A New Brazilian Beat

Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Travel Writer

There may be no more dramatic landscape than the sculptural green mountains curving majestically around the sparkling bays of Rio de Janeiro. And there may be no better time to finally see this glorious city than in the months after February’s Carnival celebration, when prices drop and crowds are pleasantly thin along the fabled beaches.

The summer high season in Rio runs through this month, but the weather is still summery well into the South American autumn, when flights from New York can run under $1,000. And while some of the city’s newer hotels are quite pricey — especially those in the trendy Santa Teresa neighborhood, the artsy section that’s home to a crop of new boutique lodgings — Brazil is, overall, still one of the more affordable big cities for Americans.

The region was hit hard by floods in January, but Cariocas — as Rio residents are known — are drying off and feeling festive. And with good reason: Rio has been selected to host both the 2016 Summer Olympics and, along with other Brazilian cities, the 2012 World Cup, events whose advance planning is literally transforming and updating the city infrastructure.

Add to that a popular new president, a sizzling economy that’s defying the crisis, and a high-profile assault on the city’s longtime crime problem, and Rio is having a coming-out moment on the world stage.

The new energy is most apparent along the city’s legendary waterfront, where major renovations are taking place. The beaches are today safer (especially after dark), more user friendly with modern amenities, and more disabled-accessible than ever before.

Rio, a sprawling New World city, is surprisingly easy to navigate as a series of beach neighborhoods, connected by bus or metro; each area has its own personality, wide strip of sand and shopping boulevard, usually a block or two inland from the beach. Copacabana’s Avenida Atlantica, for instance, is lined with dazzling mosaics, while the Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana is dotted with jewelry stores and juice bars.

Equally famous Ipanema feels a bit more posh and decidedly outdoorsy: joggers, bikers and Rollerbladers whiz past at all hours, while brightly lit pathways and a buzzing bar scene keep the area feeling lively and safe after dark. Just east of Ipanema is Leblon, even more upscale with prices to match for its beautiful-people crowd.

Many of Brazil’s legends — from the cable car system lifting sightseers up Mt. Corcovado to the city’s mascot statue of Christ the Redeemer, to the country’s most famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer — are around 100 years old, occasioning a series of celebrations.

The 99-year-old cable car ride, as thrilling as ever, was recently upgraded, while the statue and its stunning vistas are commonly named among the new Seven Wonders of the World, according to Rio tourism authorities.

Niemeyer, the architect whose mid-century modernist vision shaped the planned capital of Brasilia (which took that title from Rio in 1960), most recently left his mark on Rio in the form of the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum. The MAC Niteroi, as it is known, lies just outside the central city in the beach town of Niteroi and makes for a pleasant afternoon excursion by ferry.

Niemeyer’s building — a sight in itself — looks like a gleaming white Martian spaceship from the outside, while inside it feels like a giant submarine, with rows of porthole-like windows defining the circular space. Through March 13, visitors have the opportunity to catch a major retrospective, “The Architecture of Oscar Niemeyer,” as well as a long-running exhibition of contemporary Brazilian art.

A true city of the Americas, Rio has a polyglot ethnic mix that includes Brazil’s second-largest Jewish community (after Sao Paulo). An estimated 30,000 of Rio’s six million residents are Jewish, with roots as varied as you might imagine: there are descendants of the first Iberian refugees of Portuguese and Spanish Inquisition, who arrived before the country’s independence, as well as Sephardic and Ashkenazic families from successive waves of European immigration.

More than two-dozen synagogues and many more institutions cater to this diverse and active population. The largest is the Associacao Religiosa Israelita, a congregation and community center founded in the 1940s by German Jews. Conveniently for many American visitors, the ARI claims affiliation with both Reform and Conservative movements, and welcomes visitors to its services with advance reservation (common among foreign shuls, for security purposes).

The synagogue is located in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood, just inland from Copacabana. Little visited by tourists, Botafogo is interesting for the slice of modern Carioca life it reveals, with a commercial core and a bustling, urbane feel that has attracted numerous young Jewish professionals.

For a more historic look at Brazilian Jewish life, head to the Museu Judaico de Rio de Janeiro (Jewish Museum), located in the city’s stately, newly cleaned-up downtown “centro.” Here you’ll find a comprehensive permanent exhibition chronicling Rio’s Jewish presence over the past 500 years, along with a major collection of Jewish ritual artifacts.

Moving east from Botafogo, two of Rio’s most historic and characteristic neighborhoods offer another way to experience the reinvigorated Rio spirit: Santa Teresa and Lapa. In years past, many Rio visitors felt justifiably uncomfortable straying from the beachfront tourist zones. But recent government crackdowns on drug gangs in the hills, plus a newly visible police presence through the city’s central zones, have encouraged a welcome gentrification in what have long been among the most charming neighborhoods.

With a feel that’s somewhere between Brooklyn and San Telmo, in Buenos Aires, Santa Teresa and Lapa are bohemian in an expensive, scrubbed-up way. You’ll find art galleries, clothing boutiques and jewelry stores among the pastel colonial buildings, as well as a slew of atmospheric cafes and samba joints that keep Lapa, in particular, hopping well into the Brazilian night.

Rio’s famous Copacabana beach. The city’s new energy is most apparent along its legendary waterfront. Hilary Larson

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