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 TWO / Breakfast today is at Escola do Pão, with its enormous array of delicacies, such as green-corn pudding, sweet avocado cream, melted cheeses on home-baked herb bread, and natural yogurt with fresh fruit.
When you’ve eaten all you can, take a cab to Ipanema, Rio’s fanciest shopping area. On Rua Vinicius de Moraes, you’ll find Toca do Vinicius, the place where serious music lovers stock up on bossa nova CDs and song books. Nearby, Soulier sells colorful handbags, belts, and shoes. At the end of the block, turn right onto trendy Visconde de Pirajá Street. At Contemporâneo, you’ll find snazzy clothes by Brazil’s hottest stylists. A few blocks along, Garcia D’Avila Street is the place for high-class jewelry and home décor. Antonio Bernardo, at No. 121, sells wonderful designer jewelry in white and yellow gold with delicate movement and flair—it’s Brazilian design at its very best.
It’s getting near lunchtime, so drop off your shopping at the hotel and head for D’Amici, an Italian restaurant with great pasta and roast dishes. Start with brie and pear tortelloni, followed by roast partridge in wine and herb sauce. For dessert, indulge in the delicious almond ice cream.
You’ve arranged a car for the afternoon, so head up through Tijuca Forest, leaving behind the crowds that jam the roads to Corcovado Mountain as you turn off onto lesser-known Mirante Dona Marta. Take in the stunning views of the city and the famous Christ the Redeemer statue.
Along a mountaintop road, you’ll arrive at the picturesque Santa Teresa district, home to many artists.
The Chácara do Céu Museum has a fine collection of Brazilian modern art, paintings by 19th-century travelers to Brazil, and 18th-century maps. After a stroll in the gorgeous gardens, head to Espírito Santa, just down the road, for refreshments and Amazonian delicacies. On the shaded veranda with its enchanting view of the neighborhood, ask for exotic cupuaçu (an Amazonian fruit) juice and crunchy cheese pastries with açai (another Amazonian fruit) chutney. A few houses along, La Vereda sells interesting handicrafts from all over Brazil.
Back at your hotel, watch the sunset from your balcony and have a well-earned rest before the evening outings. You’ve made reservations at Carême, a delightful bistro serving epicurean dishes with local flavors. The foie gras, served with manioc mousseline and caramelized cashew, is delicious, as are the lamb chops with mushrooms and fragrant cocoa and pepper sauce. End regally with chocolate madness: six small portions of divine chocolate creations.
Rio is a city of many arts, but music is by far the favorite. Mistura Fina has the best live Brazilian music in a congenial atmosphere of music lovers. Order a strawberry caipirinha; then sit back and enjoy the wondrous sounds.