It feels like half a lifetime ago that Charlie and I traveled to Brazil for two weeks of caipirinhas, jungle walks, hammock naps, gluten-free cheese rolls and endless healthful tropical eats.
When we returned in January, I had all my ducks in a row to write up an epic travel guide on the best restaurants, hotels and things to do in Rio de Janeiro, where we spent the first leg of our trip. But then a rare lightening bolt of foresight hit me, and I decided to hold off until the Olympics were almost upon us. And here we are!
If you’re braving the madness that’s likely to envelop the already feisty and fun city of Rio during this summer’s games, well then my friend, you will be even more in need of some insider advice for eats and escapes.
Before heading to Brazil, I solicited a long lists of must-eats from friends of friends who were either from the city, or had spend years living there. And even though we spent four nights in Rio, there are still many restaurants and sites that are top of my list for next time. I’ve written up my highlights, along with some of those spots that eluded us. Reliving them all just makes me want to go back immediately.
If you’re planning a trip for the summer months (during the holiday season), I recommend beginning that process as soon as possible, since many hotels book up a few months in advance. To give you a sense, we bought our flights and began plotting the itinerary (which took us from Rio to Ilha Grande, then Paraty to Sao Paolo) for December in August, and availability was still limited at certain resorts.
Even with a last minute trip though, the beauty of Rio de Janeiro is that there are so many spectacular (free!) sites right inside the city that will give you a taste of the country’s natural beauty, and make room for a few more plates of churrasco later that evening.
I’ve included all the culinary gems that you must cross off your list before you leave, as well as a suggested itinerary for packing them all into one three day trip.
Brazilian cuisine is as close to healthy hedonism paradise as you can get. The local dishes are chock full of tropical fruit from the Amazon, and studded with gluten-free starchy sides like cassava root and tapioca flour. While the nights of partying are long, it’s also a culture that very much values physical activity and detox, usually by way of freshly squeezed juices, acai bowls, and agua de coco straight from the coconut.
Hearts of palm: This tender vegetable from the inner core of certain types of palm trees is highly perishable, hence why you can only get it canned in the States. But in many regions of Brazil, which count palm trees among their native harvests, you can find fresh hearts on the menu. Make sure to order Palmito Fresco Asado for a huge platter of the shoots grilled to order.
Açaí : Cups of these purple super fruit slushies are Brazil’s national beach treat. You can find them at any of the posto stalls that line Rio’s numerous beaches, or various hand carts around town – the healthful counterpart to our Eastern seaboard’s Italian ice stands. Açaí is served alongside a small cup of nutty granola that you can sprinkle on the top for a little crunch. You can get a great one at Bibi Sucos.
Caiparinha: Açaí bowls during the day slowly transition to caiparinhas at night. The cocktail’s base is cachaca, a clear spirit made from sugarcane, which has been one of the country’s main exports since the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century. You can get any number of flavored caiparinhas, but purists like myself enjoy the traditional version using very good quality cachaca, cane sugar, and plenty of muddled limes. Drink slowly, as these will destroy you.
Pao de Queijo: I ate so many of these gluten-free Brazilian cheese bread puffs that I feared I would turn into one by the end of my trip. They are made from sour tapioca starch and are a mainstay on most hotel breakfast buffets. Eat them warm on their own, or slather on a little passionfruit or guava preserves for the ultimate sweet and savory bite. Warning: if you take a look at my recipe here, you will realize that while delicious and gluten-free, these little paos are not exactly healthy. But well worth adding to the vacation dietary cheat sheet.
Moqueca: This coconut seafood stew is on the lighter side, compared to Brazil’s national meat treasures (see below). It’s made with tomatoes, garlic and palm oil, which adds to the amber color, and usually served alongside pirao, which is a thick gravy made from combining the moqueca broth and some yuca flour.
Farofa: Take advantage of this delicious gluten-free side dish made by toasting coarsely ground cassava flour with garlic and oil. It’s often served alongside moqueca and feijoada. I’ve missed this dish dearly since returning to the States.
Feijoada: One of the many national dishes that originated from slave culture, this pork and bean stew is not just a meal, it’s a half-day event. Rio has many restaurants that are entirely dedicated to feijoada (we ended up waiting until Sao Paolo and going to Bolinha). Others will put it on their menu on Saturday afternoon so that you have plenty of time for a nap afterwards. We were offered the option of how many cuts of pork were included in our stew—one version had 10! Even with the less intense option, we only made it through 1/3 of the pot. Carve out a few hours for this lunch so that you can slowly work your way through it.
Churrasco: Steakhouse culture is huge in Brazil, and the restaurants offer up the ultimate all-you-can eat experience with various trolleys of meats arriving at your table, along with endless sides and salad. Another occasion where it pays to pace yourself.
Pasteis: These flakey savory pastries are Brazil’s answer to the empanada. You can buy them on the street, but they’re equally valued at various lunch venues. Just note that they are one of the few bites that are not gluten-free, probably since they’re also a mainstay in Portuguese cuisine.
Coconut water: The birthplace of coconut water culture, Brazil does agua de coco the right way: straight from the big green coconut. You’ll find these at every restaurant and street stall macheted to order.
Sushi: Yes, sushi. I know that’s not what you expected to find on this list, but believe it or not, Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan. Because of this, and thanks to the coastal cities’ excellent seafood, you’ll find many traditional sushi restaurants around Rio.
Bring your street smarts. Despite the influx of tourism, Rio is still a dangerous place. Thanks to many strategic political revitalization projects, the slums (favelas) are no longer the pockets of drugs and violence that they used to be (circa the filming of City of God). Now, some of the bigger ones even offer tours (see below). But the city, in its growing pains, still suffers from smaller bouts of crime, even in more populated tourist areas. We walked almost everywhere, even at night, but did so with purpose, moderate sobriety, a small closed purse, and the majority of our valuables back home in the hotel safe.
Don’t leave beach items unattended. Without someone watching, even your flip flops won’t be there when you get back. You’ll be in slightly better hands if you stick to one of the umbrella-ed areas owned by your hotel—another advantage to staying in Ipanema on the water. If you order a beer from a vendor with a tent, you don’t have to pay right away. Opening a tab is the norm for locals and saves you from letting everyone see where you keep your cash.
Plan to dine on European time. Thanks to all the vibrant nightlife in Rio, most of its tourists and residents eat on a slightly later schedule. Expect for the lunch spots by the beach to be crowded and hopping until 4pm. Restaurants you’ll want to book in advance, especially if you’re looking to eat around 9pm or 10pm—the ideal time to allow for a pre-sunset siesta.
Avoid the tourist rush on weekends. We skipped many of the city’s most acclaimed tourist attractions for one simple reason: the crowds. If you want to see Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf on a weekend, plan to arrive first thing in the morning when it opens and still expect to wait. Since both of these sites are mainly notable for the city views, we opted for a less touristy excursion that offered up equally impressive panoramas without any of the lines (see Dois Irmaos below).
Wear your walking shoes. Rio is a sprawling city, but there are a few areas that are perfect for visiting by foot. Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon border each other on the water, and it’s a great stroll between them, especially on Sunday when the main beach highway is closed to vehicles. Santa Teresa and Lapa are a good coupling for another day.
Bring a sense of adventure. Despite all the wonderful cultural events, one of the things that most sets Rio apart from other urban destinations is the sense of outdoor adventure. Besides the parks, gardens and beaches, you’ll also find plenty of hikes within the city that will make you feel like you’re a world away from fancy restaurants and hotel rooftop bars.
Leblon,: One of the most traditional Baixos on Rua Dias Ferreira, at the end of Rua Ataulfo de Paiva next to Ipanema. Though there’s a large section of beach front, try to stick to swimming on the Ipanema side between Posto 9 and 12. Leblon has a sewer canal that runs right through it. At night, hit up both the posh and traditional restaurants that line the interior blocks of this neighborhood
Ipanema-Copacabana (Zona Sul): Just up the street from Leblon, this 4 mile stretch of beachfront is where the majority of hotels reside. Ipanema is less of a circus and slightly safer than the promenade of Copacabana, which is the beach equivalent of Time Square. If you’re not splurging on the Copacabana Palace Hotel, Ipanema is the best location to stay for eating out, enjoying rooftop cocktails, and relaxing by the water.
Lapa (Centro): The best place to see real Brazilian culture and experience some more traditional nightlife. Clube des Democraticos is a samba house that’s been there forever and always has live bands. Carioca da gema was another recommendation for dancing and live music. It’s about 40 minutes, depending on traffic from Ipanema, so plan your trip according to your priorities. We decided to visit this area, along with Santa Teresa, during the day so missed a lot of the street drinking and dancing.
Santa Teresa: Right next to Lapa, this area is known for its hilltop residences, artist scene, and small chapels. There are a few nice hotels, but if staying elsewhere, it’s worth a trip for Escadaria Selarón, the colorful ceramic steps that connect both the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods, plus a treehouse meal at Aprazivel.
Baixo Gávea, at Praça Santos Dumont. This was advertised to me as a street corner where cariocas stand on the street, drink beer, and look at each other: basically one big high school party. We didn’t make it to this area, unfortunately, but were told to arrive early if you want a table at either of the popular restaurants: Braseiro or Hipodromo.
As the city heats up, you may find some fabulous (and affordable) rental properties on AirBNB. If you’re traveling with a group, this might be the way to go.
Sol Ipanema ($$): A slightly more moderately priced option right on the main strip in Ipanema. Friends have recommended it as a solid place to stay with great views from the roof.
**Caesar Park Ipanema by Sofitel ($$$): We had a great experience staying at this Ipanema outpost of the Sofitel chain. The rooftop pool area was small, but provided amazing views of the beach strip and twin peaks that hover above Leblon. The scene was a mix of families and couples, with Euro vibes. Try to stay a few floors below the rooftop to avoid any noise from the DJ sets that pick up at night.
Santa Teresa Hotel by Sofitel ($$$): If you’re taking an extended trip, it might be worth spending a few nights in different area of town. And if you do, this is the perfect place. This boutique hotel has a great spa and bar that looks out over the city. A great place to watch the sunset, even if you’re not staying overnight.
Fasano Ipanema ($$$$): This is the hottest hotel in Rio at the moment, thanks to the trendy bar. Hotel guests get free access, though it comes with a big price tag to stay there.
Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel ($$$$): The oldest and most famous hotel in Rio, the Palace is worth the splurge for the elegant interior pool, lavish brunch spreads, and sense of old Hollywood glamour.
Rio has no shortage of upscale restaurants. We opted for a mix of traditional and more creative cuisines, and spent our lunch hours enjoying some of the fresh health-forward flavors of Brazil.
Definitely block off one night of your stay to experience an authentic Brazilian steakhouse. The most famous is Fogo do Chao, which now has outposts all over the world. Porcao also got good reviews among local friends. Carretao (in Ipanema) is slightly more affordable for a similar experience. We went with the less upscale, more old school spot Churasccaria Palace (around the corner from Copacabana Palace Hotel) and it did not disappoint. Ask to sit in the back where there’s a more cozy, romantic ambiance and fewer families. It’s quite possibly the default area for foreigners as there were a few couples around us from Canada and the States. Make sure to try the picanha, rump steak (very traditional), and top sirloin (my favorite). Also, buy a few large bottles of water for your hotel room afterwards, as you’ll be feeling those salt-induced meat sweats all night long. (Worth it!)
Felice: A cute little spot right on the border of Ipanema and Copacabana beach. We sat outside on the patio. I had the seared steak salad which was served on a beautiful bed of little gem lettuces. There’s also gelato for dessert.
Via Sette: This chic Ipanema cafe could easily be found near Venice Beach in Los Angeles. But the healthy menu is definitively Brazilian. I had a black quinoa salad with organic grilled chicken, and we shared some garlicky mushrooms on the side.
Pergula: Overlooking the Copacabana Palace pool, this restaurant within the hotel serves up the city’s most legendary brunch. Make reservations far in advance, as we were turned away at the door when we tried to make our pilgrimage here.
**Aprazivel: This was one of the first (and favorite) meals of our trip. Set in a treehouse, Aprazivel offers traditional Brazilian fare in one of the most picturesque settings in the city. The tables are strategically placed so that you can enjoy the view from the hills of Santa Teresa. Book a reservation for mid-afternoon and enjoy a few caipirinhas before sunset, followed by a walk down the colorful steps of Escadaria Selarón (best to do this downhill afterwards, unless you’re really in the market to work up an appetite for lunch!). The moqueca and grilled octopus were top notch, as was the coconut ice cream and pao de queijo appetizer. But the star of the show is the grilled fresh hearts of palm carved up table side and served with pesto sauce.
Espírito Santa: Another great little Amazonian restaurant in Santa Teresa that was recommended to us. If you can’t get into Aprazivel, this can be your backup.
**Zuka: We had one of our best meals at this small, modern restaurant in Leblon. There’s an excellent wine list, and wonderfully creative Brazilian dishes from the sea and land. We started with the ceviche, followed by an outstanding squid and saffron risotto, and fresh fish in a banana leaf. Sit at the chef’s counter for a more lively experience, or in back for a quiet romantic one. Additional note: bring a sweater if you tend to get cold in air-conditioning.
Satyricon: This upscale Italian seafood spot in Ipanema will make you feel like you’ve transplanted into a posh restaurant in St Tropez or the Amalfi coast. We chose this spot as a special treat on our last night in Rio, and a clean counterpoint to the meaty extravagance of the previous night’s churrascaria experience. The menu is full of crudos, shellfish platters, and seafood pastas, all of which were served simply and elegantly. While it was amazing people watching, with plenty of plastic surgery and third wives feasting on sashimi, I’d much rather save my money for a meal that’s more inspired like Zuka. The seafood risotto in particular was very disappointing, with Parmesan that overpowered the flavor of all those expensive mollusks within. There’s an Italian grandmother somewhere shaking her head in disgust.
Sushi Leblon: We never thought we’d find ourselves seeking out sushi in Rio, but after a few local friends recommended this restaurant (across the street from Zuka in Leblon), we decided to give it a try. The miso soup was delicious and the fish fresh, but probably not worth a visit if you’re used to the sushi quality in New York or Los Angeles. Still, if you want a break from the other cuisines on offer, I thought I would mention this as an option. There’s often a line, so prepare to grab a cocktail at Jobi around the corner, or the restaurant bar across the street while you wait.
Guimas: A traditional Brazilian restaurant in Leblon that’s great for a casual authentic meal. I wish we had swapped our night at Satyricon or Sushi Leblon for something more unpretentious and less trendy like this spot.
Jobi: Around the corner from some of the Leblon dinner spots mentioned above, Jobi is a great place to grab a post-beach or pre-dinner drink. It’s a young happy hour crowd were people go for Chopas and typical Brazilian bites–a fun place to feel like a local. Go around 5ish if you don’t want to stand outside on the street corner, which isn’t bad either.
Fasano: If you want a scene, this is it. The hottest bar in Rio right now. We never made it here, and I’m not that upset about it.
Santa Teresa Hotel: The Pool Lounge at sunset is a great place to have a cocktail and take in the view. If you go to lunch in Santa Teresa on the later side, reward yourself after a long walk up the steps with an evening drink here.
WHAT TO DO IN BETWEEN MEALS
There’s a lot of indulgent eating to be had in Rio, but luckily for every slab of churrasco, there’s an active adventure at your fingertips to work it off. As I mentioned above, we skipped a lot of the usual suspects of the tourist trade in order to maximize our time in Rio and not spend the majority of it waiting on line. There are so many gorgeous scenes, if you pass up Christo and Sugarloaf, as we did, I promise you won’t be disappointed if you do any of the following instead.
**Climb Dois Irmaos: These twin peaks that sit at the foot of Lebon-Ipanema beach offer amazing panorama views of the city. You can even get a good glimpse of Christo on the mountain across the way! It’s a fairly steep hike, but only takes an hour to summit. We saw some ambitious locals doing it in flip flops, but I would recommend sneakers with some grip. To get to the trailhead, you have to go to the top of the Vidigal favela. We elected to take the more terrifying route up by hitching a ride with one of the local motos at the foot of the hill. Regular taxis are not allowed in the slums, as the roads are too narrow and windy. There are also some mini vans that will take you if you want a less harrowing experience. But we thought it was a fun part of the adventure, after we concluded that neither of us had gotten head lice from the helmet afterward. This post has all the information you’ll need for the hike, including how to get there. It was one of the highlights of our time in Rio.
Praca Maua: If you’re an art lover, you might want to consider a half-day excursion to this square that houses several museums. There are good restaurants within them for lunch. It’s a bit far by cab, so we ended up opting for outdoor activities.
Hang Gliding: Though we were too wussy to do it, we watched the hang gliders landing on Sao Conrado beach and it looked pretty amazing. A local friend said to go to Pedra Bonita at the end of the beach and ask for “Mosequito”- a short, tan loud funny man.
Jardin Botanico + Parque Lage: The latter is where snoop dogg shot his video “beautiful!” If you have time to walk around the grounds you’ll see monkeys and beautiful wild birds. Jardim Botanico is right next door, making it a perfect twosome for more low key outdoor fun.
Tijuca National Park: For a longer hike than Dois Irmaos, this park includes Rio’s highest peak and plenty of less strenuous walks to waterfalls. If we had another day in the city, we would have gone for a day trip there.
Samba Classes: I’m very sad we didn’t make it to Lapa at night to try my limited coordination at Samba. If you want to take a class, Carlinhos de Jesus is apparently the best. You can sign up for couples classes or a private. It’s casual fun, and they have a tiny bar inside the dance school to help improve your skills.
**Escadaria Selarón: Another highlight of our trip to Rio, this area between Santa Teresa and Lapa is full of artistic vibrancy. In addition to the ceramic steps, there’s a host of interesting graffiti on the neighboring buildings that give you a really good sense of the city’s flavor.
Beaches (Praia): Some of the most beautiful beaches are further afield than the downtown mecca of Copacabana and Ipanema. Expect to take a car trip of 30 to 45 minutes to Praia do Pepe or Prainha, where the beautiful people of Rio’s fancy suburbs (Barra) go to relax in more pristine waters and dine at some of the cafes along the shore.
Favela Tour: For a little taste of Brazil’s urban history, the largest “pacified” favela, Rocinha, offers half day tours. Had we not gotten a little glimpse of favela life through our trip to Dois Irmaos, this might have been an interesting activity to take on. The picture above of densely packed homes plunging into the side of the mountain is a view of Rocinha from halfway up the trail to Dois Irmaos.
Day 1: Eating and Beaching
>Assuming you’re coming from the US, you’ll arrive early morning in Rio and likely be in need of an easy day.
>Check-in to your hotel in Ipanema (recommended home base). Have an early light lunch at Felice or Via Sette.
>Head to the beach for an afternoon of relaxing in the sand.
>Siesta and shower, then spend the evening exploring Leblon.
>Grab an early evening beer or caipirinha at Gobi, followed by a more formal dinner at Zuka. Walk back to Ipanema along the beach to work off your meal.
Day 2: Jardin Botanica, Santa Teresa, and Lapa
>Start your day by exploring Jardin Botanico and/or Parque Lage.
>Book a late lunch at Aprazivel (3pm). After lunch, stroll down the steps of Santa Teresa and marvel at the ceramic stairs. Continue your walk into Lapa.
>Either stick around for sunset, and grab a drink at Santa Teresa Hotel Pool Lounge, or head back to your hotel to siesta.
>Late dinner at a Churrascaria (we went to Palace) – you’ll need plenty of room saved up for this meal!
If you’re not in a food coma, and in the mood for posh people watching, continue on to the Fasana Hotel for a nightcap.
Day 3: Dois Irmaos
>If you’re there on a Sunday, rise early for a luxurious brunch at the Copacabana Palace Hotel.
>Take a taxi or bus to Vidigal, the favela (slum) located at the foot of Dois Irmaos. Hire a moto or minivan to take you to the top where the trail starts. Enjoy the sites at the top of the mountain, and walk back to the bottom of the favela so you can get a feel for the neighborhood on foot.
>Grab a mid-day Acai bowl from a street stand or posto to cool you down afterwards.
>Depending on your departure, get your things together to head out mid-day. Alternatively, add on another outdoor adventure: hang gliding on nearby Paia Sao Conrado. Or take a car further down the coast to one of the less touristy beaches.
>If you have another night at your disposal, end things on a high note with a little Samba lesson.
>Lunching on the hearts of palm at Aprazivel, followed by the steps of Santa Teresa
>The view at the top of Dois Irmaos
>Dinner at Zuka
Stay tuned for more tips from the rest of our Brazilian adventure in Paraty, and some tasty eats you can make at home just in time for the Olympics!