Rio de Janeiro
Beautiful and glamorous beaches are a huge attraction in Rio de Janeiro, and are part of the daily social and recreation fabric of all Cariocas. The two most famous -- Copacabana and Ipanema -- are easily accessible and ideal for day-trippers who want to plunge headlong into this most democratic of activities (look for raucous kids from the favelas, or slums, sitting right next to wealthy, posing locals and hordes of hip gay men from the U.S. and Europe).
Copacabana, a long two-mile stretch, is lined with high-rise hotels and cafes, and attracts more tourists than locals. The mile-long beach at Ipanema, south of Copacabana, is more about "the scene" (the tighter the body, squeezed into the smaller the swimsuit, the better). But everyone, no matter where they come from or what they look like, feels welcome at Rio's beaches. To better take in the remarkable beauty of the water and beaches (and hone your people-watching skills!), rent bikes and rollerblades and just hang loose as the locals do.
Downtown, there are numerous gorgeous churches dating back to the 17th century. Among those worth seeing is Convento do Santo Antonio (Largo da Carioca, 5), which dates back to 1615; don't miss its colonial-era artifacts. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelaria (Praca Pio X) represents Brazil's 18th century. At the Mosteiro de Sao Bento (Rua Dom Gerardo, 32), the highlight among many is its intricately wood-carved altar. For those with more contemporary tastes, check out the daring and modern Catedral de Sao Sebastiao do Rio de Janeiro (Av. Republica do Chile, 245), which was built in the early 1960's.
Art museum aficionados should head to Rio's Flamengo neighborhood. Main attractions there include the Museu de Arte Moderna (Av. Infante Dom Henrique, 85) to see a huge collection of contemporary works. The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, otherwise known as the National Museum of Fine Arts (Av. Rio Branco, 199), features Brazil's best artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
And for a fun stop, check out the Museu Carmen Miranda (Av. Rui Barbosa, 560), which memorializes Brazil's most famous bombshell -- not to mention star in the arts of samba, singing, dancing and acting. Another must-see stop on the cultural radar is the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporarea de Niteroi (Mirante de Boa Viagem, Niteroi), a contemporary art museum where cutting-edge masterworks meet a striking "spaceship" building with unparalleled views of the city.
Corcovado: The Art Deco-style statue of Christ the Redeemer is Rio's most famous and enduring symbol, perched atop the 2,300-foot hill of Corcovado. Spectacular views of mountains, bays and beaches await those who take the easy funicular ride; the trains leave Cosme Velho station every 20 minutes.
Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Acugar): The views from the top of this imposing natural wonder amply demonstrate why no other city in the world can compete with Rio's scenic beauty and setting -- a magnificent harbor and impossibly beautiful beaches are nudged tight against dramatic Tijuca National Park, the largest urban expanse of tropical forest and mountains on the planet. To get to Sugarloaf, take a taxi to the cable car station at the base.
The Jardim Botanico (Rua Jardim Botanico, 1008) is a lovely, peaceful respite from always-busy Rio. It's spread out over 340 acres, and its biggest attraction is Avenue of the Palms, part of the world's largest collection relating to the Amazon.
The Burle Marx House (Estrada da Barra de Guaratiba, 2019) is a large, expansive estate that has morphed into an art gallery and museum honoring famed Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. The highlight is the elegant landscaping and plants that surround the house.
Take in a "futebol" (soccer) match at Estadio do Maracana, Rio's gargantuan stadium (the largest in South America), which holds nearly 95,000 passionate fans.
Plunge headfirst into the celebration (and madness) of Rio's world-famous Carnival celebration by scheduling your trip around this unique and joyous party. A four-day event, it begins on a Saturday and ends on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday); the date changes every year.
Rio Scenarium (Rua do Lavradio, 36) is a large nightclub and restaurant with eclectic decor that's part fun house, part antique store. A rotating selection of local groups plays samba and forro, the accordion music of Brazil's northeast, and everyone eventually gets up to dance the night away.
Take an in-depth tour of Rio's favelas (translated as "shantytowns" but actually much more lively and diverse than the name implies). Marcelo Armstrong is a local insider who helps visitors tour the favelas safely and offers unique insights into the daily lives of the majority of Rio residents. (See FavelaTour.com.br for details.)