A view of Ipanema (in the distance) from Pão de Açúcar. All photos: © tablehopper.com.
Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico.
The glorious beach at Ipanema.
Açaí and acerola at Polis Sucos.
My fabulous caipirinha at Barraca do Joel.
The Copacabana promenade.
Awesome Rio street art.
The late-night crowd celebrating at Jobi.
Coxinha de frango at Bar Bracarense.
The counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo.
The scene at Bip Bip (with the crotchety owner, Alfredo, to the right).
The Copacabana Palace.
The Sunday buffet at the Copacabana Palace.
The over-the-top buffet at Porcão Rio.
The view of Pão de Açúcar at Porcão Rio.
One of the many charming meat pushers at Porcão Rio.
When I was invited to Brazil to learn about Brazilian wine in the Serra Gaúcha region, you can bet one of the first things that went through my head was: trip extension! With some complicated ticket maneuvering and finagling, I was able to get myself to Rio de Janeiro for a week, a dream destination of mine (heck, of many!).
I tracked down an affordable apartment in Ipanema on Airbnb, just a 10-minute walk from the beach (yeah, off-season!). This was going to be one of my bigger solo trip adventures, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was a bit apprehensive to be arriving in Rio late on a Saturday night. After me and my sister’s crazy experience getting a cab in the Mumbai airport at 3am, I guess I was ready for anything. I took it as a good omen that my cabbie was the most charming, kind man, who wasn’t out to fleece me—he just wanted to make sure I could see Cristo Redentor, lit up in the night sky and peeking through the clouds.
In fact, I didn’t have a single problem with any of the cabdrivers I had for the entire week in Rio. A couple were flummoxed by my odd attempt at Portuguese that leaned heavily on a combination of Italian and Spanish words, but most wanted to find out where I was from, practice their English, and get me to where I was going (and of course were stoked with my San Franciscan tipping practices).
A big win for solo (female) travelers doing Airbnb in Rio is that most residential buildings have doormen who will buzz you in and keep a close eye on things. I always felt safe where I was staying. After checking in with my Airbnb host, I ditched my bag and went out for my first Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico in Leblon. Considering how many Brazilian pizzas I have ordered from Mozzarella di Bufala here in SF over the years, it was time to have one in its native country, and my hard-boiled egg, black olive, onion, and ham-topped pizza portuguesa (R$40) did not disappoint (even better with a few shakes of piri piri sauce). I sat outside at a table on the terrace, drinking some pink bubs, watching the pretty crowd—my week in Rio was officially on.
I was visiting in July, which is their winter, and the temps were the picture of pleasant: in the high 70s/low 80s during the day, and only slightly humid. Although, bummer, most of the days were cloudy, and I caught some rain too. My sister gave me some great advice, since she stayed in Rio once during the same period. She said if it was a clear day, to cancel your plans and head to the beach, because there’s no guarantee about having sunny beach days in the winter. She’s a fellow beach and sun hound, so it was good advice. Or save your sunny days to visit Cristo Redentor or Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)—you’ll want a clear view for those.
Before heading to the praia (beach), I recommend stopping at one of the many sucos bars for fresh juices and açaí bowls (order it “na tigela” to get it in a bowl—I loved mine with granola, guaraná, and banana). One place that was excellent was Polis Sucos—I was all over the acerola, a sour fruit with a nutty amount of vitamin C (I was fighting a cold on my last few days, and I’m convinced that thing saved me). If you’re in Leblon, other places that are recommended are Bibi Sucos and BB Lanches (a word that always cracked me up—it means “snacks”). It’s fun to hang out at the open counter (I looooved the alfresco life in Rio), sipping your juice and taking in the scene. Italians have caffès, Cariocas have sucos bars.
A friend recommended suco de abacaxi com hortela (pineapple juice with mint)—what an elixir. I also liked being able to say “maracuja” (passion fruit) whenever possible (it’s also delicious in a caipirinha). I never made it to this place in Flamengo, which serves fresh açaí, but I sure wanted to. You can also get fresh coconut juice at the many stands for just a few reais on the promenade by the beach.
The beach culture is amazing—lined up along the beach are barracas, beach stands that people are very loyal to. They will rent you a chair, an umbrella, and basically bring you cocktails and cold beers all day—some even serve good food too. I enjoyed my steak sandwich from Barraca do Uruguay (#80), but it was Barraca do Joel (#79) that rocked my world on another afternoon—I noticed a guy was shaking up drinks like a pro, and I’ll be damned, I had some of the best caipirinhas of the trip while I lazed there in my beach chair. (Yes, plural.)
A few Rio-savvy friends and readers gave me some great tips about which part of the beach to go to. There are a series of postos that run along the beach, 12 in all (you’ll find bathrooms and changing rooms at each posto). I was told I’d want to park myself between postos 8 and 9, which would be gay/mixed, with “cool kids and weed smokers.” All good by me. There are also some rainbow flags along that stretch, but I saw fabulous gays mixed in all along the beach, not just in a designated area (although the beach was definitely gay-dense at the end of my street, Rua Farme de Amoedo). Ipanema is full of gays, so I felt like I was back in SF with all my boys—except everyone was tan and wearing tight shorts. As you go toward postos 10 and 11 in Leblon, you’ll find more rich, famous, and fashiony folks on the beach.
Sure, it’s intimidating to show up on a Rio beach all pasty and overweight, but you know what? These people don’t know you. You will probably never, ever see them again. And they really don’t care. So enjoy yourself. That was my attitude at least. Sure, there are hardbodies and painfully gorgeous women, but not everyone is beach Adonis/Aphrodite material—I saw allll types. Although yes, I did see some really amazing specimens of humanity. The Cariocas are some mighty fine people. Anyway, don’t stress out about it and have fun.
There is so much action—beaches in Mexico have nothing on Ipanema. There is a constant swirl of men selling food and drinks and snacks and bathing suits and hats. You just have to barely wave and they’ll come right over. My heart broke for some of them trudging through the sand, schlepping the heavier stuff.
The beach is a total circus. I can only imagine what it’s like in peak season. There’s the incessant yelling of “BISCOITO GLOBO!” (they are sweet or salty doughnut-shaped biscuits, a classic beach treat), and I was always happy to espy the guys dressed in white hawking “pão árabe pão árabe pão árabe!” (an awesome stuffed pita-like bread)—I also enjoyed the savory empadas, and the Matte Leão (iced tea) guys will refresh you. All without ever leaving your chair. Magic!
On my first visit, I didn’t bring anything of real value to the beach (besides my phone). Left my precious camera and all my credit cards in the apartment, and when I wanted to walk on the beach or go in the water, I sussed out some folks nearby and asked if they would watch my bag (and brought it over to them). People are so nice, so don’t worry, you’re not a bother. There is theft that can happen on the beach, but just pay attention to what’s going on around you.
The sand is so fine, and fluffy, and white. (You’ll track it everywhere.) The water is a little rowdy, so don’t just hop in—see where other folks are swimming. And you don’t want to miss a sunset on the beach (go to Arpoador for some of the best). The peachy-pink colors and the water and the dramatic backdrop of the mountains combine to make it such a breathtaking sight; one evening everyone around me made it so much more amazing: they applauded. I get goose bumps even writing about it, it was such a sweet, appreciative moment.
Hard-core beach lovers will want to consider trekking out of town to Prainha, which is supposedly beyond gorgeous (and not tooooo far, it’s about an hour south)—if you do go there, you have to eat at Restaurante Bira, famous for its moqueca (the owner is a fisherman), shrimp pasteis, and view (a friend warned that they don’t usually stay open past early afternoon, so try to arrive early).
I did a ton of walking in Rio. You’ll want to walk around a bunch—it was all so lush and tropical, trees dripping with vines, and there’s a fading modern glamour to a lot of the buildings. I went bonkers for the patterned, tiled pavement (calçada portuguesa) everywhere—seeing the iconic geometric wave pattern on the Copacabana promenade (designed by Roberto Burle Marx) for the first time brought a huge smile to my face. But those little tiles are murder when it’s raining, and are really easy to catch and trip on (and especially tough if you’re in heels), so tread carefully.
You’ll also see some of the best street art and graffiti, it’s everywhere. There were a few times I felt a little sketched out, but I mostly felt pretty safe. I always kept my camera and phone stashed away, and took a look around before taking them out of my shoulder bag (I swear by my Basil Racuk Monterey bag). Sometimes, I missed a shot I wanted, but that’s okay.
I was told that the food in Rio wasn’t going to blow my mind, and I didn’t have the budget to hit up a bunch of awesome (but spendy) places like Roberta Sudbrack or CT Boucherie (from chef Claude Troisgros). But I found so many spots that I really enjoyed, namely all the botecos/botequims that reminded me of Spanish tapas bars, with people hanging out, drinking chopps (which are draft beers—someone thankfully explained to me “chopp” comes from German: “Schopp”), and snacking on petiscos (I was digging all the little bolinhos (croquettes) and savory pasteis (little tarts).
Some favorite botecos were definitely the old-school Jobi (which is where I went after Brazil won the Confederations Cup in 2013 and the city exploded—can you believe I was in Rio for that?), and Bar Bracarense had some of the best bites (loved their coxinha de frango with catupiry cheese and their bolinhos de aipim).
One of my favorite nights was in Copacabana—in between catching a few pickup/live music sessions at the utterly charming Bip Bip (open since 1968!), I walked over to the stand-up counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo (it was like Rio’s version of Swan Oyster Depot). All seafood. Salty servers. Folks around me were tipsy, happy to chat you up while you drink your chopp and eat warm shrimp empadas and octopus salad. Loved this place.
Then it was back to Bip Bip—the well-seasoned owner, Alfredo, who has seen it all is parked out front at his table, with his ledger and change and beer—people walk in to the back of the shoebox space that’s shingled in memorabilia, grab a cold beer from the fridge, and then gesture to Alfredo and he writes it down on his pad of paper. You can stand around with other folks, listen to the sambaistas play as they sit around the table inside (or whatever that night’s genre of music is), and pay up at the end of the night. Pro tip: people don’t clap after a song, they snap their fingers. It was all so groovy.
You really, truly don’t want to miss a visit to the Copacabana Palace. (I know, go ahead and sing it.) This white palace is stately and elegant without being ostentatious—it’s truly so grand. For Sunday brunch, Pérgula Restaurant puts on quite the spread (for R$170, about $75), and if the weather is right, you can sit outside overlooking the chic pool area while servers dressed all in white swarm around tables, clearing plates and continually filling your glass. It’s a perfect place for you to get tipsy on bubbles, flaunt your sunglasses, and do some excellent people watching. It’s faaaaabulous.
I started with a plate of caviar and blini (and was very happy to see their house sparkling wine was Cave Geisse—finally, a Brazilian restaurant honoring their domestic product!) and almost needed to pinch myself. It was one of those moments. (“I’m in Rio de Janeiro. I am having brunch at the Copacabana Palace. It’s balmy and all so beautiful. This is crazy. I can’t believe my life.”).
There was so much seafood, including these unusual mussels with a huge red spot on them served in a vieira sauce, and towers of shrimp, and so many hot dishes too. Extravaganza. Good luck making it to the platters of desserts. They also put on a feijoada Saturday lunch, but it might put you in a serious coma, so be careful.
Another thing you have to do: experience the Brazilian churrascaria. For a culture known for being so healthy and gorgeous, they sure seem to chow down. Like, whoa. I have had many Italian family and holiday meals to prepare me for massive consumption in one sitting, but I still don’t think I have a handle on how to best manage the churrascaria experience. Just show up hungry, that’s for sure.
One morning I went to the top of Sugarloaf, and then had lunch at Porcão Rio, which has a stunning view of Sugarloaf and the bay. The lunchtime extravaganza was R$112 (about $50). There’s a caipirinha station, and then the most insane salad bar spread you’ll ever see in your life. Everything is carefully plated and presented (there’s a hell of a lot of garnish, and I have never seen chives used with such abandon). It’s a bit campy and over the top, but everything is really fresh.
For my first round at the salad bar, I tried a medley of items like a salmon and omelet roulade, and any chance I could get in Brazil, I was serving myself the fresh hearts of palm (obsessed!). I also tried their cold mussel salad, and carpaccio, and noticed a bunch of creamy + fish combos (Brazilians seem to dig those). No, the sushi bar was not going to be getting any action from me—I had to save up room for the meats. Was happy to find a 375ml of Casa Valduga sparkling on the wine list, come to mama.
The staff was incredibly nice and of course being a solo female diner means you get lots of extra attention. It was time for the meats: the roving meat carvers come to your table, proffering all kinds of cuts, from salty sirloin to rib-eye to saucy pork ribs to chicken hearts to linguiça. Beef and cheese, why not? The beef can be really seasoned and a bit chewy, but then suddenly you get a cut of the novilho (veal) and you’re like, ahhhh, damn, that’s really good. It’s a total adventure in food pushing, and you’re never exactly sure which cut they’re putting on your plate. Your table is also loaded with fried aipim (cassava), farofa, fries, and don’t forget the vinegary Brazilian salsa on the table, so good with the meats. I walked out of there feeling as sturdy and stout as Pão de Açúcar.
Part Two will be posted soon! For pictures from the entire trip, you can check out my images of Rio here.