Rio has undergone a dramatic evolution with creative and gourmet venues flourishing in pocket neighbourhoods off the well-trodden trail. From buzzy restaurants to the new Museum of Tomorrow, we reveal what’s happening beyond the Olympic scene.
A Saturday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, and in the leafy neighbourhood of Jardim Botânico, fashion designer Isabela Capeto has just sat down to lunch with friends on the breezy terrace of her favourite local spot, Borogodó. An ochre-yellow colonial mansion overlooking the Botanical Gardens and enveloped in the emerald green of the Mata-Atlântica rainforest that frames the hills behind, it’s frequented by some of Brazil’s famous artists and musicians.
Children make chalk drawings on the pavement while across the street, locals strolling in the late-afternoon sun stop for oysters at alfresco tables outside the Jojö Café Bistro as tiny monkeys skate along telephone wires overhead. A block away at Bar do Horto, a guitar starts to strum a Tom Jobim riff, while on the roof-terrace bar of Bar Sobe, a DJ spins a sunset session of soul-infused samba to a hip crowd.
Welcome to Horto, a pocket neighbourhood of Rio’s Jardim Botânico that has quietly evolved into an intimate haven for the city’s creatives. Dotted down leafy cul-de-sacs, artists such as Adriana Varejão and Beatriz Milhazes have ateliers, while in converted, light-filled townhouses, designers such as Fernando Jaeger, Isabela Capeto and emerging multi-brand store OS/ON work from ateliers-cum-showrooms. Something of a local secret, it’s a world away from Rio’s bustling beachfront neighbourhoods. “I feel like I am in a small village surrounded by nature, when in fact we are in the midst of a large city,” explains Capeto.
Such is the strength of Rio’s global image, first-time visitors often race to tick off major sights and miss tapping into the city the locals know. In response to hosting two of the world’s biggest sporting events—the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics—Rio has undergone a dramatic evolution. New transport links, including a metro system, high-speed bus service and cycle lanes, have opened up the city like never before.
As part of the city’s Olympic renovation, the government has invested 8 billion reais in the Porto Maravilha project. The complete overhaul of Rio’s downtown dock area is driven by the conversion of the former highway into a bucolic, pedestrianised zone, featuring new office and residential developments and the recently inaugurated central square of Praça Mauá. This is home to two new state-of-the-art museums, the MAR (the Rio Art Museum) and the Museum of Tomorrow, a sustainability museum designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava that juts out over Guanabara Bay.
One of the most dramatic transformations has come about as a result of the pacification of part of the city’s favelas, opening up what were previously no-go neighbourhoods. With its steep hills, glittering ocean views and cheaper rents, Vidigal—the favela perched over Leblon beach—has evolved into a Brazilian Montmartre, attracting a wave of European bohèmes to launch new cultural projects, bars and restaurants in partnership with community residents. It’s here that cultural icon and contemporary artist Vik Muniz set up a technology school in partnership with MIT; David Beckham has bought a house; while the sunrise hike through the jungle trail at the top of Vidigal, to watch dawn break over the city from the top of the iconic Dois Irmãos mountains, has turned into a customary pilgrimage for visitors seeking the most spectacular of views.
At the other end of the beach, luxury rental agency Oasis Collections has opened the city’s first private members’ club on the cobbled street leading up to Copacabana’s Cantagalo favela. With film director Candé Salles in charge of a cultural programme featuring jam sessions, art exhibitions and raucous parties around its swimming pool and split-level deck, it provides visitors with a new portal into the previously hard-to-access world of Rio high society.
Due to open in November is serial entrepreneur Cello Camolese’s Casa Camolese, a Soho House-esque multi-level hospitality space, combining a restaurant, deli, cocktail bar, artisanal brewery and underground jazz club, overlooking the horseracing track in the heart of Jardim Botânico. Flanked by two new contemporary art galleries, Fortes Vilaça and Laura Marsiaj, and with Vik Muniz as his business partner, it’s already tipped to be the hottest spot in town.
Casa Camolese is indicative of Jardim Botânico evolving into a gourmet, as well as creative, hub. Last year, chef Pedro Siquiera opened Puro, a Brazilian bistro specialising in delectable cuts of meat, such as matambre served with caramelised pumpkin, and such interesting starters as palm-heart ravioli. Siquiera, who trained under Alex Atala, is part of a growing movement of Brazilian chefs seeking to define a new gourmet language and genre for their country’s cuisine. While Brazilian cuisine may have traditionally been defined by classic regional dishes, such as feijoada and moqueca, Rio is witnessing a new wave of chefs adopting cutting-edge techniques picked up abroad to revisit retro recipes and native exotic ingredients.
Leading the evolution is Rafa Costa e Silva, the former head chef of Michelin-starred Mugaritz. He returned to his native Rio, after years studying in the world’s best kitchens, to open Lasai in neighbouring Botafogo, which was voted this year’s highest new entry in the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants awards.
With exposed brick walls and reclaimed wooden tables, the laid-back design belies the quality of the cooking, offered as a seven- or 15-course tasting menu that changes daily, based on the seasonal produce available from Rafa’s network of organic local producers.
MEE at Belmond Copacabana Palace
For fine dining, innovation comes courtesy of Belmond Copacabana Palace’s Hotel Cipriani Restaurant that recently launched an exceptional six-course tasting menu, which the restaurant’s head chef, Luca Orini, has designed in collaboration with French champagne house Maison Dom Pérignon. Guests take their seats at the Chef’s Table, where elegant Italian dishes are paired with rare Dom Pérignon vintages served throughout the feast.
Hot on the heels of Rio’s gourmet evolution is the cocktail scene: Rio’s long-standing tradition of drinking ice-cold choppes (draught beers) and caipirinhas cocktails at street bars is finally evolving, as master Argentine mixologist Tato Giovannoni opens the city’s first gourmet beach kiosk, with signature cocktails and the freshest of seafood served overlooking the kite-surfer’s hang-out of Barra beach. At Belmond Copacabana Palace’s sophisticated Asian-fusion restaurant MEE, sake aficionados can savour a new sake menu, featuring selected limited-edition bottles, perfect for sipping at the sultry, crimson cocktail bar or accompanying the quail egg sushi with truffle at what is one of Rio’s first restaurants to be awarded a Michelin star.
Wherever you turn in Rio, it is this creative scene that continues to drive the city forward and craft the Carioca identity, innovating with new openings that celebrate Rio’s bohemian spirit, while providing spaces where travellers can tap into the local scene and connect with the people who are leading the charge.
Discover aspects of the Marvellous City that other visitors miss with our Private Rio Tour. Choose exactly where you would like to go—or let our guide suggest special hidden treasures—as our expert driver weaves through fascinating parts of town.
by Lauren Holmes