Just got back (April 2015) from an unstressed two weeks in Brazil and wanted to document just some of the highlights of my vacation for those of you who might be going.
Best Neighborhood in São Paulo (SP) – Vila Madalena
Ok well, those who have been living in Vila Madalena for 10 years or more say that it has been ruined by the publicity and crowds from the World Cup 2014, but it’s still a pleasant walkable place with restaurants, art galleries and bars of all stripes. And if you need a place to stay, you would be hard pressed to find a nicer place than this.
Best Modern Buildings – Edificios Copan and Italia, Centro, SP and MEC, Centro, Rio de Janeiro (RJ)
The Copan is undergoing a facial right now, covered in pale blue scrim, so if you go next year you might be lucky enough to see its beautiful mosaic-tiled brise-soleil facade restored. In the meantime if you don’t know a resident who can get you into the buidling, you can still visit the free, public art space PIVÔ and get a sense of Niemeyer’s greatness. Meanwhile, if you’re in Rio’s Centro on a weekday, you really should visit the MEC (aka Palacio Capanema), where Le Corbusier, Lucio Costa and Roberto Burle-Marx created an early masterpiece of urban architecture and planning without the crushing scale of some of Costa/Corb’s later projects.
Best Museum Space – Instituto Moreira Salles, Gávea, RJ
The former residence of Walter Moreira Salles in Gávea is another mid-20th century modern classic, this time on a residential scale, now converted into a elegant public gallery for photography and cultural events. Burle-Marx did the wonderful garden and swimming pool area. The cafe is charming.
Best 19th Century Building – Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, Centro, RJ
This reading room is among the world’s finest tributes to the power of books. The exterior is pretty great, too, with statues of emperors and of course, Vasco da Gama.
Best Espresso Coffee – Coffee Lab, Vila Madalena, SP
These folks are serious about their beans. The baristas ask you personally for your coffee selection and the atmosphere is conducive to philosophical discussions.
Best Drip Coffee and Pão de Queijo – Confeitaria Atlântica, Copacabana, RJ
Go in and get a café com leite at the bar on a workday morning. Super strong and good, and brewed hourly due to the popularity of this corner pastry store in working-class Copacabana.
Best Restaurant Closed for a Special Event – Bossa, Jardins, SP
Stunning wood-screened space in Jardins that is supposed to have great food as well. Too bad we picked the wrong night and couldn’t get in.
Best Restaurant in a Small Town – Banana da Terra, Paraty
We signed up (somewhat unwillingly) for the Thursday night tasting menu, and it was sublime. I’m not normally a foodie, but this was a pleasant experience with nice waiters and a combination of old Brazilian standbys like coxinha, and new ideas like lemongrass and squid soup.
Best Pizza – Ferro e Farinha, Catete, RJ
You have to go 30 minutes prior to opening to find a seat at one of their sidewalk tables. Don’t pass up the ginger spritzer while you eat all of their 5 different pizza combinations.
Best Gelato – Sorvetes Artesanais Nirulas, Paraty
We just stumbled into an art gallery with a gelato fridge in the back by happenstance. Turns out the Nirulas (based in the city of Itu in São Paulo State) makes some of the best gelato I have had anywhere. Interesting flavors, and a really nice guy who runs the store.
Best Unnoticed Bars – Seu Zé, Vila Madalena, SP and Urca Grill, Urca, RJ
No special reason to go to these places, but they are typical of the hospitality and cheap eats you can find in Brazil. Urca Grill has a fantastic location across the street from Urca’s little harbor. Go at night and hang out at the seawall.
Best Juice Bar – Lanches Hobby, Glória, RJ
Ask for the açaí natural (bananas instead of cane/corn syrup).
Best Caipirinha – Galería do Engenho, Paraty
You can get these with lime, pineapple (my choice) or mango and with a wide variety of local cachaças. Strong, fruity and satisfying. The restaurant serves healthy portions of authentically Brazilian staples.
Best Pousada with Hammocks – Morro do Forte, Paraty
Very nice staff and calming spot above picture-perfect Paraty. Plenty of shady and sunny spots to recline, ponder and lie in a hammock.
Hippest Haircut (Guys Only) – Barbearia 9 de Julho, Vila Madalena (SP)
Hole in the wall spot with some very good young haircutters. This is where Vila Madalena guys with full beards, coiffed hair and mustaches go for hour-long sessions that are old-world pampering to the max (facials, steaming towels, etc.); but gringos like me can also get a quick cut.
Best Public Art – Escadaria de Selaron, Lapa, RJ
A massive project by an expat artist, equivalent in scope and ambition to Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Every square inch of this stairway was hand-crafted. Amazing, even in a country with extraordinary graffiti work seemingly in every neighborhood.
Best 3.5 Km Early Morning Stroll – Aterro do Flamengo, Flamengo, RJ
Burle-Marx left his masterful mark on the Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana, but his real gift to Rio is the Aterro, a linear park wedged between Zona Sul’s automobile-dominated parkways and the beaches of Glória, Flamengo and Botafogo. Every 100 meters is a new combination of Brazilian trees. People run and walk by without noticing that they are moving through paradise.
Best Park for Meandering or Picnicking – Parque Lage, Lagoa, RJ
Mysterious caves, castles and a swimming pool court in a neo-baroque palace. The grounds are beautifully landscaped.
Best Park for Just Soaking it In – Largo das Letras, Santa Teresa, RJ
The cafe / bookstore / cultural center here was closed, but folks were still taking advantage of the quiet courtyard right above Santa Teresa’s “downtown” square, the Largo do Guimarães.
Best Park for Concerts and a View – Parque das Ruinas, Santa Teresa, RJ
Charming little cafe and terrace at the top of Santa Teresa. We were there on the Dia Nacional de Choro for a lilting noontime choro concert. Perfect views over Botafogo and Pão de Açucar.
Best Overlooked Beach – Cepilho’s, Trindade
While all tourists take the bus to the end of the line in Trindade (45 minutes and $2 from the Paraty bus station) and then begin the walk to the isolated beaches in the nature preserve to the south of the town, we jumped off at the first sight of water at Cepilho, a beer-and-shrimp shack on a beach hemmed in by massive rocks. It was a Friday in April and we had the place to ourselves. Space to wander around or sit under a palm tree, just like in the picture books.
Best Bar with Music in the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Rainforest) – Poço de Tarzan, Penha
Another short bus ride from Paraty takes you onto the former gold pipeline royal road in Penha. Beautiful waterfalls you can surf down, and, slightly up river, the Tarzan bar. Saturday afternoon an MPB trio of guitarists play under a tent while happy vacationing Brazilians while away the hours having snacks and beer. Apparently this place is for sale if you like the idea of operating a bar with a private waterfall and hanging bridge.
Best Hyped Samba Scene – Bip Bip, Copacabana, RJ
Everybody’s heard about this place that’s been a nightly jam session for sambistas for 30 years or more, but it’s still real and a delightful place to go and get scolded for applauding or talking during performances (snapping your fingers in appreciation is allowed). Newcomers quickly figure out the deal: you leave your name and the number of beers you’ve picked out of the kitchen with Alfredo, who is there every night parked by his telephone with a stack of dishes that act as a cash register and a big notebook where he keeps your tab.
Places We Didn’t Get To (Next Time!)
- Sunday stroll on the Minhocão, SP
- Hiking to Dos Irmãos, Vidigal, RJ
- The top of Pão de Açucar (we only got halfway), RJ
- The new Saraiva super-bookstore by Artur Casas, Barra de Tijuca, RJ
- Floresta de Tijuca and Restaurante Os Esquilos, RJ
- MAC (Niemeyer museum), Niterói
- Sítio Burle-Marx, Barra de Guaratiba, RJ (currently closed for flood repairs and improvements)
- Ilha Grande and Angra dos Reis
- Serra dos Orgãos National Park, Teresópolis