Mountains and ocean are ever present in Rio. The city has essentially squeezed itself into any available space on the tiny littoral between the two. The city is traditionally divided into four zones: North (Zona Norte), Center (Centro), West (Zona Oeste), and South (Zona Sul).
Zona Norte -- Largest and least interesting from a visitor's perspective, the Zona Norte stretches from a few blocks north of Avenida Presidente Vargas all the way to the city limits. With only a few bright exceptions -- the Maracanã stadium, the Quinta da Boa Vista gardens, the Floresta da Tijuca park, and Galeão Airport -- the region is a dull swath of port, residential high-rise, industrial suburb, and favela. It's not the sort of place one should wander unaccompanied.
Zona Oeste -- The Zona Oeste houses some of the poorest and richest neighborhoods of the city. Inland on one side of a wide lagoon there's Cidade de Deus -- featured in the movie City of God -- a huge low-income housing project built in the 1960s to relocate people from downtown slums out to what was then the far edge of the city. On the waterfront are the seaside condominium enclaves Barra da Tijuca and Recreio. Beyond Recreio is Grumari, a pristine beach on the city's outskirts.
Centro -- Rio's Centro neighborhood, the oldest part of the city, is where you'll find 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 São Bento Monastery 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 to the Sambodromo (near Praça XI). Bustling with life during the week, on weekends and particularly Sundays, this area becomes very deserted, and a little too spooky to warrant a visit.
Zona Sul -- the Bay -- Just to the south of Centro lies the fun and slightly bohemian hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa, and then one after the other the neighborhoods of Glória, Catete, and Flamengo. These last three were the fashionable sections of the city around the start of the 20th century, located as they were on flat ground by the edge of Guanabara Bay. Other neighborhoods in this section include Botafogo and Urca (nestled beneath the Sugarloaf), and in the narrow valley behind Flamengo the two residential neighborhoods of Laranjeiras and Cosme Velho. Today they're all still pleasant and walkable -- Botafogo was more commercial, but has been undergoing a residential boom over the past few years; Catete and Flamengo contain a number of historic buildings -- but their bloom faded in the 1920s when engineers cut a tunnel through the mountainside to Copacabana.
Zona Sul -- the Beaches -- Then, as now, the big attraction was the ocean. Where Centro and Flamengo sit on Guanabara Bay, Copacabana, Ipanema, São Conrado, and Barra de Tijuca face the open Atlantic. The waves are bigger, the water cleaner, and the beaches more inviting. First to be developed, Copacabana officially covers only the lower two-thirds of the beach. The northern third (the bit closest to Urca, farthest from Ipanema) is known as Leme. Taking a 90-degree turn around a low headland, one comes to Ipanema. Like Copacabana, Ipanema is a modern neighborhood, consisting almost exclusively of high-rise apartments from the '60s and '70s. Here, too, the same stretch of beach is considered to be two neighborhoods: Ipanema sits next to Copacabana, while the area at the far end of the beach is known as Leblon. Again, the two ends of the beach are nearly indistinguishable, though Leblon has a few more restaurants. Behind Ipanema there's a lagoon, the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, which is circled by a pleasant 8.5km (5 1/4-mile) walking/cycling trail. At its north end, farthest from the beach, stand the two quiet residential neighborhoods of Lagoa and Jardim Botânico, the latter named for the extensive botanical gardens around which the area grew.
At the far end of Ipanema stands a tall sheer double-pointed rock called the Pedra Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Rock). The road carries on, winding around the cliff face to reach the tiny enclave of São Conrado. One of the better surfing beaches, this is also where the hang gliders like to land after swooping down from the 830m (2,700-ft.) Pedra de Gâvea.
At night, the wide beaches are dark and mostly deserted; if you're in the mood for a moonlit stroll, stick to the brightly lit and police-patrolled pedestrian walkway that parallels the beach.
Beyond the Beaches -- Beyond São Conrado, the road goes up on stilts to sneak beneath the cliffs until reaching Barra da Tijuca. More like Miami Beach than Rio, Barra -- as it's usually called -- is a land of big streets, big malls, big cars, and big condominium towers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.