Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s most important tourist magnet, looks back on a history full of ups and downs.
Today, the city founded in 1565 as São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro on the January River, which owes its name to an error, is regarded as the country’s second largest metropolitan region.
Rio de Janeiro experienced its first growth spurt at the end of the 16th century as a seaport for the export of sugar cane, but the gold finds in Minas Gerais at the end of the 17th century had a far greater impact on urban development. In order to guarantee their taxation and prevent smuggling, the Portuguese king ruled that all gold production had to be exported via the port of Rio de Janeiro.
The population grew significantly due to immigration from Portugal and the influx of many people from other parts of Brazil. A free working class emerged (in contrast to the slaveholder structure of the sugar cane haciendas).
Rio’s golden age was finally to come in 1808, when the Portuguese king, fleeing from Napoleon’s troops, moved his court to the Sugar Loaf without hesitation.
The city was dressed up to meet the demands of the feudal society. The legal equality with the motherland and the elimination of trade barriers led to a boom that benefited only a few.
Also the late abolition of slavery (1888) and the foundation of the republic (1889 – 1930) changed little regarding the ownership structure in the city.
Although the emerging tourism caused a boom around the middle of the 20th century, the social problems intensified by rural exodus and unsustainable housing conditions became more and more apparent after the loss of the capital status to Brasilia (1960).
Radical urban planning measures during the military regime (1964-1985) continued to displace poorer parts of the population from the quarters of the Zona Sul, even though these were now connected to the poorer quarters of the Zona Norte by road and tunnel construction.
After the 1980s and 1990s, which were characterized by corruption, poverty and crime, one began to address the pressing problems of the favelas after the 1992 World Summit on the Environment. The poverty and lack of prospects in the favelas left their inhabitants at the mercy of the drug mafia. Projects to pacify problematic neighbourhoods through a combination of police presence and the creation of infrastructure such as street lighting, sidewalks, schools, kindergartens, public squares, waste and sewage systems were intended to upgrade informal settlements and turn them into mixed, normal neighbourhoods.
Despite reports of massive violations of the law by the police forces and persistent expulsions of informal settlers in the run-up to major sporting events such as the 2014 Football World Cup or the 2016 Olympic Games, some favelas have been pacified to such an extent that they can now be visited by tourists. However, this should be done with a local guide who is familiar with the area.
The Rio de Janeiro of the tourists captivates by its beaches, its carnival and its nightlife, but above all by its fantastic location between steep, often wooded hills and dome-shaped granite rocks (Morros), from where you can enjoy grandiose views over the maze of houses, sea bays and white beaches.
For a spectacular view, most visitors are drawn to the 710 m high Corcovado with its Christ statue Cristo Redentor, which is reached by a serpentine road and a rack railway. Since 2003, the viewing platform above the terminal station is also accessible via panoramic elevators and escalators instead of stairs.
To get to Rio’s second emblematic hill, the Sugar Loaf (Pão de Açúcar), it is best to take the cable car in the late afternoon, as the lighting conditions emphasize the panorama that is already visible during the ride. The ride is in two legs, starting at the base station at Praça General Tibúrcio near the small but beautiful and safe bay of Praia Vermelha, which adjoins Copacabana north of Leme. From here the journey continues to the 226 m high middle station on the Morro da Urca, with a theatre for more than a thousand people, restaurants, a discotheque and souvenir shops. The second leg finally leads to the summit of the Sugar Loaf, covering 735 metres without any pylons. Those who are prone to vertigo will not be able to enjoy the ride in bad weather/wind.
Santa Marta with its Mirador, situated above Botafogo, is also one of the “pacified” favelas. It can be reached with a funicular and offers a similarly spectacular view as from Corcovado, without its waiting times and hefty entrance fees.
Another beautiful vantage point over the entire Zona Sul and the Laguna Rodrigo de Freitas is the “Vista Chinesa” in the Parque de Tijuca at the foot of a bamboo pagoda, which was built at the beginning of the 20th century as a tribute to the Chinese who immigrated to Rio in the 19th century.
Among Rio’s beaches, the famous Copacabana is the most famous, though not necessarily the most beautiful. It is divided into sections that are oriented to the lifeguard posts. The most famous one, located at the south end towards Ipanema, is the “Posto Seis”. Behind the beach promenade “Calçadão de Copacabana”, designed in 1970 by the landscape architect Burle Marx, whose famous black and white pattern is inspired by the Encontro of Águas near Manaus, the international chain-branded hotels line up.
The beach of Ipanema, south of the Copacabana, is more elegant, although equally lively (at least during the summer months). In the side streets behind there are numerous boutiques as well as nice cafés and restaurants.
Perhaps the most pleasant beach in the city is that of São Conrado, which can be reached by bus line 177, which connects the city centre via Flamengo and Botafogo with the beaches in the south and west.
You should avoid all beaches in Guanabara Bay that are not open to the sea, as they are all polluted by sewage and contaminated by dangerous germs.
Apart from its natural beauties, Rio de Janeiro also has many interesting historical buildings, churches and museums to offer.
Of modern origin is the architecturally controversial Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião (Avenida República do Chile 245, Centro), inaugurated in 1976. Its huge metal cone, 106 m high and 98 m in diameter, designed by the architect Edgar Fonceca, is said to resemble a Mexican pyramid. Behind the main portal, decorated with bronze bas-reliefs, hides the huge, unstructured interior with room for 20,000 people and ceiling-high glass windows at the cardinal points.
The opulent Teatro Municipal (Praca Marechal Floriano – Centro), built at the beginning of the 20th century based on the model of the Paris Opéra Garnier, is also worth a visit. The trapezoidal square, also known as Cinelandia because of the local cinemas, is surrounded by the National Library, built in 1810 in the neoclassical style and considered the largest of its kind in South America, and the Centro Cultural Justiça Federal, which has been converted into a cultural centre.
One of the unofficial landmarks of the city is the art nouveau café of the Confeitaria Colombo in the narrow shopping street Rua Gonçalves Dias, which is a must for many tourists. An alternative end to a tour of Centro may be a seafood meal at Restaurante Ancoramar (formerly Albamar), which has been settling in a wooden tower for more than 80 years, the only remaining building of the former Mercado Municipal.
Among Rio’s numerous museums, the following are worth mentioning:
The Museu do Amanhã by star architect Calatrava, inaugurated in 2015, deals with the world of tomorrow.
The Museu de Arte Moderna has one of the most interesting collections on the continent.
More architecturally interesting is the Oskar Niemeyer building of the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói in Rio’s sister city on the other side of the bridge.
In the Santa Teresa district, the Chácara do Céu Museum is well worth a visit, with its collection dedicated mainly to classical modernism.
Unique is the collection of the Museu Internacional de Arte Naïf with works from several centuries and countries, which is housed in a beautiful old building near the base station of the Corcovado cable car.
In Botafogo, we recommend a visit to the Museo do Indio, located in an old villa surrounded by a garden and dedicated to the indigenous peoples of Brazil.
The Escola de Artes visuais, dedicated to the visual arts, resides in a very beautiful building with a courtyard surrounded by arcades, a pool and a nice café in the Parque Lage, a green oasis on the edge of the Botanical Garden (also very worth seeing).