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Rio de Janeiro is called the ‚cidade maravilhosa‘ (marvelous city) for a good reason. The expression, originally from a 1935 carnival song, became the city’s official soubriquet in the 1960s.

It may be hackneyed, but it’s irresistible: ‚marvelous‘ is the first adjective to spring to mind when one gazes out over Rio, with its incredible topology of mountains and sea, forests and enormous rock formations.

Map of the Rio de Janeiro City

Rio’s unique geography makes it an active, outward-looking city. Visitors can enjoy large, open spaces in numerous ways: hang gliding and paragliding, rock-climbing, surfing, hiking through the forest, bike riding, strolling along the beaches and beachside promenades, or just wandering around and sampling the refreshments sold right on the street. Roaming the streets gives one a chance to discover that this sunny, easy-going, sports-loving city is also steeped, by pure good fortune, in history and culture. In the early sixteenth century, Rio’s beautiful Guanabara Bay dazzled the first Portuguese sailors to arrive there. It wasn’t long before the region attracted other Europeans -mainly the French, who saw these lush lands as a perfect location for their long dreamed- of France Antarctique.

Map Rio de Janeiro

The French formed alliances with local indigenous groups, taking advantage of the tensions between these populations and the Portuguese invaders, and decades of violent struggle ensued. While assembling an attack force in 1565, the Portuguese military officer Estácia de Sá founded the hamlet of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro. Two years later, the Portuguese drove the French out of the region for good. Built on a hilltop, the hamlet expanded out toward the plains.

It grew in size and importance in the seventeenth century, as gold prospecting blossomed in the interior region called Minas Gerais. During this period, the port of Rio received slave ships from Africa and sent Brazilian gold to Portugal.

In 1763, Rio became capital of the colony, and in 1808, during the Napoleonic Wars, the Portuguese court fled there for safety. Rio thus became the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarve. It remained the capital of Brazil until the current capital, the built-for-the-purpose city of Brasilia, opened for business in 1960.

Rio is eternally fascinating to Brazilians and foreigners alike. It preserves vestiges of its various pasts, including the eras in which it was the seat of colonial government, then the center of an empire, and even the head of the early Brazilian republic.

In keeping with that historical melange, it wears many architectural styles. The iconic stone arches of the Lapa Aqueduct were built in 1757, for example, while the art deco buildings in neighborhoods such as Urea, Gloria and Copacabana are reminiscent of the 1930s.

Baroque churches abound and include Mosteiro de São Bento (built 1633-1690), Convento de Santo Antonio (1608-1620), Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitencia (1657-1747) and Ordem Primeira de Nossa Senhora do Carma (1761). But neoclassical buildings, such as the Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura (1837), dominate downtown Rio. And modernist influences are evident in such buildings as the Palacio Gustavo Capanema (1937-43).

Bronze statues made in France speckle the city’s public squares. (Rio has the highest number of French-made statues outside of Paris.) Also among the buildings, as well as in them, is a plethora of museums, cultural centers, art galleries, theatres, cinemas, and bookshops.

Take, for example, the Brazilian Academy of Letters, founded by legendary Brazilian writer Machado de Assis in 1897, which now occupies a house built in 1922 for the centenary celebrations of Brazil’s independence. Or consider the beautiful building occupied by the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center (1880-1906).

The city also has a virtual infinity of bars and taverns, some of which are institutions among cariocas (Rio natives).These popular hangouts live in harmony with more upscale restaurants, nightclubs, show venues, stores, and shopping centers. Additionally, there is the ubiquitous presence of music: not just samba, but choro, jongo,  bossa nova, funk, jazz, MPB (Brazilian popular music) and electronic music. There is room for everything -and everyone.

Rio de Janeiro’s seductiveness arises from this blend of culture and landscape. A little bit of its ability to charm resides each facet of its complex personality. Those facets -the busy beaches, the athleticism, the carnival parades, and the cable cars that climb Sugarloaf Mountain- may be nothing new. But, as the old carnival song says, they are indeed irresistible.

The distinctive sidewalks of the world-famous Copacabana beach.

Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide and Vacation information

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