An aerial view of Ipanema and Leblon beaches in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo: robertharding / Alamy)
Flanked by green mountains, surrounded by the crashing blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and dotted with bright white buildings, Rio de Janeiro lays claim to one of the world’s most gorgeous urban settings. Wonder why locals call this town the “Marvelous City”? When you’re not gaping at the beauty before you, explore the city’s famed neighborhoods and feel Rio’s unique–and passionate–pulse.
If you find yourself humming “The Girl From Ipanema,” as you stroll through this tiny, but iconic, neighborhood, you’re not alone. The largely residential neighborhood is crossed with pretty, tree-lined streets, and adjacent to one of Rio’s most spectacular beaches. Wander inland to visit trendy boutiques selling unique fashions along Rua Visconde de Pirajá and Rua Garcia D’Ávila.
By day, make your way to the beach. Its photo-worthy backdrop of the mountains, and lengthy promenade are remarkable. Try to experience this on the weekend, when the waterfront Avenida Vieira Souto remains closed to vehicles. You’ll see locals and tourists, walk, bike, and skate down this scenic stretch. Visit after dark, and you’ll dine at some of Rio’s hippest restaurants and enjoy a boisterous nightlife.
Tucked into an enviable location between the ocean and the mountains, Copacabana is one of Rio’s most diverse and interesting neighborhoods. Though many tourists only visit the famed black-and-white stone promenade and 2.5-mile stretch of gorgeous beach, Copacabana is vast. It’s home to nearly 200,000 people which means shops, restaurants, and an epic nightlife scene abound.
Of course, donning an itsy bitsy bikini and hitting the beach to sunbath, surf, swim, or simply people watch should be your first order of business. Wannabe athletes can try to join a game of beach volleyball, but beware: you’re facing serious players on Copacabana’s beach. If hunger strikes, head to one of the waterfront food stands and order a snack and freshly made caipirinha.
What it lacks in beach appeal, Rio’s Centro makes up for in the number of attractions that line its streets. Get your culture fix at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, which hosts art exhibitions, as well as at the Teatro Municipal, where you’ll find ballet and opera performances. Visit Praça XV, the most important square in the area, and keep an eye out for the palace, Paço Imperial and the Arco do Teles.
Religious buffs will keep busy visiting Centro’s numerous churches, including Ordem Terceiro do Carmo, the Santa Cruz dos Militares, and Nossa Senhora de Candelária. At night, head to Travessa do Comércio, a stretch that fills with revelers and pub-goers after dark.
The funky little Lapa District is a beacon for Rio’s creatives, and has been called the “Montmartre of the Tropics,” in a nod to Paris’s famed neighborhood. Before heading into the heart of Lapa, you’ll find yourself at the Largo de Lapa, where the Arcos de Lapa — a system of aqueducts — unfold before you. Wander through the neighborhood’s winding streets, snap selfies on the tiled staircase, and admire the faded romance of its crumbling Colonial architecture of the buildings. Definitely visit Lapa in the evening, when the neighborhood transforms into an epicenter of nightlife. On weekends the Arcos area is a must-do, as it morphs into a massive street party.
One of Rio’s toniest neighborhoods, Leblon is known for its mile-long beach and famous residents, like local television personalities and movie stars. Inland, the see-and-be-seen vibe doesn’t dissipate. The restaurants and bars are among Rio’s most sophisticated — and pricey.
Want to catch a wave? Head to the south end of Leblon’s beach, where decent waves attract scores of surfers. Shoppers can stretch their purse strings at Leblon’s bookstores, boutiques and cafes. Grab a seat at an outdoor table, and order a coffee and sweet dessert, and watch the beautiful people pass you by.