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Rio de Janeiro cheatsheet

It's the end of all strain,
It's the joy in your heart.
- Antonio Carlos Jobim

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The iconic beach in the Zona Sul. Photo by Pavia Rosati.


The city is divided into Zona Norte (Centro, Lapa), the middle (Santa Teresa, Flamengo, Humaità), and Zona Sul (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Gávea). Most visitors stick with Zona Sul, but it's so easy to get around that it's a shame to miss the other neighborhoods, especially because beach life is only one part of the story. The residential hill town neighborhoods, especially Santa Teresa, are quite charming. In terms of the future of the city, ambitious Porto Maravilha development projects (tied to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics) are changing the waterfront area, for better or worse, depending on who you ask.


Rio de Janeiro/Galeão-Antonio Carlos Jobi International Airport (GIG) is located about 12 miles north of Centro. The trip can take up to an hour at diferent times of the day and with traffic. Taxis are the easiest way in and out and can be pre-booked in the arrivals hall to avoid the lines outside.


Rio is a very big city to cross. Traffic, especially at peak hours, can be an absolute nightmare. Yellow taxis are plentiful and cheap — just make sure there's a company name on the door before you get in. The subway isn't extensive, but it runs along the perimeter of the city from the north to Ipanema  and is a fast and easy way to get from north to south.


Safety is a huge concern in Rio, as muggings are frequent and petty crime is common. Visitors should travel as lightly as possible: Carry some cash and one credit card on your person and leave the rest locked in the hotel safe. Use ATMs in daylight hours and in high-traffic neighborhoods like Ipanema and Leblon. Rio is not a tipping culture: Service is included in bills at restaurants, and taxi drivers don't expect it.


The 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics have focused civic planners on many redevelopment projects throughout the city. Construction cranes are everywhere — extending the subway line from Ipanema, rebuilding downtown in Porto Marvailha ("Marvelous Port"), and developing neighborhoods to accommodate the Olympic facilities.


It may seem paradoxical to first-time visitors, but the beautiful hills around Rio are usually home to favelas, the city's slums. Many of the city's toniest neighborhoods literally sit in the shadow of some of the poorest, and historically this socio-economic contrast has been the source of crime and trouble. The government has recently undertaken a massive campaign to "rehabilitate" the favelas — with mixed results. If nothing else, favelas are functioning and established neighborhoods, home to countless residents, and many people are being misplaced. In recent years, favela tourism has become an attraction. It's a personal call whether this is an valid anthropological experience or an exploitative poverty safari.


Rio is totally, blissfully beachy casual: jeans, flip-flops, T-shirts, sundresses. The boutiques may spill over with the gorgeous jewels Brazil is known for, but crime is enough of a concern that people don't wear their bling in public. While you're here, it's a good rule of thumb to downplay your style. Don't wear anything you'd miss if it was taken from you. Humidity is fierce in Rio, which may be a consideration in hair (frizz!) and clothing (sweat!).


Once you've had a mango in Rio, you won't be able to eat one anywhere else. Ditto guava, maracuya, and any of the many amazing fruits that seem to be everywhere in Brazil, from breakfast trays to corner juice joints. Meats are just as terrific, especially picanha, the tender Brazilian cut of beef that is commonly served with farofa, a textured manioc flour that seems weird until you love it. Other things to try: pão de queijo, a heavenly ball of cheese bread; feijoada, a beans and meat stew that's popular on Sundays; and moqueca, a fish and coconut milk stew. How Brazilians are so skinny when the food is so good is just one of those mysteries of the heavens. 


You will most likely leave Rio with a few new bikinis, at least one extra pair of Havaiana flip-flops, and a terrific tan.


To get acquanited with the city past and present, load up your movie queue with Central Station, City of God, Black Orpheus, and — cheese alert! — the super-trashy Demi Moore-Michael Caine flick Blame It On Rio. Get in the classic bossa nova mood with a playlist that's heavy on the João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos "Tom" Jobim, and Elis Regina.

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