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Insider Guide: Best of Rio de Janeiro
By Joe Robinson, for CNN
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A dazzling view from the highest place possible. Introducing Sugarloaf.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)Travel fantasies don't always live up to the reality, but the "marvelous city," as Rio de Janeiro's citizens call their beloved hometown, can knock even the most jaded travelers off their seen-it-all perches.
The marvels range from singular settings -- primo beaches surrounded by jungled slopes and granite monoliths -- to some of the best music on the planet, to a lifestyle that invites everyone to slow down and sample all that beachside kiosks, sidewalk bars and juice stands have to offer.
Dress appropriately, it can get extremely hot in Rio.
Famed for girls from Ipanema and Carnaval, the best of Rio is all that but a lot more.
The party goes on year-round in the cultural heart of Brazil, from the samba renaissance in the Lapa District, where you can choose from an array of great clubs, music and restaurants, to Carnaval rehearsals at local samba schools that redefine the word "celebration."
The best of Rio beaches of the Zona Sul are heavily patrolled and many other areas -- especially those troubled by crime and drugs -- have been cleaned up, but you do need to exercise caution.
Don't flash iPhones and money, don't take more cash with you than you can afford to lose and use taxis at night called by your hotel to take you to the doorstep of your destination.
Mostly Rio specializes in merrymakers who bring you into the fold. Whether it's hanging out over caipirinhas at a neighborhood bar, hiking in the rainforest or dancing in a circle of samba at an old dancehall, Rio is a realm of the senses, some of which you may find have been AWOL for a while.
The best for the best.
Like a glistening casino in Monte Carlo, the massive white edifice of the Copacabana Palace looms above the beach strip of Avenida Atlantica.
The most storied hotel in Rio, the Copacabana opened its doors in 1923 as a roost for dignitaries and diplomats.
The 1933 film "Flying Down to Rio," set at the Palace but filmed in Hollywood, made it a hangout for celebs.
Orson Welles trashed his room here following a fight with Dolores del Rio, as did Ava Gardner after Sinatra dumped her.
The furniture doesn't fly like it used to, but this best of Rio hotel still brings in the royals and their modern counterparts -- rock stars.
It'll set you back a bit for a stay in one of the 245 rooms, but you won't complain about the impeccable staff or features such as "Juliet balconies" (in some rooms), spacious rooms and classic furniture. More recently constructed rooms with city views are located in the Tower Wing building.
Porto Bay Rio Internacional Hotel
The Porto Bay Rio gives you a resort-style experience in the heart of beachfront row Avenida Atlantica.
The modern, upscale facility pulls out all the stops, from luxurious rooms to fine dining and views up and down the world's most famous beach.
The rooftop Bossa Lounge lets you knock back caipirinhas to the sound of bossa nova as you gaze from white sands to jungled slopes and the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado. It's a good place to slap yourself to see if you're dreaming.
It would be hard to find a more panoramic view of Copacabana, Sugarloaf and Copacabana Bay than from the 20th-floor pool unless you're operating a drone.
The rates aren't cheap but good value for luxury with the declining value of the Brazilian real.
Mar Ipanema Hotel: As stylish as its namesake beach.
This stylish boutique hotel has a primo locale, just five minutes from Ipanema Beach and a few blocks from the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon.
The hippest beach hangouts are minutes away, as are a host of the city's most happening boutiques, restaurants and bars in one of the safest neighborhoods in Rio.
The upscale Leblon district is a five-minute walk.
Mar Ipanema rooms feature tasteful décor accented by Rio motifs that feel custom-crafted.
Wi-Fi is available in all rooms.
The one downside: you have to use the restaurant next door for dining. Room rates are below most in the neighborhood.
Rio Panoramic Hotel
The coastal views are not all in Copacabana. The other side of Sugarloaf and its bay filled with sailboats are also stunning.
Perched on a hill overlooking Botafogo Bay in the artistic and quaint Santa Teresa neighborhood, the Panoramic gives you a view of the city below and a vista of islands and Sugarloaf lining the bay.
The renovated Art Deco villa earns great reviews among Rio lodgings, averaging five stars on TripAdvisor.
This B&B was originally the home of a doctor, and it has been lovingly restored to bring the personal touch to its six well-appointed and air-conditioned rooms.
There's a pool, breakfast in the garden and staff on site to offer tips on the attractions and shopping nearby.
Hotel Novo Mundo
Built in 1950, this three-star hotel has been a favorite of Brazilians over the years for its prices, views and proximity to Santos Dumont airport, the terminal for domestic flights.
Soccer great Pele used to stay here when he had a game in Rio.
The hotel is located at Flamengo Beach, a coastal stretch as scenic as the Zona Sul, but often overlooked by travelers.
Flamengo Park, a long stretch of green that parallels the coast, is across the street. Outside are great views of Sugarloaf and Guanabara Bay. The metro is a block away.
A stay on this side of Rio puts you closer to the action downtown, just a short walk away, such as the Lapa District and museums.
Golden Tulip Continental
Golden Tulip: Best value view in Rio.
It's a high-volume beach hotel two short blocks from Leme, the least-known beach of the Zona Sul.
But the view from its rooftop pool rivals anything the five-stars have, and its complimentary breakfasts are well-stocked.
Rooms are distinctly modest, but they're good enough for the many airline flight crews who stay here.
Located in a quiet, residential area, the surroundings are a welcome relief from the madding crowd of Copacabana.
Whatever you need is nearby -- markets, bakeries, travel agencies, bars. Copacabana is a 10-minute walk.
Academia da Cachaca
Caipirinhas, beef, beans, rice. If you need more than this, your life may be too complicated for Rio.
Sprawling over a large sidewalk in the upscale Leblon district of the Zona Sul, the Academia da Cachaca is a best-of-Rio hot spot for conversation, creative caipirinhas (pineapple, passion fruit, lime, bittersweet orange and fruit of the season) and other concoctions, such as the Academic Grit (orange, ginger, rum).
The food is excellent and ranges from feijoada (the beans and rice mix that is a staple of the national diet) to escondidinho (shredded jerked beef, trout or chicken, shrimp, mashed cassava, cream cheese au gratin).
The atmosphere is laid back and the tables are close together, so if you don't bring friends, you'll make some.
This is also one of the best places in Rio for caipirinhas and indulging the sidewalk joie de vivre of Cariocas.
The high-octane alcohol at the center of the caipirinha, cachaca, is a sacred spirit here, and there are hundreds of bottles of the sugarcane firewater displayed on the shelves.
With its ornate, tiled walls, array of framed pictures and close quarters, Nova Capela feels very Portuguese, but it's been a Rio fixture since it opened in 1903.
Home to Bohemians and artists through the years and now popular with Lapa denizens, Nova Capela is one of the best restaurants in Rio.
There's an air of craftsmanship here, with custom dishes (boar, goat) and attention to detail that extends to surprisingly good service, not a Rio signature.
The place is stocked with white-jacketed waiters.
The lamb with broccoli is a specialty here and melts in your mouth. The savory fare comes with the intimate vibe of a living room (a loud one).
Brigite's is one of the latest entries on Rio's restaurant row, Rua Dias Ferreira, in the upscale Leblon district of the Zona Sul.
The eatery, owned by the impresarios of two other hotspots on Dias Ferreira, Sushi Leblon and Zuka, has quickly made a name for itself as one of the trendiest dinner and cocktail destinations on a very competitive street for foodies.
The menu focuses on Italian fare, specializing in elegant presentation and savory creations, such as its "Gamberone em Crosta," which features prawns inside a lemon crust.
But the offerings span a wide range, from steak tartare to spaghetti and seafood dishes to vegetarian fare, if requested.
Fans rave as much about the cocktails as the food, from strawberry caipirinhas to mango mules.
Locals know to eat here on week nights, because the weekends are packed. Reservations are recommended.
Zaza Bistro Tropical
Owners Zaza Piereck and Preta Moyses turned their imaginations loose on a two-story colonial home in Ipanema in 1999, painting it ultramarine blue and stuffing it with bric-a-brac and figurines from around the world.
The upstairs dining area feels like you tripped down the rabbit hole and wound up in Fez, with Moroccan-style cushions for chairs.
There's nothing predictable about the food, either. The fare leans toward healthy and organic and is displayed with a Japanese-style flair for presentation.
Check out the grilled sea bass with sweet and sour caramelized bananas or, for dessert, the petit gateau cake with milk caramel.
Culinary creativity has made Zaza a very popular place, so you'll need to make reservations -- online only.
An old house full of antiques might not sound like the coolest ambience for a happening night spot, but Rio Scenarium pulls it off.
The decor, no doubt, has something to do with that.
The best-of-Rio club is three floors' worth of antique clocks, paintings and chandeliers, carved out of a 19th-century mansion in the Lapa district.
This Victorian set decorator's fantasy bridges vintage with modern, since Rio Scenarium is also a top music venue, with a first-floor stage and dance area that hosts the gamut of Brazilian rhythms, from rock to choro to MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) and samba.
To keep the caipirinhas from ending the night before it gets started, you can take some food breaks, say, penne sautéed in pesto sauce or grilled fish filet.
Casa da Matriz
One of the originators of the Rio club scene, Casa da Matriz, or Matrix House, has been a hip home for students and all-night scenesters since the 1990s.
Lodged in the Botafogo district, Casa da Matriz has an arty, casual vibe, with colorful decor and various unique spaces.
The music lineup ranges from deejays to live performances, from the Mad Professor to Joao Brasil, as well as indie karaoke sessions on Thursdays.
The club specializes in indie rock and pop, but the deejays spin an eclectic mix ranging from soul to samba.
The neighborhood bar, or botequim, is the Carioca version of the British pub, a place where the locals comes to imbibe and unburden.
At the best botequims, like Jobi in Leblon, a stranger never remains alone for long.
This classic Rio bar has been a hub of socializing, venting and gesticulating since 1956.
In the usual style, the bar spills from indoors to outdoors, with tables sprawled across the sidewalk.
Pedestrians don't come first here -- gabbing does.
Signature menu items are shrimp with cheese or shredded dried meat with farofa and onions.
There's also live music. There's no rush to get your point across at Jobi, which doesn't close until 4:30 a.m.
Like a lot of bars in Rio, there's no attempt at fancy furnishings at this modest Copacabana hangout.
The walls are a haphazard mélange of photos and old newspaper clips, and the unadorned tables are jammed in like sardines.
It's so informal that customers wander to the fridge themselves to get beer, and sometimes even tabulate the bill.
Under the cover of night, however, Bip Bip turns into a music destination, a must-stop for local and touring musicians, which has helped the bar build a following that belies its humble digs.
Guests down suds and eat croquettes to a variety of musical offerings, with artists jamming casually at tables.
Mondays and Tuesdays are choro nights reserved for the intricate guitars and cavaquinhos of traditional choro music. Wednesdays, there's bossa nova.
Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, it's samba de roda, the circle of percussion and voice from which this art form sprang.
A former run-down collection of 19th-century mansions, the Lapa district, near the city center, has been rehabilitated over the last decade into the heart of a cultural renaissance in Rio.
Many of the crumbling edifices have been restored to their previous luster.
The sidewalks are packed and the bars pulsing with live music, mostly samba, which has fueled the revival.
Walk a few blocks here, and you'll have more musical options than fingers.
At one bar, it's an acoustic samba de roda group with drums and mandolin.
At another, there's a gray-haired sambista belting out a classic samba canção (ballad) aided only by tambourine.
At still another, there's a lively band with a horn section doing samba gafieira, the swinging brass version of the music, with the crowd dancing along.
You may find yourself "eating your ears," as the locals call the ear-to-ear grin.
Like it has in much of the world, shopping in Rio has shifted to malls.
There are still great specialty shops: for musical instruments (Casa Oliveira), surfwear (Draco), hand-crafted jewelry (Maria Oiticica), books (Livraria da Travessa) and excellent bargains at the Target-like Lojas Americanas chain, particularly on CDs and DVDs.
But the best of Rio malls probably have what you need.
Shopping Leblon has more than 200 stores and easy access from the Zona Sul and tourist zones.
Botafogo Praia Shopping, in Botafogo, has a large selection of stores.
From a side door to the food court on the top floor, you can wander out to the rooftop for a stunning view of the marina and Sugarloaf.
For tourist fare, the outdoor flea market that springs up at night along Avenida Atlantica has the usual grab bag of T-shirts that fall apart with one wash, dresses and trinkets.
The Hippie Fair, held in Ipanema on weekends at Praca General Osorio, has better quality crafts.
Casa Oliveira Musicas, Rua da Carioca, 70, Rio Centro; +55 21 2508 8539
Draco, Rua Francisco Otaniano, Arpoador; +55 21 2227-7393
Livraria da Travessa, Leblon and Centro; Ipanema store: Rua Visconda de Piraja, 572, +55 21 3205-9002; Centro store: Rua Primeiro de Marco, 66, +55 212519-9000
Known as Sugarloaf for fairly obvious reasons, Pao de Acucar has posed for more photos than a truck full of supermodels, but there's more to this monolith than mere prop.
It's a show in its own right, something you find with a cable car trip to the top of the 396-meter peak.
You board two modern cable cars, the first to a peak called Urca, where caipirinhas and beer are available to steady wobbly knees.
The second gets you to the top of Sugarloaf for arguably the most spectacular city vista on the planet.
The scene is dazzling, with views from the beaches of the Zona Sul to the jagged Two Brothers peaks, to lush mountains.
Like any tourist mecca, it can get crowded at peak hours, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., so going early or just before sunset is best -- and pick a day when the skies are clear.
If you arrive early you can spend the day at Praia Velmelho, an idyllic beach in a cove-like setting a short walk from the base of the cable car.
Cristo Redentor and Corcovado
Since 1930, Cristo Redentor has been Rio's all-encompassing icon.
Since taking his post atop Corcovado Mountain in 1930, Cristo Redentor has had to put up with monsoonal rains, marinating humidity and swarms of kids posing in his famous flying posture.
Yet Rio's iconic Christ statue remains unfazed, a focal point for locals and travelers, 710 meters high on a ridgetop in the Tijuca National Forest.
No trip to Rio is complete without a journey to this high-flying landmark. Get alongside it, and it's so massive (39 meters high, 635 tons) that it's hard to get the whole thing into a photo.
Cristo Redentor does a little tour guiding on the side, the left arm pointing to the older north of Rio and the giant soccer stadium, Maracana, while the right arm waves to the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoa and the beaches of the Zona Sul.
Straight ahead from the platform is the city center, or Centro, the bay and Sugarloaf.
The key to an awesome day atop Corcovado is weather.
Wait for a clear day, or you'll be staring at a layer of cumulus.
The best show in Rio is free on the beaches of the Zona Sul. Park on the sand or walk the promenade of Avenida Atlantica, and you'll have a front row seat to the scantily clad, play-hard philosophy of Cariocas.
Cyclists, joggers and skaters jam the bike and pedestrian lanes that hug the beach.
On the sand and in the water, it's volleyball, soccer and surfing.
And everywhere, bodies -- dark and tanned -- do their best to ration bathing suit material.
Copacabana is the largest beach, opposite many of the hotels that line Avenida Atlantica, while Ipanema and Leblon are the hippest, home to artists and dedicated followers of fashion.
Rio has enough outdoor options to rival Boulder, Colorado, in the United States.
You can rock climb on Sugarloaf or in Niteroi, hang glide from a ridgetop, hike in the forest surrounding the city or bike around one of the best outdoor refuges in town, the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoa.
A saltwater lagoon backed by steep hills and forest, Lagoa is the Central Park of Rio, a sanctuary from heat and urban chaos.
It's a great place to walk, jog and play, maybe even a little baseball; there are a couple of diamonds here.
The Lagoa circuit leads to a great hike in Parque Catacumba.
The trail leads through the rainforest to some great views at the top.
Lagoa Adventures, a local outfitter, offers a canopy walkway high in the trees, a zip line, rock climbing wall and rappelling lessons.
Rio Adventures has an extensive range of pulse-pumpers, from a rope course and canopy adventure in the Atlantic Rain Forest to a hike up Pedro Bonita, to hang gliding.
Drinking, partying and, yes, even the Rio beautiful-body parade all revolve around music.
Here's where to experience the heart, soul and never-ending rhythm of the most musical city on the planet.
Carioca Da Gema
This top Rio venue was one of the trailblazers of the Lapa renaissance, and it's always jammed on the weekends, when the top samba artists perform.
It's the premiere club for two great art forms in Rio, samba and choro, an intricate, chamber-folk sound.
Many of Rio's top samba artists perform here regularly. Be on the lookout for Ana Costa, Arlindo Cruz and the queen of Lapa, Teresa Cristina, for a pure fix of the marvelous city's marvelous music.
The main floor is for dancing, and the few tables fill up quickly, so get here well before the 9 p.m. show time, especially on weekends.
Bossa nova has legions of fans around the world, but in its home country, it's all but vanished under a tidal wave of rap and sertanejo, a popular Tex-Mex sound.
The best place to catch the music made famous by Tom Jobim and Bebel Gilberto's dad, Joao, is at Vinicius Bar, opened as an homage to the great lyricist and poet Vinicius de Moraes, who penned some of the most famous bossa songs, including "The Girl from Ipanema" and "Felicidade."
Located a couple of minutes walk from the beach in Ipanema, the bar spotlights the jazz-tinged, languid sounds of a much slower Rio.
In keeping with the habits of de Moraes, a legendary bon vivant, the place is well-stocked for imbibing.
The breaded shrimp and Greek rice go nicely with a tangerosco, a tangerine-vodka combo.
Vinivius Bar, Rua Vinicius de Moraes, 39, Ipanema; +55 21 2287 1497
This classic dance hall on the fringes of the Lapa district has been serving up happy feet for 83 years.
Ascend the wide wooden staircase and you're no longer in the tourist bubble but inside the local culture with working-class folks who've put on their nighttime best to dance and party with giant bottles of Brahma.
They're serious about their samba here. Bands play 90-minute sets.
The banner on the back wall says it best: "As long as there is dance, there will be hope." Lots of that here.