Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

June 13, 2014
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One advantage to dining solo: all the pão de queijo is all yours. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Saturday night feijoada at Garden.

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Picanha and grilled heart of palm at Via Sete.

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The colorful exterior of Via Sete.

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Grilled hearts of palm with pesto at Aprazível.

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The tropical treehouse vibe at Aprazível.

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The beautiful pool deck at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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My calming, beautiful room at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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Fruit extravaganza at the breakfast spread at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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One of the Bahian barracas at the Hippie Fair.

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My favorite dish of the trip: acarajé.

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The gorgeous grounds at Instituto Moreira Salles.

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The modern Museu de Arte Moderna.

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The Museu do Arte Contemporânea in Niterói.

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Parque Lage (and that’s Cristo Redentor perched on top of Corcovado in the back).

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The old world atmosphere at Confeitaria Colombo.

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One of the many interesting buildings in the historic Centro.

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Ascending Pão de Açúcar.

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You’ll see some of the best graffiti and street art all over Rio.

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Boa noite from the Hotel Santa Teresa.

Okay, so we covered the churrasco experience in my last Rio installment, but we still have quite a bit more Rio dining to cover. To be honest, Rio made me really lonely when it was time for dinner; in all my years of traveling solo, I have never felt so solitary at night. The city’s restaurants are not set up for solo diners—good luck finding anything resembling our city’s many counters, bars, and communal tables. One restaurant I went to had a bar, and no one was sitting at it—well, except me. Walking into a restaurant, every time, I’d have to explain “just one”—which at many places would elicit a raised eyebrow for a split second. Cariocas tend to dine out in big groups, or you’ll see lots of couples. Party of one, not so much.

Portions were another frustrating thing: so much of the food is portioned for people to share. I had to walk out of three restaurants (ugh!) when they wouldn’t be able to serve me less than a whole chicken, or an entire pot of moqueca. It would be too wasteful for me to order a huge feast just for myself. And not much fun.

But I was not going to miss indulging in the famed feijoada, which is traditionally served on Saturday afternoon (well, it depends on where you are—I heard other Brazilian cities have different nights). I found a classic place (58 years old and counting) called Garden in between Ipanema and Leblon, with an older and classier crowd. I love how late people eat in Rio. A table of eight, with a median age of 74, were just sitting down to eat at 10pm. I made a little promise to myself that I’m going to return to Rio to live when I’m older—I can start getting tan again and go to the beach every day, wear bright lipstick, and hang out with my friends and eat late. Sign me up.

My solicitous server poured me a huge glass of wine, so big I chuckled to myself (“Mama’s gettin’ heated tonight!”), although I can’t believe how many Cariocas drink Coke Zero with everything, no exaggeration. I was served slowly cooked and garlicky black beans, beef tongue, pig’s ear and tail (my server was very happy to see me eat this), thin slices and little chubs of linguiça, and thin air-dried meat, plus the classic accompaniments of shredded kale, aipim frito (fried yuca), farofa (toasted manioc flour, made from yuca), white rice, and orange supremes. My table was completely covered in bowls and plates. I was an army of one with that dinner. I gave it my best shot, but I needed at least two other people dining with me to make a proper dent.

So yeah, dinner in Rio was not very fun after the fourth night of going out. Although I will admit posting images to Instagram at least made me feel like I was dining with friends in a strange, techy, modern way. Twenty-nine likes for my feijoada pic. Yeah, was it good for you too?

One afternoon while I was doing a little shopping after my beach time, I checked out the cute Gilson Martins shop, where I found some of my favorite souvenirs to bring home (little coin purses with the wave pattern of the pavers of Ipanema, um, yes, I’ll take five). I befriended the way-too-adorable manager of the shop, who used to bartend in Miami, and after a little sassy banter we were fast friends.

Marcelo was a sweetheart and met me a couple of days later to take me to lunch to one of his favorite places in Ipanema, Via Sete. I was so excited to finally have someone to dine with, I know I was beaming. I can see why he’s a regular there: there’s a lovely outdoor terrace, a cute stylish crowd, and probably the best steak I had on the trip, their grilled picanha, Marcelo’s top dish. It was bonkers good. And guess who was thrilled to have grilled hearts of palm again on her last meal in Rio? This girl. Pro tip: go for their combination meal, it’s a good deal (you get two sides—they had really fresh salads). After your lunch, be sure to walk a few blocks over to Gilson Martins and say “Bom dia!” to Marcelo.

I’m also here to report that my party of one status didn’t stop me from having quite a romantic dinner by myself at one of the restaurants most renowned for its beautiful atmosphere in Rio: Aprazível. It’s like a tree house in the open air, perched up in the historic neighborhood in the hills of Santa Teresa; you’ll hear birds chirping over the soft backing track of bossa nova, adding to the sultry tropical vibe. The really, truly breathtaking view of the twinkling city made for some excellent company while I was surrounded by canoodling couples. Truth be told, I also had one of the nicest servers of the entire trip, Marcos, who got a big kick out of my curiosity about each dish, and provided plenty of friendly company.

You’ll notice the dishes are much more northeastern in style, hailing from Minas Gerais and Bahia. I loved their little half-moon pasteles of acarajé (filled with beef), the cheesy gratin of sweet potato puree with air-dried beef, and I was so thrilled to try the freshly grilled hearts of palm, still in the stalk! It was a first for me. It was simply drizzled with some pesto, which I actually scraped off—the taste of the fresh palmito was plenty to savor. The thick and bubbling pot of moquequinha made with dogfish was homey and rustic, and the cheese plate with cheeses from Minas Gerais—with preserved orange rind and fig and dulce de leche—was over the top, and made for quite a finale.

One of my favorite things about Aprazível is their love and dedication to Brazilian wine! Sommelier Paul Medder, a Kiwi, shared some insider stories of the small-production wines he poured, like Vilmar Bettú, a garagiste who is making wine from the peverella grape that was brought over by the Italians when they came to Brazil in 1875 and later, one of the few wineries to still grow it. I tried the 2011 malvasia, which had a bit of wildness to it, but balanced acidity, and became even more fragrant as it opened up. If you want to learn about Brazilian wine, Medder is a great champion. The restaurant even has their own wine (Era dos Ventos), cachaças (aged on premise), and pale ale they make in Niterói; they also have their own CDs—I totally had to buy one so I could re-create the bossa vibe back home. Although where is Marcos with my passion fruit caipirinha?

If you have a chance to spend a day wandering around Santa Teresa, do it. It has a bohemian and less-touristed vibe, with a bunch of cool galleries and cafés, although I was not going to walk around at night by myself (see, Mom, I told you I was careful!). You can easily take a cab to the neighborhood (it’s about a 15-minute drive from Ipanema) or a bus, and you’ll drive past some favelas along the way (you can tour some of Rio’s favelas—it’s a sensitive issue, but ultimately I think it’s important for people to see and understand, just make sure you choose a good tour operator).

You better be wearing some sturdy shoes in Santa Teresa; the cobblestones are tough to walk on. I was there a couple of weeks too early for the annual festival called Arte de Portas Abertas, when artists let people into their studios, and there are a bunch of parties (be sure to check Time Out Rio; it can happen from June-August). There are many unique places to eat and hang out, like Bar do Mineiro, Jasmim Manga Café, “Bar do Gomez”/Armazém São Thiago, Rústico, and Espírito Santa.

Who has two thumbs and is one lucky lady? This girl. I was so damn fortunate to get to stay a night in Santa Teresa at the stunning boutique hotel, the Hotel Santa Teresa, which was originally a coffee plantation that was converted into the oasis of your dreams. You won’t want to leave, which is kind of dangerous because you really should explore the neighborhood. The hotel has beautiful views everywhere: from its rooms, its restaurant, even at the sexy pool (pay a visit to the hotel Bar Dos Descasados, complete with lounging beds where you enjoy your view with your bubbly).

My luxe-rustic room was so peaceful, with a natural-modern look, and a peek out the windows was full of green tree leaves and fronds. It really feels more like you’re hanging out at your fabulously rich Carioca friend’s place in the hills. As if! A girl can dream. The abundant breakfast spread reminded me of some of the more special Turkish breakfasts I experienced, although this one was laden with a Rio rainbow of tropical fruits. Carmen Miranda would have approved. Wonderful hospitality, what a special place. I was sorry to leave the peaceful kingdom when it was time to check out, but my 24 hours there left me feeling so calm and happy.

So, I just realized I am saving the best for last here, the one dish that stood out over everything I ate in Brazil: acarajé! My sister thankfully told me to hunt this street food bite down—it’s actually an Afro-Brazilian dish from Bahia (by way of Nigeria), so you have to search for it a bit in Rio. But every Sunday in Ipanema is the Hippie Fair at the Praça General Osório, which is a street fair selling crafts and tchotchkes (where I did manage to find a beautiful leather bag tucked away in one of the stands). And that’s where you’ll find the Bahian barracas! You can’t miss them—the ladies running these pop-up stands have colorful skirts and their hair up in white scarves and eyelet turbans to match their tops. (I realized I saw another Bahian barraca in town later on—look for the ladies in traditional head scarves.)

Get in line, and order the acarajé, which is a black-eyed pea fritter fried in dendê (palm oil)—it gets slathered with vatapá, a thick, rich, and spicy sauce made from shrimp, coconut milk, bread, cashews (or peanuts), garlic, onion, and more dendê, and then it gets topped with baby fried shrimp. Be sure to request a few shakes of the hot sauce. No, it’s not light, but the deep, layered flavor and textures of this dish will haunt me until I return to Brazil again. It made me want to go to Bahia, stat. Do not miss this experience. You can huddle at the counter or share a rickety table with your fellow diners, it’s a fun scene. Other folks are there for the sweets and the tapioca crêpes made with coconut and condensed milk.

Here are a few sights to see as well. I was there during the winter so I had some rainy days inside, which means yay, museum days!

One of the coolest museums is the Instituto Moreira Salles in Gávea, with an awesome photography collection—I got to see three fantastically curated shows. It was a private residence, and is such a cool tropical-modern building, with gardens designed by Burle Marx. I was ready to move in.

On the day I walked around the Centro area, I spent a rainy afternoon in the Museu de Arte Moderna, which not only was showing some provocative art by Brazilian artists, but it also has beautiful landscaping by Burle Marx in the back.

There was no way I was going to miss seeing the Museu do Arte Contemporânea in Niterói, which looks like a UFO (it was designed by by Oscar Niemeyer). There were a few cool pieces inside, but it’s really the building that steals the show. You take a ferry over, it’s a fun daytime adventure.

The Jardim Botânico is lovely to visit during the week, talk about a lush and serene place (it’s also orchid central). And you have to visit the Parque Lage, with a former mansion (now a visual arts school) that has a dramatic view of Corcovado looming overhead (there’s a café where you can grab a coffee or brunch). There’s also the nearby La Bicyclette (a local fave) or Jojo if you want more to eat, and there’s Yumê for Japanese.

You really should take a stroll through the colonial Centro area, with plazas dating back to the early 1800s (they fill up with people at lunch and after work, like the bright yellow Amarelinho on the Praça Floriano), and you absolutely have to visit the breathtaking Confeitaria Colombo which dates back to 1894. This coffeehouse is the picture of grand, full of rosy marble, stained glass, ornate hand-carved wood, beautiful tiles, and a rather tasty pastel de nata. Just come here, relax, order a coffee or a cocktail (and candies to bring home), and soak the old world ambiance in—I have never seen anything like it. On a much smaller scale is the Casa Cavé, which I took shelter in during a rainstorm (it’s also historically charming, with tile floors). And if you want a bite, head to Casa Paladino (open since 1906!) for a classic, old-school lunch or snack.

Sights on my list for next time:

The Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, a huge estate of the amazing landscape architect.

Cristo Redentor: On a rare cloudless day, I opted to visit the stunning Pão de Açúcar instead of making the trek to Cristo, but I will definitely make my way to the top of Corcovado next time!

A few observations and tips:

Cariocas are some of the most friendly and warm people, and chivalry is alive and well. As a solo female traveler, I always felt so well taken care of.

Riding the buses is quite the adventure. I used Google maps for up-to-the-minute bus timetables on how to get somewhere, because there are so many buses you’ll never figure it out. If you want a bus to stop for you, you have to stick your arm out and wave like a crazy person to hail it, or it’ll never stop, even if you’re at a bus stop. It’s like the buses are in a mad race to somewhere, I don’t know. As soon as you get on, grab hold of something, because you’re about to experience torque like you have never felt it. The drivers will totally floor it, even if you’re an old lady with your groceries and you haven’t sat down yet, and totally lurch you around as they take a corner, and then slam on the brakes. It’s, uh, an adventure! There’s a cashier on board, so don’t worry about having exact fare.

ATMs can be a nightmare. You’ll see a lot of bank lobbies with ATMs, but sometimes they’ll be out of money, and most wouldn’t work with international banks. I learned the hard way that most of them don’t work after 10pm and on Sundays. (Gimme my money!) I had some success with Banco do Brasil, but plan on being frustrated most of the time—you start looking everywhere for those little Cirrus symbols.

Other frustrating things (i.e., you aren’t in California anymore): the amount of plastic used everywhere (like regular silverware wrapped in plastic and your napkin wrapped in plastic too), no comment on the flimsy napkins and toilet paper, and finding 3G on your phone is the picture of sporadic. Fortunately almost every business has Wi-Fi, and they’re usually generous with handing out the password.

Coffee was mostly depressing. They’ll dump chocolate syrup in your cappuccino if you don’t keep an eye out. There are some beautiful espresso machines run by people who don’t know what they’re doing, and the coffee itself was pretty grim. I found one cafe where the “barista” would let me gesture to her how I wanted her to make my espresso (my pantomime of a hard tamp was pretty hilarious—we both shared a good laugh). At least all the coffees come with a little treat on the side, which is a cute tradition. At the end of the trip, a Carioca told me Grão Espresso is pretty decent, and here’s a piece on cafés to try. Oh, and Guerin, a French boulangerie, is supposedly good for coffee.

Other restaurants that were recommended to me or on my list:

Chico & Alaide: an awesome boteco known for their bolinho de bacalhau (salted cod croquette).

Talho Capixaba: a bakery in Leblon that has good empadinhas, sandwiches, and more (supposedly a good spot for breakfast or before the beach).

Amir for Lebanese food.

Cocktails and seafood at the fancy Fasano.

Catch the sunset and have drinks with everyone on the little wall at Bar Urca.

A fantastic resource for places to eat is Culinary Backstreets (they also offer tours!).

To find out weekly clubs and DJ nights, and arty stuff, check out The Rio Times and Time Out Rio.

For pictures from the entire trip, you can check out my images of Rio here.

Boa viagem!

April 18, 2014
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A view of Ipanema (in the distance) from Pão de Açúcar. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico.

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The glorious beach at Ipanema.

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Açaí and acerola at Polis Sucos.

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My fabulous caipirinha at Barraca do Joel.

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Ipanema sunset.

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The Copacabana promenade.

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Awesome Rio street art.

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Street tiles.

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The late-night crowd celebrating at Jobi.

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Coxinha de frango at Bar Bracarense.

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The counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo.

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The scene at Bip Bip (with the crotchety owner, Alfredo, to the right).

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The Copacabana Palace.

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The Sunday buffet at the Copacabana Palace.

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The over-the-top buffet at Porcão Rio.

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The view of Pão de Açúcar at Porcão Rio.

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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.

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