Thursday, December 15, 2011
“Rio de Janeiro is like a chocolate cake. Once you have a bite, you’re going to want more.” These were the words of my guide, Ana, who showed me the highlights of the famous city on a two-day tour of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Before starting the tour, I flew from Salvador to Rio and checked into my hotel on Copacabana Beach. The Sofitel had offered me two nights on its Club Millesime floor, where I had a room with a large bed, chair, desk, television, spacious bathroom, and balcony overlooking the entire stretch of sand.
Being on the top floor gave me access to a lounge with an all-day open bar, breakfast, light lunch, and happy hour, as well as free WiFi, a butler, a complimentary quick massage, and a dedicated reception desk. It was luxurious to say the least.
But I didn’t have much time to enjoy the perks, as my final two days in Brazil were dedicated to all-day tours of Rio de Janeiro. The Rio Convention and Visitors Bureau set me up with a private guide and driver, and our itinerary was ambitious.
I met Ana in the lobby at 9am on the first day and we headed straight for Rio’s most famous landmark: Christ the Redeemer. We took the train up the mountain, which was situated inside of a protected urban forest. As we ascended the steep slope, the views alternated between dense jungle and panoramic views of the city below.
Once at the top, we climbed a set of stairs and found ourselves face-to-face with one of the most iconic statues in the world. As with the Taj Mahal, I had always wondered if seeing the Christ the Redeemer in person would be a let down after seeing it so many times in photos. But like its Indian counterpart, the statue was even more beautiful in reality than it was on paper.
We spent some time there, taking photos and admiring the views of the city while helicopter tours full of visitors circled around us. Afterwards we took the train back down to the city center and made our way to the next stop on our tour of Rio de Janeiro: the Sambadrome.
Built in 1984 by acclaimed architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Sambadrome was where the world-famous Rio de Janeiro Carnival took place each year. The street was lined with permanent grandstands that served as seating for concerts and performances during the non-Carnival season.
We walked around the area, visiting a small visitor center that played video footage of Rio’s Carnival and displayed elaborate Carnival costumes. All of the colors and fanfare made me want to return to the city in a few months to witness the spectacular event. In the meantime, we continued our tour of Rio de Janeiro with a visit to the historic downtown.
As we passed through the dense urban district, tall skyscrapers glistened in the summer sun as office workers packed the streets on their way to lunch. Our driver pulled up to a unique building downtown for us to get a look at one of the city’s famous modern landmarks: the Cathedral of Saint Sebastian.
Designed in the 1960’s by a student of Oscar Niemeyer, the conical cathedral was a true product of its age. The outside looked like a strange space ship, but the inside, with its four floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, was stunning.
After walking around the cathedral, we hopped back in the car and made our way deeper into the downtown. We passed by the municipal theater, which was designed to look like Paris’ Opera Garnier, and several museums and government buildings. Then we walked down a pedestrian street to have lunch at a historic restaurant called the Colombo Coffee House.
The family-owned establishment was reminiscent of some of the sumptuous confeitarias I had been to in Lisbon. As we made our way upstairs I couldn’t help but feel like I had been transported across the Atlantic. The beautiful decor dated back to the late 19th century, and our lunch was a big buffet of Brazilian cuisine. We were joined there by Elisabeth from the Rio Convention and Visitors Bureau, whom I had met at WTM in London last month.
After lunch we explored more of the downtown, including the gorgeous Rococo Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte do Carmo church. We also saw the former royal palace from the time when Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars. Afterwards we visited the Italianate Candelaria church, the Mosteiro de Sao Bento, and the former home of Carmen Miranda.
Leaving the downtown, our tour of Rio de Janeiro continued with another of the city’s most famous landmarks: Sugar Loaf Mountain. We drove to the Urca district, which was a beautiful area right on the bay, and took cable cars up to the Morro da Urca and the Pao de Acucar. Once again we were rewarded with amazing views over Rio from Copacabana Beach to Christ the Redeemer.
Back down on the ground, we returned to the Sofitel for a break before going out for the evening. I had a quick tour of the hotel, viewing several spacious suites, two outdoor swimming pools, restaurants and bars that had great views over the beach, and a fitness center. Afterwards I took advantage of the happy hour on the rooftop terrace before meeting up with Ana to experience some of the best nightlife in Rio de Janeiro.
Ana took us to the Lapa district, which was home Rio’s top bars and clubs. There we met up with Elisabeth again for a night of live samba music at Carioca da Gema. The club was one of the few in the area that opened on Monday nights, and by the time the band started playing, the room was packed with people.
We danced the night away, enjoying Brazil’s finest caipirinhas and some traditional snacks of black bean soup and pastries. At the end of the evening I arrived back at the hotel ready for some sleep. As exhausted as I was, I couldn’t wait for the second day of my tour of Rio de Janeiro. Ana was right. Once I got a taste of Rio, I wanted more.