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Famous for its gorgeous beaches (Ipanema and Copacabana), gorgeous models (Gisele Bundchen) and infectious music (samba and bossa nova), Rio de Janeiro is ideal if you are seeking more than just a typical beach vacation. Brazil’s cultural capital and most fashionable city, Rio is also a city of unusual diversity and extreme topography, with beaches, mountains and skyscrapers blending together to create an unexpected landscape not seen anywhere else in the world.

 

Rio de Janeiro has earned a spot on most travelers’ “favorites” list for the same reason Sydney has. Rio, like Sydney, offers the option of hanging out on the beach during the day and enjoying a vibrant city at night, as well as shopping and dining in hip, trendy shops and restaurants on par with Manhattan’s finest. Both offer a classic tropical climate, with summer and winter the opposite of when they fall in the States. (Keep this in mind if you are looking to escape the heat of the summer.)

 

Fairly easy to reach from key U.S. gateways (TAM offers service through São Paulo from New York and Miami), Rio de Janeiro—even more than Manhattan—deserves the moniker “the city that never sleeps.” Those who take a daytime flight and arrive close to midnight will be pleased to find plenty of cafés and bars that are open into the early morning. This is especially nice if you who want to sample the Rio scene from the get-go.

 

Hire a driver to pick you up at the airport. Cacilene Araújo from Metropol, a DMC, can arrange this as well as all private tours and excursions. For more information, call 011-55-21-2533-5010 or e-mail cacilene@metropolturismo.com.brc. Hourly rates for a private guide average $30 to $40, and you will get the most out of your Rio stay by experiencing it with the guidance of a local driver. Renting a car is not recommended, since traffic is on the chaotic side and rules of the road seem nonexistent.

 

Depending on your preferences, you can tailor an itinerary, with Metropol’s assistance, that offers a taste of Rio’s culture, cuisine, scenic beauty, famous beaches, shopping, entertainment, outdoor activities and adventure (hang-gliding, mountain biking, rock climbing, and surfing). Samba lessons are also an option! Attractions: No visit to Rio de Janeiro would be complete without the requisite tram ride up the side of Corcovado Mountain within the Parque Nacional de Tijuca. There you can experience the splendid vistas from the top as well as the overwhelming presence of Cristo Redentor, a 1,145-ton sculpture built in 1933 with arms wide open to the panoramic views below.

 

The tram is the most scenic way to enjoy the journey, and departures are scheduled every 30 minutes. If you want to drink in more of the incredible views, you should also visit the famed Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain), also reachable via cable car, and best enjoyed at sunset. Enjoying the views from a helicopter is also a popular way to experience Rio’s beauty. Nature buffs should also build in time to enjoy the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens) at the base of Tijuca Forest. The park features 7,000 species of plants from around the world, including 600 orchids and 300 palm trees lining miles of rivers, lakes, paths and bridges.

 

Beaches: Those interested in soaking up the sun alongside the attractive cariocas (locals) should head to the famous beaches of Ipanema and Leblon, situated in the Zona Sul and separated only by a canal and park. Surfers favor Ponto do Arpoador. Guests of the popular hotels (Caesar Park, Sheraton, Sofitel) in these areas, as well as at the Copacabana Palace on Copacabana Beach, are treated to beach service by hotel employees, so do not to be influenced by the multiple vendors trying to rent you chairs and umbrellas. The beach vendors—selling everything from clothing to drinks to tchotchkes—can be a bit annoying, but a firm “no” will keep them at bay and allow you to enjoy the sun and scenery in peace and quiet. A popular activity—for both locals and tourists—is strolling or jogging along the path lining the beach, either for exercise or people-watching, stopping for a fresh “coconut water” or juice at one of the many kiosks along the way.

 

Accommodations: The Caesar Park Hotel, located in the heart of Ipanema fronting the beach, is a great choice for American business and leisure travelers who like the comforts offered by a hotel that caters to the upscale corporate crowd. Splurge on an oceanfront room on a high floor, as the water views are a wonderful thing to see upon waking in the morning. Those who prefer funkier boutique hotels should opt for the Marina All-Suites Hotel, situated just down the street from Caesar Park in Leblon. This hip yet warm hotel with an authentic “South Beach” vibe offers spacious “designer” suites, and its Bar d’Hôtel is one of the most happening hotel bars in the city.

 

Of course, Rio wouldn’t be Rio without its star hotel, the Copacabana Palace (800-237-1236, www.copacabanapalace.com.br). Those who love the luxury found at the Copacabana’s sister Orient-Express properties (Hotel Splendido, Lapa Palace and Hotel Cipriani) will be most comfortable at this hotel. The pool suites—boasting views of the famous swimming pool, poolside bar and beach—offer separate living areas and bedrooms, oversize baths and oceanfront terraces. The cuisine is delicious, as would be expected from an Italian restaurant bearing the name “Cipriani.”

 

Dining: Steer clear of the pricey tourist traps (such as the busy churrascarias Marius and Porcão) in favor of the smaller, more intimate and interesting Portuguese, Brazilian and eclectic specialty restaurants. Ipanema’s ViaSete is a favorite of the well-heeled local crowd for its plates of freshly grilled picahna (steak) burgers, crunchy Moroccan salad and grilled hearts of palm (a local specialty), as is Gula Gula for its extensive and unique salad menu. Fresh fruit (mangoes, watermelon, papaya, guava, passionfruit, grapes and melon) is de rigueur for breakfast, and is squeezed into juice at juice bars citywide. Antiquarius, in Leblon, is one of the top (and priciest) restaurants in the city, serving traditional Portuguese specialties in a restored house in a tree-lined neighborhood. Romantic and unique, this is a wonderful “special occasion” spot. Bar d’Hôtel’s colorful ambience, trendy background music, hip-looking servers and delicious eclectic dishes (such as mini-lamb burgers and salmon tartare with fresh sour cream) and cocktails make it a perfect spot if you are craving a taste of the fashionable local Leblon scene. Japanese food is quite fashionable in Rio these days, with Sushi Leblon topping the list of hot spots.

 

Nightlife: Rio de Janeiro’s famous nightlife runs the gamut from loud samba clubs in downtown Lapa to casual beachside cafés and trendier upscale bars. Leblon and Ipanema are dotted with the latter, including Bar 121, Caneco 70 and Bar d’Hôtel, as well as longtime local favorites Clipper, Jobi and Garota de Ipanema. Music lovers who want to dance and soak up the sounds of samba should head to Asa Branca and Casa Rosa (Pink House). Saturday nights draw the largest crowds, but Casa Rosa’s Sunday Samba Party is also a fun place to mingle with the cariocas. Club Six, Zero Zero and Melt are other popular places to enjoy Rio after dark.

 

Shopping: Known for its gems, Brazil—and Rio specifically—is a great spot to purchase jewelry if you know where to shop. Skip the touristy outposts of H. Stern and Amsterdam Sauer (which seem to have outlets all over the city, including in most hotel lobbies) and instead head to Moreno’s Jewelers. A smaller, family-run store in Copacabana, this is where you will find a large selection of gems at more reasonable prices than in the chains. If you don’t see exactly what you want, Mr. Moreno will see to it that his talented designers customize pieces to your liking before you depart Rio. Havianas, the famous Brazilian flip-flops, sell for about $8 to $10 per pair (compared with three to four times this in the States) and are a great souvenir sold at most local drugstores and clothing shops.

 

For more on Rio de Janeiro, visit www.braziltour.com.--Stacy H. Small

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