A Local's Guide to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


Half a million tourists are expected to descend upon Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games this August. Beat the crowds by following local tips from Brazilian-born journalist Juliana Barbassa, author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro.

Here are her local tips for an authentic trip:

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is on a hike up Morro Dois Irmãos to see all of the city from above, including the best-known beaches and sights.

Spring is the best time to visit my city because winter's cool and overcast days are over, but the intense heat of summer hasn’t hit yet. The air is fresh, the sky is clear, and there are fewer tourists around.

You can see my city best from the many surrounding granite peaks, like Sugarloaf Mountain with its famous cable cars, and Corcovado Mountain topped by an iconic art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Locals know to skip the crush of Copacabana or Ipanema beaches on a hot summer weekend and check out equally gorgeous (but far less crowded) parks such as the Jardim Botânico or Parque Lage instead.

The Feira Hippie de Ipanema, a flea market every Sunday near Ipanema’s General Osório station, is the place to buy local souvenirs. Find Brazilian musical instruments like the cuíca and agogô as well as handcrafted jewelry, clothing, art, and fantastic street food.

In the past, notable people like bossa nova composer Tom Jobim, writers Clarice Lispector and Paulo Coelho, architect Oscar Niemeyer, and poet Elizabeth Bishop have called my city home.

My city’s best museums are the Museu de Arte do Rio by the port, and the neofuturistic Museu do Amanhã, a kid-friendly science museum designed by Spanish architect Sebastian Calatrava.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it is that traffic can be a nightmare! Leave yourself ample time to get around by buses and taxis. Or take the subway, which is efficient, safe, and far more predictable.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is one of its many beloved public spaces, like the Aterro do Flamengo with running and biking trails, or the massive, mountainous Tijuca National Park with hiking trails.

My city really knows how to celebrate, period. Of course, there’s Carnival with colorful open-air parades, and New Year’s on Copacabana beach, with free concerts and unforgettable fireworks. But discerning visitors can join in the revelry at outdoor samba circles or sidewalk bars any week of the year.

You can tell if someone is from my city by their ability to follow a fast-paced samba beat or to play unique beach games like futevôlei and altinho, which require keeping a ball in the air using only your feet.

For a fancy night out, I head to the bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood for restaurants like the gourmet Tereze, set in the lush gardens of a boutique hotel, and Aprazível, a beautifully landscaped property with bay views and typical Brazilian cuisine.

Just outside my city, you can visit the quaint, well-preserved colonial town of Paraty, a starting point for boat trips that explore pristine islands just off the coast.

My city is known as a place to party, but it really offers an exceptional combination of culture and natural beauty that is hard to beat.

The best outdoor market in my city is the Sunday fruit and vegetable extravaganza in Glória, where can fortify yourself with fried meat or cheese pastéis, coconut water, or fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice, then feast your eyes on a myriad of tropical fruits while listening to the sing-song pitches of vendors.

The best breakfast in Rio is Sofitel’s Sunday brunch with killer ocean views. For late-night eats, the botecos (informal, sidewalk bars) around Praça São Salvador serve great bolinhos de bacalhau (codfish croquettes) or caldinho de feijão, little cups of black bean soup topped with bacon and croutons that keep you going until late.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read Time Out Rio de Janeiro.

When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I meet friends at Bar and Restaurant Urca, a no-frills, standing-room-only, open-air establishment that sells ice-cold beer and bar food to customers mingling on the sidewalks and enjoying the view over Guanabara Bay.

To escape the crowds, I head to the trails of the Tijuca National Park or pack a picnic to share in the shade at Parque Lage.

The foods that best represent my city are bolinhos de bacalhau and crispy, deep-fried pastéis stuffed with meat, cheese, or shrimp. They’re quintessential bar food, meant to be shared, and represent Rio’s informal, communal atmosphere. Ice-cold chope, or light draft beer, is my city’s signature drink.

The free outdoor samba circle at Pedra do Sal, in Saúde, is the best place to see live, traditional music, but come early; it gets crowded! If you’re in the mood to dance, check out Trapiche Gamboa, in Gamboa, which hosts authentic samba and other traditional rhythms.

Street dance parties more than a million strong, as seen during Carnival, could only happen in my city.

In the spring you should hike forest trails to great viewpoints over the city.

In the summer you should head for a beach out west, such as Prainha or Grumari, and stay there. Stay cool with frequent dips in the ocean and fresh coconut water.

In the fall you should take advantage of the milder weather to enjoy typical high-energy beach sports: take a futevôlei class, learn to surf, rent a stand-up paddleboard, play a quick game of frescobol (a high-speed game with a rubber ball and wooden paddles) or ask locals to teach you altinho.

In the winter you should get a fresh fruit juice (there are dozens of fruits to choose from!) and sit on a public square like Praça São Sebastião or Largo do Machado to people watch.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss seeing real carnivorous plants at the Jardim Botânico.

The best book about my city is Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro, which I wrote, because its takes you beyond the stereotypes to explore the best, and the worst, of this fascinating city.

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