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 THREE / Walk among the early-morning joggers on Copacabana to Café Fleuri. Savor the beach-front view along with your pancakes, cheese toasts, and pastries. Your cab is waiting to take you to Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, where you’ve made an appointment for the 9:30 park tour. It’s a long but rewarding drive; you’ll pass most of Rio’s scenic beaches and retrace the city’s growth, from Copacabana to Ipanema, then São Conrado and the new high-rises of Barra da Tijuca. It’s just as well you’re off early. Tourists don’t usually get this far, but savvy cariocas will soon be packing these roads on their way to the best beaches.
The beautifully landscaped Sitio Roberto Burle Marx estate has one of the largest collections of tropical plants in the world. It includes 3,500 species from the forests of Brazil, Asia, and Africa. Bromelias and palm trees, giant ferns and heliconias—all are here in a profusion of mesmerizing colors and shapes assembled over a lifetime by Burle Marx. This is where he lived and worked; it was his lab, as he called it. You can visit his house and studio, where you’ll see his sculptures and paintings, as well as his private collection of Brazilian art.
Burle Marx, who died in 1994, created the modern tropical garden. Before his designs, the model for gardens was European. A great lover of Brazil with extensive knowledge of its flora, Burle Marx did much to show Brazilians and the rest of the world the richness of local plants.
After the two-hour tour, you have time for a swim on charming Prainha Beach before heading to your lunch at Bira. This rustic restaurant, set in the forest overlooking Guaratiba Bay, serves excellent fish, caught daily by owner Bira. Try the delicious crab pastries, followed by muqueca de robalo (robalo fish stewed in coconut milk and spices).
After lunch, stop at the Casa do Pontal Museum to see the finest collection of folk art in Brazil. Wood and clay figurines poetically depict with humor and skill the culture of rural Brazil: fishermen, musicians, street-vendors, women at work, and children at play. Frenchman Jacques van de Beuque, the museum’s founder, collected these pieces on his travels.
Don’t linger too long or you’ll face heavy traffic on your way back, with surfers and bathers returning from the beach. Arriving in Copacabana, stop at the Copacabana Fort for a cafezinho (a small, sweet coffee—a Rio mainstay) at Colombo do Forte patisserie. Try quindim, a favorite local sweet made from coconut and eggs.
After your eventful day, just chill before dinner.
You’re going to Lagoa Grill, one of the kiosks along Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. The house specialty is charcoal-grilled picanha (a choice cut of beef) with banana and fries. Have a caipirinha and enjoy the samba sounds playing on guitar.
As you watch the city lights reflected on the lake and feel yourself moved by the rhythms of the past three days, you understand why Rio is considered one of the most magical cities in the world. Daniela Hart, a journalist and anthropologist, is a native of São Paulo but carioca at heart—and, like most of São Paulo’s citizens, is slightly jealous of Rio’s beauty.
This dazzling city is most beautiful in spring. October highs reach the low to mid-80s before a refreshing breeze blows in from the Atlantic Ocean. Morning lows are in the upper 60s, perfect for an early stroll, and rainfall is light and intermittent. In summer, deluges are common and days are hot and steamy. Temperatures are frequently in the 90s. The cool season (April–September) is pleasant, with highs in the 70s and 80s.
Weather information is provided by The Weather Channel. For more Rio climatological details, visit weather.com.
Airport cabs are available for the 30-minute ride from the airport to Copacabana, but it’s better to arrange transportation through your hotel. It’s more expensive, but it’s a lot more comfortable. Getting oriented is easy; you’re usually within sight of either a beach or the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain. The best way to get around is by special cab with an English-speaking driver; that way, you can arrange to be picked up anywhere. You can book these at the hotel or at RioPlus (Tel: 55-21-9407-8839 or rioplus.net), which has drivers fluent in English, French, German, and Italian. Restaurants will call special taxis upon request. The ubiquitous yellow taxis are cheaper but less reliable, and the drivers typically don’t speak English.
A The Zoo at Quinta da Boa Vista (Tel: 55-21-3983-8400) The zoo has local fauna, including rare species, and an aquarium.
B Parque dos Patins at Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. This park has bicycle and tricycle rental, pedal boats, a playground, and a skate park.
C Maracanã Watching a soccer game in this stadium is a must for sports fans.
D Leblon Beach All Rio’s beaches are great for children; Leblon includes a playground.