High in the Santa Theresa neighborhood sits Aprazivel, one of the most spectacular restaurants we've ever had the pleasure of visiting. You'll drive for what seems like forever up and out of Rio's center before reaching this semi-hidden gastronomic destination. The long drive warrants the result, which is finding yourself in an enchanted multi-level Brazilian garden dotted with treehouse-like dining pavilions, all overlooking the city below.
Order the whole grilled palm heart to wow, and the "Moquequinha" (a traditional fish stew in coconut milk) to fill. The restaurant is pricey, but perfect for a special occasion. Budget travelers who want to experience it should come for lunch, or a drink at the bar, but dinner reservations for sunset are most sought-after.
Residents of Rio de Janeiro are not "Riotians" or "Rio-ers," but "Cariocas." The term Carioca (pronounced just as it looks) comes from the area's indigenous Tupi language. Some of the most beautiful bodies on the beach will even likely be "Carioca da Gema," meaning both born and raised within Rio de Janeiro. The Beach, a free English-language newspaper available around town (and online) will clue you into happenings around town, for both tourists and Cariocas.
Pronounced as "co-SHEEN-ya," these street food croquettes are often your best bet for a filling snack that's hot, quick, tasty, and cheap. Shredded chicken (Coxinha de Frango) is the traditional filling, but the word after "coxinha" will explain what's inside. For example, a Coxinha de Queijo is filled with melty, yummy Catupiry cheese.
If you're arriving to Rio on an international flight, Galećo (full name "Rio de Janeiro/GalećoAntonio Carlos Jobim International Airport-GIG") will be your first stop. The airport became the city's international airport in the mid-1970s, when air traffic outgrew the tarmac of Santos Dumont Airport.
It's named after the nearby Praia do Galećo (Galleon Beach). Over 17 million travelers come through GIG every year, a number which should jump to 20 million by the time the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio roll around.
Perhaps you've heard that Brazil's Havaianas are basically the national footwear. Well, it's true. These rubber flip-flops are everywhere, not just on the feet of sunburned tourists, and Cariocas consider them appropriate attire for most venues and activities. If you're headed to a World Cup match, we'd advise wearing closed-toe shoes just because of navigating the crowd, but a pair of the special-edition, country-colors World Cup Havaianas should be in your wardrobe.
MAR - Museu de Arte do Rio
Within a restored early 20th century palace and a strikingly modern wing are eight halls featuring rotating exhibitions of art. It's not just any art, however; the Museum's focus is on art created in/inspired by/evoking the spirit and diversity of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Upstairs of the museum is the restaurant Mauį, which serves updated Brazilian dishes (even "mini Brazilian donuts") along with a view of the museum's courtyard and the nearby port neighborhood.
Pōr do sol
Every day the sun shines in Rio is an excuse for a celebration. Thus, you'll find that much of the city turns out to watch (and applaud!) as the sun descends into the horizon. Simply google "sunset Rio de Janeiro" to discover the time for that particular day, and plan to arrive about 20-30 minutes prior to grab some fresh coconut water and a spot on one of the beaches (Ipanema is the favorite). Some hotels, like the Windsor Atlantica on Copacabana and Fasano on Ipanema have guest-only rooftop terraces ideally positioned for sunset viewing, naturally with a caipirinha in hand.
Real Gabinete Portuguźs de Leitura
This magnificent chamber is the "Royal Portuguese Reading Room," a library and museum in Rio's center (at Luis de Camões, 30) open to the public. It's a total hidden find, introduced to us by our guides from Brazil Nuts tours. The mid-1800s Gothic-Renaissance architecture combined with its interior treasure of shelves upon shelves of antique tomes is pure happy overdose for lovers of literature, design, or history. It is, in fact, the largest collection of Portuguese books outside of Portugal. Take only photos, keep your voice to barely a whisper, and stay a few minutes or a few hours under the chandelier; entrance is free.
Depending on which way the wind is blowing, views of the famous Sugarloaf Mountain and Guanabara Bay may periodically include cameos by airplanes making stunning arrivals and departures at this, Rio's second largest airport. Santos Dumont (IATA code SDU) is named for Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont. It's existed since the 1930s, originally as a seaplane base, once a hub for Pan Am's flying boat service through South America.
The newest terminal facilities date to 2007, so the airport is still fully functioning, albeit with real jets now. You'll need to know about Santos Dumont if your travel plans include flights within Brazil, as four airlines currently operate domestic routes from SDU; they are TAM, Azul, GOL, and Avianca.
Rio happens to be home to the world's largest urban forest, the Floresta da Tijuca, in which naturally lives all sorts of wildlife. Some of this wildlife even makes its way onto the shoulders of passersby; watch for the fuzzy sagui monkeys. These tiny cuties like to gawk at the tourists descending from a visit to the "Christ the Redeemer" statue atop Corcovado Mountain, which is one of the attractions within the park.
Umbu and Siriguela
Tiny fruits available on the street and easy for snacking, Umbu (green) and Siriguela (yellow-orange) are native to the tropical bits of the Americas, especially Brazil, and figure in everything from fresh juices to ice cream flavors. 2 Brazilian Real (about $0.90) should get you a handful of the fruits, purchased from vendors on street corners in Rio's historic center.
In the Jardim Botanico neighborhood just up from Leblon, Volta serves up homestyle Brazilian dishes (reviews have called it "grandma cooking") within a cozy, urban-rustic ambiance. The caipirinha variations (try the rosemary!) are as numerous as the entree choices, but you should definitely finish with the churros. Trust us.
We traveled to Brazil as a guest of TAM Airlines, but all photos (except for the Havaianas shot) and opinions are completely our own.
[Photos: Jaunted, Mario Tome]