Rio is normally divided into three zones: North (Zona Norte) from a few blocks north of Avenida Presidente Vargas all the way to the city limits; Center (Centro), defined narrowly as the old downtown and business section, or known in a broader sense to include older residential neighborhoods like Santa Teresa, Catete, and Glória; and South (Zona Sul), the beach neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, Leme, Lagoa, and São Conrado.
The place where it all began, Rio's Centro contains most of the city's notable churches, squares, monuments, and museums, as well as the modern office towers where Rio's white-collar elite earn their daily bread. Roughly speaking, Centro stretches from the Morro de São Bento in the north to the seaside Monument to the Dead of World War II in the south, and from Praça XV on the waterfront east more or less to the Sambodromo. It's a compact, pleasantly walkable area; crossing from one side of downtown to the other on foot takes no more than 45 minutes.
Rio (and Centro's) first and most important square is Praça XV, located in the center of the city's old waterfront. This is the place where governors and emperors resided, and the site where the Brazilian republic was proclaimed on November 15, 1889. Notable sights around the square include the Paço Imperial, and on the north side of the square, the Arco do Teles. Walk through this unobtrusive old archway, and you come to a tiny remnant of old colonial Rio, complete with narrow shop fronts and cobblestone streets. The area's main street, the Travessa do Comércio, transforms into a lively outdoor patio/pub in the evenings.
Forming the back edge of Praça XV is Rua Primeiro de Março, a busy commercial street with a number of churches, including the Ordem Terceiro do Carmo, the Santa Cruz dos Militares, and near the far end of the street the massive yet lovely Nossa Senhora de Candelária. Continue along Primeiro de Março to the end, and you come to the foot of the hill upon which rests the São Bento Monastery. Southward, the Premeiro de Março transforms into Avenida Presidente Antônio Carlos, the main street of a not-very-interesting area of government office towers known as Castelo.
Continuing west from Praça XV along either the Rua Ouvidor or the Rua Sete de Setembro takes you to Centro's prime upscale shopping enclave. Its far border is marked (more or less) by the Avenida Rio Branco. Created in 1905 as an answer to Paris's Champs-Elysées, Rio Branco is still the city's most desirable commercial address. It runs from the cruise-ship terminal on the Praça Mauá southward to the pretty Parisian square known as Cinelândia. About halfway along, a block to the east of Rio Branco, lies the large irregular Largo da Carioca.
Though not very interesting in itself, the square is useful as a landmark. Above it on a hilltop stands the glorious golden Igreja de Santo Antônio. To the north of the square, from Rua da Carioca to the vast, traffic-choked wasteland known on maps as the Avenida Presidente Vargas, and from Avenida Rio Branco in the east to the Campo de Santana park in the west, lies one of Rio's prime walking, shopping, and sightseeing areas. It's an area of narrow, irregular streets, two-story shops, little squares, and charming small churches. Among the chief sights are the Largo de São Francisco de Paula, the Real Gabinete Português (Royal Portuguese Reading Room), and an old-style tearoom called the Confeitaria Colombo. Shopaholics will enjoy the informal market centered on the Uruguaiana Metrô stop and the bargains to be had elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Looking south, the Largo da Carioca marks the transition from old Rio to new, and from low-rise to high-rise. Toward the east, Avenida República de Chile has many of the city's most important commercial skyscrapers, including the landmark Petrobras building and the distinctive conical ziggurat that is the Catedral Metropolitana. Just south of the modern concrete cathedral, the past makes a token resurgence in the form of the Arcos da Lapa, a Roman-style aqueduct that now carries trams south from the city center up to the hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa.
South and west of Largo da Carioca lies Cinelândia (officially called Praça Floriano), a Parisian city square faithfully reproduced all the way down to the opera house (or Teatro Municipal, as its called) and the many sidewalk cafes. Many of the high-rises surrounding the square show the Art Deco and modern touches of buildings from the '30s and '40s. Across from the Teatro stands the lovely neoclassical Biblioteca Nacional. It's worth poking your head in just to see the grand entrance hall with staircases extending up through a lofty atrium five floors high.
South again from Cinelândia, making use of a pedestrian overpass to cross a pair of wide and busy roads, you come to the man-made Parque do Flamengo; the chief sights in the park are the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) and the soaring concrete Monument to the Dead of World War II.
A tiny, funky little neighborhood once known as the "Montmartre of the Tropics," Lapa is easy to find. It's centered at the Largo da Lapa at the foot an old picturesque aqueduct known as the Arcos da Lapa. In addition to those two sights, Lapa offers some lovely old colonial buildings and -- in recent years -- an active nightlife scene.
Most hilltop neighborhoods in Rio are favelas -- unsanctioned shantytowns. Santa Teresa is anything but -- it's a respectable, slightly bohemian neighborhood with a number of sights to lure visitors. Chief among these is the bonde, the old-fashioned streetcar that whisks passengers from downtown over the Arcos da Lapa into Santa Teresa. The attractions in the Museu Chácara do Céu are worth a visit, and when you're done, wander the neighborhood enjoying the fabulous views, and the mix of modern, colonial, and Art Deco architecture.
Note: The Santa Teresa tram station is not easy to find. It's behind the big "hanging gardens" Petrobras building, on Rua Prof. Lélio Gama, a little street that runs off Rua Senador Dantas. A less charming but certainly more efficient connection is the Metrô/bus integração; take the Santa Teresa bus from the Cinelândia Metrô station (make sure you purchase the Metrô-integração ticket and save the stub to present to the bus driver).
Take a Break -- The perfect spot for a break in Santa Teresa is the Jasmim Manga Café, Largo dos Guimarães 143 (tel. 021/2242-2605). This cute courtyard cafe serves outstanding coffees and desserts.
Extending south from the Glória Metrô stop to the top end of Botafogo bay, these three neighborhoods once comprised Rio's toniest residential area -- that is, until the tunnel to Copacabana opened in 1922. Recently, however, the area's made a comeback as Carioca yuppies and other urban pioneers have discovered the advantages (high ceilings, huge windows, and so on) of the old 19th-century houses, while residents and visitors alike have realized that thanks to the Metrô, the area is but minutes from both Centro and Copacabana. The main north-south street -- known variously as the Rua da Glória, the Rua do Catete, and the Rua Marques de Abrantes -- is well worth an afternoon or evening stroll. Particularly pretty is the Largo do Machado, at the Metrô stop of the same name. For visitors, the chief attractions in this area include the lovely hilltop Church of Our Lady of Glória and the Catete Park and Palace, home to the Museum of the Republic.
The neighborhood Botafogo reacted to the rise of Copacabana and Ipanema by reinventing itself as a secondary commercial center. Its broad streets contain a number of office high-rises and big retail shopping malls, including the Shopping Rio Sul, the first mall to open in the city. The neighborhood is experiencing quite the revival with many new apartments going up and the opening of a several new movie theaters and restaurants. Botafogo has a couple of worthwhile sights of its own, including the Villa-Lobos and Indian museums and the bustling food fair and nighttime music-jam in the Cobal Public Market.
Urca is the pretty little neighborhood nestled round the foot of the Pão de Açúcar. Partly residential, partly home to a naval training college, the area was built on a landfill during the 1920s, thus accounting for the Art Deco and modern style of many of the neighborhood's buildings. Architecture aside, for nonresidents the only reason to visit Urca is for the views. The first is from the peak of Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar), reached by cable car from Urca's Avenida Pasteur. The second view can be enjoyed while strolling the sea wall on Avenida Portugal. A jutting peninsula, Urca provides an excellent vantage point from which to gaze back at the Rio skyline; its relative isolation makes it safe to stroll blithely along even late at night. And for those who think views go best with something cold, the third and final view spot is from a table at the Circulo Militar, on the edge of Praia Vermelha. The view of the Sugarloaf is without a doubt the best in town.
Beach! The one word comprises everything there is to say about Copacabana, but then it's a word that contains within it an endless variety of human behavior. Four kilometers (2 1/2 miles) long and bright white, Copacabana beach is the stage upon which people swim, surf, jog, preen, make sand castles, sunbathe, and play volleyball. The broad and beautifully landscaped Avenida Atlântica runs along the beach's entire length. Running parallel two streets inland, Nossa Senhora de Copacabana is the main shopping and commercial street. These two avenues and their many cross streets contain numerous hotels, restaurants, and bars.
The famous stretch of beach immortalized in Tom Jobim's song "The Girl from Ipanema" nestles in between Copacabana, Leblon, and Lagoa. No more than 8 blocks wide in some areas, it is one of the most coveted residential neighborhoods in all of Rio. Built mostly after Rio's Art Deco boom, there are very few landmark buildings to speak of; most apartment buildings are nondescript, some downright ugly. What Ipanema does offer is great shopping on Rua Visconde de Pirajá and its side streets, an excellent nightlife scene, some terrific restaurants, and of course, the beach, the major recreation area for residents and visitors alike. Joggers and walkers cruise the black-and-white patterned sidewalk every day of the week, but Sunday is the day to see and be seen when the beachside Avenida Vieira Souto is closed for traffic and people cycle, inline skate, and scooter along, at all times showing tans and tight form to advantage.
A smaller and, if anything, trendier version of Ipanema, Leblon sits directly to the east of Ipanema; the dividing line is the drainage canal for the Lagoa, now landscaped into a park called the Jardim de Ala. The most significant difference between the two neighborhoods is the street names. The beachside avenue in Leblon is known as Avenida Delfim Moreira, while the main shopping street is Avenida General Martin. Most of the best restaurants cluster around the end of Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva where it meets Rua Dias Ferreira.
Lagoa is an odd neighborhood, as the focus is the big lagoon (Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas) that drains into the ocean between Ipanema and Leblon. For the majority of Cariocas, this is primarily a recreation area. They come to walk, cycle, inline skate, or run the 8.5km (5 1/4-mile) pathway that circles the lagoon. In the afternoon and evening, the neighborhood's pleasures become more hedonistic as people come to the many waterside kiosks to grab a drink, have some food, or listen to live music.
Barra de Tijuca
The Brazilian envy of things American has finally expressed itself in architecture. Though ostensibly part of Rio de Janeiro, Barra (as it's usually called) looks and feels much like an American beach city, like L.A. or Miami Beach. Streets are wide and filled with 4*4s because in Barra -- as in L.A. -- only somebody who's a nobody walks. Instead, folks here drive -- to the beach, to their penthouse apartment, or to the full-size replica of Studio 54 at the American Center mall.
Tijuca National Park
Backstopping all of these Zona Sul neighborhoods is the massive Tijuca National Park. Mostly mountainous, the 3,300-hectare (8,151-acre) forest was begun in the 1800s as a personal project of the Emperor Dom Pedro II. It's invariably shown on maps as one big swatch of green, but in fact any number of shantytowns (favelas in Portuguese) have taken over parkland, usually in areas adjacent to official city neighborhoods. The park that's left -- and there's lots of it -- is cut through with excellent walking and hiking trails, many leading to peaks with fabulous views. Climb to the top of the Pico da Tijuca at 1,022m (3,352 ft.) on a sunny day, and beneath your feet you'll have a view of every neighborhood in Rio.