Say "Rio" and mental images explode: the glittering skimpy costumes of Carnaval; the statue of Christ, arms outspread on the mountaintop; the beach at Ipanema, crowded with women in minuscule bikinis; the rocky Sugarloaf; or the persistent rhythm of the samba.
Fortunately in Rio there's much more beyond the glitter: historic neighborhoods, compelling architecture, wildlife and nature, dining (fine and not so fine), nightspots, cafes, museums, and enclaves of rich and poor. In Rio, the more you explore, the more there is.
Stunning as the physical setting is -- mountains tumbling down to sandy beaches and the sea -- Rio was not always the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city) it would become. The town grew up as a shipping center for gold and supplies during Brazil's 18th-century gold rush. In 1762, the colonial capital was transferred from Salvador to Rio, though the city remained a dusty colonial backwater.
In 1808, the Portuguese royal family fled Lisbon ahead of Napoleon's armies and moved court and the capital to Rio. Accustomed to the style of European capitals, the prince regent and the 12,000 nobles who accompanied him began to transform Rio into a city of ornate palaces and landscaped parks. High culture arrived in the form of a new library, an academy of arts and sciences, and the many glittering balls held by the imported elite. King João VI's son, Pedro, liked Rio so much that when the king returned to Lisbon, Pedro stayed on and declared Brazil independent.
Now the capital of a country larger and richer than many in Europe, Rio grew at a phenomenal pace; by the late 1800s it was one of the largest cities in the world. A sizable segment of the population were Brazilians of African descent who brought with them the musical traditions of Africa and the Brazilian Northeast.
A new "low culture" of distinctly Brazilian music began to develop in the city's poorer neighborhoods. The high point of the year for both high and low cultures was the celebration of Carnaval. In palace ballrooms the elite held elaborate costume balls. In the streets, poorer residents staged their own all-night parades. Not until the 1920s did the two celebrations begin to merge. Low culture influenced composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, who incorporated Brazilian rhythms and sounds into his classical compositions. Gowns and costumes at the elite balls got more elaborate, not to mention more risqué. At about the same time, the first road was punched through to Copacabana, and Cariocas (as Rio residents are called) flocked to the new community by the beach.
All of these elements came together in the 1930s with the opening of the Copacabana Palace hotel -- a luxury hotel on Copacabana beach with a nightclub that featured exclusively Brazilian music. The 1933 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Flying Down to Rio portrayed Rio as a city of beach, song, and beautiful, passionate people. The image held enough truth that the iconography has stuck through the end of the 20th century and beyond.
In the years following World War II, São Paulo took over as Brazil's industrial leader; the federal capital moved inland to Brasilia in the early 1960s. By the 1980s, violence and crime plagued the country, and Rio was perceived as the sort of place where walking down the street was asking for a mugging. Cariocas began to fear for the future of their city.
Fortunately, in the early 1990s, governments began putting money back into basic services; cops were stationed on city streets, on public beaches, and anywhere else there seemed to be a problem. Public and private owners began renovating the many heritage buildings of the city's colonial core. Rio's youth rediscovered samba, returning to pack renovated clubs in the old bohemian enclave of Lapa. Rio began reaching out to the rest of the world, with successful bids to host the Pan-American games in 2007, followed by soccer's World Cup in 2014, capped off with the city's selection to host the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.
A city of some seven million and growing, Rio remains one of Brazil's media capitals, an important business center, and Brazil's key tourist destination.
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