...but even with clouds and rain, it's still a beautiful city. This trip was half fun, half work. I had a conference in São Paolo so decided to make the 9+ hour flight worth it by stopping in Rio on the way for the weekend...meaning another jam packed tourist-fest! The majority of the time spent in São Paolo was in a standard issue, boring conference room in the basement of a hotel. I was able to fit in some touristy goodness for a little more than half a day prior to flying out...but I'll write about that in a separate post. Here I'll concentrate on that intoxicating city, Rio de Janeiro.
Getting around: Easy
Get by on English: Easy
Food Variety: High
Locations: Rio de Janeiro
Length: 3 days
Transportation: Taxi, Driver
Companions: 1 beautiful mother
This trip was a bit fancier than my normal meanderings. At this point in my life, I'm well past tolerating a hostel with 16 other people in bunk beds and about 2 trips past private, en-suite hostel stays (although if need be I'd still be ok with this option depending on the city). I get that there is an appeal to each option and a time and place for everything...but as a 33 year old with a relatively solid job, I'm too old for that shit. I currently try to select reasonable but nice hotels ($50-125 a night per person) or do Airbnb. I'll bore you with the details of how I search for and select, as well as rank lodging in a separate post that will likely put you to sleep...but for the now point is, this trip was outside of my normal level of fanciness.
The catalyst for this?...my mother accompanied me! She was born and raised in the South of Brazil and hasn't been back to the country for over a decade. Additionally, we haven't done a one on one trip, ever!...so I of course convinced her to come with. She has upgraded a few levels beyond me, as she should, so the transportation, restaurant and hotel portions of this trip were a bit more indulgent. I'll talk about our days spent in Rio in terms of categories vs. chronologically. Some items were planned, some weren't...but I think Rio is a city like that. You just go with the flow and soak it all in!
Rio de Janeiro
What surprised me about Rio is how green it is. It's literally a city growing out of a jungle, not vice versa which gave it a different vibe than most large cities I've been to. Tons of parks everywhere too! It's also right on the water which I'm sure plays a big part in why most people are in love with it. If the title of this post didn't give it away though, I'll tell you now that we were shrouded in clouds pretty much the entire trip with some occasional rain. Something about the sun sparkling off the water is what makes that a spectacular sight to me so the effect was a bit lost. Additionally some of the oh so iconic Rio staples were hidden with the clouds. For example, you couldn't see the Cristo Redentor looking over the city from below or from the Sugarloaf. Regardless, it's a fabulous city and on the bright side, we weren't melting into the pavement under the beating rays of the sun, so there!
"At the Copa, Copa Cabana..." We pulled the trigger on a room at the illustrious Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio. I had some $ in free hotel nights through hotels.com (10 nights = 1 night free) so I used it to help out with our Rio stay. This hotel has a ton of history and my mom has always wanted to stay there. It's a different vibe than a newer build but that's what makes it cool. It has character...it's been around since 1923 for Pete's sake! Big pool, right across the way from Copacabana Beach, great breakfast spread, comfortable beds/linens, nice bathroom, in-room climate control, 3 restaurant options, drink spots and perfect for us from a location standpoint. If you're looking for something iconic and have the dough to spend I would recommend it. We had a suite facing the pool and beach...which was cool although some sun would have been necessary to actually appreciate it to the fullest!
The other random cool thing is that we happened to be in Rio for Pride!! It quite literally rained on their parade but the Copacabana Palace Hotel was definitely in the heart of it. Had it been a sunny day I can only imagine how crazy it would have been. Still fun and heartwarming to witness...people were troopers!
As I mentioned, this was a fancier trip. We used a driver through the hotel and it ended up being fantastic. It ran >$125 for a day but with the rain and everything we were trying to fit into this trip it was worth it. Our driver was fabulous. He also took us to some places we likely never would have found without him. He accompanied us to some of the locations which gave us the ability to buy tickets through the tour guide line, etc. and made everything that much easier. It isn't something I normally do but in this instance I'm glad we did. I would not recommend using a driver from the hotel to and from the airport though...then it's definitely a rip off. That means I don't have many tips on public transportation this time! Except I will say it was easy to find a cab whenever one was needed, even at night. They are easy to spot and pretty common.
Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor):
As you can tell by the time lapse to the right, it was a cloudy day in Rio! It was pretty cool though because we were basically in a cloud. I can only imagine how much more spectacular (and hot) it would be up there on a sunny day, but we were happy to get a few cloudless glimpses. This is an iconic stop in Rio and I recommend it. There are stairs but also elevator options to get to the top for those unable to climb. There's a little chapel in the base of the Christ statue and a cafe near the top if seeing a giant Christ all of a sudden makes you crave sustenance.
Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar)
Another classic Rio activity is to take the cable cars up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Apparently when the sugar trade was bumping between Portugal and Brazil, sugar was not sold in cubes or the granulated form we know today. It was actually molded in clay pots into these loaves...which happen to look exactly like this mountain, hence the name! I had to look it up after we visited because I have never seen a "sugar loaf"...guarantee you if it were still this much effort to get some sugar into our food or drinks, maybe health wouldn't be such a disaster these days...but moving on.
The first cable car takes you from the base to a smaller hill called Morro da Urca. Urca is the ritzy neighborhood surrounding Sugarloaf...desirable because there is a military base nearby and only one way into the neighborhood, creating a very safe little nook. We drove around the neighborhood after and I must admit, it was super quaint with beautiful buildings. I'd live there. On Morro da Urca there are shops and places for refreshments as well as a helipad for helicopter tours (which we passed on due to the weather but are supposed to be very cool). From there you take another cable car to the top of Sugarloaf. Apparently there is also a pretty killer New Years Eve party spread between these two levels. The benefit of the crappy weather was that it was uncrowded. We didn't have to wait at all for either cable car rides which I think can be pretty rare. There is a little nature walk loop you can take before heading back down which is nice, so do it! Some very cool trees up there.
As I mentioned our driver took us to some places we did not have on our radar and we were grateful for that. He took us to a cool coffee shop which I'll cover in the food section. It gave us a chance to walk around a bit in the heart of downtown. There are a ton of shops and little food joints dotting the streets spreading out from Carioca Square. This is where I acquired my cuíca. What's a cuíca you may ask? Well for those of you familiar with samba music (if you're not, get with the program) it is the squeaky accompaniment that when played alone could annoy the shit out of the most tranquil of humans...I'm trying to keep this blog SFW so let's not even mention what it looks like you're doing when you play it. BUT, in combination with a samba band it's magic! It just belongs. You can hear a cuíca in Paul Simon's Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. From Carioca Square you can see São Francisco da Penitência...we did not have a chance to go in but pictures look amazing so its on the list for next time.
We stopped briefly in the Praça Marechal Floriano to get a look at the Municipal Theater (Teatro Municipal). We tried when we arrived to see if we could catch a show but no luck, the timing didn't work out. The driver also took us to the Rio de Janeiro Cathedral that was entirely unassuming and quite frankly terrible looking from the outside. The inside was super striking with floor to ceiling stained glass though.
Last but definitely not least, our driver took us to the Escadaria Selarón. You'll recognize it from the Snoop Dogg + Pharrell video for Beautiful. And they are just that...beautiful. It's literally just a staircase. There is a little theater, a hostel and some vendors along the way to the top as well as residences. But...it's just so cool! My mom found the tile with Ohio on it (where I'm from) and there are countless others. Definitely worth checking out. My favorite part is that walking up you are assaulted with color and too many tiles to even look at and then on the way down it looks like a normal, shitty, concrete staircase. It's awesome.
I'm a big fan of art museums while traveling. Big, small, traditional, modern. My mom and I decided to check out the Museum of Modern Art (MAM) in Rio. Of course, like most museums of modern art there were out of the box mediums and there were more traditional mediums. We thought we'd be in there for a long time but we were able to cover it in about an hour or less. It wasn't my favorite museum on the planet to date (that I discovered is actually in São Paulo) but still interesting. I took a liking to the walls inside the main room after you walk up the spiral staircase...had a toxic chic thing going on.
When you're in Rio you go and listen to live music. You just do! My mom and I started with a night of bossa nova and then went to see some live samba music the following night. Bossa nova is a slow, smooth experience. We checked out a bar called Vinícius. There is a restaurant downstairs (we didn't try it) and an upstairs bar for live music. Let me warn you now...this place smells like an armpit. It's an old, smelly, lounge-y bar with a standard, simple set of cocktails and a small stage area. It's not the most impressive, but in terms of quality of music, it's spot on. We made reservations for a table and were told the show started at 21:30 but the opening act was already playing when we got there...he was super talented and we were bummed we only caught the tail end of his session, so make sure you go earlier! He was followed by Eliana Pittman who was flashy with more of a performance focused set that wasn't bad but just totally opposite from the opener. I drank a lot of champagne. It was a fun night.
The second night we went for some booty shaking live samba. A lot of the samba bars are located in a neighborhood called Lapa. We went to one called Carioca da Gema. I would recommend getting early or trying to make a reservation if you want to have somewhere to sit where you can actually see the band. If you plan on standing, drinking and dancing the whole time then good for you!...come whenever! They also serve food and we got some fried goodies. My mom can't turn down a good bolinho de bacalhao, but we'll get to that in the food section. The bar has rotating artists and the band we saw was great...we had to work off that fried food somehow!
Brazilian food is delicious! I'm a bit biased maybe since I grew up eating Brazilian food but regardless, there is a lot to love. If you want the traditional feijoada (black beans and rice with sausages/beef) make sure you go on the weekend somewhere to get it and double check which day it will be served. It takes a lot of time to make so restaurants don't typically serve it every day. It's worth it if you can get some good feijoada. We missed our chance but there was one lunch place we ate at that had some as a buffet item thank goodness or I would have been bummed. We also chose not to do a churraso on this trip but if you are looking for a lot of delicious meat, you should definitely seek some out.
The breakfast buffet at the Copacabana was legit. The fruit in Brazil is amazing. I'm always shocked at how much better fruit is outside the States. This place even had cashew fruit on the buffet! Yes, cashews grow out of the top of a fruit. The fruit tasted pretty good but left my mouth feeling super dry and weird, like I ate a pound of fresh spinach. We also had one lunch and one dinner in the hotel. The lunch was our first meal so we got some of the favorites my mom had been missing including bolinho de bacalhao. That is basically a fried croquette filled with salted, dried codfish. It's pretty strong so I'd stay away if you don't like fishy food but to my mamacita, they're perfect. I like the ones with carne seca which is salted, dried beef. Let's be honest I'll eat pretty much anything with carne seca in it. For dinner we tried the Asian restaurant in the hotel and it was a pretty good meal but nothing to write home about.
One of the best meals we had was at a restaurant the driver showed us on the way back from the Corcovado called Aprazível. It's in Santa Teresa (which is a super cute neighborhood I loved that I'll tell you about in a bit) surrounded by greenery with great views of the city, not to mention delicious food PLUS they brew their own beer. Literally could not have been more perfect. It's closed on Mondays so keep that in mind. I think a reservation is your best bet for this one. Also make sure your cab driver knows where to go, it's a bit hard to find. You take an elevator down to the restaurant. A sunset here would be amazing.
As I mentioned earlier, we missed our opportunity for feijoada in all it's glory. But, our driver did take us to a very cool coffee shop with snacks downstairs and a lunch buffet upstairs that had black beans and rice as an option. The place is called Confeitaria Colombo and I have to say this buffet was delicious. It had an assortment of heavier dishes but then also all the different mini pastels that are traditional to Brazil. A pastel is a flaky pastry filled with meat or cheese. They also had coxhina, which can be found everywhere and are killer good. They are basically a deep fried, cone shaped croquette filled with shredded chicken. This buffet also had some sort of squash, carne seca casserole which was amazing and an array of other items including a huge dessert section. By the way, if you see cheese and a red sort of jelly looking item next to it offered as dessert in Rio, try it. They call it Romeo and Juliet (Romeu e Julieta). It's cheese with guava paste and is oh so good. Also the little chocolate balls are called brigadeiros and contain condensed milk as a main ingredient...also delicious. I should have taken pictures but I was too busy eating! To be honest even writing about this is making me hungry. I need to go back. Anyway, what was also cool about this coffee shop is that it's beautiful. It was founded in 1894 with the second story built in 1922. It's definitely worth a visit.
I'm mentioning this last restaurant not because it was earth shatteringly good, but because I was able to try another traditional Brazilian dish that I think you should give a shot too. It's called moqueca which is a traditional Brazilian fish stew containing coconut milk. The restaurant we went to was called Nomangue. It was an average meal, mine better than my mom's. I did see the table next to us get the lobster and that looked amazing so maybe with an order of that plus some moqueca, this restaurant would be a winner!
My focus when traveling is not necessarily on shopping. But, I do have a philosophy that entails purchasing cool items I could never get in the Midwest when I see them abroad. It has given my place some pretty legit character...at least that's what I tell myself. Artisan work is of course preferred. If I can come home with some new art that I love, I'm ecstatic. I do want to highlight two places though, one because I think it might be getting a lot of unnecessary hype and the other because it's awesome.
Hippie Market - Ipanema
This Sunday only, outdoor market was started in 1968. It was a rainy day when we attempted to go but being that it's only open one day a week we wanted to check it out. It is definitely huge. There are rows and rows of stalls as well as vendors selling different refreshments. Additionally the perimeter of the market is lined with brick and mortar establishments and I saw quite a few cute restaurants/bars. Is it worth a stroll if you have the time? Yes. Would I put all my eggs in this basket for unique, high quality purchases from Brazil? No. We didn't walk the entire thing because it was raining but I wasn't very impressed with the quality and variety of items. Maybe the B team showed up because of the weather, who knows. But there are other options, including other outdoor markets to explore.
Pé de Boi
This store is awesome. Pé de Boi is a super cool artisan shop. Our driver took us there so he probably got a cut, and yes it is a bit more expensive that some souvenir shops, but it's also very high quality. With the exchange rate I still felt like I acquired some steals, including a bad ass vase and equally cool print. At first glance the store can be overwhelming and I honestly didn't think there was anything in there I would like. Then I took a minute to soak it all in and walked out, arms full! Make sure you ask to see upstairs if you are interested in textiles or larger pieces. This is an all around great shop AND they wrapped everything so well, there's no way it's breaking on the trip home.
One interesting thing about the different neighborhoods in Rio is that there is different tile work on the sidewalks depending on where you are. For instance the Copa Cabana wavy tile work is iconic and you will find it represented on textiles and other souvenirs as you walk around. I liked to see the contrasting patterns.
My favorite neighborhood was called Santa Teresa. It's a neighborhood on an incline and had tons of character. We first drove through it after our lunch at Aprázivel, driving down the Corcovado, and I made it a point to return so we could explore more. In the "main" street area you can find a bunch of cute restaurants, bars and shops. There is a lot of graffiti but it seemed to me to be more artistic vs. the rest of the crappy initials or calling cards, whatever, you see on the buildings everywhere. I enjoyed myself strolling around and grabbing a couple drinks with my mom before it started raining on us. There are cable car type trams that you can take to get to this funky neighborhood and I believe lodging options as well if you're looking for something off the beaten path. There was even a little German restaurant!
Sometimes the location is what makes a trip great. Sometimes it's the company. In this instance I had both. I had such a great time exploring this city with my mom and quite frankly am surprised at everything we fit in! Rio is definitely full of life. It also is inspiring to see a city so full of people living harmoniously with so much green! If I were searching for a combination beach/metropolitan vacation, Rio would be a top contender. Let's just hope next time around I get more time to spend here...and sun!