My Guide to Rio
If you know me well, or have been following me on social media (which you should be doing already, come on guys) then you will be aware of my relationship with the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa,’ Rio de Janeiro. I studied Spanish & Portuguese at university, and pounced on the opportunity to spend 6 months studying in Rio during my 3rd year. I stayed with a local family who essentially adopted me as their own son during my time there, and I had the experience of a lifetime.
The day I left Rio back in 2014, I promised my hosts that I would be back for the Olympics. I had 2 years to get myself back to my new found 2nd home, and I knew I couldn’t let them down. So I applied to become a volunteer at Rio 2016, and after a few tests here and there, I became a member of the Language Services team. Put simply, I was interpreting between athletes and the media. It was damn cool because our accreditation passes granted us access to a fair few venues and we got to stand right next to the action before an interview.
Since returning from Rio this time round I figured I should share the knowledge of the city I’ve got to know and love with you guys. While this post is not specifically related to food or even the Mediterranean, it’s just something I wanted to share about the city that has welcomed me with open arms and one which, if you remember these pointers, will do the same to you.
Here’s my guide to Rio de Janeiro. Enjoy (Aproveite)
Don’t be scared. I am disappointed when I hear people who avoid travelling to Rio because of safety concerns. Brazil is not Europe, and is still a developing nation so things are more chaotic and crime is elevated. However don’t let this stop you from visiting this exciting city. It’s all about common sense: not wearing anything valuable on you when you’re out and avoiding quiet areas at night. Some like to distribute their cash around some pretty protected parts of the body. If that makes you feel better, then please go ahead.
Açaí (Pronounced ‘Asaee’). While açaí has become fashionable among the health conscious, Holland & Barrett worshipping crowds, the way it’s consumed in Brazil is still alien to most of us. What you’re eating is a fruit (a very bitter one) that comes from the Amazon and is a natural energy boost packed full of antioxidants. It’s a staple energy source for many Amazonian tribes. To sweeten it the acai berry is mixed with the syrup of the Guaraná fruit, another fruit unique to the Amazon. The result is a deep purple sorbet that can be ordered from any juice café you see on almost every street corner. It should be served cold and in a glass.
Fruit Juice (Suco). The Brazilians love their fruit juice and you really don’t have to travel far to enjoy the fruits (get it) of this rich land. When in Rio go out and try mango (suco de manga), papaya (suco de mamão) and pineapple (suco de abacaxi, pronounced ‘abacashí’). Brazilians like things sweet and will very often add sugar without asking. If you want to keep things natural, then ask for your suco without sugar ‘sem açúcar.’ Also the cheese infested pastries you see on display are called ‘Salgados,’ (literally savoury snacks). They take on different shapes but you will tend to find ham and cheese ones, prawn and cheese ones and cheese and cheese ones. Give one a whirl when you order your juice.
Learn some Portuguese. As a linguist I naturally advocate learning a few phrases from any language when you travel, but this is especially true in Brazil. Outside of São Paulo I have met few people who speak English, and so arming yourself with a bit of português will go far. The Cariocas, an already enthusiastic and welcoming bunch, will adore you (literally) if you whack out the local lingo. Prepare to be embraced.
Santa Teresa. Plan an afternoon and evening in this charming neighbourhood of Central Rio. Santa Teresa lies on a hill above Lapa and has a rich history. Originally home to Rio’s wealthy elite who scattered mansions around the neighbourhood (Parque das Ruinas is a must see), elevated crime in the surrounding favelas drove this elite away and their homes were inhabited by writers and musicians, many of whom brought with them Afro-Brazilian drumming from the North-East of Brazil. This is what gave this area its reputation for being the vibrant, bohemian part of town. I recommend getting in on the Food Tour Santa Teresa to try some famed local dishes and learn more about this fascinating place. Make sure you re-fuel at Café Cultivar, a small unpretentious café famed for the best pão de queijo (cheesebread) in the city. If you’re planning to eat somewhere really special, book a table at Aprazível right at the top of the hill. The views are stunning and the food is exciting: when I ate there we sampled palm heart still in its branch.
Rice & Beans (Arroz e Feijão). Brazilians are pretty set in their way when it comes to eating. What I find fascinating is that rice & beans is eaten almost everyday across the whole country and by every social class. Arroz e Feijão forms the base of Brazilian gastronomy and is seen as food that marriages perfectly while providing plenty of energy and iron. It will be accompanied by meat, fish, salad, potatoes and mandioca (a strange root that looks like sand but actually compliments the meat and beans quite nicely). Food is still regional and in Rio you’ll find the Cariocas worship black beans (arroz preto). If you’re searching for local, this is what you will find at most restaurants in the city. A more formal setting may divert away from this, but again, the Brazilians will never be too far from a plate of beans.
Cobal de Humaitá. The Cobal is a food market by day that becomes a hive of activity at night. With a range of bars and restaurants, locals flock here to be a part of the action, especially when a football match is on. The atmosphere is great: hectic and loud, where most people sit outside during the humid Rio nights under the watchful eye of Christ up on his perch. I recommend coming for an evening meal. There’s Galeto Mania (‘Galeto’ being the staple barbecued chicken….with rice and beans) as well as Joaquina, a Brazilian restaurant with a nice setting.
Rua Dias Ferreira. Hey, you’re on holiday and you might want to splash out a bit. Rua Dias Ferreira is the foodie strip in upmarket Leblon and is where you’ll find most upper class Cariocas and a fair few celebs. Head to this road and take your pick of what to eat. You can choose from Italian (Brigite’s), sushi (Sushi Leblon, which always has a queue forming outside) and contemporary Brazilian cuisine at Zuka.
‘Chopping.’ Pronounced ‘shopping,’ this is a glass of beer. A ‘choppería’ is a beer house where you will often find food (hearty food at that). Note: cariocas start drinking beer as soon as breakfast (café da manhã) is over. Other typically Brazilian drinks you gotta try when you’re out there include coconut water (straight from the coconut of course) and Matte Leão (the local take on Lipton Ice Tea). Oh ye and Caipirinhas of course.
Must see locations
1. Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar).You can either take the 2 cable cars up to the top or walk up the first hill then take the cable car over the final stretch.
2. Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer statue). You have the choice of taking the train up from Cosme Velho; organising a minibus through an organisation or even walking. Walking takes anything between 1.5 – 2 hours. It’s steep but makes the journey feel more like a pilgrimage. (You can take the train back down).
3. Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers). This is the postcard mountain at the end of Ipanema and Leblon beaches. It’s accessed via the ever more touristy favela Vidigal. You can either walk the steep roads to the top of the favela where the trail begins or take a taxi up. It’s dead easy and a particularly welcoming favela if you are curious to see what it’s like. The views at the top are striking, with the iconic beaches ahead and the biggest favela in Latin America, Rocinha, sprawled directly below you.
Afternoon in Urca. Urca, the area at the base of Sugarloaf, is a charming village with a lovely beach. Although it’s not an island, it juts out from the neighbouring district of Botafogo into the sea which makes it feel secluded. It’s also home to a few trendy bars where locals and tourists perch on the seafront wall to drink and admire the views (head to Bar Urca). Ladies, Urca is home to the naval base, so be prepared to get some attention from navy boys jogging past.
Best nightlife. Rio Scenarium is everything you could want as an outsider visiting Rio. Notorious for playing different kinds of samba, this is where you can enjoy the musical heritage that fames this city within a funky setting laden with antiques. With live music and dancing 7 nights a week, Carioca da Gema is another lively spot that oozes that Brazilian energy you’re looking for.
No flushy. Rio (and Brazil) is yes, just one of those places where toilet paper is rejected by the toilet. Not a highlight I know.
Sunset at Arpoador. Make sure to get yourself onto the big rock that separates Copacabana and Ipanema beaches (called Arpoador) one evening as the sun is setting. This is the go to and you may indeed find the locals clapping the sun as it disappears.