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A bustling metropolis combined with some of the most famous beaches in the world, this South American city is known for being an exotic mix of Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and Africa roots. With the World Cup just a few months away and the 2016 Summer Olympics set to take place, all eyes will be on this sultry city, so now is the time to explore Rio de Janeiro, Brazil!
WHAT TO DO
A huge, cosmopolitan city with a sexy, sunny beach culture – there’s a little something for everyone in Rio de Janeiro. Of course the city is probably most renowned for its amazing beaches, especially the legendary Ipanema and Copacabana, where beautiful people come to be seen, locals meet up with their friends to relax in the afternoons, and epic parties continue long into the night. Ipanema Beach is dotted with posts that act as divisions for various groups; head to Post 9 to be surrounded by the young and beautiful, or if you’re a sports lover, head to Post 10 for ongoing games of soccer and volleyball.
Leblon Beach, separated from Ipanema by the garden-rimmed beach of Jardim de Alah, is a good choice if you are looking for a quieter, more family-friendly experience; there’s a small playground here, located between Posts 11 and 12. Or if surfing is more your scene, be sure to visit Arpoador Beach for some of Rio’s best waves.
No visit to Rio is complete without a trip up Corcovado Mountain to see the Christ the Redeemer statue, which since 1931 has stood a whopping 98 feet tall (not including its 26-foot pedestal) at the peak of the 2,300-foot Corcovado Mountain in Tijuca Forest National Park. To see this 1,100-ton reinforced-concrete statue – a New Wonder of the World – up close and take in some of the city’s most spectacular views, catch the Corcovado Rack Railway to the top ($50 BRL/$22 US per ticket, train departs every 30 minutes).
With the 2014 World Cup coming to Rio, soccer fever is at an all-time high. See a game at the Maracana soccer stadium, or let Brazil Expedition Tours organize a tour for you. While you’re in town, consider checking out the still-in-progress stadium that will host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Rio has a huge number of museums, including the fascinating Museu do Indio, which features exhibits on Brazil’s indigenous past. The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes features art from all over the country, but it’s just one of several art museums in the city which focus on Brazilian and international works in every conceivable medium, from ancient eras to modern times.
For a more reverent step back into history, visit the Monastery of St Benedict or São Bento Mosteiro. It’s a working monastery dating back to 1617 that hosts activities such as daily Mass with Gregorian chant.
Beyond the main tourism sites, there’s a whole world of Brazilian culture to explore in Rio de Janeiro. To find your groove, Rio Samba Dancer offers samba classes ($30 per class) or a class plus a night tour ($55) where you can try out your dancing skills at samba night clubs. Or consider heading out on your own to the Centro neighborhood’s low-key, local samba haunt, Carioca da Gema, or the high-energy Rio Scenarium.
You could also get a hands-on taste of Brazil by taking a cooking class. Cook In Rio offers four-hour cooking classes for approximately $70 US that will allow you to not only learn how to cook Brazilian traditional dishes like feijoada (a Portuguese-inspired black bean and pork stew), moqueca capixaba (a salt-water fish stew with coconut milk, tomatoes, ginger and palm oil), and skewer-grilled churrasco (or barbecue) - but also eat them, as well. If you’d rather that someone else does the cooking, find some of the best restaurants in this enormous city – like the Amazonian-inspired Espírito Santa and the romantic sushi spot Yume – on Time Out Rio de Janeiro.
Capoeira is Brazil’s traditional sport, an exciting combination of judo, gymnastics and dancing. Many Rio studios offer classes, like Corpo Movimento or Nestor Capoeira. Or if you simply want to see capoeira experts in action, you’ll find many street performers showing off their moves around town, either in plazas or parks.
If you find yourself in Rio on the first Saturday of the month, the Feira Rio Antigo market is chock-full of antiques, rare books and records, various knick-knacks, and new and vintage clothing. Enjoy music and capoeira performances, and sample drinks and bites from the local bars and restaurants. Another weekly event, the Feira Hippie de Ipanema (or Hippie Fair) has happened every Sunday since 1968: with over 700 stalls, you’ll be sure to find a wide array of merchandise, including authentic Brazilian art, clothing, and jewelry.
Get a sense of splashy local fashions at Gilson Martins, or check out Animale for both casual and formal attire. Alessa is the spot for always on-trend designs, and Osklen has casual wear with a sporty edge. If you’re in the market for home goods and accessories, check out the Rio Design Center: located in the popular Barra de Tijuca area, this shopping complex also has great restaurants and art galleries.
You could spend weeks on end exploring this huge city and still not see everything, but no matter where you go, stay aware of your surroundings, watch your belongings and travel in groups in order to stay safe – pickpocketing and other petty crimes aren’t uncommon in Rio.
Two main airports service Rio, but the Rio de Janeiro/Galeão–Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport (GIG) accommodates travelers from the US. One of the biggest and busiest airports in South America, it connects to more than 26 domestic locations and 24 international destinations, and about 20 airlines service its 32,000 daily passengers. GIG is set about 12 miles north of downtown Rio.
Located right near Rio’s city center, Santos Dumont Airport (SDU) mainly operates international flights to other destinations in South America and domestic Brazilian flights, such as shuttles between Rio and São Paulo. If your international flight lands in São Paulo and connects to Rio right afterwards, you’ll most likely land at GIG; however, if you visit São Paulo and don’t fly to Rio until a few days later, you might fly into SDU.
US travelers have several options for direct flights to Rio, including nonstop flights from New York and Miami with either American Airlines or TAM Airlines; Houston with United Airlines; Charlotte with US Airways; and Atlanta with Delta.
Those flying from other American cities can fly direct to São Paolo and hop a short connection to Rio. For example, Midwestern US travelers would fly direct from Chicago’s ORD to São Paolo on United, then catch a quick shuttle to Rio.
Also keep in mind that you can maximize a trip to South America by flying Chilean carrier LAN to a large city like Santiago, Buenos Aires or Lima, doing some exploring, then catching a connecting flight to Rio.
If you’d like to use points to get to Rio, keep in mind that American Airlines will allow you to have a stopover in a North American international gateway city, so if you fly via Miami you can always build in a stopover and then continue on to South America at your leisure, depending on award availability. Search the legs from the international gateway and work backwards from there.
Getting from GIG to the city center is fairly easy as there are both blue and yellow taxis available outside of the arrival areas. There are also several buses, which you can learn more about at the information desk at arrivals. Taxis are usually $25-40, whereas a bus ride will only be a few US dollars. Taxis and bus rides for the short trip from SDU airport to the city center also tend to be inexpensive.
If you do take a taxi in Rio, just make sure that the driver sets the meter as you go, as it’s not uncommon for taxi drivers to take advantage of unsuspecting foreign tourists.
Radisson Hotel Rio de Janeiro is scheduled to open in the coming months.
JW Marriott: Ideally located right on Copacabana Beach, this upscale Marriott property has 245 guest rooms, including 16 suites. In-room amenities include 42-inch LCD television, wireless internet for a fee, laptop sized in-room safe, coffee/tea service, iPod deck, newspaper delivery upon request, 24-hour room service, and evening turndown service. There is a rooftop pool, and a full-service spa and fitness center. The Terraneo Restaurant serves breakfast with ocean views. The Carioca lobby bar and restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. From $329 for dates in April, or 40,000 points, a Marriott Rewards category 8 property.
Sheraton Rio Hotel & Resort: Three pools, two tennis courts and an expansive children’s playground make this Sheraton property an ideal resort for families. It has 542 guestrooms and suites, all with balconies. Other in-room amenities include the signature Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Bed with feather or hypo-allergenic pillows, in-room safe, oversize desk with data port and outlet adaptor, wireless internet for a fee, mini bar, and 24-hour room service. A full-service spa, fitness center, and business center are also available to guests. The Casarao Restaurant serves Brazilian steaks and barbecue daily for lunch and dinner. Casa Da Cachaca is located poolside, and serves traditional Brazilian fare all day. Wood-fired pizza is also available poolside. From $217 per night, or 12,000 points for this Starwood Category 5 hotel in April.
The other Starwood property in Rio is the Sheraton Barra Hotel & Suites.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Miramar Hotel by Windsor: Newly renovated and located right on Copacabana beach, the Miramar has 200 guest rooms and suites. In-room amenities include HDTV, iPod dock, complimentary wireless internet, Nespresso coffee maker, Trussardi linens and towels, and L’Occitane bath products. Hardwood floors run through out, and the bathrooms are large. A brand new lobby restaurant, Restaurant Sa, overlooks the beach, and serves inventive Brazilian cuisine. The rooftop pool has panoramic views, and an American-style bar. The hotel also provides towels, chairs, and sunshade on the beach for hotel guests. Rates in April start at $322 per night.
Belmond Copacabana Palace: This landmark property, built in 1923, was the first luxury hotel in South America. Overlooking Copacabana Beach, it boasts one of the largest pools in Rio. A Tennis court, with private lessons available, fitness center, and a full-service spa and salon are among the hotel amenities. Room amenities include traditional Brazilian slippers, wireless internet, iPod dock, widescreen plasma television, mini bar, and original art. The hotel boasts some of the best dining in the city, including Cipriani for Norhern Italian cuisine, and MEE for pan-Asian. There is also the Copacabana Piano Bar for drinks and jazz, and Pergula Restaurant for more casual fare poolside. From $380 per night in April.
Relais & Chateaux Santa Teresa: Once a coffee plantation mansion, this five-star hotel has 40 guest rooms and suites. Rooms all have LCD television, mini bar, safe-deposit boxes, 24-hour room service, plush linens, marble bathtubs, and some rooms have verandas. The outdoor pool and lounge is surrounded by lush gardens. For dining, Restaurant Tereze serves contemporary Brazilian cuisine in a sophisticated, eco-conscious space. The Bar do Decasados is perfect for sipping a cocktail while watching the sunset. Santa Teresa Hotel Le Spa offers an array of services in a tropical, serene setting. From $460 per night in April.
American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels and Resorts is a hotel program specifically for American Express Platinum and Business Platinum cardholders. By booking through this portal, you receive added perks and benefits thrown in with your stay – sort of like you would with elite status or by booking through a travel agent with great contacts at a hotel.
Hotel Fasano Rio de Janerio: This Philippe Stark designed hotel boasts 79 rooms and 10 suites, and sits directly across from Ipanema Beach. Each guest room has a private balcony, hardwood floors, 32” LCD television, wireless internet (for a fee), mini bar, marble bathroom with bidet, and luxury bed and bath linens. There is 24-hour room service available, as well as a fitness center, business center, rooftop pool with views of Ipanema Beach. For drinks there is the lobby lounge, for casual cocktails, and the Bareto Londra, an award winning lounge, with signature cocktails and light fare. The hotel’s restaurant, Fasano Al Mare, serves Mediterranean fare, with an emphasis on seafood. Rates start at $390 per night in April.
Copacabana Palace is also a part of American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts.
When this summer brings the World Cup to Rio, room rates will rise and temperatures will take a bit of a dip, and soccer-loving crowds will descend en masse for a citywide celebration. If you’d like a quieter version of the city with sunny days and balmy nights, the time to visit is now.