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Rio de Janeiro is a city to dream of as days get shorter and the temperature drops. Few destinations conjure such unabashed visions of summer – whether the noise and colour of carnival or its long stretches of white-sanded beaches (and their aesthetically blessed patrons). But, while Rio’s exuberant reputation proves largely correct – not least when Carnival arrives in February, and revellers take over the streets – Brazil’s second city is one of multiple personalities, where ever-changing neighbourhoods lie between dramatic, rainforest-covered peaks, and the serene waters of Guanabara Bay beyond.
Which is to say that it’s a city worth the wait as such far-off destinations remain, at least for now, out of reach (Brazil has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with infection rates still high). But Rio de Janeiro isn’t going anywhere fast – after all, the unique topography which shapes the city has existed for millennia: Corcovado mountain, crested with Paul Landowski’s symbolic Christ the Redeemer, and Sugarloaf mountain across the bay, have dominated Rio de Janeiro since its founding in 1565. As such, they have long provided a vantage point for tourists to get their bearings: from atop of either of their summits (access Corcovado by bus or taxi, or climb Sugarloaf’s 1,299-foot peak via its famed cable car) you can witness the city unfold in busy clusters between the mountain range’s undulating peaks – whenever you might arrive.
Other landmarks are considerably younger, but nonetheless capture Rio’s unique spirit, and will likely stand for centuries more: Belmond Copacabana Palace, a vast art-deco hotel on the world’s most famous stretch of beach, is one of them. A lesson in Brazilian old-world glamour, it makes for a sumptuous retreat from the city’s hustle and bustle – replete with tennis courts, a shimmering lounger-lined pool and service that extends all the way onto the sand. Come evening, follow a line of notable guests, from Brigitte Bardot to the Rolling Stones to Madonna (as the hotel says, it’s easier to ask who hasn’t stayed) and while away long nights at the hotel’s famous Piano Bar. For a (slightly) more down-to-earth stay, try the Hotel Arpoador located where Ipanema meets Copacabana, or the tranquil Mama Ruisa, a low-key but elegant hotel in Rio’s bohemian enclave of Santa Teresa (myriad bars and restaurants in this thriving district make it a welcome base to explore).
Despite the city’s energetic reputation, a stay in Rio can be decidedly laid back: whether walking the gentle hiking trails which wind upwards into the mountains, or spending a lazy afternoon in the southern Jardim Botânico district, home to the city’s botanical gardens. A momentary escape from Rio’s busy centre, the beautiful 137-hectare garden – encompassing thousands of plant species native to Brazil in manicured surrounds – is an oasis of calm. Leave time afterwards to explore the surrounding pastel-coloured streets, where narrow alleyways reveal quaint artist’s studios and relaxed neighbourhood bars.
Equally meditative are the spare, sensual lines of Oscar Niemeyer, whose Modernist buildings defined Brazilian architecture and can be found across Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps his most famous is the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, a saucer-like construction in concrete which looks out over Guanabara Bay (those who follow fashion will note its curving red entranceway was the setting of a recent Louis Vuitton cruise show). The museum’s architectural prowess is also testament to Brazil’s ever-expanding contemporary art scene – alongside numerous independent galleries in the city, make time for Museu de Arte do Rio, whereby permanent and changing exhibitions explore the city and its contradictions through the eyes of its artists, or Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio’s definitive contemporary art museum.
One way or another, though, you will find yourself on one of Rio de Janeiro’s many beaches, for which the city will always be best known. Perhaps the most Elysian city beaches as you can expect to find anywhere in the world – smooth curves of white sand and gentle cerulean seas, often flanked by mountains or palms – you will soon realise where locals get their easygoing mindset. Both Copacabana and Ipanema live up to their towering reputations, but for true escape, head out of the city towards the island of Ilha Grand, about an hour from Rio’s centre. Its unspoilt beaches, hidden among lush rainforest trails, will leave you feeling a world away from the teeming metropolis – and even further from a winter spent at home.