BY LUCRECIA FRANCO
Latin Trade Magazine
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rio de Janeiro makes good on its civic anthem, “Marvelous City,” thanks to a trio of geographic blessings: verdant mountains, a sparkling bay and miles of beaches. But Brazil’s second-largest metropolitan area is buzzing with activity as public- and private-sector investments tied to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympic games beget real-estate developments and new companies and enterprises.
Cariocas, as Rio’s 6 million residents are known, are taking the near-term inconveniences of all this activity in stride as they see the benefits in the form of new and refurbished hotels, Class-A offices, more sophisticated dining choices and expanded entertainment and shopping options.
“We are proud of the Carioca way of life, meaning samba, sun and fun,” said Felipe Góes, Rio de Janeiro City Secretary for Development. “But with the recent boom in the oil and gas industry, the rocketing growth in the tourism sector and the prospects of the international events the city will host, Rio is becoming more and more business-oriented.”
Most visitors spend their time in the Zona Sul, or the southern zone, with its beachfront districts of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. If you don’t have time for a swim, stroll along the patterned sidewalks for a taste of Rio’s famed outdoor-driven lifestyle. Don’t be fooled by the preponderance of sunbathers and joggers: Among the crowd are local executives, talking deals and doing business on smart phones.
Copacabana has the higher concentration of entertainment options and tourist lodgings like the historic Copacabana Palace hotel, opened in 1923; the sleek JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro; and the 525-room Windsor Atlantica, a former Le Meridian that has been renovated and has had a soft launch under the new affiliation since late 2010.
At one end of this beach is the Forte de Copacabana, the military base that contains the Museum of the History of the Army, as well as the Café do Forte, a popular spot for breakfast, snacks or coffee with great views.
Ipanema and, to an even greater extent, Leblon have a higher percentage of residents. Just one or two blocks from the beach are some of the most elegant places to shop and dine. In Ipanema, swimwear boutique Lenny and sportswear retailer Osklen have helped put Brazilian fashion on the map.
Dozens of trendy restaurants can be found along Dias Ferreira Street in Leblon. In Arpoador beach, where Ipanema and Copacabana meet, the restaurant Azul Marinho offers one of the most beautiful sunset views in Rio along with drinks and dinner.
For more casual fare, open-air juice bars are found on most every corner in these areas, serving up refreshing local flavors like açaí berry along with made-to-order sandwiches.
Coffee is closely tied to the history and culture of Brazil, and Cariocas consume small cups of coffee throughout the day. The cafezinho — a small, intense and highly sugared java shot — is the classic accompaniment for pão de queijo, the cheese-infused roll that melts in your mouth and is traditionally eaten for breakfast. For fresh-baked breads, delicious almond petit fours and other treats, Garcia & Rodrigues in Leblon operates an outstanding bakery and serves great breakfasts in its café. Also in Leblon, the Academia da Cachaça in Leblon is arguably the best place for Brazil’s signature cocktail, the caipirinha, and people-watching in the evening hours.
Further south is Barra de Tijuca, a district that has attracted many corporate offices such as Shell and Nokia. Its combination of clean beaches, modern shopping malls, nightclubs and branches of famous Rio restaurants has drawn comparisons to Miami. Hotel options include the Sheraton Barra Hotel & Suites, the Windsor Barra and Bourbon Residence Barra Premium.
Although the city is expanding southward, downtown remains Rio’s financial and government center. State run-companies like Petrobras and Eletrobras are headquartered here, as is mining giant Vale. Many consular offices are in the centro, which is adjacent to the Santos Dumont Airport. Among the many business-oriented hotels is the new Novotel Rio de Janeiro Dumont, opened in 2010.
Downtown is where you find Rio’s most venerable cultural institutions, such as the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, the Teatro Municipal and the Biblioteca Nacional. However, take 20 minutes to cross Guanabara Bay by ferry to the city of Niteroi to discover the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is as famous for its innovative space-ship design by architect Oscar Niemeyer as it is for a collection that showcases Brazilian artists. A new museum devoted to Niemeyer opened nearby in December.
Many artists and galleries have gravitated to the bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood, which is a window on old Rio with its winding streets and century-old mansions. A tram travels to the top of the hillside district along a colonial-era aqueduct. The opening in 2008 of the Santa Teresa Hotel, a five-star hotel and spa inside a restored fazenda, has fostered further interest in the area.
Nearby is Lapa, a once-marginalized neighborhood that has a wide variety of bars and restaurants and one of the liveliest nightlife scenes in the city. The sounds of samba and chorinho spill out from the clubs where crowds dance and drink beer or caipirinhas until dawn.
For a peaceful respite, visit the Jardim Botanico, in the Zona Sul, founded by Joao VI in the early 19th century. A massive park, more than one-third of which is forest, contains the botanical gardens, a renowned research institute and botany library.
Also within city limits is the Tijuca Forest, the world’s largest urban forest that is home to the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, from which you can enjoy spectacular vistas. Or ride the cable car to the Pão de Açúcar, or Sugar Loaf, mountain for other views. If you are pressed for time, helicopter tours allow you to take in all of Rio’s major sites in less than 30 minutes.
Rio remains a city of contrasts, but residents are excited about its efforts to evolve into a modern metropolis and business hub. The works under way represent a major transformation for Rio, which has not experienced such a shift in centuries.
This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Latin Trade magazine.
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