Consider Rio as Brazil’s answer to Miami, but the Miami that has emerged since Art Basel arrived. It has the same proliferation of grown-up art, dining and hotel options, thanks to the notable chefs and designers who have moved in, following in the footsteps of the well-heeled Paulistas who all seem to have second homes there. The city is also now safer and cleaner, intent on proving that it will be ready for the spotlight in 2014, when it hosts the World Cup, and 2016 for the Olympics. New roads, stadiums and hotels are being built, investment has been funnelled into the city’s police and security forces, and the recently privatised airports are being completely overhauled, making it easier to get around. “Everything is growing more sophisticated there,” says Daniela Falcão, editor of Vogue Brasil. “Before, Rio was somewhere you went for the weekend for a bit of sun and nightlife. Now São Paulo fashion and media companies are viewing it as a serious second base.”
Amid this resurgence, fuelled by the economic wave that has recently lifted the entire country, the epicentre of Rio has shifted. While Copacabana beach and the legendary Copacabana Palace hotel are still city icons – the hotel restaurant is the preferred power spot for ladies who lunch, and its pool is among the most atmospheric in the world – the main action has moved to less touristy (and less petty-crime-ridden) Ipanema and Leblon.
The Fasano hotel, which has just celebrated its fifth anniversary, is the city’s style anchor, falling midway along the two beaches. Gisele and other A-list Brazilians pay the night’s stay just to use the guests-only rooftop pool with its iconic outlook on the Sugarloaf – perfectly complemented by toned, thonged bottoms – and one of the best sunset views on the continent. Rooms are Starck-chic, but with a touch of a ship’s captain’s quarters – all have marble bathrooms and vintage photos of Ipanema in its heyday printed on to sliding doors. Reservations at the restaurant, Fasano al Mare, are practically impossible on the weekends, especially for the romantic, niched tables. Meanwhile, the Fasano Group’s excellent and well-established Italian, Gero Ipanema, is still a city hotspot, with excellent pasta and seafood.
Rio’s more intimate options are La Suite, by the surfers’ beach known as Joatinga, and La Maison, near the Botanical Garden. With seven luxe bedrooms with wonderful views at the former and five simple rooms at the latter (where only two have air conditioning, so reserve one in advance), the hotels are the joint labour-of-love projects of a French family, which has brought a chic but decidedly cosy atmosphere to a city that can feel rather overwhelming.
Change is also afoot in charmingly gritty Santa Teresa, the old colonial neighbourhood perched high above the historical quarter of Lapa that has now been officially discovered (or “rediscovered”, as Cariocas would maintain). Steep cobblestoned streets and dilapidated but romantic storefronts are punctuated by boutique shops and alluring cafés, and feel a world away from the chaotic traffic and crowds below. The Hotel Santa Teresa is an oasis, with a secluded lap pool and a terrace overlooking the city. The bar, with daybeds perfect for reclining with a Caipirinha, has an incredible sunset vista. Don’t miss the local museum, Castro Maya, with a wonderful collection of Matisse, Modigliani, Degas and Brazilian heavyweights such as Antonio Bandeira, or the cultural centre of former resident Laurinda Santos Lobo (who was an accomplished photographer), which offers another breathtaking view. The Santa Teresa table to book is Aprazível, which creatively reinterprets northern Brazilian food (prawns grilled with saffron rice, crab salads, fish baked in banana leaves).
For all its charm, Santa Teresa’s a bit of a commute from the beach enclaves most visitors spend much of their time in. Of these, Leblon is arguably the best area to make a base. At the 38-room Marina All Suites, the staff are the main draw, scoring restaurant reservations and divulging the best shopping tips with unfaltering grace. Even during Carnival, a crazy time to visit, they keep their cool, ensuring you have a birds’-eye view of the floats and the perfect sun lounger on the beach. All of which compensates for the bathrooms, which are clean if a little tired and could do with an upgrade.
Leblon is chock-a-block with boutiques and restaurants tucked away in residential streets. On Rua Dias Ferreiria, the neighbourhood’s main artery, for example, Sushi Leblon is the city’s standard, with mango standing in for avocado in the California rolls, and chilli sprinkled on the spicy tuna version. Late last year the owners opened the sleek Brigite’s just across the street; it is the new must for cocktails or dinner. The whitewashed walls, pale wood floors and chalkboards bring a fresh modern quality to the ambience. Meanwhile, Claude Troisgros’s destination restaurant, Olympe, is still a knockout (and with his son at the co-helm, plenty of new combinations are appearing on the menu). Recently, Troisgros opened CT Boucherie in Leblon, a temple to meat with prime rib, veal, chateaubriand and delicious plates of charcuterie among the options (although the steak is intentionally the absolute standout). Around the corner, Jobi exemplifies how Rio is still partial to its classic institutions; it’s a spot where old-timers and fashionable insiders hang out late into the night snacking on empanadas (savoury pastries) and chopps (draft beer served in half glasses).
Leblon is also a shoppers’ dream. Isabela Capeto, the city’s answer to Temperley, has gorgeous floaty dresses and handmade shoes and bags. Patrícia Viera, one of Brazil’s most famous designers, got her start with Sally Mee in London and now shows at São Paulo’s Fashion Week; her curve-hugging dresses and pencil skirts in embellished fabrics are a wonderful interpretation of the current 1950s silhouette. Adriana Barra carries her own experimental designs as well as quality vintage that she curates herself. There’s also the bookshop Livraria Argumento, which has a wonderful café in which to while away a few hours reading local design magazines and sipping fresh juices or a faultless coffee.
Brazil is becoming increasingly known for some of the best Italian food outside the country, and a prime example is Duo in the up-and-coming Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood. Opened by a former Fasano chef and sommelier, the menu includes incredibly succulent lobster carpaccio, gnocchi cooked al dente with asparagus and seafood, fresh-from-the-sea grouper with olives and pine nuts, plus one of the finest (almost exclusively Italian) wine cellars in Rio. After dinner, head to Rio Scenarium in Lapa for excellent live music and three floors of people watching.
Artistic pursuits are also getting a welcome reboot, in a city with no shortage of them. One of the most interesting new projects, Instituto Moreira Salles, is a cultural centre, museum and exhibition space rolled into one. It was founded by the late father of director Walter Salles Jr, who used it for the premiere of his film, The Motorcycle Diaries, in 2004. This architectural gem was built as a private home for Salles but the gardens (designed by Brazilian landscape impresario Roberto Burle Marx) and modernist showcase can now be enjoyed by visitors. It’s a very significant, and totally representative, opening.
The real culture of Rio, though, remains the ever-engrossing pastime of watching the world go by, preferably on the beach, where much of life takes place. The full-scale embrace of the body beautiful – complete with thong-centric and shorter-than-short gym outfits – is both cliché and reality here. So in between shopping and dining, be sure to leave some time for lounging beside the sea, in true Carioca style.