Set between majestic mountains and breathtaking beaches, Rio de Janeiro is the city of sun, saints, samba, soccer, and Carnival. The stunning sights and seductive bites of this South American playground—host of the 2016 Summer Olympics—radiate pure pleasure. Enjoy bounties of beef and beans, sip zippy cafezinhos (strong Brazilian coffee), and cool off with chilled sucos (juices) or the native caipirinha cocktail, made with cachaça, sugar, and lime.
Christ the Redeemer
Atop Corcovado Mountain sits the mammoth statue of Christ the Redeemer, Brazil's most established landmark. Standing above the bay with open arms, the statue is meant to symbolically welcome, embrace, and protect the country's multiracial citizens. Enjoy the ride to the summit on the Corcovado Train, through the thick forests of Tijuca National Park. Once there, get a closer look at the monument and gain an appreciation for its stunning views of Rio.
Classic food option: Another way to appreciate the beauty of Tijuca National Park is to have lunch at Os Esquilos, an old colonial restaurant that has been nestled in these woods since 1945. Named after the squirrels (esquilos) in the surrounding woods, the restaurant has a rustic interior and a menu that's best described as traditional with a twist. In addition to its native feijoada (a hearty stew of black beans, beef, and pork), served on weekends, Os Esquilos counts meat or cheese fondue among its specialties. Take a walk around the beautiful grounds before or after lunch.
Trendy food option: For a trendy twist on culture accompanied by a sip of good coffee and a snack, the Museu Internacional de Arte Naif is just a few doors away from the train station, and visitors who show a ticket stub from the rail receive a 50 percent discount on the admission price. Home to a good collection of naïve art, the intimate museum features eye-catching exhibits. Da Cozinha Café is their small restaurant, serving good coffee, cakes, sandwiches, and bites.
Unexpected food option: In a land where meat is king, Prana offers organic vegetarian delights close to the Corcovado station. Lunch, Brazilian sucos, acai concoctions, or afternoon snacks are all available. The tropical fruit and vegetable juice or smoothie blends are terrific. Vegan and gluten-free bites are also on the menu here.
Get to this charming cobblestoned neighborhood by taxi or by taking a scenic ride on the newly reopened Bonde, the yellow open-air trolley that takes passengers from downtown's Carioca Square, over the renowned Arcos da Lapa aqueduct, and up the mountain to Santa Teresa's Curvelo Square. What began as a hillside getaway for wealthy families has now become a distinctive district and artist's colony. Admire its eclectic mix of Victorian mansions, and wander winding streets filled with craft shops, music stores, cafes, and restaurants.
Classic food option: Step back in time and ease into the morning over breakfast downtown at one of the city's oldest tearooms, Confeitaria Colombo. Built in 1894, the ornate belle epoque and art nouveau café is still a stunner and remains a popular place to sip cafezinho. Afterward, meander past Catedral Metropolitana for a peek at its stunning stained-glass windows, then hop on the Bonde in nearby Carioca Square to get to Santa Teresa.
Trendy food option: Flavor and feijoada abound at Bar do Mineiro. This colorful hole-in-the-wall serves terrific fare, including a great version of the specialty bean-and-meat stew, that has even locals lining up. It's well worth the wait—and the people-watching. Sign up for a table, and in the meantime enjoy bite-size cheese- or meat-filled pasteis (fried dough turnovers) with a cold chope (Brazilian-style draft beer).
Unexpected food option: Rio's reputation for delectable cuisine may be worldwide, yet the country's vast regional delicacies are often overlooked as a result. Farther up the hill, in a tree house setting, alluring Aprazível has a breathtaking view and an impressive potpourri of Brazilian specialties, from roasted goat and pork to excellent seafood (try the shrimp and ceviche).
Dramatic Sugarloaf is a sight to behold. Comprised of two mountains—the taller Pão de Açúcar and the shorter Morro da Urca—it can be reached by foot or by glass-enclosed cable car. Whether you hike up the well-marked trails or ride the cable car, you'll be treated to panoramic cityscapes. The Morro da Urca plateau is a scenic base for bars and restaurants.
Classic food option: Bar Urca, a tiny boteco (casual bar) in the heart of Urca, is the perfect reprieve after an excursion to Sugarloaf. Drink an ice-cold beer, nibble on shrimp empadas, and watch the sunset.
Trendy food option: A luscious and lovely trend continues to be a tower of fresh tropical fruit as a salad or over homemade ice cream or yogurt. Take a break at Republica da Fruta to enjoy these tempting treats right on the Urca plateau.
Unexpected food option: There are views, and then there is that jaw-dropping view of Pão de Açúcar. Terra Brasilis on the Morro da Urca plateau offers an amazing view from its vantage point in the shadow of the iconic peak. Sip caipirinhas, and enjoy a meal the local way (heading to the buffet a quilo, or by-the-weight buffet) while listening to festive Brazilian music.
The Beaches: Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon (South Zone)
Rev it up along Rio's renowned coastline with some fun in the sun. Copacabana and Ipanema became known worldwide as party central through hit songs. Over time, visitors strolled to neighboring beach Leblon, which then became popular too. Hit any one of these three beautiful beaches to take in the colorful, ritzy scene. Stroll the boardwalk, or sit at an outdoor bar, café, or restaurant and sip caipirinhas or chilled chope while nibbling salgados (tapas-style bar snacks).
Classic food option: To eat like a Brazilian, a boisterous lunch or dinner at a churrascaria rodízio (all-you-can-eat steakhouse) is a must. Just off the beach in Copacabana is Churrascaria Palace, where skewers of raw steak, pork, and chicken are presented for selection. Once prepared mal passado (rare), ao ponto (medium), or hem passado (well done), the finished items are rolled to the table on a cart laden with sides.
Trendy food options: In this land of tropical fruits galore, juice up at Bibi Sucos juice bars. Whether they're after a morning jolt, an afternoon pick-me-up, or a soothing late-night sip, beachgoers head to Bibi for tropical juices, smoothies, or acai bowls (yogurt, acai, and cereal). Bibi may be a chain, but their standards are high and their refreshments are thirst-quenching jewels. There are locations in Copacabana and Leblon, as well as elsewhere around the city. Refreshing as it is sublime, Brazilian farmers were the first to muddle fresh limes and sugar with the local sugarcane liqueur called cachaça, the main ingredient in a caipriniha. Become a cachaça connoisseur at the Academia da Cachaça, a unique boteco serving primarily cachaça-based drinks, as well as diverse Brazilian tapas.
Unexpected food option: While abundant seafood on the beachfront isn't unexpected, finding superior sushi in Rio can be more of a surprise (Sao Paolo is the Brazilian city regarded for its Japanese cuisine). A few blocks from Leblon beach is superb Sushi Leblon, where pristine platters of spectacular sushi and sashimi are presented to guests. It's a bit of a splurge but not over the top.
Old Rio (Rio Antigo)
The historic heart and pulse of bygone Rio is still abuzz with activity on the Praça XV de Novembro and the Centro. Visit the restored Paço Imperial, then stroll the cobblestoned pedestrian walkways adorned with cafés, restaurants, and bars. Arco do Teles, a remnant archway from the old Senate House, serves as the entrance to Travessa do Comércio, exiting onto Rua do Ouvidor on the other side.
Classic food options: Seafood establishment Rio Minho has been open since 1884. The price point varies from inside to outside, but either has charm. The Brazilian bouillabaisse loaded with shellfish is a lunchtime winner, along with the specialty octopus. After viewing the regal treasures of former Brazilian emperors in the Paço Imperial, head to charming Bistro do Paco in the palace's peaceful courtyard. Light lunch fare includes salads, sandwiches, and quiches, as well as delicious pastries.
Trendy food option: Samba Caffé is a bustling boteco that jumps with Brazilian jazz and offers great bites like linguiça (sausage), coxinhas (croquettes), and feijoada. Sip a caipirinha, chope, or wine.
Unexpected food option: Restaurante Bastião may be located on one of the area's oldest streets, but there's nothing Old World about this excellent, colorfully decorated contemporary bistro. It serves up bountiful salads, soups, and meats using the freshest of ingredients from the Portuguese markets. Desserts like churro donuts or dulce de leche–type puddings are winners.