View of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Lianne Milton | Hemispheres August 2016

You can have your Paris, your Istanbul, your San Francisco. Ask the Cariocas, as the residents of Rio de Janeiro are known, and they'll tell you that any city claiming to be the most beautiful in the world is really just vying for silver, after the Cidade Maravilhosa.

At this month's Summer Olympics, the world will see a Marvelous City that's gotten a makeover—to the tune of about $10 billion. But Rio doesn't need to be gussied up to take your breath away. As a visitor, you'll likely spend much of your time atop one of the city's spectacular mountains, looking down at Copacabana Beach, the Maracanã, Guanabara Bay, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Even the notorious favelas possess a strange, aspirational beauty in the way they climb the forested hillsides.

But it's at ground level that you'll see Rio's real beauty. The Cariocas are a famously friendly, fun-loving people—and famously attractive—and you'll feel this vibe constantly, from your early-morning jog on the beach to your late-night samba singalong. If travel is about opening your eyes, no city will stretch them wider than this one.

Day 1 graphic

In which Justin sees girls from Ipanema, takes a ride up sugarloaf mountain, and samples Brazilian-French cuisine

“Glass of Champagne?" a lovely young woman in a navy skirtsuit asks me as I check into the Miramar Hotel. It's only morning, but since one of my rules in life is to never turn down bubbly, I accept and head up to my 15th-floor room, where I stand at a picture window and watch the Atlantic Ocean break onto perhaps the world's most famous strip of sand: Copacabana Beach.

For a different kind of buzz, I slip on my sneakers and cross Avenida Atlântica to the wave-patterned mosaic walkway, where I join a stream of runners, bikers, tourists, and locals moving along the crescent-shaped beach. I jog north, past elaborate sand castles, beach soccer games, kiosks already serving beer and cocktails, vendors selling kangas (beach towels) and handmade bracelets. Finally I reach the fortified hillside of Morro do Leme, from which fishermen cast their lines into the waves.

The Catedral Metropolitana in Rio de JaneiroA stained-glass window at the Catedral Metropolitana

By the time I make it back to Posto 5, the lifeguard station across from the Miramar, I've got a serious sweat going, so I cut a couple of blocks over and dip into one of the suco (juice) stands that line Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana. I'm struck with indecision by the various tropical fruits on the counter—guava, mango, papaya, things I don't recognize—before settling on a smoothie made from the Amazonian superberry açaí. I'm pleasantly surprised when the cashier hands me the suco, which crowns over the top of the glass like soft-serve ice cream. Mister Softee's got nothing on this.

After a shower and a liberal application of sunblock, I'm ready to check out Rio's other world-famous beach. I stop in at a sandal shop to buy a pair of Havaianas, Brazil's signature flip-flops, then pick up a wave-patterned kanga from a beach vendor. Moving south, I pass blocky beachfront towers, eventually reaching Parque Garota de Ipanema, where I can't help but start humming the Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes classic “Girl From Ipanema."

On the far side of the park, I climb a cactus-lined trail to the top of Ponta do Arpoador, a rocky bluff with a sweeping view. To my left, there's the small Praia do Diablo cove, where surfers crowd the water and the air cracks with the thwock of old men striking paddleballs. To my right curves Ipanema Beach, the stretch of sand immortalized by Jobim and favored by high-society Cariocas. In the distance, the twin granite peaks of Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Mountain) lean out over the beach, separating Rio's toniest neighborhood from Vidigal, the favela that climbs the mountain's far foothill.

Thomas Troisgros, chef at OlympeThomas Troisgros, Chef, Olympe

I head down along Ipanema to Posto 9, the station around which Rio's chicest sunbathers gather. I rent a chair and an umbrella, and stake out a patch of microscopically grained white sand for people-watching. Speaking of microscopic: You've probably heard that the bathing suits here are small. I can confirm that this is true, and my powers of deduction lead me to conclude that Brazilians lead active, outdoor lifestyles. I'd better head out before I get caught staring.

I walk back toward Arpoador, through palm-shaded Praça General Osório, to my lunch spot, Casa da Feijoada. The restaurant's namesake dish is a stew that's traditionally reserved for Saturday afternoons (when it was eaten by plantation slaves), but it's been served daily here for 28 years. I sit in the cozy dining room, the green walls decorated with line drawings of workers preparing feijoada, and my waiter pours me a batida, a shot of lime juice and cachaça, Brazil's fiery national sugarcane liquor. Soon, he's loading my table with bowls of white rice, black beans, sausage and pork chunks in black broth, farofa (toasted flour made from manioc root), chunks of fried bacon, stewed greens, and orange slices. I am a plate-cleaner by nature, but even for me this is a mighty task—one that I manage only because of how fantastic the feast is.

“Rio has a big bar scene, the botecos. Bar Urca, by Sugarloaf, is really nice. Bar da Gema is really cool also—a lot of beef tongue and hearts. Beef tongue is huge in bars. And those little cakes. But the thing is, there's no such thing as 'high' food or 'low' food in Rio. It's either good or bad." —Thomas Troisgros

Clutching my stomach, I head out and catch a cab, which zips me back across Copacabana. We slow to a crawl passing the palatial Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, then enter a parking lot at the base of Pão de Açúcar, the famed Sugarloaf Mountain. Watching climbers tackle the granite walls inspires me to stand in line for the cable car, which rises to the top in two stages. At the end of the first leg, atop Morro da Urca, I find a preserved car from the original system, which was completed in 1913. It looks like a cross between an open school bus and a cigarette carton and makes me grateful for the glassed-in pod that now serves visitors. After a glance at the huge wheelworks that once operated the cables, I take a second car, which carries me above the villagelike neighborhood of Urca and its tiny beach, then up to the 1,299-foot peak of Sugarloaf. I look around and see Copacabana Beach, Guanabara Bay, and above it all the Cristo Redentor statue at the 2,329-foot summit of Corcovado, its arms outstretched as if to say, “Not bad, huh?"

I stroll around the pathways atop the mountain for a bit, lizards scampering by my feet and parrots cackling overhead, before returning to sea level and the hotel. Between my long flight and all the time I've spent on my feet today, my body's feeling a bit battered. The jets in my whirlpool bath are just the thing to work out the kinks.

Corcovado and the Cristo Redentor statue in the Jardim BotânicCorcovado and the Cristo Redentor statue seen from the Jardim Botânic

Refreshed and ready for dinner, I cab it to the Lagoa neighborhood, named for its location on the bank of the 590-acre saltwater lagoon Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Tucked onto a quiet side street between the lagoon and the upscale thoroughfare Rua Jardim Botânico, Michelin-starred Olympe has been serving Brazilian-French cuisine since chef Claude Troisgros opened it 33 years ago. He now runs it with his son, Thomas, who trained with Daniel Boulud in New York. Over the course of three hours, a parade of small plates arrives: cured amberjack with beet puree, soft egg in chicken broth with parmesan crumbs, heart of palm in fermented tucupi (manioc) sauce, crispy red mullet in red wine sauce with kimchi and bone marrow, two preparations of beef tongue—each dish complemented by a perfect wine or beer pairing. By the time chef Thomas comes out to ask me how the meal was, I'm reeling.

“The chefs in Rio all have different backgrounds," he tells me. “If you go to Roberta Sudbrack, she has a country background. If you go to Rafa [Costa e Silva] at Lasai, he has more of a connection with the Basque country. I have more of a French background, the butters and creams, but applied to Brazilian ingredients. And here you get to see the family traditions. My father's legacy, to me, is crunchiness in every dish. When you talk about food, you can see the beauty of the dish, you can smell it, you can feel the heat, but how can you hear the food? Only through crunchiness."

Seeing that I'm a bit crunched out, the staff is kind enough to hail me a cab back to the hotel. A block short of home, I notice a crowd outside a hole-in-the-wall bar, and I tell the driver to stop. Since 1968, Bip Bip has been known for its informal samba jams, and a few musicians are inside now, playing acoustic guitars and hand drums. Locals sing along in Portuguese. A cute kid with an afro dances on the sidewalk with his mother. Patrons help themselves to beers from a fridge at the back of the narrow space. At a small table in front, an old man who looks like a miniature Ernest Hemingway sits tallying drinks and shushing anyone whose voice rises above a whisper. A smiling woman next to me sees my head bobbing to the beat. “Deutsch?" she asks. “Americano," I reply. Hemingway shushes us.

Day 2 graphic

In which Justin gets down with Rio's graffiti scene, checks into Hollywood's favorite hotel, and finds Jesus on a mountaintop

I open my eyes and drift downstairs, still feeling the rhythm of “Samba Madrugada" in my stride as I cross the lobby to the hotel restaurant. The first thing I see is a mimosa bar, but I pass by (no one explicitly offered me any Champagne, so my life rule remains unbroken) to survey the breakfast buffet. I'm still full from last night's epic meal, so I opt for a light bite of flaky croissant and fresh mango. The morning sunlight floods the dining room, and I can see that many of my fellow diners already have their beachwear on, but my plan today is to see a less lounged-upon side of Rio.

I walk a few blocks up to the Siqueira Campos subway station, where I meet Nina Chini Gani, a lively 29-year-old Carioca in movie-star sunglasses and a flowery bucket hat who runs Rio Street Art Tour, for a drive around the city. “Artful" graffiti (as opposed to tagging) is legal here, and Nina knows pretty much every street artist in the city. As she drives, she points out the brightly spray-painted designs that appear on seemingly every wall: the angel with a soccer ball that was a protest against the 2014 World Cup; the cartoony yellow birds that say “Bom Día" to the old woman who runs a nearby snack cart; the wall where an artist who suffered a nervous breakdown painted over his compatriots' murals with a roller.

The Bonde streetcar The Bonde streetcar runs atop the Arcos de Lapa

“For me, to have open art galleries on the streets, it's heaven," Nina says. At one point, she pulls up onto the sidewalk—in extremely illegal fashion—in front of a stretch of stylistically diverse murals dedicated to the Brazilian pop star Roberto Carlos. “I'm really excited to show you this," she says, “so I'm just going to park here and hope I don't get a ticket."

We drive up a long, winding road that skirts the bohemian quarter of Santa Teresa, and then back down through the patchworked buildings of a favela. “You can't say 'favela' anymore," Nina notes. “It's un-PC. We have to say 'community.'" In this community, the street-facing walls of the houses feature murals dedicated to their residents. “The government doesn't care about these people," Nina says. “No one cares about them. So for the artists to come and do this just to make them feel special, to show them that they are people and that they matter, is really touching."

By the end of the tour, in the far Southern Zone neighborhood of Leblon, I feel as if I've seen every wall in the city. Our last stop is the Jeffrey Store, a graffiti-decorated (of course) space tucked into a row of auto shops. The main attraction here isn't the walls but the beer, which has been voted the best microbrew in Rio. We sip a couple of Niña witbiers, after which co-owner Eduardo Brand takes us up to his lab, where we taste his latest experiment: a light but spicy brew laced with anise, cardamom, and cayenne pepper. “We try to do beers that have a Carioca vibe," he tells us. “It's hot here, so they need to be refreshing."

Beach scene in Rio

I thank Eduardo for the beer, and Nina gives me a hug goodbye, with one parting piece of advice: “Go next door and get a hot dog." At the corner is Da Roberta, a food truck parked in a graffiti-decorated (of course) garage that's run by Michelin-starred chef Roberta Sudbrack. I order the SudDog, a lightly spiced sausage under a blanket of Pernambuco cheese and a generous glob of Dijon mustard, with a side of salty fried potatoes and creamy achiote aioli. It's an unthinkably elevated version of the old ballpark dog-and-fries combo, and it calls for a brew—a Jeffrey Niña, to be precise.

Lunch over, it's time to move my luggage to my second hotel, the Belmond Copacabana Palace. The imposing Art Deco building evokes the palaces of the French Riviera, and its 1923 construction signaled the beginning of Rio's status as an international destination (hanging on the walls are signed photos of the stars who've stayed here: Paul McCartney, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger). A stunningly beautiful desk attendant named Jessica checks me in, and an impeccably handsome hospitality manager named Cesar shows me up to my room. Even the janitors in this joint are good-looking.

“From Ponta do Arpoador, a rocky bluff with a sweeping view, I see surfers crowd the water. The air cracks with the thwock of old men striking paddleballs."

Cesar asks about my plans, and I tell him I want to meet Jesus. He directs me to a shuttle stop two blocks away, where I hop into an air-conditioned van to Corcovado. The van circles the sparking Lagoa and then climbs (and climbs and climbs) through a dense forest to the top of the mountain. From here I ascend a few flights of stone stairs and find myself in the shadow of the Cristo Redentor. The 98-foot-tall, 700-ton soapstone figure, completed in 1931, is the world's largest Art Deco statue and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. To me, the most impressive thing isn't Jesus so much as the view that he presides over, a 360-degree panorama of Rio: Sugarloaf, the Bay, the Lagoa, the Maracanã soccer stadium, the highrise hotels and shambling favelas, the sprawling cemetery where Jobim and Carmen Miranda are buried, and beyond it all the endless Atlantic. I half expect the stray clouds that dot the sky to be carrying harp-playing (or perhaps samba-drumming) angels.

Guide in the Rio street art tourNina Chini Gani, guide, Rio street art tour

Back at the hotel, I'm ready for another heavenly interlude. I rinse off under my rain shower, slip on a bathrobe, and flop down on my bed, where I pluck espresso-chocolate truffles from a tin and watch through the French windows as the glow of evening settles over Copacabana Beach.

After nightfall, I head downstairs to Mee, the Palace's Michelin-starred pan-Asian eatery, overseen by celebrity chef Ken Hom. The space has a definite LA vibe—dim lighting, clubby music, Pop Art geishas on the walls—and I take a seat at the sushi bar, where executive chef Kazuo Harada slings a succession of imaginative dishes: seared salmon with spicy miso sauce and quail egg, scallop sashimi with black and white truffle, tuna tartare that I watch the sushi chef scrape by hand, and about a million other sushi dishes that blend together in a fog of gluttony. I wash it all down with a sommelier-recommended Kuentz-Bas Pinot Noir that's almost rosé-light.

“Nightlife in Lapa, if you go during the weekend, it's insane. You have all sorts of different people. Like, you'll see this girl with a flowery skirt and this guy that looks like Marilyn Manson standing next to each other. It's just a huge variety." —Nina Chini Gani

I'm full but feeling the samba itch again, so I hail a cab and head to Lapa, a lively nightlife district near the city center that's home to the Arcos da Lapa, an 18th-century Portuguese aqueduct. A couple of blocks over from the Arcos is Rua do Lavradio, a cobblestone pedestrian walk lined with colonial buildings, most of which are home to bars. The king of these is Rio Scenarium, a three-story club that also seems to aspire to be the world's greatest antique store. The space is crammed with curios: a cluster of chandeliers here, an orchestra of horns there, a vintage motorcycle that looks an awful lot like the one Che Guevara rode across the continent in the early '50s. From the second floor, I look down on the stage, where a colorful chanteuse leads a high-energy six-piece band. On the dance floor, people of all races and ages groove to the music. I don't initially have the courage to join them, but the Brazilians have invented the ultimate antidote to inhibition: the caipirinha, a powerful cocktail of cachaça and lime juice. After a couple of these things, I'm burning the soles off my shoes.

Day 3 graphic

In which Justin meets monkeys, eats enough steak to kill an apex predator, and barhops through the city's biggest street party

I spend my first few minutes of the day lying in bed, listening to the ocean. A guy could get used to this. Eventually, I roust myself and head down to grab a poolside table at the hotel's breakfast restaurant, Pérgula, where I munch on banana pastries, smoked salmon, and impossibly tender mango. Brazilians definitely know how to do a breakfast buffet.

The sky is a flawless blue, so I settle on an outdoor activity: a visit to the Jardim Botânico. Rio's botanical garden was founded more than 200 years ago by King João VI of Portugal, who intended it as a repository for vegetal plunder from around the Portuguese Empire. Today, the 345-acre park contains more than 9,000 specimens—prickly cacti, bright orchids, alien-looking insectivores, Amazonian lily pads. There's plenty of fauna to go with the flora, too. As I walk past a towering silk cotton tree, under which Jobim used to compose songs, I see three toucans. Farther along, I run into a troop of capuchin monkeys. There must be a dozen of them romping through the trees and strolling on the grass—enough to outnumber the people quietly snapping photos. On my way out of the garden, I come across a wall bearing an almost Guernica-size graffiti mural of native animals. I recognize the style: This was painted by Bruno Big, the artist who designed Neymar's Nike soccer cleats. Nina would be so proud!

Heart of palm in fermented tucupi sauce at OlympeHeart of palm in fermented tucupi sauce at Olympe

I've had a nice long walk, which is a good thing, as I have a Herculean gastronomic task ahead of me. At the Churrascaria Palace, back in Copacabana, I sit beneath a caricature mural of bossa nova legends and ready myself for an onslaught of white-jacketed waiters. They come to the table in waves, each offering a skewer of grilled meat that is carved directly onto my plate. Linguiça sausage. Lamb with mint jelly. Barbecued ribs. Chicken hearts. Prime rib. Filet mignon crusted with blue cheese. I have seen my death, and it comes with a side of farofa.

Just in case I survive the digestion process, I check into the JW Marriott. The J-Dub has one of the most distinctive architectural features in the city's South Zone: a four-story pentagonal window in the middle of the building that's visible from much of Copacabana. I stop in the ninth-floor lounge to enjoy the view. I don't think I'll ever get tired of looking at that beach.

My seagazing is short-lived, however. I've got plans to meet Letícia Novaes, lead singer of Letuce, a rock band that's a fixture at Festival Path in São Paulo (Brazil's answer to South by Southwest). I ride an impeccable metro train to the Uruguai station, in the middle-class North Zone neighborhood of Tijuca, where Letícia grew up. Standing at the station entrance, she's hard to miss: Dressed in a flowing gray jumpsuit, she's well over six feet tall, with tight curls in her hair. “If I had grown up in Ipanema, maybe I would have been a model," she tells me with a light laugh. “But because I grew up in Tijuca, I'm a funny girl."

Cristo Redentor in Rio de JaneiroThe crowd of tourists at the Cristo Redentor

We walk uphill from the metro station, trailed by a friendly neighborhood mutt, and climb a quiet street lined with trees and colonial homes that dead-ends at the foot of the Tijuca Forest. Just before the forest entrance, there's a small, shaded children's park, Praça Hans Klussmann, dotted with sculptures of animals and folkloric figures: a mermaid, a gnome, an elephant, a polar bear, a T-Rex slide that Letícia zips down. “I'm not seven anymore, but I have to try," she says.

We take a seat in a small gazebo, and she applies a line of glitter to her forehead. “I'm from Rio, and Carnival is very strong in our culture," she says. “I like things that are sparkling. Sometimes I wear the classic makeup, but I'd rather do the mystic, Carnival-like thing." I ask her why everyone here seems to have such a vibrant personality, and she grins. “I think it's the heat."

I say goodbye to Letícia and take the metro back to the city center. Rio is an old city by New World standards—451 years old, to be exact—but the center features several modern marvels. I stop first at the Catedral Metropolitana, a conical, anthill-like church that was completed in 1976. Inside, a giant rosary hangs from the ceiling, and four tremendous stained-glass windows tower above a nave that can seat 5,000 worshippers.

Letícia Novaes, lead singer of LetuceLetícia Novaes, musician, Letuce

A quick cab ride down Avenida Rio Branco, which was conceived of as Rio's Champs-Élysées but is now mostly just a desperately clogged artery, brings me to the Museu do Amanhã—the Museum of Tomorrow. The Santiago Calatrava–designed building, which opened in December next to an old cruise-ship terminal, looks like the skeleton of some prehistoric predator of the seas. Inside, patrons engage with about 70 interactive monitors that are meant to make them consider how they interact with each other and the natural world. One quiz I take reveals that I use 3.9 times the resources that an average citizen of the planet does. That said, I am having a responsible evening meal.

From the city center, I head up the swirly, stairway-laced streets of newly hip Santa Teresa to Largo do Guimarães, the neighborhood's central intersection. Stepping across the Bonde streetcar tracks, I find Café do Alto, a restaurant that specializes in Amazonian cuisine. The room is humble, decorated with Brazilian folk art; the waiters are casual; and the eats are sublime. I start with a grilled octopus salad and a tapioca—a traditional pancake made from yuca starch—and for an entree I order moqueca, a hearty stew of fish and sweet peppers in coconut milk that I ladle over rice and then top with an almost unbearably hot pepper sauce.

“Tijuca means a lot to me. It's a very different place from Zona Sul, which is Ipanema, Copacabana. There's all the craziness down there, but here it's peaceful. I love Ipanema, I live for the beach, but you can't just define Rio as that." —Letícia Novaes

After dinner, I take a walk down Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno, a graffitied row of bars with crowds spilling from their doorways. I opt for Mike's Haus, which has a four-piece samba band playing at the front table. I find a seat and order an Antarctica beer, smiling when I recognize the opening notes of “Samba Madrugada."

I'd be perfectly happy listening to this band until the sun comes up, but it's my last night in one of the world's great party cities, and I need some stories to tell the peeps back home. So I cab it back down to Lapa, where throngs of people pile through the Arcos and into the clubs on Avenida Mem de Sá. The scene is overwhelming—imagine a less organized Bourbon Street. I enter Sacrilégio, an old mansion that's been converted into a venue for traditional samba, and grab a seat and drink a couple of pints of chopp (tap beer) as dancers swing around the smoky room to the energetic beat of the band.

Dancers at Rio Scenarium in BrazilDancers at Rio Scenarium

Next, I do something I know I'm not supposed to. Even though it's late, and I've had a few drinks, and this area has a reputation for being a bit sketchy, I walk away from the crowds on Mem de Sá and duck down a dark, quiet side street. I don't know exactly what I'm trying to find—until there it is. A narrow bar, no signage, packed with people. I squeeze inside and fight my way to the counter to order a beer. The room is long and low, a thunderously loud samba band in the middle of the floor. The crowd pushes in around the band, everyone singing, clapping, dancing, drinking. The room shakes with the energy of it. This is it, the real Rio. This is what we look for when we travel: a place that we didn't know existed, that we may never be able to find again, that stamps itself into our consciousness, that opens up our world.

Hemispheres managing editor Justin Goldman is trying to figure out how to get back to Brazil before his visa expires.

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