Lay of the Land
“Curves are the essence of my work because they are the essence of Brazil, pure and simple. ”~Oscar Niemeyer
Rio de Janeiro is dramatically divided in two by what Antonio Carlos Jobim called “those magnificent granite giants,” the Tijuca Massif, mountains covered in rain forest. North of it lies an expanse of mostly working-class suburbs.
Downtown sits at a choice spot on the picture-perfect Guanabara Bay, facing the “granite giant” Sugar Loaf Mountain. Following the bay into the open Atlantic in a southwesterly fashion, the Zona Sul embodies the essence of the carioca lifestyle: gorgeous beaches, casual but elegant shops, beautiful people and an interesting mix of Portuguese colonial and mid-century-modern architecture lining narrow, leafy streets.
The most eloquent and best-preserved examples of Portuguese colonial (from the 16th to 18th centuries) and 19th-century Brazilian Empire architecture, along with a thriving business district and charming restaurants and bistros, can be found Downtown. After decades of neglect, the oldest parts of Downtown (Lapa and the waterfront) have been reclaimed and reinvigorated by restaurateurs, artists and musicians and now host a lively nightlife favored by young and hip cariocas. Flamengo, Botafogo, Urca, Laranjeiras and Humaitá are mostly residential neighborhoods bordered by Guanabara Bay on the south and the foothills of the Tijuca Massif to the north.
First in the string of ocean beaches, Copacabana used to be the very essence of Rio sophistication. It still holds an Art Nouveau gem, the Copacabana Palace hotel; some great 1940s and ’50s architectural masterpieces; and two fantastic and little-known sightseeing spots, the Copacabana and Leme forts, at the eastern and western ends of the beach. Otherwise it’s Rio’s Waikiki: overbuilt, overcrowded, and noisy.
South of Copacabana, the lovely Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon borders four of Rio’s most charming neighborhoods: Ipanema and Leblon to the south, and Jardim Botânico and Gávea to the north. Sitting side by side on a narrow strip of sand between the lagoon and the ocean, Ipanema and Leblon are the tanned, hip sisters, forever young. Bohemian, adventurous, vibrant, Ipanema boasts all the trendy boutiques, hot clubs and fancy restaurants; cool, affluent and quiet, Leblon has the top neighborhood spots, the secret shopping addresses, the cafés.
Inland from the lagoon, practically nestled inside the rain forest, Jardim Botânico and Gávea are a riot in green. Once sleepy communities, the two now have their fair share of excellent bars and restaurants and two of Rio’s most extraordinary public parks: Jardim Botânico and the Parque Lage. Along the Atlantic as it curves to the southwest are Rio’s new middle-class neighborhoods— São Conrado, Barra da Tijuca, Recreio dos Bandeirantes —home to freeways, sprawling shopping centers and the last semi-unspoiled beaches.
When to Go
Rio has two main seasons, rainy (spring and summer) and dry (fall and winter), and subtle temperature variations between them. The city sits on a series of plains between the Atlantic Ocean and rain-forest-covered mountains, so it tends to be humid year-round. May through August (fall and winter in the Southern Hemisphere) is the best time to enjoy civilized temperatures (60s to 80s). The days are shorter here—expect gorgeous sunsets at 5 p.m. You’ll get much of the same weather and a lot more flowers and colors in spring (September through November), but Rio’s long rainy season will be in full force. In summer (December through March), the city comes alive in all its hedonistic glory, but temperatures soar well into the 100s and stay there.