TRAVELERS HAVE PRAISED the spectacular setting of Rio de Janeiro as far back as the 16th century. British poet Richard Flecknoe in 1655 called it “the most seductive scenery in the world.” In the early 18th century, explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville described his experience in Rio as “the springtime of poets.” Since then, the city has grown into a metropolis of 6 million people, but visitors still feel a similar thrill at their first glimpse of Rio, magnificently set between dramatic mountains and an island-dotted bay. The natural landscape—beaches, rocky hills, and forests—weaves into the urban environment. Rather than dislodge nature, Rio incorporated it. Strangely, it took a long time for cariocas (as Rio dwellers are called) to acknowledge this privileged setting. For decades they strove to be European, preferably Parisian. Beaches were ignored, and in architecture, landscaping, and fashion, Europe was the mode. Only around 1923, when the Copacabana Palace was built on semideserted Copacabana Beach to receive foreign dignitaries, did cariocas suddenly embrace the wonder and beauty of their unique home. The admiration of visitors did much to turn beaches into something not just respectable, but also chic. And they became part of Rio’s style: easygoing, joyous, and intensely alive. The city retains traces of its imperial past as the capital and home to Brazil’s emperors, but, in general, the tone is thoroughly modern. Rio’s mix of architectural styles and evidence of unplanned growth in response to the needs of the moment only enhance its vibrant character. For lovers of year-round sun, there are two perfect seasons in Rio: hot and very hot. Summers—November through March—are when Rio is most truly itself. The beaches are packed, the bars are full, and music plays everywhere. It’s also when the city’s top celebrations take place: New Year’s Eve, with thousands dressed in white on the beach watching elaborate fireworks displays, and, of course, the world-famous Carneval (February 17–20, 2007). So dress your lightest and prepare for three perfect days in Rio.
Author Daniela Hart Photography Graciela Cattarossi
DAY ONE / You’ve checked in at the Copacabana Palace, Rio’s most elegant and charming hotel. Attentive staff members make you feel at home amid the luxurious surroundings, and the location is near the best restaurants, nightlife, and visitor attractions. The luxury suite with a sea view that you requested lets you observe local color on Copacabana Beach from your balcony.
Poolside, enjoy a breakfast that features a wonderful array of fresh tropical fruit such as guavas, abiu, and sweetsop, and then take a cab to Marina da Gloria, where a schooner leaves at 9:30 a.m. for a two-hour tour of Guanabara Bay. From here, you’ll see a view of the city that many tourists miss. Across the bay you’ll pass Rio’s twin city, Niterói. Look out for the flying saucer–shaped Contemporary Art Museum, a milestone of modern design created by Brazil’s most famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer (who also designed much of Brazil’s capital, Brasília).
Back at the marina, your car is waiting to take you to the Museum of Modern Art, another landmark of contemporary architecture, with exhibits of the top Brazilian and global artists. The museum’s gardens are a work of art in themselves; they’re part of the Aterro do Flamengo, the largest urban garden in the world. Landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx designed them, using every known Brazilian plant species.
Getting hungry? A seafood banquet awaits you at Marius, only a few blocks from your hotel. In a delightful nautical setting, you can savor oysters, shrimp, lobster, langoustine, coquille St. Jacques, and other tasty fish served rodizio (sequentially) at your table—as much as you can eat. Don’t miss the spectacular salad bar.
After lunch, another treat: Take the cable-car ride up to Sugarloaf Mountain for spellbinding vistas of Rio and its surroundings. As you leave the cable car, stroll along Pista Claudio Coutinho, a beautiful, forested path where you’re likely to see multicolored birds and bands of playful monkeys.
Stop at Manoel & Juaquim on your way back to the hotel. This is a typical boteco, a local institution where cariocas eat, drink, meet friends, or just pass the time. Ask for chopp (ice-cold draft beer) and a Rio favorite, bolinhos de bacalhau (codfish fritters).
It’s only a short walk back to the hotel along the beach-front, so relax with a dip in the pool before dinner.
You’ve booked a table at Olympe for superb French food with a Brazilian touch. The owner, Claude Troisgros, hails from a distinguished family of French chefs (with three-star Michelin ratings in France since 1968). Start with the frozen gazpacho and spinach tempura, followed by roasted quail stuffed with onion and raisin farofa (roasted manioc flour) and jabuticaba (tropical fruit) sauce. The menu includes the best French wines. For dessert, try the exquisite passion fruit crepe soufflé.
The night is still young. Fridays are at their liveliest in Lapa, the soulful bohemian neighborhood where music spills from bars and nightclubs into the crowded streets. Ask your cab driver to drop you off at Rio Scenarium, where bands play samba and other Brazilian rhythms in a striking décor of theater props. Ask for a caipirinha (sugar-cane spirits with lime) and watch the revellers on the dance floor—or, better still, join in.