Rio de Janeiro (River of January) is one of the world’s most sensual cities, its urban landscape set between wave-kissed, sandy beaches and unusual, forest-covered granite mountains lorded over by the open embrace of Christ the Redeemer, the largest art deco sculpture on the planet.
The city’s beauty—man-made and natural—is most striking during these warm months, from its lush urban rain forest, Tijuca National Park, which rises up the cliffs of Corcovado Mountain, to the splendid miniature gardens edging the sidewalks all over town.
> Stay in Style:
With its own elite Carnival party, beach, and lovely pool for cooling off, the Copacabana Palace Hotel is an ideal place to set up base during the season.
First opened in 1923, it is one of the most luxurious hotels in South America, consistently winning awards from major travel publications. Overlooking the beach in Cocacabana, this has long been the stopping point for VIPs, from crowned heads to Hollywood royalty.
> Party Beachside:
It is during the holiday season that samba beats heat up the swirly beachside Avenida Atlântica sidewalks and caipirinhas, the drink made from sugarcane-fermented cachaça, cool down the sun-worshippers as night falls.
Less famous beaches offer something, too, like Praia Vermelha (“red beach”), with its military base, allowing beachgoers to watch the regular surf-side drills. Or head to the suburbs’ very wealthy enclave Barra da Tijuca, with its unspoiled beaches and lakes.
> Celebrate Under the Sun and Sparks:
Though it generally has a progressive take on religion, Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country. Christmas here is about family, and many folks head home. Still, there is plenty of spectacle for the visitor.
On Christmas Eve, fireworks ignite over Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in southern Rio, illuminating the lagoon’s neon, 28-story Christmas tree.
Then, head to one of the city’s many churches, including some of the oldest colonial ones downtown, for midnight and Christmas Mass; a special treat is visiting the gilded chapel of the Monastery of São Bento, dating from the late 1600s.
And don’t forget to stop by a bakery for a fresh Christmas bolo rei, Portuguese “king cake.”
Beaches become the playgrounds of Rio’s New Year’s celebration, Réveillon. Millions of Brazilians and visitors alike, dressed in white for peace, line the sandy shores, tossing flowers into the sea at midnight to honor Yemanjá, the African sea goddess, in the hopes she will grant them their wish for the New Year.
On her holiday, the Feast of Yemanjá, which takes place on February 2 each year, tens of thousands return to the water, lighting candles in ships made of coconuts, gourds, and other seaworthy candleholders as offerings.
> Join the Biggest Party of All:
Nothing matches Carnival, though, the biggest party of all. Related to Easter and Lent, events begin the weekend before Ash Wednesday, with samba schools competing in the Sambadrome, a huge, open-air stadium with seating options from VIP to nosebleeders.
Watch or be a part of the parades, with schools renting out costumes to visitors who trail their multistory floats, some toting supermodels like Naomi Campbell or native-born Gisele Bündchen.
For the full flavor of the festival, hit Carnival’s ubiquitous street parties, suggests Alexandra de Vries, a Rio resident and author of travel books on Brazil. Blocos, or street bands, “parade around as followers tag along pied-piper style, singing, dancing, and partying,” she explains.
Free, informal, and fun with tons of dancing, “blocos are everything that is fabulous about Rio,” de Vries says. Each is unique, “from small, cute neighborhood parties” with a few hundred people to humongous throngs with hundreds of thousands in Ipanema or Leblon. And each has a theme: drag queens, polka dots, the Beatles, pets.
From music to beaches to nightlife, the city flaunts its Brazilian flair in this season like none other. With the World Cup in 2014 and the upcoming Olympics in 2016, soon everyone will know the joys of Rio.
This article first appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.