The Rio that the world will see during the Olympic Games is surprisingly, sometimes jarringly, different from the fantasy Rio of postcards and movies. Though Brazil's most picturesque city will always deliver scenes of beaches packed with bronzed locals and dramatic vistas of sea, city towers and forested mountains, it now boasts new promenades and starchitect-designed museums, bike paths and hotels.
"The transformation hasn't been homogenous," says Vik Muniz, a Rio resident and high-profile artist. "But that would've been impossible in a city of six million. What matters is that parts like the old downtown have been given a big revamp and the new museums are top-notch.
The new Rio de Janeiro, made over at enormous cost to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in August, is much more complex than the old stereotypes. City and state authorities have invested heavily in infrastructure, including a subway line linking the city's north-eastern beaches to its south-western beaches, adding six new stations to the grid. There are new sports venues, including Rio's first golf course, and Maracanã, one of the world's biggest soccer stadiums and venue of the opening ceremony, has had an extensive overhaul. Beyond the sports obsession, there has been significant public and private investment in new galleries and museums. International hotel chains, too, have gathered en masse in Rio, triggering a flurry of openings and nearly doubling the number of hotel rooms in the city in the past three years.
Several neighbourhoods have been spruced up, some beyond recognition - most notably Centro, the once unsafe and crumbling old downtown quarter, and its adjacent docks. Rio's charismatic mayor, Eduardo Paes, is particularly proud of its transformation. "We knocked down a five kilometrelong elevated expressway, which ran along the coastline and isolated residents from the sea, the culprit of decades of urban degradation."
It made way for a public waterfront park and promenade, Praça Visconde de Mauá, and two world-class museums. Crowds flocked to MAR (Museu de Arte do Rio) when it opened in 2013, and they grew exponentially (as did the queues) when the adjacent Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) opened in December. The seaside complex instantly became a tourist attraction on a par with Rio's classic landmarks, the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf Mountain.
While Olympic events will be staged in venues around the city, most of the action will centre on Olympic City, a huge complex in the satellite town of Jacarepaguá, just west of Rio. That area, much like Rio's old downtown, has been entirely transformed by the construction of venues for the Olympics.
Those with tickets to sporting events are best advised to stay at hotels near Olympic City, such as the Grand Mercure Riocentro, to avoid spending hours in cabs. Even when traffic is flowing well, the drive from the Olympic park to central locations such as Ipanema Beach can take up to 90 minutes. Another advantage of staying near Olympic City is its proximity to Prainha, one of Rio's most beautiful beaches. A favourite among surfers and starlets seeking privacy, "it has the best waves and the most beautiful scenery", says Pedro Scooby, a high-profile surf pro and big-wave rider. He's often spotted here with his wife, actress Luana Piovani, and their three children.
In colourful contrast are Rio's famous downtown beaches: Copacabana, a favourite among foreigners and suburban dwellers, and its more upscale neighbours Ipanema and Leblon. Weightlifters and footvolley players share sand space with sun-worshipping crowds, while vendors selling bikinis, suntan lotion and temporary tattoos crisscross the sand shouting sales pitches. On weekends, when the beaches reach full capacity, one lane of the beachfront avenues is closed to traffic and filled instead by joggers, cyclists and parents pushing strollers, fringed by a kaleidoscope of bodies, umbrellas, drink stands and beach chairs.
Beach-going best defines Cariocas, as Rio residents are known. Each crowd tends to hang at a different part of the beach, usually identified by "postos", numbered lifeguard stations. The teen to twenty-something crowd light up their joints around Ipanema's Posto 9; the families, nannies and toddlers gather at Leblon's Posto 12. The cool crowd, including young soap stars and the city's fashionistas, congregate just north of Posto 10.
Many will spend long days swimming, playing beach games and snacking on skewers of coalho cheese and polvilho crackers sold by roving vendors, and drinking coconut water and beer sold at makeshift stands, which also rent beach chairs and offer showers.
Known for being more easy-going and informal than residents of São Paulo, the nation's rich metropolis to the south, Cariocas tend to shun overt luxury. Only in recent years has fine dining gained popularity. For decades there were just a handful of upscale restaurants in the city, most notably Olympe, run by father-and-son team Claude and Thomas Troisgros. Similarly, nightclubs are nowhere near as popular as samba bars, most of them in Lapa district, or the hopping street parties of Rivalzinho.
Though Paes and other city officials talk up the city's readiness to receive 14,500 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and an estimated 450,000 visitors, the city and the nation face enormous challenges, not least the instability and financial crisis brought on by the long battle to impeach president Dilma Roussef, who stepped down from office in May. Brazil's economy has been in steep decline for three years, with a second 3.8 per cent contraction forecast this year. "While Zika [virus] fears have been greatly overblown in the foreign media, muggings and robberies are a real danger," says Patricia Campos Mello, a senior political analyst and columnist at Folha de São Paulo newspaper. To keep a lid on crime, the army will be deployed along with 7,000 city police officers during the Games.
None of this seems to dampen the enthusiasm of Cariocas, however, who famously love a party. And travellers can enjoy the party vibe long after the biggest event on earth ends.
A seafront mansion in Copacabana that once housed the Consulate of Austria was torn down to make way for the Emiliano, which promises to be Rio's chicest boutique hotel when it opens this month. The design by renowned architect Arthur Casas pays homage to Brazilian modernism, and its look and feel of '50s glamour is enhanced by vintage furniture upholstered in shades of green. The façade is lined with panels of perforated ceramic tiles called cobogós, typical of the era, which open to reveal stunning ocean views. While the lobby restaurant is open to the public, the panoramic rooftop pool and bar are for guests only. Ave Atlântica, 3804, emiliano.com.br
In the heart of the old Lapa neighbourhood, best known for its vibrant nightlife and samba bars, this Portuguese-owned four-star hotel occupies a fully renovated heritage mansion with an imposing pink and white façade. Red velvet Chesterfields, clawfoot tubs, floor-to-ceiling windows and crystal chandeliers add to the colonial feel. A large pool in an inner courtyard is its best feature. Rua Riachuelo, 124, +55 21 2460 4500, vilagale.com
Grand Mercure Riocentro
This new hotel, across the road from the entrance to Olympic Park, has a panoramic rooftop pool and restaurant with "180-degree views of the ocean, mountains and forest", says high-profile chef Morena Leite, whose menu is inspired by this landscape and Brazil's unique habitats, or "biomes". The airy, light-filled lobby features a huge modernist-inspired mosaic wall and retro furniture. Ave Salvador Allende, 6555, Jóa, +55 21 2484 1962, accorhotels.com
The boutique hotel chain with outposts in Paris, LA and Bordeaux opens its first South American address this month in Rio's bohemian hilltop neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, not far from its more luxurious older sister property, the Santa Teresa RJ MGallery by Sofitel. Mama Shelter's 54 graphic and colourful rooms occupy two houses overlooking the sea and have cheeky design features - beer crates double as nightstands, for instance. Though removed from the buzz of the city's beaches, the old-fashioned charm of Santa Teresa's cobbled streets and mosaic of colourful old houses is highly appealing. Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno, 5, Santa Teresa, mamashelter.com
Belmond Copacabana Palace
Rio's grande dame is 93 years old and as memorable as ever. Rooms and suites - most overlooking a glamorous pool and Copacabana Beach - have been refurbished in white and soft greens and blues. Framed photos of old Rio landscapes, black and white signed portraits of past guests, and attentive staff evoke the hotel's storied past. Ave Atlântica, 1702, +55 21 2548 7070, copacabanapalace.com.br
Set in Joá, a leafy residential neighbourhood in the hills overlooking São Conrado Beach, this '60s mansion-turned-guesthouse has seven suites styled with flair and bright colours. The communal living room and deck hanging over the cliff have sweeping views. This is a favourite for couples wanting a quiet city stay, buffered from the party down below. Rua Jackon de Figueiredo, 501, +55 21 3259 6123, bydussol.com
Japanese dining is popular in Brazil's southern states, with large populations of Japanese immigrants. While São Paulo is the undisputed sushi capital of the country, Mee in Copacabana is one of a few places in Rio where the raw seafood is top-notch. Chef Kazuo Harada calls the menu pan-Asian, but his sashimi and nigiri are highlights. Ave Atlântica, 1702, Copacabana, +55 21 2548 7070, kenhom.com
Opened in 2014 by chef Rafa Costa e Silva, who worked for years as Andoni Luis Aduriz's right-hand man at Mugaritz in Spain, this is the best looking and most atmospheric of Rio's high-end restaurants. Tasting menus start with snacks served at the rooftop bar with views of the Christ the Redeemer statue. Try to book at the kitchen counter, the best seats in the house. Rua Conde de Irajá, 191, Botafogo, +55 21 3449 1834, lasai.com.br
Thomas Troisgros has been gradually assuming management of the family restaurant as his father, Claude, son of French culinary pioneer Pierre Troisgros, devotes more time to hosting TV cooking shows. His daring combinations include indigenous ingredients in dishes such as fresh heart of palm with corn ice-cream and açaí-crusted lamb with manioc (cassava) gnocchi. Rua Custódio Serrão, 62, Lagoa, +55 21 2539 4542, olympe.com.br
This new incarnation of chef Felipe Bronze's celebrated restaurant opened in April in the upscale Leblon neighbourhood. He's known for his eye-catching platings - steamed-bun sandwiches perched atop a tree branch, for example. He has shifted the focus of his cooking in his new premises to fire; every dish has an element of grill or smoke, and a cast-iron wood oven and yakitori grill are in full view of the dining room. Rua General San Martin, 889, Leblon, +55 21 2540 8768
Cariocas are mad about grilled galetos, or young chickens, and they argue as passionately about who serves the best in town as they do about who plays the best football. Galeto Sat's is a favourite, a hole-in-thewall diner where the shabby décor and cramped tables lend the air of just another drinking hole serving cheap food. It's cheap, but the signature galeto is one of the city's best dishes: crisp, golden skin and richly seasoned juicy flesh, with a side of egg farofa, a variation on the typical Brazilian dish of toasted manioc flour. Waiters are fast and knowledgeable, and the vast cachaça selection has won several prizes. Rua Barata Ribeiro, 7D, Copacabana, +55 21 2011 2012
In an unlikely spot - a street lined with mechanic workshops - the grande dame of Rio's food scene, Roberta Sudbrack, recently opened this sandwich shop in a trailer. Everything is made in its tiny kitchen in full view of diners, who eat while standing on the footpath or perched on a few stools. Sudbrack, the chef-owner of an eponymous fine-dining restaurant in the city, applies the same rigour in training staff across both establishments, and her obsession in sourcing highquality ingredients from small producers translates into hot dogs and pastrami sandwiches of unmatched quality. Rua Tubira 8/loja A, Leblon, +55 21 22391103
Bar do Lado
This bar is little more than a terrace with tables at the side of the Marina All Suites hotel. But since opening two years ago, it has been the place to be seen among Rio's well-heeled party crowd. Queues are shorter and service is better at the hotel's more upscale Bar d'Hotel on the first floor. Ave Bartolomeu Mitre, 15, Leblon, +55 21 2172 1120, allsuites.hoteismarina.com.br
When actress Leandra Leal inherited the Rival, one of Rio's oldest theatres, she knew it couldn't survive on income from plays and concerts. Last February she and her husband, impresario Alê Youssef, hosted a party in front of the theatre that drew a star-studded crowd and was the talk of the town, prompting them to make it a regular event. The party happens every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, with signature snacks and dishes by Katia Barbosa, the chef-owner of Rio's best gastro pub, the Aconchego Carioca. Expect the likes of feijoada fritters and shrimp bobó, a stew thickened with manioc flour. Meanwhile, the Rival has been revived with an eclectic program of shows, from burlesque to samba, and entry is free. Rua Alvaro Alvim 33/37, Centro, +55 21 2240 4469
Carioca da Gema
Set in an historic mansion, this is the leading samba bar in Lapa, the city's samba district. Its calendar of live shows draws big crowds. The scene is cabaretmeets- carnival: a band plays on a small stage, while party-goers dance and drink Caipirinhas and beers at tightly packed tables. Ave Mem de Sá, 79, Centro, +55 21 2221 0043, barcariocadagema.com.br
The best seats in the house are across the road. Regulars order fritters that resemble pastéis, filled with meat or shrimp, or breaded cod balls called bolinhos, and ice-cold beers at the bar, then cross the street to sit on the stone wall facing the bay. On a sunny day, nothing tops watching the boats bobbing in the bay with a beer and some of the city's best snacks in hand. Rua Cândido Gaffrée, 205, Urca, +55 21 2295 8744, barurca.com.br
Tucked behind the lobby of Hotel Fasano on Ipanema Beach, this loud clubby bar is an expression of hotel co-owner Rogerio Fasano's love of rock and roll and London, hence the name. Ave Vieira Souto, 80, +55 21 3202 4000, fasano.com.br
Museu do Amanhã
This is Rio's answer to the Guggenheim Bilbao. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and opened in December, the building has been likened to a bird's wing or the bow of a futuristic ship, with its elongated white skeletal roof towering over a newly built promenade. There are long queues to see the museum's multimedia exhibitions on new technologies and sustainability but, for many, the architecture steals the show. Praça Mauá, 1, Centro, +55 21 3812 1800
Museu de Arte do Rio
The Museu de Arte do Rio opened in 2013 on the seaside promenade Praça Mauá, and it quickly became the city's tourist hotspot. It occupies a beautifully renovated old palace overlooking the sea with a focus on Brazilian contemporary art. Rotating exhibitions show important works on loan from other museums by artists such as Lasar Segall. Praça Mauá, 5, Centro, +55 21 3031 2741, museudeartedorio.org.br
Along with the Christ the Redeemer statue, this dramatic mountain at the mouth of Guanabara Bay is the cliché that drives the sales of souvenirs and postcards - but one not to be missed. While you need to book online for set-time visits to the Christ, the cable car ride up Sugarloaf is relatively hassle-free, no bookings required. The lucky ones who get a spot around the edge of the car's transparent walls are rewarded with an exhilarating ride as Rio's hills, bays and beaches come into view. Ave Pasteur, 520, Urca, +55 21 2546 8433, bondinho.com.br
A fixture in social columns and seemingly friends with every A-lister who flies into town, socialite Lenny Niemeyer hosts legendary parties. She is equally successful at her day job: designing elegant and understated beachwear. She has stores all over Brazil, but none as atmospheric as the flagship in Leblon. Ave Ataulfo de Paiva, 270, Leblon, +55 21 3114 8887, lennyniemeyer.com
In the '80s there was no cooler homegrown surf wear brand in Rio than Osklen. The label has evolved into a behemoth, with men's and women's collections in stores around Brazil and abroad. Rua Maria Quitéria, 85, Ipanema, +55 21 2227 2911, osklen.com