From great beaches to forest-covered mountains, Rio is blessed by its natural wonders, discovers Michelle Mannion
1. Ipanema beach
While the songs inspired by Rio’s two best known beaches may be equally hummable, it’s the girl from Ipanema’s hangout that you should head to. While Copacabana is now a shadow of its former glamorous self, Ipanema is the byword for Rio cool, and a meeting point for moneyed locals and favela kids alike. Drink a coconut juice straight from the shell and watch girls (and boys) pose in skimpy costumes, gym bunnies jog past, and old, sun-weathered men selling their wares. The beach is divided into postos – number eight is where the city’s gay contingent sun-worship, while number nine attracts an arty crowd – so wander along the edge and take it all in.
Walk east along the beach to Arpoador, which sits between Ipanema and Copacabana. It’s a chilled out spot and is where the surfers come – sit back and watch them weave among the waves in the shadow of Arpoador rock, which juts out into the ocean. Climb on top of it for a fantastic view – it’s a great spot for watching the sunset. If you’re in need of refreshment, grab a drink or snack on the outdoor terrace of the Arpoador Inn’s restaurant, the only eatery overlooking this part of the beach.
3. Copacabana Palace
Leave the beach by the Arpoador Inn and turn on to Rua Francisco Otaviano, then on to Avenida Atlantica, which runs along the great curve of Copacabana beach. It may be on the tacky side, but on a bright day it’s still a sight to behold, as the sun’s rays reflect off the glistening water. Side-step the vendors along the edge selling tat until you get to the Copacabana Palace hotel. It’s hosted everyone from the Queen to Nelson Mandela since opening in 1923, and its imposing neoclassical exterior dominates the beachfront. If you have time, stop for a cocktail in the Piano bar or a meal in one of the hotel’s restaurants – the poolside Pergula or the refined Cipriani, which serves an exquisite suckling pig. 1702 Avenida Atlantica; copacabanapalace.com
4. Modern Sound
From the Palace, head into the heaving heart of Copacabana town. A few blocks back from the beach is Rua Barata Ribeiro, home to what must be Rio’s best music store, Modern Sound. Every genre is represented and there’s a huge selection of Brazilian CDs. If you’re unsure of what to go for, ask the friendly staff – when I was there, my server didn’t speak English but demonstrated his recommendations by singing me snippets. There’s an in-store café as well as regular live performances. 502 Rua Barata Ribeiro; modernsound.com.br
Lastly, flag down a cab and head to Rio’s most awe-inspiring sight, the Cristo Redentor statue atop Corcovado mountain, about 6km away. While the 38-metre high monument can be seen from all over the southern area of the city, it’s only when you stand at its feet that you get a real sense of the scale. Either jump out of your taxi at Cosme Velho station, from where you can take a cog train to the top (it runs every half an hour from 8.30am-6.30pm), or continue up by car. The journey will take you through the lush Tijuca forest, and at the entrance there are escalators to the viewing platform if you don’t fancy the 220 steps. The statue attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year, so be prepared to wait for your Kodak moment, but on a clear day the view is incredible, taking in downtown Rio, Sugarloaf mountain, stacked-up favelas, and beyond, the sweep of the beaches. Visit corcovado.com.br