“What’s new in town?” “is an innocent enough question, unless you ask it in a city hosting the Olympics, where a complete answer might stretch out longer than the 50-kilometer race walk.
But if watching those Olympics now has you intrigued by Rio de Janeiro, and you’re thinking now that you want to go, here’s a look at what you’ll want to check out – including a list of basics – when you schedule your trip.
That’s the unfortunate abbreviation for the Portuguese name of the Sebrae Reference Center for Brazilian Handicrafts, tucked away in restored 18th-century buildings in Tiradentes Square. Artisan work from far-flung corners of the vast country is on display in seven rooms, everything from intricate wooden flowers to sandals made from the rubberlike product of the balata tree.
It’s a captivating little … museum? Gallery? The website calls it a “marketing platform for the repositioning and classification of Brazilian handicrafts.” That’s lame. But Ricardo Withers, a salesman in the gift shop explained: “Unlike in beachside or country houses,” where such work is normally found, “we display them as luxury items – design items.”
Da Roberta and Ró – Raw & Wine
Roberta Sudbrack is one of Latin America’s top chefs, known mostly for her eponymous restaurant in the Jardim Botânico neighborhood. Da Roberta (“Roberta’s”) is infinitely more informal: a food truck gone brick-and-mortar. It’s literally a truck inside a former tire shop in upscale Leblon, with cute minimalist tables spilling onto the sidewalk. My overstuffed brisket sandwich (28 reais, or about $8.50) on rye featured thin slices of meat and melted Brazilian-made “comté” cheese.
If you have a beef with beef (or with heating food at all), try the tasting menus at the brand-new Ró – Raw & Wine in Jardim Botânico. My eight-course raw tasting menu (168 reais) was intriguing but the service took more than three hours.
In 2008, the authorities started driving drug gangs out of some of the hillside shantytowns outsiders call favelas and residents call “comunidades.” The program’s success is debated, but a byproduct is the tourism that has flourished in some favelas, especially those near touristy neighborhoods.
Two new tools make visiting favelas easier. One is the “Pocket Guide,” a free booklet with lists of restaurants, bars, hostels and phone numbers of guides, as well as rough maps of more than a dozen communities that are generally safe to visit. (You can find them at tourist stands or visitefavelario.com.br.) The other is the enhanced data on Google Maps.
I tested both at the Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia communities above the Leme neighborhood and found each very helpful. They’re incomplete – the winding passages and narrow staircases that stand in for streets are impossible to document fully. Additional help from residents bridged the gaps.
In April, the Teatro Rival reopened on narrow Álvaro Alvim Street downtown; shows are free Wednesday through Friday nights. The outdoor bar next door was also overhauled, changing its name to Rivalzinho and adding snacks by chef Kátia Barbosa of the famed Acônchego Carioca restaurant.
City Historical Museum
The Museu Histórico da Cidade tucked into a lush park near the Gavea neighborhood, closed in 2010 so its once-stately 19th-century buildings could be overhauled. It has currently only partly reopened.
Still, the temporary exhibition “Christ the Redeemer – Divine Geometry” (along with its park setting) made it my favorite find. On display is Oskar Metsavaht’s examination of the art deco statue that soars over the city, which includes everything from yellowing newspaper clips and construction materials Metsavaht found in the museum archives to his own photography, mixed-media and video art.
Middle Eastern street food
Immigration from Lebanon and Syria happened so long ago that you would barely know that many prominent Brazilians claim Levantine heritage. Now a new wave of Syrian refugees has been welcomed, and some hawk fresh falafel, hummus, kibbe, crunchy sesame cookies called barazek, and sfihas, the savory pastries Brazilians call esfirras.
Museum of Tomorrow
The new Santiago Calatrava-designed museum is on a pier in the reborn port area.
The theme – essentially the future of life on this planet – was worthwhile and the displays were thought-provoking, although my experience visiting three weeks before the games was exasperating. The ribbed roof over the entrance absorbs solar power but not enough to stop the sun from making me miserable in a long shadeless line. Once inside, I should have skipped a second line to what I thought was the main exhibition but turned out to be for an introductory film in Portuguese. (The rest of the exhibition is trilingual, with English and Spanish.) Museum officials later told me that they would improve signage and eliminate lines outside during the games by restricting entrance to those who bought timed tickets online.
And what are the basics?
Here are five:
A caipirinha on Ipanema Beach: The national cocktail in its classic form is made with Cachaça (a distilled alcohol), sugar and lime, and Ipanema (see “Girl from...”), along with Leblon and Copacabana, could be called the national beaches. Bike the beachfront promenade.
Christ the Redeemer: Perched on Corcovado Mountain is “Cristo Redentor,” a 98-foot-tall, 92-foot-wide, open-armed Art Deco statue of Jesus, completed in 1931. The mountain lies in a national park, and the statue’s atop it, accessible by train and bus.
Carnival: This five-day parade-and-samba-filled festival happens before Lent and has become an icon of revelry over its nearly 300-year history.
Cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain: Take the trip to the top of this bullet-shaped mountain for unparalleled views.
Jardim Botanico: It’s more than 340 acres of thousands and thousands of plant species, including some 600 orchids alone.