For the first time in history, a South American city is playing host to the Summer Olympics. While controversy around Rio de Janeiro has cooled public enthusiasm — headlines have been made over everything from the Zika outbreak and dangerous pollution levels in Guanabara Bay to uninhabitable living quarters for athletes — the city’s natural beauty and rich culture can’t be overshadowed.
Read on for our picks on what to see and do in the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) during the 2016 Olympic Games (through August 21) and beyond.
What to do
The best things in life (and in Rio) are free: strolling along the beachfront promenade in Copacabana; jumping into the waves; joining an impromptu futebol (soccer) match in Ipanema; or catching an unforgettable sunset from the cliffs of Arpoador Beach.
But to fully appreciate the city’s spectacular natural landscape, you have to climb higher. Make sure your camera battery is fully charged before you board the cable car for the journey to the summit of Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). From up here, nearly 1,300 feet above Guanabara Bay, take in sweeping views of Olympic venues like the Sambadrome, the action on the beaches below and boats bobbing like toys in the harbor. Come early in the morning for the quietest experience or at sunset for the most magical photo opportunities.
Alternatively, take the Trem do Corcovado (Corcovado train) ride up to the peak of the 2,329-foot Corcovado. Home of the famed Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, the largest Art Deco sculpture in the world, it’s a thrilling vantage point on a clear day.
Where to play
Rio moves to the rhythm of samba. The genre was reportedly born here, in the old downtown neighborhood of Saúde, where a festive samba-themed street party, Pedra do Sal, takes over the charmingly rundown colonial plaza of Praça Mauá on Monday and Friday nights.
These celebrations are your chances to hear real samba and sample Brazilian street food with a down-to-earth Carioca (local) crowd that’ll be around long after the closing ceremony has ended. To make the most of the iconic open-air event, have an icy caipirinha — the national cocktail is made with limes, sugar, ice and the sugar-cane spirit called cachaça — or two.
For a more upscale samba experience in the city’s downtown, reserve a table at Rio Scenarium. The beautifully restored urban mansion is a great venue for catching some live music and sipping cold champagne.
Where to eat and drink
During the day, do as the locals do: enjoy açaí, lemonade and grilled corn on the sand, then sip cerveja (beer) or caipirinhas from beachfront vendors at sunset. Dinnertime is the ideal hour to sample Rio’s fine-dining scene.
Close to the beach in posh Leblon is Zuka, a gold-medal winner among Brazilian foodies. Try the ceviche or the rack of lamb with maracujá (passion fruit), or the freshly caught tuna prepared on a coal-burning grill.
In nearby Ipanema, Zazá Bistrô offers an eclectic international menu in a quaint old building that’s filled with original art. House specialties include fresh oysters and grilled fish, and many of the dishes are made with organic ingredients.
Need a break from the beach? Head for the hills. The picturesque neighborhood of Santa Teresa is home to Aprazível, a choice spot for gourmet Brazilian dishes like shrimp cooked in white wine, coconut milk and ginger. Gorgeous views over the bay complete the experience.
Finish a festive evening at nearby Bar dos Descasados inside the hip Hotel Santa Teresa. Once part of a working plantation, the place later served as a hotel for newly divorced men (the name, rather comically, means “Bar of the Divorcées”) before expanding its audience. Now the Forbes Travel Guide Recommended hotel is a quiet place for a nightcap before heading back into the lively atmosphere that is Rio during the Summer Olympics.
Where to stay
Though most elevated accommodations have long sold out for the Summer Games, Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro still had a few rooms available at press time. The stylish boutique hotel sits on the eastern section of Ipanema Beach with a glass exterior, a hot-spot rooftop with a white marble pool and its own piece of private beach.
The Four-Star Belmond Copacabana Palace, which can be found near famous Copacabana Beach, doesn’t have any availability for much of August, but there’s still plenty of reason to stop by. For the Olympics, Belmond Copacabana Palace worked with Icelandic artist Kristjana S. Williams on “Rio Welcomes the World,” a series of themed projections that will be displayed on the hotel’s seven-story façade at 7 p.m. through August 14. Keep an eye out for the butterfly projection; each insect’s wings bears a different country’s flag to show the diversity of the games.