Laid-back Rio de Janeiro usually conjures images of carnival, G-strings and the landmark statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain. But while the beaches and bronzed bodies conform to the stereotype, there's another less obvious side to the city that's equally alluring. After lagging behind São Paulo for years in its culinary and cultural offerings, Rio is experiencing a much-awaited boom sparked primarily by investment in this month's FIFA World Cup and the Olympics in 2016.
For the culture-minded traveller, Rio has improved beyond recognition. The city's Museu de Arte Moderna has been refurbished to host exhibitions of international calibre. A major show by American sculptor Richard Serra opened this month in the Instituto Moreira Salles, a cultural centre set in a modernist mansion. Meanwhile, a sleazy nightclub on Copacabana's oceanfront avenue has been torn down to make way for the Museu da Imagem e do Som, or Museum of Image and Sound, designed by top architecture firm Diller Scofidio and Renfro and set to reopen by the end of the year.
Improbable as it might seem given its hotspot status, Rio had few noteworthy hotels until six years ago. For decades the Copacabana Palace - the grande dame of Rio hotels - was virtually the only place for VIPs and jetsetters to stay. New investment, however, has resulted in a flurry of hotel openings, most notably the Fasano Rio de Janeiro hotel in Ipanema, with its perennially packed rooftop pool and Baretto-Londra bar. At least 10 new hotels are in the pipeline, many by international players. Accor, for example, which runs the Sofitel in Copacabana, is set to open the younger and hipper Sofitel So in Ipanema.
The restaurant scene has also blossomed. Cariocas, as Rio residents are called, have traditionally gathered to feast on barbecued meats or pizza, but high-end dining is finally taking off. First came ambitious contemporary Brazilian restaurants by chefs Claude Troisgros and Roberta Sudbrack, then Felipe Bronze's Oro in 2010. And in February this year, chef Rafa Costa e Silva - who was for years Andoni Luis Aduriz's right-hand at Mugaritz in northern Spain - opened Lasai with an audaciously limited menu.
As popular as ever, though, is Rio's street food. Juice stands and beach kiosks are more popular than cafés here. On weekends, beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema are packed with a happy, heterogeneous mix of sun-worshippers snacking on manioc starch crackers and crumbly heart of palm tartlets.
Different stretches of beach attract very different crowds, so knowing the unspoken rules that define occupancy is important. Numbered lifeguard stations called "postos" serve as markers. For example, at the adjoining beaches of Leblon and Ipanema, both highly recommended for out-of-towners, the gay crowd gathers between postos eight and nine, families with small children stick to posto 12, while cool young cariocas congregate near posto nine. Every day, but especially on weekends when the beachside thoroughfare is closed to traffic, cariocas of all shapes and ages run and cycle along the beaches or play beach soccer. After sunset the crowd thins and bronzed bodies pack the botecos - simple bars with tables on the footpath serving ice-cold draft beer (chopp) and fritters.
Botecos are the essence of the Rio way of life. Some are century-old institutions with an air of laid-back celebration. Other, newer bars (notably, Astor) pay homage to their forebears with menus of classics such as black bean soup, meat croquettes and pork crackling - the antithesis of what you'd expect hot-weather bar snacks to be.
With its beaches and botecos, Rio is more democratic than its richer, larger neighbour, São Paulo, and everywhere wealth and poverty are side by side, sometimes in jarring contrast. Soap-opera stars rub elbows with bus drivers and nannies when lining up to pay for their beers at the beach, and the views from many hotel rooftop pools are of cliffs dotted with favelas. This disparity drives much of the crime that the city has become known for, though travellers who stick to well-touristed and relatively well-to-do districts such as Ipanema and Leblon have little to fear.
Greater caution is advised when venturing beyond the city's Zona Sul (southern zone) where these districts are located, but Centro, the historic downtown area, and Santa Teresa, Rio's boho-chic neighbourhood, are not to be missed; there's an old tram line linking both districts.
The epicentre of Rio's nightlife is in nearby Lapa, with most of Rio's best samba bars, including enduring favourite Carioca da Gema. Fuelled by Caipirinhas, beer and live music, parties here last until sunrise. It's as close to the flamboyant Rio parties portrayed in movies as one can get without heading to the huge samba balls in the city's poor districts - not recommended for foreigners. An even more over-the-top choice is Rio Scenarium, a huge music hall in Centro, not far from Lapa, where live shows take place simultaneously on three floors.
You don't need to go to Lapa for a glimpse of cariocas playing samba and having fun. Even in the poshest blocks of Leblon there are botecos where impromptu jams often strike up. It's common to see patrons gathered around tables playing drums and cavaquinhos (small stringed instruments), and singing. "A party can start anywhere or anytime," says chef Kátia Barbosa, owner of one of the city's best botecos, Aconchego Carioca. "It's in our nature to live life to the fullest, and we like to invite everyone to join in the fun." That's a good thing, too, as travellers arrive in Rio in unprecedented numbers for the world's biggest football tournament.
The grandest of the grand hotels in Rio opened in 1923 and was used as a casino until the 1940s when gambling was outlawed. The 1933 Hollywood hit Flying Down to Rio cemented the hotel's international reputation, and "the Copa", as locals call it, became a firm favourite of showbiz royalty, such as Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf. Movie stars and rockers remain loyal to the hotel, which has recently had its main wing refurbished. Rooms from $560 per night. Avenida Atlântica, 1702, Copacabana, 1800 217 568.
Fasano Rio de Janeiro
Since opening in 2007, this Philippe Starck-designed hotel has been a magnet for the international jet set. Its rooftop infinity pool is one of the most photographed pools in the world; it's here that the rich and famous find respite from the paparazzi waiting below. Beds in the suites, set in the centre of the room facing a glass wall, seem to be floating above the ocean. Rooms from $790 per night. Avenida Vieira Souto, 80, Ipanema, +55 21 3202 4000.
This seven-suite mansion in Jóa, one of Rio's most expensive neighbourhoods, has breathtaking views of the ocean far below, and of the cliffs of Pedra da Gávea and Dois Irmãos. The property's two swimming pools make the trek to the beaches optional. Rooms from $422 per night. Rua Jackson Figueiredo, 501, Jóa, +55 21 2484 1962.
Maria Santa Teresa
With its tiers of indigenous plants, herbs and fruit, Maria Santa Teresa is a mini pop-up hotel of six suites on a hill in the boho-chic district of Santa Teresa. Designer Anja Müller has blended antiques with pieces by Hans J Wegner and Fornasetti to great effect, but the views steal the show. Open until December. Rooms from $300. Rua Aprazível, 163, Santa Teresa, +55 21 3259 7169.
Fogo de Chão
Dinner at rodízios, Brazil's all-you-can-eat steakhouses, is a spectacle. Fogo de Chão, an outpost of a chain that originated in the Brazilian pampas, is the most authentic. In a dining room with picture windows overlooking Guanabara Bay, waiters in gaucho outfits parade from table to table with large skewers of grilled beef, pork, lamb and chicken, which they carve tableside. Prepare to eat for three. Avenida Repórter Nestor Moreira, Botafogo, +55 21 2279 7117.
The biggest news of the year for food lovers has been the opening of Lasai in February. After years working as Andoni Luis Aduriz's right-hand man at Mugaritz in Spain, chef Rafa Costa e Silva returned to his native Rio with grand plans. He grew vegetables his suppliers couldn't deliver, and worked with fishermen who could supply the best and freshest seafood, line-caught to his specifications. The restaurant has been solidly booked since opening. Rua Conde de Irajá, 191, Botafogo, +55 21 3449 1834.
Claude Troisgros, of the renowned dynasty of French chefs, established himself in Rio in the 1980s and pioneered the use of tropical fruits such as passionfruit in French cuisine-based savoury dishes. He and his son Thomas run Olympe. They give native ingredients a twist, as in the heart of palm they serve, trompe l'oeil style, as osso buco, and baroa potato with jerk beef crisp. Rua Curtódio Serrão, 62, Lagoa, +55 21 2539 4542.
Brazilian comfort food and classic regional dishes such as camarão na moranga (shrimp served in a hollowed pumpkin) get the molecular treatment and emerge as marvellous, playful creations at Oro, an ambitious restaurant owned by chef Felipe Bronze. Dinners are a succession of elaborate courses served in myriad vessels, from "tree branches" to hand-sculpted black crystal plates. Expect culinary fireworks and very friendly service. Rua Frei Leandro, 20, Jardim Botânico, +55 21 7864 9622.
At Oro's younger sibling, more casual and less expensive, chef Felipe Bronze reinvents favourites of Rio's botecos, such as caldinho de feijão (black bean soup), a suckling pig and pineapple sandwich and coalho cheese skewers. "Pipo is a boteco serving avant-garde food," Bronze says. Desserts pay homage to his childhood tastes: rice pudding with dulce de leche, for example. It's a boisterous and popular neighbourhood restaurant serving some of the best food in town. Rua Dias Ferreira, 64, Leblon, +55 21 2239 9322.
Roberta Sudbrack, chef-owner of the lauded eponymous restaurant, reigns as Rio's queen of the audacious and precisely executed tasting menu. She finds irreverent ways to use Brazilian ingredients; her signature smoked okra and shrimp comes with okra-seed "caviar", while an eye-opening dish of corn silks and crisp shrimp legs tastes much better than it sounds. Avenida Lineu de Paula Machado, 916, Jardim Botânico, +55 21 3874 0139.
This restaurant-bar, facing Ipanema Beach and always crowded, is a dressed-up version of the botecos that dot the city. All the classics are here, from cod fritters to pork crackling. Draft beer - served in small glasses so it won't have time to lose its chill - is top-notch, as are the speedy and friendly waiters in bow ties. Avenida Vieira Souto, 110, Ipanema, +55 21 2523 0085.
Carioca da Gema
Set in an historic mansion, Carioca da Gema is the leading samba bar in Lapa, the city's samba district. Its busy calendar of live shows draws big crowds. Avenida Mem de Sá, 79, Centro, +55 21 2221 0043.
Chico e Alaíde
This casual boteco is run by former waiter Francisco das Chagas Filho "Chico" and chef Alaíde Carneiro Gomes, whose fried snacks are much copied by the competition - especially her signature breaded fritter filled with shrimp and creamy cheese. Rua Dias Ferreira, 679, Leblon, +55 21 2512 0028.
The aerial tram linking a ground station to Morro da Urca and Sugarloaf Mountain is to Rio what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. As touristy as it is, the ride and view of land and sea aboard the bubble-shaped cable car with transparent Plexiglass walls is exhilarating. Avenida Pasteur, 520, Urca, +55 21 2546 8400.
Instituto Moreira Salles
The vast mansion that was once the residence of a prominent banking family, Moreira Salles, has been converted into Rio's most impressive cultural centre. Exhibitions are first-rate and focused on photography and film. The lush gardens surrounding the house were designed by legendary landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx. Rua Marquês de São Vicente, 476, Gávea +55 21 3284 7400,
A striking modernist concrete building on V-shaped stilts, the Museum of Modern Art (MAM) is set in a beautiful oceanside park. Recently refurbished, its greatest works are by Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, 85, Parque do Flamengo, Centro, +55 21 3883 5600.
Any Brazilian interested in fashion can instantly recognise a dress by the celebrated designer Adriana Barra. Her signature style uses fabrics featuring elaborate, multicoloured patterns often incorporating lush flora and fauna, and flowing silhouettes. Rua Dias Ferreira, 64, Leblon, +55 21 2512 3320.
Havaianas, the Brazilian flip-flops that are sold around the world, have worthy rivals produced at Casa Ipanema, with a range designed by Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen. A three-storey flagship store in Ipanema opened in February, selling Ipanema-brand sandals and flip-flops, hosting exhibitions and celebrating the carioca way of life. Rua Garcia d'Ávila, 77, Ipanema, +55 11 3053 7529.
Founded by a Portuguese immigrant in 1870, this pharmacy in Rio's Centro, produces Brazil's best-known brand of soaps, talcum powders and lotions. The flagship store is a beauty, but a bit off the tourist path; it's easier to stop by the Leblon outpost to shop for vintage-inspired products. Rua General Artigas, 470, Leblon, +55 21 2512 9964.