IPANEMA - The best of Rio de Janeiro

by Annette Bignami

A legendary beach, bustling nightlife, Samba, soccer, sun, jewelry shopping, and restaurants. Shake, don't stir and it spells out Ipanema , the best of Rio de Janeiro has to offer.

Rio Street
photo credit Annette Bignami


Rio is wonderful city to stroll as everything is in walking distance. Even the sidewalks deserve a close look as you amble through Rio -- the most exciting city in South America. They alternate inlaid white and black stone blocks brought from Portugal as ballast. But Rio isn't scenery, or shopping or cultural activities even though Rio has all of this and more. It's people -- the Cariocas.

It's the clerk who takes you down the block to sample a special pastry and some lethally strong coffee. It's the boy on a bus who shows you his favorite spot on the beach. It's the waiter who talks about modern art and tells you how to get in the back door so you don't miss the Rodin Exhibit. It's the hundreds of thousands of screaming, flag waving, foot stomping, arm shaking fans who root their team to victory in Maracana Stadium, the largest in the world. It's the mannerly gentleman at the golf club who, when your change fails, signs for your fruit drink. No place in the world offers so many beaches -- and, as my husband notes, ". . . or such tiny bathing suits," Copacabana and Ipanema are the best-known, but the 12 mile stretch of beach of Barra da Tijuca deserves a look.

It offers a chance to try hang gliding off the cliffs too No place offers majestic mountains lapped with warm ocean waters downtown. Incidentally, a local claims the tourist police won't let you you leave the country if you've not been up to the Corcovado with its Christ statue or swayed across on the cable car to Sugar Loaf. But if you tour in the back seat of a cab orin a tour bus you simply meet other tourists. Get out on your own feet and meet the Cariocas.

Cariocas call Rio "Cidade Maravilhosa." It should be "Cariocas Maravilhosas." So if you visit, practice saying "Obrigado" or thank you. You use it a lot. Whip out a map, and folks stop to help. Dust off high school Spanish -- portuguese is close -- or some Italian, and you'll get a gentle smile and, often, a bit of helpful English. Manners haven't died in Brazil. Start downtown --Centro or Cinelandia -- the latter for the many movie houses -- during business hours. Eye the Opera House and National Library ? book stalls in their square remind us of Paris. Venture into both if you have at least an hour for each. Prowl the National History Museum built in 1765 and you may need two hours and a coffee break to even sample the over 200,000 exhibits.

Stroll around in Praca XV, a splendid old part of town with its narrow streets, small shops, nifty little regional restaurants, corner juice and coffee stands. There seems to be a public or private museum around every corner of what one local calls the "happy hustle" of downtown. Sip coffee in a sidewalk cafe. Riffle through the art prints in a stall or shop. Check out the SaoBento Monastery or the trolley line. It's a day to remember and like the Lelron Mall, a wonderful rainy day choice. If you bus back toward the beaches, stop at the Modern Art Museum in the Park on Guanabara Bay -- there's good bus service. Skip the nearby Carmen Marinda Museum Do check museum hours carefully; they tend to vary.

The parks deserve special mention with Rio's "downtown" Tijuca Forest, the largest urban forest in the world, and its world-class Botanical Garden's row of Royal Palms. Small parks, big parks, mountain parks, historic parks, Rio does have parks that seem to fill up on the weekends with family picnics and soccer players. Stay with the crowds and you're quite safe. Note: we'll cover out of town parks and museums elsewhere!

Is there crime here? Sure, and have you visited New York City lately. Both have improved their crime rates. Tourists who wear jewelry or tote cameras or videos worth a year's pay to locals AND who wander out of the beach areas or into dark streets at night, may find trouble. However, if you stay in the downtown business area or on the main beaches you'll do fine.