48 hours in Rio

This Brazilian city pulsates with energy in February, when the locals are gripped by carnival fever. Lucy Gillmore explores the beaches, bars and favelas of the cidade maravilhosa



For one of the biggest and most exuberant parties on earth - the Rio Carnival, which takes place from 4-8 February this year. Carnival fever grips the city well before then however, and watching the rehearsals "backstage" at one of the Samba schools is a good way to get a taste of the energy and excitement. For more information visit Riotur ( www.rio.rj.gov.br/riotur). You should still be able to buy carnival tickets from agencies in the city for around 250 reais (R$) (£49). Alternatively, "scalpers" sell them outside the Sambadrome on the day for about three times as much - though prices fall as the night goes on.


Although London and Rio are arguably the most important cities in Europe and South America, you can't fly non-stop between them. The best route is on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), or Varig (020-8321 7170; www.varig.co.uk), which fly from Heathrow to Rio via Sao Paulo. Fares are likely to be around £700 return over carnival, but Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.co.uk) has a few seats left on TAP Air Portugal via Lisbon for £530.

Rio's Tom Jobin international airport is north of the city centre. Most visitors make straight for the beach-side enclaves of Copacabana or Ipanema. An air-conditioned bus from the airport costs R$5 (£1) but can take up to two hours in bad traffic. It's around 32km to Copacabana - a taxi takes roughly half an hour and costs R$70 (£13.50); to Ipanema and Leblon it's around R$90 (£18) and 50 minutes.


Cariocas (those born in Rio) call their city the " cidade maravilhosa", "marvellous city", with more than a little justification. Occupying one of the most sublime natural settings in the world, Rio has grown up between the majestic granite peaks of the Serra da Carioca mountain range, which splits the city into northern and southern zones, and the broad stretches of golden sand that border the Atlantic. Visitors spend most of their time in the south, where you'll find Centro, once the elegant heart of the city but now mainly a business district that is deserted (and dangerous) at night, the hilltop bohemian quarter of Santa Teresa, and the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. The iconic landmarks of Sugarloaf at the southern end of Guananbara Bay and the statue of Christ the Redeemer on top of Corcovado are visible from most parts of the city. There are tourist offices in the international arrival halls of the airport (open daily 7am-11pm, 00 55 21 3398 4077) and at 183 Avenida Princesa Isabel (00 55 21 2541 7522; open Mon-Fri 9am-6pm).


The Copacabana Palace, 1702 Avenida Atlantica (00 55 21 2548 7070; www.copacabanapalace.com.br) is the most stylish address in Rio. Doubles cost from $330 (£174) without breakfast (a delicious buffet by the pool), which costs $22 (£11.60). Casa 6, Rua Barao da Torre 175, (00 55 21 2247 1384; www.casa6ipanema.com) is a French-run B&B in Ipanema with doubles from R$120 (£23). For more B&B options, Cama e Café (00 55 21 2224 5689; www.camaecafe.com.br) has around 100 properties on its books in the bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa - most owned by artists and writers, including Casa da Helena, a beautiful old colonial house with doubles from R$163 (£32).


Take the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf, from where you can fully appreciate the city's awe-inspiring topography. Catch bus 511 from Copacabana to the cable car station at 520 Avenida Pasteur, 8am-10pm; R$30 (£6). From Sugarloaf, the open arms of Christ the Redeemer seem to beckon (open daily 8.30am-6.30pm; 00 55 21 2558 1329; www.corcovado.com.br; R$30/£6). To reach that other iconic landmark take the cog railway from the station at Ra Cosme Velho and then the escalator up to the statue. Or for a truly spectacular perspective, splash out on a helicopter ride.


Your insides will do cartwheels as you swoop in a helicopter around the giant figure of Christ the Redeemer - a gift from the French to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Brazilian independence. The pedestal is 8m high, and the statue is 30m from top to bottom and 28m from fingertip to fingertip. Helisul (00 55 21 511 2141; www.helisight.com.br) offers trips from a seven-minute whirl for R$150 (£29) to a one-hour trip for R$875 (£171).


Once your stomach has settled down, head for Porcao - a carnivore's dream on Av Infante Dom Henrique in Flamengo Park (00 55 21 3461 9020; www.porcao.com.br). At this big, airy restaurant on the water's edge, waiters wander around with huge hunks of beef, pork, lamb and chicken on spits that they carve at your table. You have a card which you have to turn from "yes" to "no" to stop the flow of meat. There's also a buffet (where you can get seafood, sushi and salad), and a mouthwatering dessert trolley. Cariocas only indulge in churrascaria rodizios (buffet barbecues) on a Saturday, presumably so they can sleep it off.


Visits to Rio's poorer districts became part of the tourist agenda in 1992. Jeep Tour (00 55 21 2589 0883; www.jeeptour.com.br) offers guided trips to the favelas of City Park and Rocinha Rio's biggest and most notorious favela, for $30 (£16). The favelas are no longer shantytowns, but you should still only go on an official tour. Rocinha was established in the 1920s when hordes flocked here from the north-east looking for work and is now home to 200,000 people, has paved streets, sanitation and even a City Hall. City Park, with its enviable views over Rio resembles a small Brazilian village.


Havaina flip-flops might have been the fashion victim's must-haves of two years ago, but they still cost around £25 a pair on the British high street. In Rio you can pick them up for as little as R$8 (£1.50) on Estrada do Boaideiro in Rocinha, R$12 (£2.50) in the Rio Sul mall or R$25 (£5) in the boutique of the Copacabana Palace hotel. Diamond-encrusted ones in Ipanema cost substantially more.


Watch the sun set with a caipirinha outside Azul Marinho, Av Francisco Bhering (00 55 21 2513 5014; www.cozinhatipica.com.br), a seafood restaurant at Arpoador beach between Ipanema and Copacabana. The national cocktail is made from cachaca, a cane spirit, lime juice, crushed ice and sugar. For an after-dinner drink head to the up-and-coming Lapa quarter and Rio Scenarium Rua do lavradio, 20 (00 55 21 2233 3239; www.rioscenarium.com.br). The kitsch highlights of this eclectic club in a former antique store include thrones in the toilets, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs figurines up the stairs, and glass cabinets containing antique gloves.


Marius a seafood restaurant at Av Atlantica, 290 loja a Copacabana (00 55 21 2104 9002; www.marius.com.br) is a Rio institution that offers an all-you-can-eat buffet as well as platters of fresh crayfish and lobster.


There are 67 churches in Rio. Cariocas have a soft spot for Nossa Senhora de Candelaria, the city's first cathedral, started in 1775 and added to over 300 years. Outside it showcases styles from Baroque to neo-classical, while inside the pulpits and lights are Art Nouveau. It is open Mon-Fri 8am-4pm, Sat-Sun 7.30am-12pm. Mass on Sunday is at 9am, 10am and 11am. The newer Catedral Metropolitana is a rather soulless Aztec-inspired pyramid designed by the Oscar Neimeyer School and able to hold 20,000 worshippers (open 7am- 5.30pm daily).


Take the yellow tram (every 30 minutes, 8am-10pm, 60 centavos/ 20p), from the station opposite the Catedral Metropolitan up to Santa Teresa. The tram - which is the oldest still operating in the world and dates back to 1896 - clanks across a narrow aquaduct before winding up through the cobbled streets, old mansions and quirky boutiques of this artists' enclave. Eat at Aprazivel Rua Aprazivel 62 (00 55 21 2508 9174; www.aprazivel.com.br) under the trees. The thatched bar, Latin music and views of the bay are the perfect setting for a meal of simple grilled fish.


In Rio, beach life is the great equaliser. Cariocas head to the beach to play sport, meet friends or just chill out. Walk the length of Copacabana's famous mosaic pavement alongside glamorous women walking poodles, joggers and cyclists and stop off at one of the many juice bars to admire the giant sandcastles, Rio's street art.


In the 17th and 18th centuries swathes of Rio's natural vegetation were stripped to make way for coffee plantations. By 1874 reforestation had begun, and in 1961 the Rio de Janeiro National Park was created. It was renamed Tijuca, meaning trail leading to the sea, in 1967. The park is open 6am-9pm and the entrance is at Alta da Boa Vista. The hike to Pico da Tijuca is signposted.


Gyrating hips, feather-strewn costumes, raw energy and a pulsing drum beat - the Rio Carnival is an unforgettable experience. The Sambadrome designed by Oscar Niemeyer, is one long street lined with tiered seating where crowds cram together to cheer on the 14 samba school parades as they compete for glory.

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