Rio de Janeiro is a land full of vibrancy and colour. Beyond the typical tourist stereotypes of beaches and that iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, the Brazilian city is an enchanting place that won’t fail to amaze and maybe even surprise you.
Plus, August is almost here, which means the 2016 Summer Olympics will soon be upon us. If you’re planning a trip to immerse yourself in the middle of all the action, you’ll wanna know what to do. Take it from a Singaporean who has lived there for the past six years: Rio will offer you the time of your life – you just gotta grab it and go with it.
Behold, the top ten off-the-beaten-track things to do in Rio. To make your experience that much better, we’ve even thrown in a bunch of juicy, local insider information no tourist guide book will reveal. Let’s go!
Get wild in your birthday suit
Ipanema is overrated. Instead, head to the deserted and idyllic Grumari Beach in Western Rio. Pick a square mile of white sand to reign over and relax with rolling green hills behind you and rocky islands on the horizon. Whereas the Cariocas (as people from Rio are called) liken the rough waves of Ipanema to a juice mixer that sucks in and churns unsuspecting tourists, Grumari is inviting and lilting.
For the more adventurous, hang loose in your birthday suit at Praia do Abricó, which is located in the corner where the beach begins. Abricó (which means ‘apricot’ in Portuguese) is mostly quiet, and it’s entirely nude. So… y’know, whatever happens in Rio stays in Rio.
Tickle your taste buds senseless
For a bout of hardcore exotic gastronomy, indulge in a (literally) mouth-numbing Amazonian prawn soup called tacacá. It’s sour and a bit spicy, and it feels like you’re eating tom yum on anesthetic due to the work of a little-known South American shrub called jambu (not related to the fruit tree of the same name here).
Despite its innocuous, plant-next-door appearance, the jambu will anesthetise the hell out of your taste buds. Within seconds, your tongue begins to tingle, and then it’s goodbye sensations, hello numbness. Take the tacacá challenge only if you’ve got a high spice tolerance level at Arataca in Copacabana or Tacacá do Norte in Flamengo.
Get your cachaça on
Go on a cachaça (Brazilian rum distilled from sugarcane juice) tasting spree at Casa da Cachaça in Lapa, where Cariocas invariably flock to for dusk-to-dawn revelry. One must-try is the batida de gengibre (ginger cachaça), their (in)famous house brew. If you have a sweet tooth, try the gabriela, a cachaça brewed with cinnamon and cloves.
The daring ones can attempt to point to one of the dusty, unlabelled cachaça bottles, in which preserved snakes are suspended. The barman will be happy to indulge your exotica desires, just as you indulge his by being one of the few Singaporeans to try them.
Fay-Joe-Ah-Da: You don’t need to say it, just eat it
No trip to Rio is complete without trying its gastronomic object of affection: Feijoada carioca. Made with pork and beef stewed in soupy black beans and served with rice, kale, orange slices and a toasted cassava flour mixture called farofa, this dish is a delectable combination of fatty and flavoursome extremities — pig’s ear, feet and tail — that have come to be the darling of Carioca cuisine. Be warned: There are plenty of low-grade feijoada out there, but you can feast on the good stuff at Bar do Mineiro in Santa Teresa or Casa da Feijoada in Ipanema. They’re tried and tested, and definitely delicious.
Shop at the super fly flea market
Cariocas are kiasu – they can probably go head-to-head with Singaporeans when it comes to bargain hunting – and they like to shop at Praça Quinze de Novembro’s biggest flea market. Every Saturday, from dawn until 2pm, you can hunt for anything antique or vintage, as well as apparel by local designers. You’ll also chance upon the occasional 1950s modernist furniture, which antique dealers resell for 100 times the price at international auctions.
This is the people’s counterpoint to the extremely overpriced and touristy Feira Hippie in Ipanema, and it’s full of history. Many surrounding buildings date back to the time when Rio was the capital of the Portuguese Empire, including ones like Paço Imperial (Imperial Palace), Arco dos Teles (Teles Arches) and several ancient churches.
Get your samba groove on
Of course, the heart of Rio beats to the rhythm of its beloved samba. The best place for that is Pedra do Sal. Located at the foot of the historic Morro da Conceição, this is the birthplace for urban samba in Rio.
Every Monday night, some of the most talented samba bands in the city come out to play, and the place crackles with contagious energy. Head there in the afternoon to discover the charming Morro da Conceição and descend the steps to Pedra do Sal by nightfall.
Keep calm and eat açai in Santa Teresa
Take the newly-refurbished bonde (Rio’s traditional yellow tram) from the centre of the city across the Arcos da Lapa (an 18th century aqueduct) all the way up to Santa Teresa. Stroll down the cobblestone streets of this historic bohemian neighbourhood, where sumptuous colonial mansions and modernist apartment blocks cling precariously to the hillsides, vying for the best views of the city.
Grab a pint at the Armazem São Thiago (known to locals as Bar do Gomez), or eat pão de queijo (cheese bread) and açai (that popular purple superfood) at Natural.
Be the King or Queen of the hill — with the best views of Rio
If you like nature treks, kick-ass views and discovering the favela where Kanye West owns a house, then head to Vidigal. It’s the favela that everyone can see from Ipanema and Leblon beaches, facing the sea at the foothills of the two canoodling mountains called Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers). Take a moto-taxi to the top of Vidigal where the trail begins. From there, it’s a 40-minute trek up the bigger of the two mountains, where the view is breathtaking (and better than the one at the Corcovado).
Check out Bar da Laje for some well-deserved caipirinhas, ice-cold beers and good grub. You can walk all the way down Vidigal, then cross the road and follow the locals down an unmarked staircase to a little cove. This charming and quiet beach, previously accessible only to Sheraton Hotel guests, feels like a well-kept secret in the middle of the busy city. It’s a day trip that’ll take you from the clouds to the sea.
Hit up the locals’ favourite al fresco seafood joint
Since you’ll undoubtably visit Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), make a detour to Urca, the quaint neighbourhood at the foot the oblong mountain. Other than its quirky little houses (rented at insane prices), there lies a little jewel of a place called Bar Urca.
It functions as an open-air restaurant: Patrons order beers and seafood, then take them outside where they sit on the seawall, looking out on the Botafogo bay. There, chomping on your bolinhos de bacalhau (codfish fritters) and sardinhas (sardines) under the watchful eye of the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer statue), you’ll swiftly befriend the locals – whether curious Cariocas who come to chat or brazen white herons eyeing your fish.
Cycle around a backwater island lost in time
Travel back in time by means of a 30-minute ferry ride to Ilha de Paquetá. In the heart of the Guanabara Bay, the island feels like an anachronistic colonial outpost, complete with horse-drawn carriages. A languid torpor has befallen Paquetá, buffered as it is by the surrounding waters that lap lazily at its shores. For some respite from Rio’s mad chaos, this colonial Carioca kampong is a perfect half-day trip.
You can cycle around the whole island in about three hours, but don’t leave without kissing “Maria Gorda” (Fat Maria). The local celebrity is a tree — one of the few African baobabs in Brazil — and legend has it that she’ll bring you good luck if you pucker up. A good time to visit Paquetá is August 16, as there’ll be festivities for Saint Roque, the island’s patron saint.
More on Coconuts