The citizens of the fourteen-million-strong city of Rio de Janeiro call it the Cidade Marvilhosa – and there can’t be much argument about that. Although riven by inequality, Rio has great style. Its international renown is bolstered by a series of symbols that rank as some of the greatest landmarks in the world: the Corcovado mountain supporting the great statue of Christ the Redeemer; the rounded incline of the Sugar Loaf mountain, standing at the entrance to the bay; and the famous sweeps of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, probably the most notable lengths of sand on the planet. It’s a setting enhanced annually by the frenetic sensuality of Carnaval, an explosive celebration that – for many people – sums up Rio and its citizens, the cariocas. The major downside in a city given over to conspicuous consumption is the rapacious development that has engulfed Rio. As the rural poor, escaping drought and poverty in other regions of Brazil, swell Rio’s population, the city has been squeezed like a toothpaste tube between mountains and sea, pushing its human contents ever further out along the coast. Over the decades, much of the city’s rich architectural heritage has been whittled away, along with the destruction of much of its natural environment.
Sitting on the southern shore of the magnificent Guanabara Bay, Rio has, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most stunning settings in the world. Extending for 20km along an alluvial strip, between an azure sea and forest-clad mountains, the city’s streets and buildings have been moulded around the foothills of the mountain range that provides its backdrop, while out in the bay there are many rocky islands fringed with white sand. The aerial views over Rio are breathtaking, and even the concrete skyscrapers that dominate the city’s skyline add to the attraction. As the former capital of Brazil and now its second largest city, Rio has a remarkable architectural heritage, some of the country’s best museums and galleries, superb restaurants and a vibrant nightlife – in addition to its legendary beaches. With so much to see and do, Rio can easily occupy a week and you may well find it difficult to drag yourself away.
The state of Rio de Janeiro, surrounding the city, is a fairly recent phenomenon, established in 1975 as a result of the amalgamation of Guanabara state and Rio city, the former federal capital. Fairly small by Brazilian standards, the state is both beautiful and accessible, with easy trips either northeast along the Costa do Sol or southwest along the Costa Verde, taking in unspoilt beaches, washed by a relatively unpolluted ocean. Inland routes make a welcome change from the sands, especially the trip to Petrópolis, a nineteenth-century mountain retreat for Rio’s rich.
The best time to visit both city and state, at least as far as the climate goes, is between May and August, when the region is cooled by trade winds, the temperature remains at around 22–32°C and the sky tends to be clear. Between December and March (the rainy season), it’s more humid, with the temperature hovering around 40°C; but even then it’s rarely as oppressive as it is in northern Brazil, and there’s a chance of blue sky for at least part of the day.