Saturday evenings. Look for other ones popping up here and there on Instagram, and if you're totally lost, just go to Lapa.


Lapa is where all the tourists go out when they first get to Rio. It makes sense, because Lapa doesn't sleep. Hang out at the Belmonte, drink some cachaça at Bar da Cachaça or Casa da Cachaça, dance with tourists who think Portuguese is Spanish at Leviano Bar, and try not to get hit by a car when you're inevitably walking in the street to get around the crowds. Rio de Janeiro likes to party in the street. Embrace it.


The cool kids all go out in Botafogo (at the time of writing this). There's a ton of bars where people hang out from early until late, and a fun place to end the night is called Sarreufa Club (aka Snooker Bambina), which is a poolhall in the front, karaoke bar in the back. Real divey kind of vibe. A divey vibey.


If your night is still not over, you can head to the all-time classic venue in Leblon called Jobi. This place serves some snacks and draft beers that are probably unremarkable, but come 4am and the street out front is packed in a remarkable way. You'll also get a fun mix of people where some are coming back from fancy stuff in Leblon and others are as casual as it gets.


Also, if you want nightclubs you can go to Barra da Tijuca.

Where to eat in Rio:

I could go on and on with this one. First of all, get a cup of açaí from anywhere, really. Start to figure out how you like it and carve out your favorite places from there. It's gonna have a name like BB Lanches or something.


Sushi is often amazing in Brazil because of the giant Japanese population in Liberdade, São Paulo. My favorite sushi place in Rio is Azumi in Copacabana. Sushi Leblon is also a flex.


Braseiro is a solid sloption for classic Brazilian dishes, including the famed steak, picanha. I like to get that at a place called Garota (de Ipanema) because they bring it out on a thing where you get to cook it yourself, which is fun for first-timers.


Another classic must-try Brazilian dish is feijoada, which is a big ol' stew of beans and pork and sausage and/or beef prepared in a clay pot, which you then dump on top of rice and add other traditional staples like collard greens, molho à campanha (a mix of olive oil, vinegar, tomatoes, and onions, sometimes called vinagrete depending who you're talking to), farofa (which I can only describe as a dry, yet delicious pixie dust kind of topping made from toasted cassava or manioc flour), and orange slices—you know, to balance it out.


If you've got time to feast, digest, nap, and then nap again, an iconic spot for feijoada is Bar do Mineiro in the heart of Santa Teresa. If you don't have that kind of time or appetite, you can also get a smaller taste of the dish by ordering bolinhos de feijoada (which are like mini dumpling appetizers) from a place called Ladeira 7 at the foot of the historic Morro da Conceição in the Saúde neighborhood. If all else fails, you can probably find them at any random boteco (i.e., a Brazilian tavern-ish restaurant) in town.


At the very top of Santa Teresa is a restaurant called Aprazível. This place is worth the climb for the views alone, but the food is worth the climb as well. Get a reservation and hope that you score a table with a view because they don't let you change tables after you've seated.


One of the most goated moves in Rio is to hit up a 'kilo' restaurant. No, this isn't Colombia. Kilo restaurants are buffet-style places where you put all your food on a plate and then pay by the total weight. Ends up being a fast and affordable option if you're not a fool who loads his plate up with rice. Go to one of these places before the beach or after a workout and you'll be satisfied.


The best sandwich in Rio used to be sold at a place called Cervantes. I thought Cervantes was my one true love, but Cervantes is dead to me now. (I won't even add a link to it.) It got bought out and the sandwiches are not the same.


Fortunately, all the guys from behind the counter at the old Cervantes stayed together and moved to a new restaurant called Parada de Copa, and gosh darn it, those mofos are still out there slinging the best sandwich in Rio until 3 or 4am on most nights. The show always goes on. Seriously, those guys have saved my life on multiple occasions. If you go, please say what up to Shrek for me. (Btw, I personally order the filet mignon sandwich with cheese and pineapple. Once you have it, you'll stop asking questions.)


For my vegan friends you must try Teva in Ipanema. You are welcome. Rio isn't the best for vegans, but there are usually some sneaky good options on the menus at 'regular' places, as opposed to trying to find exclusively all-vegan places. Try the arroz do chef at Joaquina, for example. They have two locations.


For my seafood friends, you must try Bar do David. There's one location in Copacabana next to the aforementioned and effectively defunct (in my strong opinion) Cervantes, but the OG Bar do David that won all the awards is in the Chapéu Mangueira favela/community behind Leme, and is worth the trip. If you can't be bothered to go there, you can also try the nearby Yayá Comidaria, which is what I would call, big good.


Lastly, I typically don't recommend for tourists to do the super touristy thing of the churrascaria (Brazilian steakhouse) and/or rodízio de churrasco (all-you-can-eat barbecue), because there's probably a Fogo de Chão in whatever city you're in right now. What I do recommend is a restaurant in Leblon called CT Boucherie, which is kind of like a rodízio in reverse since you only order one main dish (such as a steak if you're so inclined) and then all the sides are all-you-can-eat. And boyyyy, let me tell you, the sides are worth it on their own (and they even offer a sides-only option on the menu). Furthermore, they've got a lot of variety and more than enough vegetarian and/or vegan options to accommodate everyone (including me when I don't want the meat sweats), and there's not a single thing from there I've tried and didn't like—including the meat sweats.


Oh, and if you like peanut butter, try paçoca. You can get it at most grocery stores. If you're allergic to peanuts, I'm sorry you've been down so bad your entire life. Honestly, trying paçoca is probably a great way to go out.


Probably.



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