RIO DE JANEIRO
After years of steady economic growth in Brazil, the dream of an on-the-cheap exotic vacation in Rio de Janeiro has melted faster than a Popsicle in tropical sunshine.
Now, sipping something fancy in boutique bars dotting bourgeois neighborhoods like Ipanema and Leblon will run you a tab to rival any in New York, London or Paris. Even down-home finger-food and a cold beer at a corner bar come at eye-popping prices.
But cariocas, as Rio residents are known, don't call their hometown the "marvelous city," or cidade maravilhosa, because of chi-chi eateries or faddish clubs. It's the stunning natural setting, the easy charm of locals and the culture that give the city its flair. And those can all be had for nada at the following spots:
Beach, beach, beach
Rio boasts some of the world's most stunning urban beaches and they're worth several visits. Go to Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon or Praia Vermelha, at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, if you want to stay in the city. Head to beaches in the western suburbs of Barra da Tijuca and Recreio for a quieter experience. Prainha, farther out, makes for great surfing. Keep going west and you'll hit Grumari, the most remote beach, a jewel of a spot surrounded by a nature preserve.
Parque Lage and the famous statue
About a half-mile away from the also-gorgeous but not free Jardim Botanico, or Botanical Gardens, Parque Lage has as much charm as its better-known neighbor. This park is a vast green space at the base of the Corcovado mountain, on which Rio's famous Christ the Redeemer statue is perched. Getting close to the statue itself costs money, but hikers can take in the views from the platform below.
Rio was once the seat of an empire, and then the capital of newly independent Brazil. Aspects of this history can be seen in a winding walk through the cobblestoned streets that remain downtown. Within a few blocks, you can see the Paco Imperial, or Royal Palace, where the Portuguese royal family settled when they fled Europe just ahead of Napoleon's troops, and the Biblioteca Nacional, or National Library, with a collection that has been growing since 1810. Nearby is the neoclassical Teatro Municipal, the Municipal Theater. It's all granite, marble and bronze, modeled after the Paris Opera. Two cobblestone streets in the area, Rua do Ouvidor and Rua do Rosario, are among the best-preserved examples of Portuguese colonial architecture. For contemporary culture, check out Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Centro Cultural dos Correios, and Casa Franca-Brasil. They have rotating exhibits that are generally free.
Rio's signature percussion-driven rhythm can be heard in classy indoor music venues, sure, but old-school samba circles can pop up without notice. There are parts of town where musicians traditionally gather, where you can find great samba played the way it was in its origins: outdoors, and free for all. Rua do Ouvidor in downtown, generally has music on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Pedra do Sal, in the downtown neighborhood of Saude, has samba circles on Mondays and Fridays.
Parque Nacional da Tijuca
The most-visited national park in Brazil, this nearly 10,000-square-acre expanse of forest embedded in Rio de Janeiro is what allows this densely populated city to breathe. There are a variety of trails carved through the forest, leading to peaks overlooking the city.