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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Insider’s Guide

Paul Irvine | September 6, 2014

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Brazil: Paul Irvine of Dehouche Travel.

Trusted Travel Expert
Paul Irvine

Eleven years ago Paul’s love affair with Brazil inspired him to ditch his career in London’s financial industry and open Dehouche Travel in Rio de Janeiro. Today, with a second office in Buenos Aires, the company handles custom travel arrangements to most of South America, but Paul is most passionate about planning vibrant itineraries that incorporate as much of Brazil’s nature, sea, and culture as possible. He’s constantly zipping around the country, digging up intel on the hottest new hotels, hidden beaches, and wilderness adventures and checking in with his carefully chosen team of guides, drivers (cars and speedboats), and private-jet pilots. His relationships with hotel honchos often translate to upgrades and gifts for his travelers. And although Paul likes to leave flexibility in his itineraries to allow for spontaneous moments, his staff is also on hand 24 hours a day to attend to any client’s need. Paul was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.

Travel arrangements start at $800 per day for two travelers.

Where to Stay and Eat

Hotel Santa Teresa

The pool area at Hotel Santa Teresa. Photo courtesy Hotel Santa Teresa.

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Hotel Santa Teresa is the luxury boutique property that put its namesake bohemian neighborhood on the map, and five years on it is still getting it just right. Not only is the tropical-chic decor (incorporating Brazilian designers and local artists) perfectly in tune with this laid-back city but the attentive multilingual staff are some of the best in Rio. It is set in an old coffee fazenda (plantation), so it also has a lot of outdoor space, including a large swimming pool surrounded by tropical gardens, with spectacular views of the city. In keeping with its position as one of only a handful of Relais & Chateaux properties in South America, the hotel’s restaurant, Tereze, is also superb—one of my favorites in Rio. If the Santa Teresa was on the beach, prices would likely be twice as high, but because it’s off the traditional tourist trail it offers amazing value. All Dehouche clients get late checkout when available, a bottle of Champagne, 10 percent off at the spa, and a free room upgrade.

Restaurants the locals love
Rio has its fair share of famous steak and barbecue houses, but my favorite is almost entirely overlooked by most visitors to the city—the humble Churrascaria Majorica in the Flamengo neighborhood. The atmosphere is 100 percent local eatery rather than fancy restaurant, and I’m completely comfortable declaring its Picanha Especial the best steak to be had in Rio.

Venture even farther from the hallowed beaches of the Zona Sul to the Sao Cristovao neighborhood and Aconchego Carioca, set in a tumbledown colonial town house. The owners were among the original pioneers of the gastronomic revolution that put traditional Brazilian cuisine back on the menu of the country’s top restaurants. This place mainly focuses on northeastern cuisine; the camarão na moranga (a creamy shrimp stew served in a pumpkin) is the best you’ll taste this side of Pernambuco. Be sure not to skip past the petisco (bar snacks) section of the menu: Start your meal with a portion of bolinho de feijoada: Brazil’s national dish (feijoada, traditionally a stew of various meats and black beans served with rice) presented in a perfectly executed bite-size fried version; best washed down with a traditional caipirinha or one of the many Brazilian craft beers also on offer.

Restaurante Aprazivel

Restaurante Aprazível. Photo courtesy Restaurante Aprazível.

Must-have dish
Brazil’s cuisine is very regional. Minas Gerais, for example, is famous for its hearty stews and slow roasts, and Rio Grande do Sul for its barbecue houses or churrascarias. In its assumed role as the country’s cultural capital, Rio has great examples of all these, but perhaps the most unusual cuisine for a first-time visitor is that of Bahia, where West African influences contribute liberal use of coconut milk, dendê (palm) oil, and hot chilies. The quintessential Bahian dish is moqueca, a fish stew with a rich coconut sauce, eaten with crunchy farofa (manioc flour), fluffy white rice, pirao (fish paste), and copious amounts of hot sauce. My favorite version in Rio is at the Restaurante Aprazível in Santa Teresa. Perhaps it’s the spectacular hilltop setting or the unusual Amazon village-meets-colonial mansion decor, but somehow this one hits the spot every time.

Meal worth the splurge
Antiquarius Grill is an old-school Portuguese restaurant with somewhat kitschy decor, but the food and service are superb. This remains Rio’s original and best “power restaurant,” where the mayor will come to do a deal with the state governor. Try a Portuguese classic like bacalhau (salt cod), cabrito (goat kid), or the wonderful langoustines; the cheese selection is also superb. Oh, and don’t forget the ovos moles, an unbelievably delicious dessert of eggs and sugar.

What to See and Do

Don’t miss
Parque Lage. Many people have heard of Rio’s Botanical Gardens, which regularly come in third on must-see lists, after the Christ statue and Sugar Loaf. Few, however, venture a little farther down the same road to the spectacular Parque Lage. Nestled in the shadow of Corcovado, the park consists of a slightly ramshackle but charming tropical garden, originally laid out by the English landscaper John Tyndale and including touches of British romanticism, such as a Baroque folly and grotto that somehow don’t seem out of place in the midst of Rio’s exuberant rain forest. The crowning glory is an Italianate villa, which today is home to a visual-arts school and an excellent café—one of the most delightful places in the city for breakfast or afternoon tea.

Ipanema Beach

Ipanema Beach. Photo courtesy Paul Irvine.

Don’t bother
Copacabana has this iconic status to foreigners. Don’t get me wrong: It’s probably the most beautiful of Rio’s many beaches, with its perfect horseshoe shape. But those who think it’s still the hottest address in town are woefully behind the times: Ipanema and Leblon are more fashionable these days and thus attract the best restaurants, bars, shops, and cafés—and some areas of Copa can be a bit seedy, especially late at night. If you do want to see what all the fuss is about, we love the legendary Sunday brunch by the pool at the Copacabana Palace hotel (think oysters, caviar, and bottomless Champagne).

Hidden gem
Instituto Moreira Salles, an art museum with a focus on photography, often with truly exceptional exhibitions on display. The museum is housed in a small mansion in the residential area of Gavea, with tropical gardens designed by the world-famous garden designer Roberto Burle Marx. Don’t miss the café for some of Rio’s finest cakes and coffee.

Cheap thrill
One of Rio’s quintessential experiences is completely free: the beach! Any Carioca will wax lyrical about the democratic merits of the hundreds of kilometers of sand that hem the coastline—once those skimpy bathing costumes are on, everyone is equal, from telenovela star to favela resident. The Rio beach is about so much more than getting a tan and cooling off in the ocean. This is the place to socialize, to eat and drink, to play ball games, and of course to take part in the most popular Carioca pastime of all: flirting. Different tribes have their different patches, be it the trendy surfers of Posto 9 or the families of Posto 11 (postos are the numbered lifeguard stations that demarcate the beach), so pick your spot, pull up a deck chair, and enjoy the show.

Big thrill
Rio is one of the most spectacular cities in the world to see from above, but there’s no need to fork out the big bucks for a helicopter ride; try your hand at a spot of hang gliding to enjoy the same bird’s-eye view while you gently ride the thermals 1,500 feet above the city’s Tijuca rain forest.

Bragging rights
For those after the full Carnaval experience (without necessarily visiting during Carnaval), we can arrange for a private show by one of Rio’s top samba schools at any time of year; this can even take place in the villa that used to belong to samba legend Elis Regina (and which is off-limits to the public), adding an invaluable historical background to the evening.

Famous Brazilian contemporary artist Marcos Chaves will serve as your host for a day of private viewings at galleries and studios, where you’ll meet some of the artists, curators, and gallery owners that are part of Rio’s flourishing art scene. If you’re already a collector, this is a chance to get ahead of the curve and spot the next big thing.

We have an exclusive arrangement with the bar halfway up Sugar Loaf: They rope off a section of the mountain, overlooking Copacabana, and their top barman will lead you through a private master-class in the art of making the perfect caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail.

With acres of tropical forests—complete with hidden waterfalls—right in the city, as well as numerous mountaintops and public parks, Rio is not short on spectacular picnic spots. We recommend heading over to Niteroi, the city that sits across the Guanabara Bay from Rio. It’s worth a trip anyway to visit the famous Oscar Niemeyer–designed Contemporary Art Museum. After seeing the exhibitions, take a cab up the hill to the Parque da Cidade and picnic by the hang-gliding ramp, which has one of the most spectacular—and least known—views of Rio. You can see every major peak of the city (Sugar Loaf, Corcovado, Pedra da Gavea), all lined up on the far side of the bay.

How to spend a Sunday
Grab one of the orange Itaú bikes and cycle to La Bicyclette in Jardim Botanico for a breakfast of cappuccinos and the best croissants outside France. Then take a stroll through these stunning gardens. Founded in 1808, they are a fabulous blend of formal landscaping and jungle chaos—you’ll regularly see monkeys and toucans here. Next, head to the Copacabana Palace for Sunday brunch. The buffet is packed full of delicious seafood, the (admittedly hefty) price includes free-flowing Champagne, and the grand setting by the pool will instantly whisk you back to its glamorous heyday in the 1930s. After brunch, hit the beach; on Sundays, one lane of Avenida Atlântica is shut down, giving space for all manner of Carioca peacocking, from fitness fanatics to chichi dog walkers. Join the melee and work off some of your indulgences with a gentle stroll toward the Arpoador fort. Finally, finish the perfect Sunday at the Jockey Club. Walk through the palatial colonial entrance and take the elevator to your reserved table on the upstairs terrace opposite the winning post, where you will have uninterrupted views across the track. Amble down to the leafy paddock, enjoy the view of Christ the Redeemer, and then return to your table to place a bet and watch the drama unfold.  On the off chance you start feeling a little peckish again, luck has it that there is a new branch of renowned São Paulo steakhouse Rubaiyat within the racetrack grounds.

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Best Times to Go

January and February (except Carnaval): It’s summer, there are a lot of events and parties going on, and Cariocas (Rio residents) are at their most relaxed. Temperatures regularly hit 105 degrees, though, so if you suffer in the heat, the next-best time of year is May through August. Though this is technically the winter, the thermometer rarely drops below 75, and it’s also the driest period. There are often off-season festivals and events (literary, gastronomic, jazz) that attract mainly Brazilian crowds. It’s also a great time of year to combine your Rio holiday with a trip to the Pantanal or the Amazon.

Worst Time to Go

Unless you are specifically after a crazy-party experience of world-class proportions, then for goodness’ sake, don’t come for Carnaval. Hotels have minimum stays, and prices are three times the normal high-season rates. On top of this, traffic is terrible—streets are blocked off for blocos, or street parties—and the samba plays all night long.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

People tend to allot too little time to Rio; to be able to glimpse the real Rio you need to spend a couple of days on the beach and a day or two exploring the city’s sites. This isn’t a city that you can capture the flavor of in a single overnight on the way to Bahia or the Amazon or Iguaçu Falls (never mind that those places are all a good distance away, given Brazil’s size).

Instagram Moment

Rio is so often photographed that it’s going to take a little more than the standard Christ the Redeemer shot to push your Instagram likes into triple figures, so if you are looking for something just as spectacular but more original, head to the Vista Chinesa at the golden hour (preferably sunset, although the silhouettes at dawn can also be spectacular). This Chinese pavilion, tucked high in the Tijuca Forest, has a vantage point over the whole of the Zona Sul, including Corcovado, Sugar Loaf, and the lagoon.

Perfect souvenirs

My own go-to souvenir when heading back to the United Kingdom is a bottle of cachaça and a wooden cocktail muddler for making caipirinhas. The best caipirinhas are made with simple (i.e. cheap) cachaça that you can pick up in any supermarket, but bringing back a bottle of artisanal cachaça from a small distillery might impress your friends more. Academia de Cachaça in Leblon has a great selection.

For kids (and adults!), the ubiquitous Havaianas flip-flops are a fail-safe gift—of course, they are available back home, too, but in Brazil you can find them in a dazzling array of designs for a third of the price. You’ll see them for sale all over town.

Word of Warning

Don’t book a taxi from the service desks inside the arrivals area at the airport; the drivers usually try to charge two or three times the actual cost of a run from the airport to downtown. Instead, take a yellow taxi from the taxi queue outside the terminal.

Must-Have Apps

Although more and more people speak a bit of English, a little Portuguese goes a long way, so a language app such as Cool Gorilla or Odyssey Translator is useful.

Rio has a network of free bikes; to use them you need to download the Bike Rio app.

Tipping Tip

In restaurants, it’s common to tip 10 to 15 percent depending on how happy you are with the service. Keep in mind, though, that most restaurants add a service charge, in which case you do not need to tip extra. Brazilians do not tip taxi drivers, but you can round up to the nearest real.  

Airport Intel

If it’s busy and your flight time is fast approaching, skip directly to the front of the line—it’s expected! (Likewise, don’t make a scene if someone does this to you.)

Don’t Forget to Pack

A sweater or shawl. Yes, it’s always warm in Rio, but the restaurants are freezing.


Trip was perfect.

Lois Feinstein | January 24, 2017

Something magical every day!

Janice Lamattina | April 23, 2016

He was on the spot and available

Therese Goldman | January 22, 2016
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