Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second most populated city, is beloved by pleasure seekers for its sexy beaches and celebratory Carnival festival, which is the largest in the world. Located along a beautiful coastline and encircled by mountains, the city was originally founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese. But after hosting the 2015 Summer Olympics, Rio experienced economic turmoil and political upheaval — it is fair to say that the city is as famous for its glamorous Ipanema Beach as it is its impoverished favelas.
Rio de Janeiro is also the birthplace of the great Modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, who designed several monumental buildings as well as a handful of private residences across the city. Niemeyer’s influence on Brazil, and in particular, Rio, is unmistakable, but there is also a wealth of architecture, design and art across the city that reflects Brazil’s rich past.
This 1923 landmark, in the style of a grand European hotel, has managed to retain its old-world charm without relinquishing modern comforts. The best rooms of this Art Deco palace overlook the famous Copacabana Beach, whose bossa-nova-patterned boardwalk was designed by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. There are three excellent restaurants to choose from: the casual Pergula, where breakfast is served every morning; the Pan-Asian (though mostly Japanese) Mee; and the more refined Cipriani’s. Smaller touches, including the chamomile-scented eye mask by the bedside table and the fresh orange- and lemon-infused water available in the lobby during the afternoons, make this classic destination feel new but not trendy.
Conceived by the restaurateur and hotelier Rogério Fasano, this eponymously named hotel in Rio de Janeiro’s beachside Zona Sul neighborhood (the original Fasano is in São Paulo) is a glamorous destination for the more flashy and jet-setting crowd. Philippe Starck designed the interiors, with beautiful dark wood floors, Dalí-like mirrors shaped like ears and worn leather chairs by Sergio Rodrigues. The tasteful ground-floor restaurant, Fasano al Mare, offers grilled langoustines and handmade pasta amid sheer white curtains and Murano crystal lights. But the real reason to book a room here is for the rooftop pool, with stunning views of Ipanema Beach.
Located in a century-old mansion in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, this boutique hotel offers a more rustic choice of accommodations. Still, there is a romantic sensibility that you can’t find elsewhere: Each room is dedicated to a different starlet (e.g., Carmen Miranda or Josephine Baker), and the colonial architecture is tastefully juxtaposed with a healthy collection of Brazilian contemporary art. The rooms feature high ceilings and sumptuous bathtubs — plus the hotel has a veranda and an elegant outdoor swimming pool for all to enjoy. Breakfast is served in the rooms, but there is no restaurant in the establishment.
Situated on a hilltop in Santa Teresa, this restaurant feels more like a treehouse, with its thatched-roof verandas and unfussy wooden tables. Its chef and owner, Ana Castilho, who runs the place with her two sons, features cuisine from all parts of the country; try the dishes from Castilho’s home state of Minas Gerais, such as the chicken and rice with plantains and greens. There are Brazilian takes on vegan dishes, too, such as gnocchi made with hearts of palm. It goes without saying that sampling the variety of caipirinhas is a must.
Sud o Pássaro Verde Café
In the jungly neighborhood of Jardim Botânico, this casual establishment spotlights chef Roberta Sudbrack’s commitment to delicious, uncomplicated food above all else. Reminiscent of what Alice Waters pioneered with Chez Panisse, the restaurant’s menu changes with the seasons. A recent sampling included fresh burrata, roasted corn and handmade sausage. It’s best to show up early or late: There are a limited number of tables, and the establishment doesn’t take reservations. +55 21 3114 0464
This upscale Mediterranean-style restaurant is a must, beloved by locals for having some of the best seafood in the city. The displays of fresh fish, as well as the tanks filled with live lobsters and other shellfish, show how much the owners, Marly and Leopardi Miro, prize quality above all else. The menu offers every imaginable creature from the sea: squid, octopus, haddock, tuna, prawns, oysters, clams, swordfish, to name just a few, and prepared every which way. Vegetarians can enjoy the selection of salads and pasta, and the expansive wine cellar does not disappoint.
The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum
Located in the nearby city of Niterói, and designed by Oscar Niemeyer late in his career, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum opened in 1996 and is considered one of the last great buildings by the Brazilian Modernist. Shaped like a giant saucer, with a decadent entrance ramp curling out like a giant red snake, the building appears to hover just above Guanabara Bay, offering beautiful views of Rio de Janeiro. Inside, see expertly curated Brazilian and Latin American art. +55 21 2620 2400
Casa das Canoas
Oscar Niemeyer designed this house for himself, which he built early in his career. With views of both the ocean and the mountains, Casa das Canoas incorporates many of the principles that made the architect famous: The pool melds with a large boulder; the curving walls and windows undulate to a silent rhythm; light flings itself across the upstairs space. These days, it is run and maintained by the Niemeyer Foundation. You will need to book an appointment in advance to visit. +55 21 3322 0642
Museum of Modern Art (MAM)
The Museum of Modern Art’s building, made of concrete, was designed by Affonso Eduardo Reidy in the 1950s. Roberto Burle Marx (who is also responsible for the nearby Flamengo Park) oversaw the surrounding gardens. Despite a tragic fire in 1978 that destroyed much of the art, the museum still has a spectacular permanent collection of Brazil’s most renowned artists, such as Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape and Mira Schendel.
São Bento Monastery
At the end of the 16th century, monks traveling south from the city of Salvador built this Roman Catholic house of worship. Do not be fooled by the simple exterior; inside is a breathtaking example of the Baroque style of architecture associated with Portuguese colonialism. Details include the gilded altar and painted ceiling, plus giant silver chandeliers that weigh over 300 pounds apiece.
The Parque Lage Art School is another relic of Rio’s colonial past. Built in the 1920s, it was once a mansion for a wealthy Brazilian shipbuilder Henrique Late, who wanted to impress his new wife, the Italian singer Gabriela Besanzoni. In 1975, it opened as a multidisciplinary art school. Right next door is the great botanical garden of Rio, which is worth strolling through before it closes at sunset.
Sitio Roberto Burle Marx
The landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx’s original home, this beautiful estate is an hour and a half drive from Rio’s center, and worth an afternoon trip. Visit a 17th-century Benedictine chapel along with Marx’s original farmhouse and studio, where his paintings and sculptures are still on display. Walk through the gardens, which showcase thousands of different plant species, and pack a lunch — the establishment doesn’t have a restaurant. Tours are by appointment only. +55 21 2410 1412
Instituto Moreira Salles
Situated in a mansion initially designed in 1948 for the ambassador Walther Moreira Salles by one of Oscar Niemeyer’s mentors, Lúcio Costa, this beautiful house in the Gávea neighborhood has been transformed into a cultural center devoted to film and photography. The several pavilions showcase a variety of exhibitions at once, and a small indoor cafe offers the chance to sit down for a meal, preferably by Salles’s original swimming pool.