When you first arrive, Rio hits you in the face. It is a mix of sensations. First, the brutal humidity. Intense traffic. The journey from the international airport to the city with its unmistakable stench of sewage as a stark reminder of the complexity that lies beneath Rio’s surface. Rio is complicated. Favelas nestled amidst fancy neighborhoods highlighting the social contrasts within the city.
But then, Rio’s beauty emerges. The endless stretch of fabulous beaches, the ocean-cradling, mountain-spiked city in front of your eyes. Bossa Nova and Samba float on the air and locals greet each other casually. Love blossoms amidst Rio’s madness.
Being a carioca, or Rio native, but living abroad for more than a decade, I feel immediately compelled to get to the ocean when I return—to swim in the waters of Ipanema or Leblon and grab a front-row seat to the show. The crowds eventually build up—on weekends, it can feel as if the entire city is out on the sand. But that’s okay: the beach is where we socialize. I also need to satisfy my craving for açaí—the sweet, sorbet-like version of the antioxidant-packed Amazonian fruit—eaten standing up at a corner juice bar, where açaí na tigela was invented.
Rio is an invitation to move the body. If I’m not surfing on beaches to the west like Macumba, I love strolling along the beachfront sidewalk or calçadão with its patterned pavement, stopping for some cold coconut water at one of the many kiosks along the way. In the early morning, I bike from Leblon to Urca – where iconic Pao de Acucar, or Sugarloaf Mountain, known for its cable car and panoramic city views lies – then continuing through Ipanema, Copacabana, and Leme beaches.
There are also plenty of quick treks to wilder adventures through the jungles not too far from the beaches. Within the limits of the city lies a natural wonder, Tijuca National Park and Forest. Spanning over 13 expansive square miles, it boasts a lush landscape of jungle, majestic mountain peaks, scenic trails, and enchanting waterfalls, creating a miniature version of the awe-inspiring Amazon rainforest. The short trail to “Pedra Bonita” offers extraordinary views of the city and its beaches, while scaling Dois Irmãos mountain, a short but 640-foot ascent, is more arduous, with equal payoff. Brazil’s biggest favela, Rocinha, is visible on the left, , then at the peak there’s a sweeping panorama of the entire city. One of my favorite hikes is from Parque Lage up to Christ the Redeemer at the top of Corcovado – a four-hour ascent through the thickest rainforest.
I am often asked where to stay in Rio, and my answer is straightforward: the Janeiro Hotel, by Brazilian fashion designer Oskar Metsavaht. I love the location: right in the heart of Leblon, away from the crowds of tourists, and within walking distance to the beach, excellent bars, and restaurants. The hotel’s minimalist style, featuring elegant blond freijó wood and exquisite Travertine marble, complements the breathtaking views of the pristine white-cliffed “Ilhas Cagarras” visible from each of its 53 rooms.
I’m always drawn back to the beach. Towards the very left of Janeiro Hotel, between the end of Copacabana and the beginning of Ipanema, is Pedra do Arpoador – the promenade to be at day’s end. Inevitably, there’s a breathtaking orchestral sunset: shimmering water, pastel skies, and hazy cliffs to the west. Surrounded by lively “Cariocas”, I watch men with phones tucked in their bathing suits, and swimmers shaking off water before sipping a cold beer (or caipirinha) at outdoor bars. As the neon-pink sun dips below the horizon, everyone pauses to applaud, paying homage to the city, beach, and sky.
I fervently hope that Rio’s social disparities – and its unavoidable implications – decrease, because a more compelling city is hard to conceive of. Nor have I met a population that so genuinely embraces a casual lifestyle, with a beachy, informal vibe infusing its street life. There is no other city in the world with more natural beauty per square inch—and more flip-flops per capita. Its “urban setting,” tucked dramatically between and amid mountains and sea, is itself a UNESCO World Heritage site.