A guide to Rio de Janeiro: the insider’s scoop

Daniella Helayel recommends her hometown’s best hidden hotspots in the run-up to Carnival – the most spectacular street party on earth

New York may be known as the city that never sleeps, but it’s in Rio de Janeiro where the party never stops.

Rio is a riot of colour and activity; a city bathed in spectacular sunsets, lush mountains and golden beaches at every turn – all under the watchful eye of the iconic Christ the Redeemer. Music is the lifeblood of the city, and in the lead-up to the world-famous Carnival, Rio is in full celebratory mode.

The great outdoors

For Cariocas (residents of Rio), beaches are more than part of the scenery – they’re a way of life, each one with its own distinct mood and culture. Prainha, a beautiful, half-moon shaped stretch of shoreline, is a surfer’s paradise filled with quaint beachside bars. For a moment of serenity amid the hustle and bustle, pay a visit to Arpoador, a large rock nestled between the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and an idyllic spot to watch the sun set over the sea. Away from the coast, Jardim Botânico is a tranquil nature reserve located between the edge of the rainforest and the lagoon. Built in the early 19th century under the reign of John VI, the garden is full of trees and plants indigenous to Brazil, as well as beautiful sculptures and greenhouses.

Eating & drinking

Brazilians may be famously lithe and unashamedly glamorous, but it’s good to know their appetite is resoundingly hearty. Overlooking Copacabana beach is the historic Confeitaria Colombo, which dates back to 1894. Try a fresh fruit platter or plate of queijo minas, a traditional white cheese from Brazil, in suitably grandiose surroundings. Speaking of grand, the Copacabana Palace is one of Rio’s most prestigious addresses. If you’re planning to go all-out glam, put on your glad rags and book a poolside spot at the hotel’s Pérgula Restaurant, which serves a huge seafood buffet and bottomless sparkling wine. Next to Ipanema is the affluent Leblon district, which is home to fantastic bars, restaurants and shopping malls. Antiquarius is a traditional Portuguese restaurant and celebrity favourite, where you’ll find authentic dishes served in a charmingly cosy environment. When in Leblon, make sure to seek out the Baixo Leblon, an area that’s been known as the place to see and be seen since the 1970s. Sit back and people-watch over a couple of caipiroskas (a vodka twist on Brazil’s national cocktail) at Jobi and Pizzaria Guanabara – the best bars in the area.

Carnival

Coastlines and caipirinhas aside, Rio’s biggest draw is Carnival – an annual five-day sequin and samba extravaganza marking the period before Lent. Rio Carnival in its current form dates back to the mid-19th century, but it can actually trace its roots to the ancient Romans and Greeks, who celebrated the rites of spring. It’s a visual and musical feast for the senses, and an absolute must for every travel lover. It’s worth forking out a bit extra for seats at the Sambadrome grandstand, as long as you reserve some time for joining the locals in one of the many unofficial samba street parties. Whatever you do, be prepared to abandon all inhibitions and dance until dawn.

Carnival runs from 24 to 28 February 2017