Relaxing in Rio – Where to peacefully bed down and eat in a manic city of noisy fun
It is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen might have put it, that anyone in search of an excessively good time will sooner or later discover Rio de Janeiro. It is a rumbustious city whose citizens are determined to enjoy themselves. Take an 8 am morning stroll along Copacabana and you’ll see surfers eying up the waves; by the afternoon the beach is filled with sun-seekers lazing under umbrellas or fit young men playing handball; come 11 pm, city nightclubs are beginning to spark with hedonistic energy. Whatever the time of day or night, the pulse of a city alive to its sensuality is felt beating to its Latin American rhythm and you feel it frequently. This is Rio, the cidade maravilhosa (“marvellous city”), and it can be exhausting: to stay comfortable and sane you need somewhere tranquil to dine and somewhere soothing to lay your body to rest.
The gringo-friendly neighbourhood of Santa Teresa is the most agreeable place to stay in Rio. Untypical for the capital, it is an anomaly to be celebrated: residential and safe but mildly bohemian, with cobbled winding streets and a shabbiness that verges on the chic. The area’s appeal to visitors is obvious – with bars, art-and-craft shops and restaurants — but its tourist potential has not yet spoiled Santa Teresa’s character. Take Mama Ruisa, a lovely old house, built in 1917, where breakfast is served on a balcony looking out to sea through banana plants and palm trees. Flowering frangipani overlook a small swimming pool and a tasteful elegance characterises the eight bedrooms and sitting room. Casa Beleza is even smaller with four rooms, though there is also a secluded little bungalow on higher ground with a hammock-equipped balcony, and with breakfast served al fresco on the lawn this is another delightfully relaxing place to stay.
When a toucan landed on a palm tree by Casa Beleza’s pool I had the feeling of having escaped the real world, a sentiment quirkily endorsed by learning that Ronnie Biggs, he of the Great Train Robbery, had lived around the corner for years while on the run from the British police. Apparently he was well liked by his neighbours and his local watering hole, the gregarious Bar de Gomez, has a picture of him on the wall. There is only one hotel in this area, the impressive and comfortable Hotel Santa Teresa a five-star abode with a spa, a quality restaurant, a pool with grand views and a lively bar.
The most romantically situated of the restaurants in Santa Teresa is Aprazível. On high ground and built on a series of terraces amidst prolific foliage, it seems the hanging gardens of Babylon have transported to Brazil and at night the atmosphere can be enchanting. Daylight hours are best spent exploring downtown Rio (Centro) but to track down the colonial and Neoclassical architecture you need the Rough Guide to Brazil for its maps and intelligent text.
For a shopping and lunchtime experience unlikely to be forgotten, consider a visit to H. Stern [www.hstern.com.br], the renowned jewellery store on Centro’s main drag, and to Eça restaurant which is downstairs. Here, sheltered from the city’s hurly burly, a Belgian chef conjures up delicacies like scallops with lychee followed by pargo (snapper) with Brazilian bananas. If you can resist the temptation of the desserts which all use Belgian chocolate, walk around the corner to Confeitaria Colombo [www.confeitariacolombo.com.br], a gloriously over-the-top Art Nouveau café patisserie, for cake and coffee.
There are two other restaurants, utterly different but equally appealing. Olympe is near the Botanical Gardens and for 30 years its French-Brazilian style food – everything is a hybrid in Rio – has been pleasing customers with unique concoctions like wagyu beef with blueberries and a blue potato gnocchi that tastes as soft as butter and which, I learned, is made without flour or eggs. I wished to but didn’t dare ask for the recipe. Olympe was discovered while staying at La Maison, a superior boutique guesthouse of some charm located away from the city centre.
The other restaurant, Albamar, occupies the remaining tower of a century-old market building and has been here since 1933. The atmosphere is gregarious at weekends, more sedate on weekdays, and always there is fresh seafood on the menu. Albamar is not a tourist hotspot, making a visit here all the more enjoyable, and with fine views out to sea from its window tables this is the place to experience Brazilian-Portuguese food. The Romeo and Juliet dessert, a traditional dish using guava and cheese and found throughout Brazil, reaches a new high at Albamar with its crème brulee version.
The fit and fun way to see Rio’s iconic beaches and sights is by bicycle, pedalling along safely with a guide with interesting stops along the way. The first rest comes outside the Art Deco Copacabana Palace Hotel perhaps not as visually stunning as the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer – the image of which instantly references Rio de Janeiro – but still hugely wonderful to behold. Build in 1923, in splendid isolation on a largely empty beach, it became the symbol of Rio’s high-life appeal.
If not fortunate enough to be staying here, you need to return for its Northern Italian restaurant, Cipriani, or the pan-Asian Mee. The cycle tour, which continues to Botafoga and stops for scenic views before looping around to Ipanema, is run by a small local company, Rio by Bike, and if their walking tours are as good as the bike trip I experienced then they’re worth checking out. If nothing else, the mention of Ipanema is a reminder to put some versions of The Girl from Ipanema on your phone before you fly down to Rio.
by Sean Sheenan
Journey Latin America are travel experts on South America and for travel to and within Brazil. Tel 020 3432 1555 or visit here
TAP Portugal has 12 weekly flights from London to Rio de Janeiro via Lisbon, prices start at £700 return including all taxes and surcharges. Visit here or call 0345 601 0932
Visit Green Path Transfers for airport transfers in Rio