With only five full days to tackle everything we wanted to do in Rio, Mo had meticulously planned our whole trip. And what a good job he did! We made the most of literally every minute we had and took away some amazing memories.

Here’s a collection of my favourite experiences (with a couple of tips thrown in) that I think everyone should try:

 

Being first in line for Christ the Redeemer

We got up at the crack of dawn and headed straight to Corcovado to start our day of sightseeing with Cristo Redentor. There are a few ways to get to the top, the most popular is by train. But to beat the crowds, we drove up with our guide who also managed to buy us the fast track entry tickets.

Racing up that final escalator and walking out onto the platform with not a single person in sight, the view was breathtaking. All we could see were clouds and mountain tops. It’s what I imagined being on top of the world must feel like. By the time we were ready to leave the whole place had filled up with tourists and both Mo and I felt so blessed that we were able to enjoy one of the most famous landmarks all to ourselves. If only for a few minutes.

Tip: Trains don’t start until 8am so driving is a bonus if you can do it, as it means you beat the first rush of tourists. Entrance gates actually open at half 7.

 

Explore the craft markets of Ipanema

Inspired by the art-covered walls of the Hotel Negresco, one of my favourite things to buy on holiday is a piece of art that captures the atmosphere of our trip. So, it was inevitable that Sunday-beach-day would involve a stroll over to find a painting at one of the cities most famous markets. The Feira de Arte de Ipanema, aka the hippie fair, takes place every Sunday at the Praca General Osorio, a mere 10 minute walk from Ipanema. All sorts of styles, handicrafts and artwork are on show here, a perfect outdoor gallery.

Tip: Be sure to do a bit of haggling, we had a specific budget and had to barter the price down to get the painting we wanted for the price we could afford (it was SO worth it).

 

Go Dancing in Lapa

Saturday night and as you walk up to the famous Lapa arches the roads are packed full of young and old all wanting to go out and have a good time. People warned us to be diligent with our belongings and be extra careful, which we were, but I never felt unsafe walking around and there were literally people pouring out of buildings, setting up their own parties right there on the streets.

We had pre-booked to have dinner and stay on at the tourist hotspot of Lapa, Rio Scenarium. We both expected somewhere full of travellers and a bit gimmicky, but it was a great place for a party.  There are three floors to explore, and explore you should as each one has its own character and is filled full of weird and wonderful antiques.  The live music and bands we saw that night were sensational, the Samba beats echoed through each room. The crowd was pretty much full of cariocas, all proudly showing off their moves (the standard was pretty high) and singing along – the fun atmosphere was infectious!

Tip: If you’re planning on going on a Saturday night and having some dinner like we did, its worth booking in advance. The queue was huge when we arrived but we were able to walk straight in at the time we had booked for.

Also don’t forget your passport/id as they take down your details at the front desk to set up a control card tab. This way you only need to settle your bill at the end. It makes ordering food and drink throughout the night so much easier and is quite common in Rio.

 

Try out the local food

Here’s where it could have got quite tricky as a Muslim. Famous for their barbecued meats, churrasco, we had accepted that we may not be able to taste a lot of the local dishes. However on our first night we ate at a restaurant in Niteroi and our guide Ederson actually recommended a few local fish dishes that we simply had to try. I forgot that being a coastal city, fish would always play a big part on most menus, so luckily we didn’t struggle at all finding meals.

A few local dishes to try:

  • Moqueca – a fish stew, usually cooked to perfection in a clay pot. Make sure you take a good sniff when the lid is lifted, the steam gives off such a wonderful fragrance. Ours was made with coconut milk and served with rice.
  • Pao de queijo – cheesey bread, what more is their to say about such a great combination. Tiny little buns filled with a cheesy surprise commonly served at breakfast as well as a snack. They are usually made with tapioca flour – making them gluten free too!!!
  • I’ve never seen a place where shrimp is so readily available either, it graces near enough every menu and the fried shrimp meaipe is basically a mountain of it on a plate. This isn’t to everyones taste, as Brazilians fry the usually large prawns with their shell suits on, in a pan with seasoning and garlic and simply munch on them unpeeled. Simple.
  • The last thing you just have to try is that power berry we hear so much about, Acai. This juice is available pretty much everywhere (like everywhere) and is most popular as a kind of sorbet drink. Perfect for a hot stroll beachside.

 

Experience sunset from the sea

Another surprise my thoughtful husband had planned for me was an afternoon sailing around Guanabara Bay. I LOVE being on a boat so this was without a doubt the best surprise ever. We spent just over four hours cruising the waters, just us and of course our skipper Cassio. It was blissful. Cassio was amazing company, it was like sailing with an old friend. He taught Mo a few sailing tricks and let him take the wheel whilst I stretched out and enjoyed the warm sunshine, cool breeze and the fantastic views. Piece de resistance: staying out on the water to watch the sun set behind the famous Carioca landscape of Rio.

Tip: Pack light. Cassio can sort out any refreshments you might want (obviously this is sorted beforehand) but other than a camera, there really is nothing more you need. 

 

Spend an afternoon in Niteroi

I recently wrote a post about our wonderful afternoon in Niteroi. It was something that never came up on any of the ‘must-do’ lists when we were looking online, but I would’ve loved to spend longer exploring this region.

Aside from the famous Niemeyer buildings, Niteroi also boasts some of the most beautiful beaches all known for their own special traits. Itacoatiara is well known for being surfers paradise and Prainha is there perfect spot for cliff diving (or cliff-diving-watching). Downtown Niteroi also has some good shopping spots that cater to all tastes.

Tip: Try and make a stop at the Parque da Cidade. The viewpoint from the summit is popular with locals as well as tourists for the spectacular scenery that lies below.

 

Coffee break at one of the oldest cafes in town

After an early morning stop at the Escadaria Selarón, we decided to pass by the Confeitaria Colombo on the walk back to try and sneak in a quick breakfast. Founded in 1894 by two adventurous Portuguese men, this cafe is firmly set in Rio’s history books.

The belle-epoque interiors show the charm of old Rio, it’s a place so grand its even attracted the likes of Queen Elizabeth and King Albert. Seriously huge Belgian mirrors, Italian marble counter-tops, lots of local jacaranda wood and intricate stained glass windows, the whole place really is an art nouveau masterpiece. Even if you don’t have a lot of time, it’s definitely worth popping in for a quick coffee.

Tip: Aside from its interiors, Confeitaria Colombo is famous for its desserts. The first half of the cafe is actually made up of counters with them all on display, you will be absolutely spoilt for choice! 

 

Last but not least… reserve a day for beach play

You cannot go to Rio de Janeiro and not spend at least one day at one of the many beaches. We chose to have ours on a Sunday, a day where the roads alongside the beach close for cars and instead are populated by those looking for a healthier alternative. Joggers, cyclists, roller bladers… everyone and their dog (literally) came out to play. And that was just the road, the beaches themselves were packed too. Beach volleyballers, sunbathers, kiosks, surfers, kids, boats… a hive of activity stretched out over the sands.

Most people advised to avoid Copacabana due to its popularity, however Mo and I found Ipanema to be a lot busier the day we went. All down to personal choice though. Once you’ve found a spot, there’ll be a barrack (stall) nearby and for 5 reias you can nab yourself a beach chair and brolly to set up a people watching station.

Tip: There are plenty of fruit and drink vendors dotted across the beach so bring some cash and support them whilst lazing around. Nothing can beat an ice cold drink or fresh coconut whilst soaking up the rays right?

 

These are just some of my favourites, but Mo and I both agreed we will definitely return to Brazil again in the near future to explore more of the country. Any other must do experiences we should plan for? 

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It was our first morning in Rio de Janeiro and the heavens had opened. Go figure! Apart from our honeymoon, every single holiday Mo and I have been on has included at least one day of rain. So this downpour was no real surprise to us, but as we received notice that our first pre-booked activity, a favela tour, had been cancelled, Mo was anxious that the wet weather might affect the rest of our plans.

Luckily, it had stopped by the afternoon and we were on track to hop into a car with our guide Ederson, to head across Guanabara Bay to Niteroi.

Being it’s own city, it doesn’t come under any ‘top things to do in Rio’ lists and it’s obviously not ranked as a must-see place if you are visiting the city.

Why did we want to go? Well Niteroi is the home of one of Oscar Niemeyer’s most famous buildings, the Contemporary Art Museum. So it was a given that Mo and I would want to explore and see more.

First of all, you need to get there and the best way to do that is by car over the Rio-Niteroi bridge (aka President Costa e Silva Bridge). An 8.25 mile long road suspended high up above the sea, took me back to my childhood when we used to drive over the King Fahd Causeway to Bahrain.

Actually lets rewind.

Before we joined onto this spectacular bridge, there were a few mini stops along the way. We stopped to look at secluded churches, popular swimmers spots and fishermen parked up enjoying the warm breeze. We also saw the famous Sambadrome, another one of Niemeyers creations. A place dedicated to that famous Carnival parade that takes place every year, with tall bleachers running along each side. Ederson even drove us past some of the storage units where floats were parked, ready to be glitzed and glamoured up for dancing on in Feb (all of this was enough to make me want to return for Carnival one day!).

Ok, now back to crossing the bridge and continuing on to our first stop in Niteroi: the Contemporary Art Museum (MAC).

One of his later works, this UFO looking building teeters above a pool on the edge of a cliff and celebrates Niemeyers trademark design traits. Concrete and curves. The building is meant to signify ‘forming from the ground’, like a flower protruding from the Earth and growing organically rather than an intergalactic spaceship. Although funnily enough, in the Intro to his film, he is seen flying over Rio in the MAC so it’s easy to see how a UFO is mistakenly marked as his inspiration.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside as the air conditioning unit was broken, but I’ve heard the panoramic views from the circular promenade inside is pretty spectacular.

We could still walk up the cleverly formed red-carpet ramp, a simple but genius idea if you ask me (might try and convince Mo to let us paint a red carpet driveway).

After admiring the museum, Ederson took us for a quick stop to one of his favourite view points in Niteroi. We drove up to the summit of Parque da Cidade, a space popular with locals as well as tourists for the spectacular scenery that lies below. The sunsets here are meant to be magical and its the kind of place you could imagine bringing a small picnic and making camp for a few hours. As this was the first (of what would be many) viewpoints we had seen in Rio, it really took our breath away.

From here we moved on to see one of the most beautiful fortresses in Brazil, the Fortaleza de Santa Cruz. The drive to reach here is quite exciting, our car literally had to hug the side of the road and there were a lot of sharp intakes of breath as we sped round certain corners (Mr Oliveira obviously knew this route like the back of his hand). It was late in the day so we decided not to pay the entrance to go in and see the inside, we were happy wandering round the outskirts (well the parts that were on land) listening to the waves crash against the shore as we sized up the canons and other artefacts that were dotted around.

Our last stop of the night was for dinner before driving back over to Rio. Ederson took us to a restaurant by the coast and introduced us to some great local seafood dishes as he knew we weren’t (non-halal) meat eaters.

It was a lovely evening. The sun set beautifully over the water just as we sat down and the conversation flowed throughout the meal as we all got to know each other. We cooed over family pictures, discussed life in Rio, life back home in England, and much more.

By the time dinner was over the long day had started to take its toll and it was time to call it a night. It had been the perfect start to our stay in Brazil, the only sad thing was that due to timings we wouldn’t be able to catch up with Ederson again.

Not to worry, we still had five glorious exploration days ahead of us…  this was shaping up to be a pretty damn good birthday!!

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When Mo announced he was taking over control of our holiday to Brazil, I was worried. Really worried. One thing I knew I didn’t have to worry about though was where we would be staying. I had full confidence that he would make sure we would be celebrating my birthday somewhere grand. It may not have been the famous Copacabana hotel, but the five star Windsor Atlantica was definitely one of the nicest places we have ever stayed.

Standing tall and proud right on Copacabana beach, I knew we were in for a treat as soon as we walked through the revolving doors into the lobby. Cool marble flooring, a statement chandelier centrepiece above a beautiful exotic floral arrangement tends to say ‘top quality’ hotel in my mind.

The reception desk staff were extremely polite, friendly, we got our promised ‘Ocean view’ room upgrade and they explained all the hotel facilities and services in case we were in need of anything.

Our room was exactly how you would expect a good five star hotel room to be. Large bed, clean, spacious bathroom, wardrobe space, seating area and fully functioning electronic items. Tick, tick, tick!

And if it wasn’t obvious from my previous post on my favourite views in Rio, I love a good land/city-scape. I never thought to add my hotel room view to the list but I should have. Because it was GREAT! We could see the entire stretch of Copacabana beach, as well as the city, the forests and best of all we were on the sunrise side!

On any holiday, anywhere, no matter what (and to Mo’s avail) I love nothing more than to jump out of bed in the morning and throw open the curtains to see what lies ahead. So tip no. 1, try your utmost to bag a high room with an ocean view, it’s so worth it!

We were also booked-in for bed and breakfast, Mo’s a big fan of hotel breakfasts (it’s the thing he looks forward to most on holiday) and we had a number of very early starts, so it was definitely the right thing for us to do, to make sure we were fuelled up at the start of each day.

The breakfast buffet did not let us down. It was among one of the best we have ever experienced; everything fresh and tidy and extremely well-stocked. The Brazilian cheese puffs, pao de queijo, were a particular favourite of mine. The tea and coffee flowed, we didn’t have to ask.  We always found a way to position ourselves by a window and the service was swift and friendly.

There are two pools at the Windsor Atlantica, a fourth floor family sized pool and a smaller rooftop infinity pool, which is the one we inhabited whenever we had a spare hour or two in the hotel . We even managed to catch a sunset, which, if you’re not out, you must go up there to see. To the far left of the pool is Cristo Redentor and the moment the sun falls behind him is sensational.

There’s also a spa, gym, the usual hotel suspects – we weren’t really there long enough to make use of these (like I’ve ever used a gym on holiday anyway?!?!) but we did have a walk through on the way to the pool and it looked pretty new (they use Clarins).

On one of the days, we had been awake from 5:30am and not returned until past 9pm, by which point we were so shattered we couldn’t bring ourselves to go out and hunt for dinner. So we also got a chance to experience room service. We were looking for comfort food to put us to sleep – so pizza and chips it was! The portion was HUGE and delicious! We scoffed the lot! I know it’s probably wrong to admit this, but I would have totally ordered that again, it was so good.

If you’re looking at going over for the Olympics, although the hotel isn’t near to all the action, it’s only a short ten minute walk to an underground station, Cardeal Arcoverde, where you can access all areas of the city.

The one thing we didn’t organise through the hotel was the airport transfer, Mo arranged this through a separate company – Cootramo, which he booked online and for a set price. He chose to do this purely based on price, the hotel transfer wasn’t coming out as the most cost effective option. Without traffic, it takes about half an hour to get from the airport to the Windsor Atlantica. (In rush hour, it can take a lot longer than that!) You don’t have to prebook, you can book with them as soon as you come out of baggage pick up and there’s even a whole line of them ready to take you from outside. Their service is completely reliable and they also arrived on time at our hotel for our journey to the airport.

I really hope Mo and I get to return to Rio again one day in the near future to enjoy all of the luxuries of the Windsor Atlantica again. I think the best way to describe our stay here was ‘comfortable.’ We had a seriously jam packed five days in Brazil and this was the perfect place to come home to every night.

 

Windsor Atlantica
Av Atlantica 1020 Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, 22021000 BR
Booked through Expedia

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I wrote this short story about our my first time visiting a favela Santa Marta in Rio. The story is mostly true… but I should point out parts of it are slightly embellished (it is a story after all!).

I’m not sure about this. “I assure you it’s completely safe.”

I know, but… “The guide lives here, its fine.”

I know, but I’m just. Not. Sure.

I had arrived at one of the most famous favelas in Rio. Standing outside at the petrol station meeting point we couldn’t have been a more obvious group of tourists.

Most of us with backpacks, all of us with cameras ready to be educated on the realities of living in Santa Marta. Before taking our first steps, a few words of warning from Tiago: do NOT photograph the locals. The rule isn’t out of the ordinary. But it was the first time I had ever heard it being spoken out loud. Sternly.

As we followed obediently through the narrow alleys a young girl pointed to my camera, excitedly speaking in Portuguese. Using the universal sign language of pointing from it to her I asked if she wanted her picture taken, she instantly snapped back a firm, ‘nao’.

It made me nervous. All of a sudden I was conscious of every click, I analysed every frame and thought twice when I looked through my lens. I felt guilty. Here I was taking pictures of their homes, their lives, commending them for making the most of what they had. How must they feel having us nod at their innovative ways of plumbing; applauding their abilities to channel electricity and satellites without external help. A third of Rio’s populations still live in favelas, even those with privileges and education choose to remain here.

This isn’t a good place to live, it’s a great place to live” a passing elder announced as she carried her shopping up the steep steps. “Eu vou sair quando eu morrer,” (I’ll leave when I die) she proclaimed proudly as she shuffled out of sight. I couldn’t quite understand why.

As a break from the heat, Tiago invited us into his place for homemade caipirinhas. A home that looked like any other bachelor pad. Xbox, 50 inch plasma and some large obnoxious looking speakers. I followed him up the narrow steps to the roof where he stood proudly at the edge, arm outstretched to draw attention to the makeshift terrace. I tentatively walked over, the Samba beats from a neighbour echoed around me, helping to drown any thoughts of the corrugated iron and recycled brick collapsing underneath my feet.

As I lifted my gaze it all fell into place. There it was. Sprawled out in its splendour the city of Rio de Janeiro lay at my feet. The Atlantic shimmered in the distance. Mountains covered in lush greens amongst the cityscape. Christ, stood tall, embracing everything and everyone.

I steadied myself on the balcony, heart rapidly beating in wanderlust envy. The doubts, worries and guilt that had built up in my mind, simply disappeared. I  smiled quietly as I realised that all this time, these Cariocas were instead looking at me, knowing that it was them, that truly had it all.

 

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We weren’t in Rio long, but with the help of local guides we managed to pack a LOT into our trip. One of the things Mo and I both love to do when travelling, is find ourselves a good view.

Rio is full of them. Luckily for us, as we travelled around by car, we managed to catch a fair few.

Here are some of the best places to gaze over this magnificent city: View Post

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