You know the movie crush who everyone wrongly assumes is one-dimensional (and maybe a little ditzy) just because they’re gorgeous? That’s Rio de Janeiro. Make no mistake: the city is seriously stunning, with dazzling beaches set against a backdrop of jungled mountains and rocky outcroppings. But that’s just the beginning. Beyond the beach, you’ll find a dining scene full of obsession-inducing new tastes, cool outdoor fun, and glorious views, all for far less than you’d imagine.
What to Do in Rio de Janeiro
There’s always a party on Copacabana Beach, the iconic golden crescent-rimmed shoreline with elegant hotels, casual beach bars, and a black-and-white mosaic promenade that conjures images of Lisbon’s tiled sidewalks. On the other side of Fort Copacabana and boulder-strewn Ponta do Arpoador lies Ipanema Beach, a quieter strand that merges into Leblon Beach, which is popular with wealthy locals. Two Brothers, the mountains that lie at Leblon’s western end, are gorgeous at sunrise.
The sheer rock face that looms 1,700 feet over Copacabana Beach is called Sugarloaf Mountain, and it’s one of Rio’s top attractions. To get to the top, catch the cable car to Urca Mountain, where you’ll find, amid shops, bars and restaurants, the tram where James Bond fought the sharp-toothed Jaws in the 1979 film Moonraker. From there, another short and speedy cable car ride will take you to the summit, where a 360-degree view will give you a sense of the vastness of Rio.
You’ll get a different perspective from Christ the Redeemer, which overlooks the city from atop a 2,300-foot-tall wooded peak just west of town. Soaring 98 feet above its pedestal, the soapstone statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched is much more imposing than you can imagine. It’s also easy to reach, thanks to a series of funiculars and escalators that lead to the viewing area. Sporty types might prefer hiking to the top, a tough, two-hour climb that repays the work with gorgeous views along the way. The hike begins at Parque Lage, a public park best known for a sprawling mansion that’s been featured in videos by Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams, and The Black Eyed Peas.
The trail, and the area surrounding Christ the Redeemer are part of Tijuca Forest, which, at 15,400 square miles — nearly three times the size of Connecticut — is the smallest national park in Brazil. Paved roads and pathways lead to more than 30 waterfalls and gorgeous overlooks like the Chinese Vista, where a pagoda marks the spot where Chinese laborers would take their rest each day. Cleared during the 18th century to make way for coffee plantations, this immense swath of land was replanted from 1861 through 1874. Nearly 150 years later, you can spot toucans, parrots, monkeys, and sloths hiding in the jungle.
Easier to access is Rio’s botanical garden, the Jardim Botanico, where paths lead through beautiful themed gardens (including a sensory garden for the sight impaired), an alley created by 134 palms — which makes for a great photo opp — and to an oversized pond filled with turtles so happy they literally cavort through the water. Bring a picnic or grab a snack in the tiny café; either way, be sure to stop by the garden’s gift shop, which stocks locally produced cotton skirts, tops, and pants; cute canvas bags, and jewelry crafted from interesting beans, pods, and seeds; gorgeous coffee table books; and silk scarves printed with botanical themes.
Where to Eat in Rio de Janeiro
It’s no wonder that Brazilians adore fruit in every form. Guava, custard apple, soursop, and passionfruit are as common as apples and oranges are in America. Taste them at their best at Bibi Sucos, a juice bar that also serves acai (best enjoyed topped with bananas and granola), along with amazing hamburgers. For a more decadent fruit treat, head to Mil Frutas, which specializes in seasonal sorbets and ice creams.
For more substantial fare, consider Nosso, where seafood pasta, octopus, big salads, and tuna tartare are served in a sleek mid-century room or outside on the rooftop. It also happens to be one of Ipanema’s hippest bars. Oteque is chef Alberto Landgraf’s Michelin-starred love letter to the bounty of Rio’s coastline. At 345 Brazilian real (about $82), the nine-course tasting menu is a splurge, but if you love seafood and want to experiment with new preparations and flavors, this is the place. There's also L’Etoile, which marries French technique with Brazilian ingredients. In addition to a tasting menu, the restaurant offers a la carte selections as well as several dishes for meat lovers. Perched on the 26th floor of the Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel & Resort, the romantic room faces Christ the Redeemer, which, at night, shines like a beacon atop a sparkling mountain.
Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
All of Rio’s beachfront hotels actually require a walk across busy Avenida Atlantica to reach the surf. All except the Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel & Resort, which sits on its own patch of palm-studded sand a mile or so from Leblon Beach. Each of the 538 rooms have a balcony; book an ocean-view room on the east-facing side of the building (rates start at $140 per night, depending on the season) and you’ll be able to gaze at Ipanema Beach all the way to Praia do Arpoador. Throughout the grounds, wild orchids sprout from huge mature trees, creating shady garden rooms where you can soak up the scene. There are two pools, several outdoor restaurants (including a meat-centric churrascaria), tennis courts, and free bikes that you can ride along a path to the downtown beaches. If you're looking to catch up on some R&R, book a treatment or two at the sun-splashed Shine Spa, where treatment rooms overlook waves crashing over massive boulders.