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Friday, August 21, 2009

The Enlightened Traveler: In Rio de Janeiro, Forget Copacabana!

Rio de Janeiro doesn't have many must-see sites for the visitor. (The impressive Christ the Redeemer, with it's breath-taking view of the city and shimmering bay, is a noteworthy exception.)

Rio's museums and shopping aren't much either. You'll do better elsewhere.

The main reason to visit this Brazilian gem is a simple one. If you enjoy people watching and like to hang out into the wee hours at cozy neighborhood cafes, bars, restaurants – as the locals do – then Rio's for you.

Before we had been there, our friend, screenwriter Tom Musca, informed us that there's only one thing we needed to know about it - Leblon. How right he was.

Leblon, at bottom, boasts Rio's nicest beach, cafes and streelife

The trendy quarter known as Leblon is two beaches south and a world away from the tawdry tourist stomping ground that is Copacabana Beach.

In fact, we advise you to skip Copacabana altogether. In no circumstances lodge there, unless it's at the luxe, palatial Copacabana Palace and you don't mind taking a taxi to other neighborhoods for strolling, dining, and shopping.

Ipanema, the famous beach between Leblon and Copacabana, is a mixed bag, with nicer hotels, restaurants and shopping, like the impressive H. Stern jewelry workshops and sales floor. This is where you'll find Vuitton, Cartier and other international brands. But you you're not traveling 20 hours for that, are you?

For most of your visit, you'll want to stay close to Leblon, with its mix of sophisticated bohemian pleasures. (Pronounce Leblon as if you are speaking French: "luh-blohn" with the nasal "n" at the end.)

Its beaches and streets are among Rio's cleanest, safest, and least crowded.

We often dine at the brasserie Garcia & Rodrigues, where we are well fed by their French chef from early in the morning until very late at night. For snacks or take out, they have their own bakery, deli counter, and wine cellar. The place is casual, friendly, and filled with students, sophisticates, and otherwise untouristy, very cool folks – just like us.

Garcia & Rodrigues is on the Ave. Ataulfo de Paiva, Leblon's main boulevard, and right across from the Hotel Ritz, where you can nest in a spacious one bedroom apartment, not a paltry room such as you'll get in Ipanema or Copacabana, for around $125 per night, breakfast included – if you ask politely.

Right next door to the the Ritz is the fabulous Letras e Expressoes book and record emporium. You'll want to own every CD in the store and most of the DVDs, books, and international newspapers. They frequently host free performances from established and young Brazilian musicians. (Click here to see videos.) It's open until 2AM weeknights and round the clock on the weekend.

Many of Leblon's best restaurants can be found on Dias Ferreira street, just around the corner from the Ritz. The hot South American designer Isabela Capeto also has a boutique there.

Not to be missed: Pizz
a Guanabara, serving Cote d'Azur style pizzas that are so good you'll be back several times during your stay. Don't forget to order a choppe (Brazilian draft beer and pronounced "shop") with your meal, as the Cariocas do. You can sit outside all night, basking in the sultry tropical warmth as the hours and crowds gently pass by.

Just a few blocks from Leblon in Ipanema is Restaurant Da Silva, under the same ownership as the famous Antiquarius, which is to say that at Da Silva you get much of the same food, but cheaper and more casual. It's where young professionals and artists like to dine.

After your meal, it's time to hurry back to Leblon to browse
Letras e Expressoes, grab a desert and coffee at Garcia & Rodrigues, or join the illuminati at the profusion of outdoor bars and cafes.

And the best part is, you're in Rio!

As much as we love Leblon, Rio has other attractions. The formerly dicey Santa Teresa neighborhood is being gentrified and is home to art galleries, trendy cafes, and hip boutique hotels. ♦ Catch the entertaining, flashy samba show at Plataforma, which is in Leblon, even though it caters to tourists. ♦ Leave your good jewelry and watches at home. Brazil can be unsafe even in the best neighborhoods. ♦ The first "R" of any word in Brazilian Portuguese is pronounced as an "H". It's the Hotel Hits (not Ritz), Hee-oo (not Ree-oh). If you meet someone named Rosa or Roberto, now you know how to pronounce it. ♦ For Brazilian history and music, we recommend these volumes: "Brazil, The Once and Future Country" by Marshall Eakin and "The Brazilian Sound" by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha.

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