Even by its own vibrant standards, the Brazilian party capital is undergoing a spectacular renaissance. Louise Rimmer gets into the spirit of it all

WHY GO?

WHY GO?

From the replica of Rio's Christ the Redeemer that blessed the shoppers of Selfridges in London last month, to the excellence of recent Brazilian cinema, the city is experiencing a big boost. Despite crime figures, visitors are charmed by the inhabitants, and they may rest assured that no matter how many postcards they have seen of Sugarloaf Mountain, the city really does enjoy a majestic setting. It simply begs to be seen in the (very much ubiquitous) flesh. The onset of South American winter does not mean that the peachy bottoms of Rio will be clad in thermals. Rather, the low season results in smaller crowds, a pleasantly temperate climate and and better deals on accommodation. You will miss the Carnaval, but June brings the less raucous Festas Juninas.

BEAM DOWN

The only direct flights to Rio from the UK are with British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) and Varig (020-8321 7170, www.varig.co.uk), both of which fly from Heathrow for around £650 (although good deals can often be obtained through an agent).

Flying down to Rio means landing about 30km from the sands of Copacabana and Ipanema. There are safe, air-conditioned buses to Copacabana and Ipanema that cost R$5 - Brazilian reais - (£1), but can take up to two hours in peak traffic. A city taxi to Copacabana costs about R$60 (£12) and takes half-an-hour on a good day, while the trip to Ipanema or Leblon costs around R$90 (£18) and takes roughly 50 minutes.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Rio is very much a tale of two cities, divided into a northern zone (zona norte) and a southern zone (zona sul), which is where the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are. The Serra da Carioca mountain range divides the two zones, and includes the peak of Corcovado on top of which resides the statue of Christ. Tourists are likely to visit the northern zone only when travelling to and from the airport and in order to sweat it out at the city's Maracana football stadium. The southern zone starts at Gloria, two minutes south of the city centre and distinguished by its white hilltop church. Santa Teresa is on the hill that straddles Gloria and the centre. Sugarloaf mountain, or Pao de Acucar, is on the southern side of Baia Guananbara, a sadly polluted bay that you cross by boat or bridge in order to reach Rio's satellite city, Niteroi. Tourist information offices are located in the international arrivals area of the airport (7am-11pm daily, 00 55 21 3398 4077) and at 183 Avenida Princesa Isabel (open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm, 00 55 21 2541 7522).

TAKE A VIEW

Christ the Redeemer or Sugarloaf Mountain? It is impossible to choose between the two biggies in Rio, so don't; do both, Pao de Acucar at sunset and Corcovado (or Cristo) during the day. Corcovado (daily 8.30am-7pm, 0055 21 25581329, www.corcovado.com.br) is reached by cog railway from the station at Rua Cosme Velho, by road from Gloria (bus 180 and 184) or minibus from Santa Teresa. Private taxis will often drop you there and wait, and indeed can be the best option, as they may also be happy to stop over at Mirante Dona Marta, a nearby viewpoint. Being lower down, it allows you to see everything in finer detail. Pao de Acucar ( www.bondino.com.br) is situated in Urca, a peaceful area not noted for good public transport. However, bus 107 will take you there from the centre, and bus 511 from Copacabana. Once there, the ascent is by cable car (520 Avenida Pasteur, open daily 8am-10pm, R$30/£6).

TAKE A HIKE

The Tijuca National Park is the world's largest urban forest. You enter the park at Alta da Boa Vista (open daily 6am-9pm). A two- to three-hour signposted walk leads to the summit of Pico da Tijuca. The views are superb, but if that sounds a little too strenuous, nothing beats a casual stroll along the famous mosaic pavement of Copacabana or along Ipanema beach.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Confeitaria Colombo, on Rua Goncalves Dias (00 55 21 2232 2300, www.confeitariacolombo.com.br, open 9am-5pm, closed Sunday), is one of Rio's biggest gastronomic attractions. The buffet lunch on a Saturday costs R$36 (£7).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Rio's Museum of Contemporary Art at Mirante da Boa Viagem (00 55 21 2620 2400, www.macniteroi.com, open daily except Monday, 11am-6pm, R$4/80p) was created by celebrated architect Oscar Niemeyer and is a space-age spinning top of a building. Works by contemporary Brazilian artists such as Claudio Fonseca and Tunga are exhibited here. Niteroi lies across the bay, and is reached by the toll bridge, or by ferry from Praca 15 de Novembro in Centro.

AN APERITIF

Bar Lagoa, at 1674 Avenida Epitacio Pessoa (00 55 21 2523 1135, www.barlagoa.com.br), is one of Rio's most elegant traditional taverns. Ask for a caipirinha, the national cocktail made from cachaca, a cane spirit, mixed with lime and sugar.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The Braseiro in Gavea at 116 Praça Santos Dumont (00 55 21 2239 7494) is an excellent place to sample authentic Brazilian cuisine: try the braseiro; fried chicken with rice and broccoli, chips and egg. Two people can expect eat well here for around R$50 (£10) with drinks.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The Mosteiro da Sao Bento (00 55 21 2291 7122), on top of the Morro da Sao Bento in Centro, is a beautiful baroque church that offers fine views of Rio. High mass is at 10am on Sunday and includes a choir of Benedictine monks.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Garcia & Rodrigues, at 1251 Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva (00 55 21 2512 8188, www.garciaerodrigues.com.br), is an ultra-classy deli and restaurant managed by a French chef. You pay for the high quality, but it's a good place for watching suspiciously wrinkle-free ladies of leisure.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Rio has exquisite botantical gardens on the eponymous Rua Jardim Botanico (00 55 21 2294 9349, www.jbrj.gov.br, open daily 8am-5pm, R$4/70p) which boast more than 7,000 varieties of plant as well as some thoroughly entertaining monkeys. Although near-deserted on weekdays, it does get busy at weekends. By walking 1km down the same street, you will arrive at the quieter Parque Lage (00 55 21 2538 1879, open daily, 9am-5pm, admission free).

TAKE A RIDE

The definitive ride in Rio is taking the creaky yellow tram (daily, 7am-10pm, R$3/60p) up to the bohemian district of Santa Teresa. The tram leaves opposite the Catedral Metropolitana, the modern cathedral in Centro, and winds across the white aqueduct to the artists' quarter. The bars around Largo do Guimaraes are great for a quick beer or snack.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Buy a card of a beach scene and then write it on Ipanema beach - this has to be one of the best places in Rio for people-watching.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Sampling Rio's greatest cultural export: samba. The best area to try to imitate this bottom-wiggling, foot-shuffling dance is Lapa on a Friday or Saturday night. Follow this with a visit to the excellent Mangue Seco at 23 Rua do Lavradio (00 55 21 3852 1947), a seafood restaurant and bar, and then cross the road to Rio Scenarium (00 55 21 2233 3239, www.rioscenarium.com.br). This three-storey mansion is crammed with intriguing antiques, including a 19th-century pharmacy cabinet, and features samba and forro, the accordion-laced music from the North-East or Brazil.

Don't think that the night ends here though. After that, you should get yourself over to Rua do Joaquim da Silva underneath the arches, where the sweaty bodies dance until daylight. And then it's time to head back to the beach,

CHECK IN

Probably the most stylish hotel in Rio de Janeiro is the Copacabana Palace at 1702 Avenida Atlantica (00 55 21 2548 7070, www.copacabanapalace.com.br), facing the beach. It is a splendid confection of a place, positively dripping with stucco and 1920s elegance. Standard double rooms start at US$371 (£232), suites overlooking the swimming pool cost from $568 (£355), and penthouses on the executive floor with views of the beach are around US$1,440 (£900). The breakfast buffet is excellent, although it costs an extra US$22 (£14) per person. Even if you don't take a room here, at least take a look at the building - and sip a G&T at the poolside bar, but bear in mind that service can be slow.

A cheaper option is the Arpoador Inn at 177 Rua Francisco Otaviano, (00 55 21 2523 0060) at the east corner of Ipanema Beach. This has the distinction of being the only hotel in the area to be situated directly on the beach rather than on the four-lane road that runs alongside it. Prices here start at around R$363 (£70) for a double room with sea view, including breakfast.

O Veleiro bed and breakfast in Botafogo (00 55 21 2554 8980, www.oveleiro.com) is a real haven. This is a lovely, quiet guesthouse with swimming pool, parrots in the garden, and views of Sugarloaf and Christ the Redeemer. The price for a double room starts at US$59 (£37), including breakfast. For security reasons the full address is only given by telephone or e-mail when bookings are made.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Beachwear, flip flops and diamonds are the best buys in Rio de Janeiro. For bikinis, head to Salina, Bum-Bum and Osklen, which all have stores in Rio Sul, a shopping mall on Avenida Lauro Sodre. Expect a chic bikini to set you back about R$157/£30. Havaiana flip flops are ubiquitous - and sold just about anywhere - although you'll have to go to the jeweller H Stern at Rua Visconde de Piraja (00 55 21 2259 7442, www.hstern.com.br) in Ipanema if you want the diamond-encrusted variety. At the other end of the scale, if you're in search of bargain buys, there is a nightly market selling bikinis, musical instruments, football shirts, leather goods, jewellery and capoeira accessories on Avenida Atlantica, between Ruas Zavier da Silviera and Boliva.

In general shopping is hassle free - and the quality of the goods reliable - in Rio's malls. But you'll have more fun haggling with street traders, at markets and with beach vendors.

TASTE OF THE CITY

Most streets have at least one suco, or fresh fruit juice bar - which tend to look a bit like Carmen Miranda's headdress. One of the best is Baby Lanches on Constante Ramos in Copacabana. Ask for an acai, made from a gritty purple berry from the Amazon. It comes slush-puppy style with guarana, a natural stimulant, aphrodisiac and hangover cure.

No visit to Rio would be complete without a churrascaria rodizio, or buffet barbecue - a merry-go-round of beef, lamb, chicken and boar. A gaggle of waiters brings the cuts on a spit to your table, and will keep bringing them until you put up a small stop sign in protest. Porcao Rio on Avenida Infante Dom Henrique (00 55 21 2554 8862) serves such barbecues from a terrific location overlooking Sugarloaf.

Zaza Bistro (00 55 21 2247 9102) on Prudente de Morais in Ipanema is one of Rio's most stylish restaurants with an imaginative menu mixing Caribbean, French, Thai and North African tastes. Expect to pay around R$157 (£30) for a three-course meal with wine.

Bear in mind that meals in Brazil tend to be extremely large. In the more traditional of the city's restaurants you may prefer to order one portion to be shared by two people.

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