Ready, steady, Rio: Two days in the Olympic city

James Gill's whirlwind tour of Rio de Janeiro, from fashionable Ipanema to the infamous favelas

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Can there be a city in the world better suited to hosting next month’s Olympic Games than Rio de Janeiro? Yes, football is a religion here, but a stroll along Copacabana beach shows that it’s not just football and beach volleyball that beguile Rio’s citizens.

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Surfers bob in the water, cyclists pedal along the coastal paths, runners sweat in the morning haze and rock climbers traverse cliffs that seem to lean right over city skyscrapers.

The Olympics are just a week away and tickets are still available for tourists direct from the Rio 2016 website. But whether you’re in town for the Games or to sample the culture and the sights, here’s a two-day tour of the best of Rio.

Day one

1 Head up to Christ the Redeemer

Even Rio’s most famous monument belongs to the city’s athletes – as long as you start early enough. Dawn often breaks with a lonely cyclist taking on a hellish training ride to the heavenly views 710m above the city. During the World Cup in 2014 football pundit Lee Dixon apparently cycled his way up the switchback route during some downtime from the football – although, frankly, there are easier ways to climb the mountainside.

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Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado mountain

For more than a hundred years, a railway line snaking between tropical forest and sheer drops has been carrying tourists to the summit, where the Art Deco statue of Christ gazes across the city skyline to the jungle canopy beyond.

2 Wander round Ipanema

Rio’s most fashionable neighbourhoods are enviably located, sandwiched between the stunning beach and the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon – site of the Olympic rowing events.

The area itself is a mixture of wide shopping avenues and tree-lined residential streets. On roads such as Rua Redentor, residents hang orchids in the trees; the plants attach themselves to the trunks, flushing this discreet district with a riot of carnival colour.

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Locals play football on Ipanema Beach

The walk will last only as long as you can resist the tug of the sea and the white sand. All along the beach, stalls and kiosks sell snacks, coconut water and the ubiquitous caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail, made with the sugarcane spirit Cachaca muddled with lime.

3 Sunset in Urca

One of Rio’s most pleasant but least-visited parts is also one of the oldest. Soldier and explorer Estacio de Sa established the first Portuguese colony here in 1565, on the site of the modern Forte Sao Joao beneath Sugarloaf Mountain. You could take the cable car that whisks you up to the summit, and afterwards ease off a day’s exertions at Bar Urca on the harbourside. There’s a restaurant on the first floor, but it’s best to do as the local cariocas (people of Rio) do: simply order beer and small plates from the bar and sit on the sea wall.

Try the empada de siri (crab-filled mini pies) and the bolinho de bacalhau (codfish balls) and watch the sun set over the marina.

Day two

1 Scale the Escadaria Selarón

The stunning staircase in the hilltop district of Santa Teresa reflects Rio’s bohemian spirit. Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón devoted 20 years to covering the 215 steps with mosaics and murals. Green, yellow and blue tiles gave way to scenes from all over the world, as travellers donated ceramics from home to add to the overall effect – at least 60 countries are represented, from Fiji to the Isle of Man.

2 Eat in a favela

In Rio there are more than 300 favelas – poor neighbourhoods that house one in five people and which for a long time were abandoned by the authorities and feared by residents.

That’s beginning to change. Since 2014, the NGO AfroReggae Culture Group has been working with Google Maps to record the businesses and communities that thrive in these packed communities. However, it’s still advisable to visit in the company of a local guide. Jeep Tour runs engaging three-hour walking tours through Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil.

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David Bispo in front of his café

One of the businesses finding fame thanks to the mapping project is Bar do David, a simple café near the beach at the entrance to Chapeu Mangueira favela which serves up classic feijoada stew – black beans, smoky paprika sausage and zingy orange. Owner David Bispo started this place six years ago; now he’s a national celebrity. He’ll be one of the Olympic torchbearers ahead of the Games, but has another Rio 2016 challenge on his mind: to convince Usain Bolt to visit his bar.

“Bolt is an idol to favela kids. If we can bring him here then we can get them to start dreaming bigger,” he says. “Kids in the favelas are born running, so it’s easier to see a kid running than being in another sport, like horse riding. Kids in the favelas feed the horses. They don’t ride them.”

3 Dance the night away in Lapa

Just down the hill from Santa Teresa lies Lapa, the centre of Rio’s samba scene. The easiest place to find your dancing feet is Rio Scenarium, an eclectic nightlife venue with three floors dedicated to live music.

Antiques and curios line the walls, but the heart of the venue is the stage on the ground floor, where local bands play and couples sway into the small hours. You’re given a card when you enter, waiters mark up your orders and you pay when you leave. But it’s best not to have too much of a good time and lose track of the bill…


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