Rio de Janeiro 101

The Portuguese arrived in 1502, the French in 1555. The Tupinambá, a native people, had been here forever, around the shores of the perfect series of coves and beaches they called Guanabara, or Bosom of the Sea. The Portuguese named it Rio de Janeiro—“The River of January”—because “rio” in ancient Portuguese meant “body of water” and because January it was. The land was marsh, swamp and sandpit; yellow fever and malaria abounded, but the location was strategic, an ideal southern outpost on the Spice Trail. And it was beautiful: “pure beauty as God intended,” in the words of an emissary to the Portuguese king in the early 1800s, when Napoleon was ravaging Europe and the Portuguese court was planning to relocate to the Bosom of the Sea.

Colonial capital, home to the Portuguese court from 1808 to 1821, capital of the Brazilian Empire and its republic until 1960—Rio de Janeiro has an aristocratic heart deeply concealed in an elegant, brave, optimistic soul. For a moment that lasted from Emperor Pedro II’s visionary rule in the mid-1800s to mid-20th-century affluence, Rio fully inhabited its destiny as a tropical metropolis, a center for what anthropologist Gilberto Freyre called “a new civilization.”

Deprived of status, and progressively of funds, when the capital was moved to Brasília, Rio nonetheless endured. Its sophisticated spirit, impeccable taste, indestructible lust for life and generous hospitality have remained largely intact.

Why Go Now

In terms of sheer natural splendor, Rio de Janeiro is one of the most—if not the most—beautiful city on earth. No other city has acres of rain forest rolling down 1,000-foot mountains, mere steps from the ocean—all this a frame to first-class architecture and a springboard to an easygoing and sophisticated lifestyle. Rio is one of Latin America’s key cultural centers, a trendsetting city with centuries of political intrigue, literary and artistic movements and avant-garde ideas in the arts. São Paulo may hold the key to money and industry, but Rio is where things happen, where ideas matter, where fame is made and beauty remains.

When To Go

A true tropical metropolis, Rio has two main seasons, rainy (spring and summer) and dry (fall and winter), and subtle temperature variations between them. The city sits on a series of plains between the Atlantic Ocean and rain-forest-covered mountains, so it tends to be humid year-round. May through August (fall and winter in the Southern Hemisphere) is the best time to enjoy civilized temperatures (60s to 80s), balmy breezes, crystal-clear skies and a Fauve palette of oranges, yellows and purples over the mountains as flowers bloom in the rain forest. The days are shorter here—expect gorgeous sunsets at 5 p.m. You’ll get much of the same weather and a lot more flowers and colors in spring (September through November), but Rio’s long rainy season will be in full force. In summer (December through March), the city comes alive in all its hedonistic glory, but temperatures soar well into the 100s and stay there.

Carioca Tip: Rainstorms can come suddenly and be quite fierce, with flooding and massive traffic jams. Locals trust a centuries-old weather forecast tool: the wind. No matter the season, the moment the wind shifts to the southwest, rain will follow and the temperature will drop.

Getting Around

Both Downtown and Zona Sul—roughly anything between City Center and Barra da Tijuca—are fairly simple to navigate: mountains to the north, ocean to the south. Aeroporto Antonio Carlos Jobim is the international airport, sixteen miles from the South Zone. Locals know it as Galeão (literally, galleon); its code is GIG. Average transfer time to most South Zone destinations is forty minutes.

Published onFebruary 9, 2014

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