Carioca. It means Rio native, and though it comes from the name the indigenous people gave the first white settlers it embraces all. Cariocas immerse themselves in the city, become part of it, take the shortest road to the beach, dance, celebrate, laugh, throw off their clothes. That’s what it means to be from Rio. To experience the city properly is to embrace it top to tail, which is exactly what I am going to do. And I’ve got a list.
Beach. Jesus. Boogie. Shop. Eat. Carnival. Tram. Surf. Pamper. Football. For cariocas these things are what life’s all about. Well except maybe the tram. The tram takes you places. So let’s start there. And let’s go to Santa Teresa.
Jump on the Bonde, the yellow tram from Lapa that takes you to this old residential neighbourhood on the top of the hill close to the city centre. Here old cariocas used to live in grand mansions, but now the area (surrounded as it is by seven rundown favelas) has become a hub for artists, musicians and intellectuals. You can pay for a seat on the tram – just a few pence – but hang onto the outside like a true native and you won’t pay a penny. The thrill is worth it. Best place to eat in Santa Teresa is Aprazível (aprazivel.com.br) with its tree houses overlooking the city and Guanabara Bay, and live DJ on Sunday afternoons. It’s unbeatable. And to stay here, there’s only one place: the delightful Santa Teresa boutique hotel itself (santateresahotel.com) – a spot the international jet set love, but don’t let that put you off. The rooms are exquisite and the pool overlooking Rio and the sea beyond is simply a must.
What about Jesus? There’s no escaping Christ the Redeemer in Rio, wherever you are he’s watching over you. To get the view from where he’s standing – and it’s some view, one cariocas regularly visit – go in the early morning and take the Corcovado Train. There’s no doubt that this 32-metre high Christo Redentor is a wonder of the world – it is in fact one of the official Seven New Wonders of the World and there’s no way you come to Rio and miss it.
But enough about our saviour. I mentioned the beach and the beach is where true cariocas spend most of their time. And why not? Sun is shining, weather is sweet. The first thing you notice is the clothes. Or lack of them. Ladies don their skimpiest bikinis, us men in our sungas – that’s the tiny tight trunks all Brazilian boys and girls adore. I end up at Posto 9, the lifeguard lookout in Ipanema and the spot for everything beautiful. My drink is an agua de coco from the barraca I rent my lounger and parasol from, and I move from my spot only for a dip in the ocean – and a little game of futevolley (no hands beach volleyball) with a gang of kids playing nearby. It is blissful. As the sun sets behind the mountains Rio’s oh so sexy people lie kissing in the surf in true carioca style. I should be so lucky.
Still there’s always the party scene. The top nightlife areas in Zona Sul (South Rio) are here in Ipanema, and Leblon, followed by Gávea and around Jardim Botânico. And then there’s Lapa. Previously a forgotten, derelict and rough neighbourhood, today a sultry nightspot where every type of person comes to enjoy the chorinho, forró and most definitely the samba until the sun comes up. Favourite clubs are Rio Scenarium (rioscenarium.com.br), a Moulin-Rouge style fairy-tale scene of wonders packed with antiques, chandeliers and serious samba kids. Though it’s not all Latin, there’s plenty of dance music, house and R&B too. Alternatively head to the Copa Lounge at Copacabana Palace hotel (copacabanapalace.com.br). As well as being somewhere you should stay for at least a couple of nights, it’s that special, the vibe here is super chic, super sexy and comes with super cocktails.
All that dancing means plenty of pampering to recover. If there’s one thing the carioca loves more than anything it’s his or her body – not surprising considering the fact that when you spend most of your time half-naked in public you’ll want to look the part. Us mere mortals are put to shame. In Rio it’s all about yoga, fitness, working out on the beach, swimming, running or biking at Lagoa, a freshwater lagoon circled by a 7.5km cycle path. Beauty parlours are packed so be like the locals and after a jog in Lagoa why not go indulge in some hands and feet restoration and come out looking and feeling decades younger.
Course you could always surf. A carioca is nowhere at home if not in or on the water and starting the day catching an early-morning wave is as thrilling as it is invigorating. The stunning little bay at Prainha is perfect for pro-surfers while for beginners Praia de Pepe beach in Barra da Tijuca is more suitable. If you’re hungry make sure to eat at Prainha’s Peixe de Sol fish restaurant on the rock at the edge.
Apart from fish on the beach at Peixe de Sol and arroz carioca at Aprazivel in the tree houses, there are a few other spots in-the-know cariocas always go to fill their bellies. One is Café du Lage, hidden away in a mansion that doubles as an art school, next to the simply stunning Jardim Botanico. This place is magnificent from its setting to its food. For Sunday breakfasts there is nowhere better and if you follow that with a stroll in the Jardim you’ll spend the day happy. Created two centuries ago for King John VI, the botanical garden is as beautiful as Brazilians with more than 6,200 plant and tree species – the avenue of towering palms alone is breathtaking, iconic even. A second eatery is the old school Nova Capella (Av. Mem de Sá, 96) in the centre of Rio, where jacketed waiters will serve you wild boar, lamb and goat with rice and broccoli amidst photos of saints before or after a night out – it’s a place to eat late into the night or early into the morning. A third, where the stylish in-crowd fancy themselves and go to see and be seen is Via Sete Grill (viasete.com.br) in Rio’s smartest shopping street in Zona Sul.
Shopping, naturally, is a favourite pastime. Rua Visconde de Piraja is Ipanema’s main shopping street – check out independent stores around Praça NS da Paz like Animale, Osklen, Forum and Farm. There are many small malls off Visconde, which are kind of a thing, and on a weekend cariocas visit them in groups as an outing. A fun little store in the Forum de Ipanema on Visconde is the Parceria Carioca selling handmade accessories. For something a bit more special visit Rio’s markets. The best occurs on the first Saturday of every month in Lapa, the Feira da Rua Do Lavradio – it’s an antiques market with added food and drink stalls and a party-like atmosphere. For that Carnival flavour – alongside beach life and soccer, carnival is what makes cariocas tick – even out of season head to Saara, a labyrinth of tiny streets in Rio's heart where you can get any party outfit you like.
Finally there’s every carioca's other religion. Football. And the place they worship in is the Maracaná stadium. It can hold 100,000 fans especially for the one game everyone wants to see: the Fla-Flu or Flamingo-Fluminese derby (Rio’s two rival teams). In the stands here it’s like being somewhere altogether otherworldly, this is more than a simple soccer match, there is music everywhere, samba drums beating, smoke grenades steaming and noise and dancing and cheering. It’s an unmatchable experience and if your team wins, the bragging rights are sweet and the party lasts late into the night.
Like I said. There’s only one true way to do Rio. Like a carioca.
First published in AMag 83 May/June/July 2016