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As it enters the global spotlight, Brazil’s party capital is showing off a more sophisticated edge.  

BY PAOLA SINGER

An aerial view of Flamengo park. (Photo: Donatas Dabravolskas) 

An aerial view of Flamengo park. (Photo: Donatas Dabravolskas) 

I grew up south of the border from Brazil, in small, unassuming Uruguay. By comparison, our outsize neighbor seemed utterly extravagant, with its delirious samba and sensuous bossa nova, its tropical jungles and abrupt mountains, not to mention ethnically diverse, flamboyant locals. The first time I traveled to Rio de Janeiro, a city that exudes exoticism, I was seven. My mother took me to Copacabana Beach, where a local boy looked me straight in the eye and declared “eu gosto de você” (I like you), making my cheeks burn hotter than the austral sun. I’ve visited this marvelous and bewildering town many times since: my memories include bouncing with throngs of Guns ’N’ Roses fans at Maracanã Stadium, riding on a sweaty bus along the seaside Avenida Vieira Souto, shopping for designer bikinis in Ipanema, and drinking too-strong caipirinhas in Leblon. 

In the last five years, Rio has been thrust into the spotlight like never before. Every aspect of the place, from its dazzling landscape, to the construction frenzy that’s helping to revitalize entire neighborhoods, to the accumulation of financial troubles and political calamities, has been scrutinized by the entire globe. When Rio was chosen to host the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming Olympics, Brazil’s economy was thriving. That’s no longer true. A corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the giant state-owned oil company that accounts for 10 percent of the economy, didn’t help, nor did the recent impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff. Social programs have been cut back and crime is on the rise again, not long after an initiative to pacify the infamous favelas had shown positive results. 

Amid these setbacks, Rio still had to prepare for back-to-back mega-events. There were roads, public parks, and stadiums to be built, all while the city faced criticism for spending too much money on infrastructure and not enough on things like salaries for teachers and police officers.

But Cariocas certainly know how to put on a good show, even if there’s a bit of chaos going on backstage. After all, they’re the arbiters of carnaval, a street party like no other. And right now, Rio looks positively great. Brazilian masters of architecture like Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa, and Affonso Eduardo Reidy laid the groundwork for what has become a new vanguard of imaginative buildings from leading international firms. Following years of renovations, the formerly deteriorated port, rechristened Porto Maravilha, was transformed into a modern waterfront destination with sleek new plazas, promenades, and museums. Downtown’s historic Praça Tiradentes—site of the oldest public statue in the city—was brought back to its former glory, attracting boutiques, cafes and cultural centers to the streets around it. Elsewhere, visitors will find no shortage of stylish hotels, restaurants, bars, and, as always, miles of beaches offering some of the most seductive panoramas in the world.

Culture

A clear beneficiary of Rio’s urban renewal is the cultural landscape. Museums, contemporary art galleries, and performance spaces have cropped up all over the city, most notably in the revamped port area, home to two leading institutions surrounding the sprawling harborside square Praça Mauá. Museu de Arte do Rio (museudeartedorio.org.br) is focused on visual arts portraying the city’s history. Designed by local architects Bernardes + Jacobsen, it’s housed with an adjoining art school in an eclectic-style palace from 1916 and a modernist bus station from 1940, two contrasting buildings unified by a futuristic undulating roof. A few steps away, on a bayside pier, Catalonian master Santiago Calatrava built the supernatural-looking Museum of Tomorrow (museudoamanha.org.br), a colossal, elongated structure with spiky white wings which holds avant-garde installations about science, biology, and the environment. Just as striking, the upcoming Museum of Image and Sound (mis-sp.org.br) displays a zigzagging facade that pays tribute to Roberto Burle Marx’s iconic Copacabana promenade. Diller Scofidio + Renfro was responsible for the edgy design that mixes indoor and outdoor areas. Brazil’s preeminent gallerist, Nara Roesler (nararoesler.com.br), recently opened an outpost of her São Paulo gallery inside a clean-lined house in Ipanema. Vik Muniz is among the artists who have presented solo exhibitions at the space. While not new, the Instituto Moreira Salles (ims.com.br) epitomizes Rio’s artistic spirit with a winsome mix of art, architecture, and landscaping. The center’s vast collection of photographs is held in a mansion completed in 1951 by architect Olavo Redig de Campos, an important Brazilian modernist, in collaboration with Marx, who designed the exuberant gardens.

Hotels

The deluge of visitors expected for the Olympics has prompted a boom of high-profile hotels. Tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and the Marapendi Lagoon in Barra da Tijuca, the just-opened Grand Hyatt Rio de Janeiro (riodejaneiro.grand.hyatt.com) is a 436-room urban resort whose clean, neutral-hued design, led by Yabu Pushelberg, lets the surrounding scenery shine. Yoo2 (yoo2.com), descended on hip Botafogo, now known as “BotaSoho,” showcasing Brazilian artists like Marcelo Ment, who created a graffiti mural along the entire elevator shaft (the lifts have glass walls). In the 143 rooms, a mostly gray palette is offset by colorful tables and views of Guanabara Bay. São Paulo’s sophisticated Hotel Emiliano (emiliano.com.br) unveiled a new sister property in Copacabana, where architect Arthur de Mattos Casas created a serene atmosphere, with a facade of light- manipulating brise-soleil shutters, a large Burle Marx painting in the lobby, and a nouveau Brazilian restaurant with de Mattos Casas’ Lampiã Chairs. At the fashionable Fasano (fasano.com.br) hotel, the standard-bearer for boutique style, Philippe Starck took cues from the Bossa Nova heyday of the ’50s and ’60s. While the 91 masculine suites, featuring curvaceous wood and dark fabrics, are exceptionally attractive, they can hardly compete with the glamorous scene at the rooftop pool and unobstructed views of the Dois Irmãos mountain. A few blocks inland, on a lushly fronded hill straddling Ipanema and Copacabana, Casa Mosquito (casamosquito.com) is a petit French-owned manse and popular fashion shoot set. Each of the nine breezy rooms has a distinct color scheme and handpicked vintage furniture and honors late musicians like Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes.

Restaurants & Bars

Rio’s cuisine hasn’t traditionally earned many accolades, but the recent arrival of several ambitious chefs whose work highlights the country’s biodiversity has resulted in a string of international awards. Last year’s inaugural edition of the Brazilian Michelin Guide bestowed stars on six restaurants, including Lasai (lasai.com.br), where former Mugaritz right-hand-man Rafa Costa e Silva serves Basque-inspired dishes made with meticulously sourced ingredients. The relaxed dining room in Botafogo occupies a renovated 1902 residence, where distressed wooden panels in mismatched colors are paired with warm midcentury furnishings. By contrast, the new Simon Boccanegra (boccanegra.com.br) in nearby Copacabana is all glass, velour, and bronze. Italian designer Alessio Carpanelli is behind the operatic atmosphere, including a towering cellar with 300 labels from Italy. Natural and biodynamic wines, many from Vale dos Vinhedos in southern Brazil, are the calling card at (ro-raw.com), a raw-food restaurant bordering the city’s botanical garden. Architect André Piva uncovered weathered bricks during renovations, and offset the floor-to-ceiling Mondrian-style glass cubes by partially exposing the kitchen. A few blocks east is Eleven (elevenrio.com.br), an exciting newcomer that just gave the city its seventh Michelin star. Acclaimed German-born chef Joachim Koerper hired architect Antunes Schor Arquitetos to create an elegant dining room, with classic wicker-back bentwood chairs and abstract photographs. Hyper-fresh dishes, such as scallops from Ilha Grande served over a spicy avocado cream, are the staple of Bazzar (bazzar.com.br), a favorite among Ipanema residents who congregate at the recently debuted bar, a rectangular 12-seat counter clad in blond wood and black tiles. Tunnel-like curved walls covered in flaxen slats set the mesmerizingly aesthetic scene at Gurumê (japagurume.com.br), a Japanese restaurant in São Conrado designed by top local firm Bernardes Arquitetura.

Shopping

Havaianas and string bikinis are no longer the style emblems of Rio—not the only ones, at least. Following in the footsteps of pioneers like Oskar Metsavaht, whose collections have been shown at New York Fashion Week, local designers are gaining global traction. The emerging shopping district is based around Praça Tiradentes, where German-Egyptian owner Amran Frey’s concept store Frey Kalioubi (freykalioubi.com.br) is situated on a whitewashed second-floor loft, and sells limited-edition geometric shirts and wood-framed sunglasses. Rustic wood walls, molded Eames chairs, and vintage mannequins imbue a workshop ambiance at Mônica Pondé (monicaponde.com.br) in Leblon, where the eponymous architect-designer displays her distinctive leather and silver jewelry inspired by nature. Dona Coisa (instagram.com/donacoisa), a multibrand boutique near the botanical garden, started out as a small mom-and-pop, now it occupies four neighboring storefronts, and is decorated like a contemporary residence. It stocks top Brazilian brands like Melissa shoes, Tartuferia gourmet products, and Serpui handbags. Metsavaht’s international brand Osklen (osklen.com), known for fusing urban styles with a sustainable ethos, has a flagship store in Ipanema that evokes the designer’s cosmopolitan yet laid-back lifestyle, with longboards used as wall art, cement floors, and polished wood shelves.