What’s left of Rio’s colonial past and most of its churches and museums are concentrated in its old downtown core, known as Centro. However, beaches, shopping, restaurants, nightlife, and most hotels—as well as access to the Floresta da Tijuca—are in the more upscale Zona Sul neighborhoods (Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon).
The area north of Centro is known as the Zona Norte. This vast urban zone is home to Rio’s lower-class neighborhoods and encompasses the Rodoviária Novo Rio (bus station), Aeroporto Internacional Tom Jobim (Galeão), and Maracanã soccer stadium.
Despite Rio’s sprawl, getting around the Centro and Zona Sul neighborhoods, in particular, is fairly easy. The excellent Metrô subway service links the Zona Norte, Centro, Flamengo, Botafogo, Copacabana, and Ipanema. Throughout the city, numerous buses run at all hours of the day (safe) and night (unsafe).
An increasing number of organized tours allow you to explore Rio’s diverse neighborhoods and natural attractions and to experience different aspects of Carioca life and culture.
Carlos Roquette (tel. 21/9911-3829, www.culturalrio.com.br) is a former judge with an art history degree and a great command of English (and French) who has been leading historic and cultural tours of Rio for over 25 years. Aside from the dozens that already exist—ranging from the conventional (“Baroque Rio,” “Belle Epoque Rio,” and “Art Deco Rio”) to the more unusual (“Esoteric Rio,” “Lesbian Rio,” “People Watching,” and “Historic Barbershops”)—Roquette can also custom-design tours for individuals and groups of all sizes. Customized private tours average around R$50 per hour (discounts are available).
Private Tours (tel. 21/2232-9710, www.privatetours.com.br, four-hour city tour R$50–60), run by Carioca Pedro Novak, offers various Jeep tours around Rio as well as to historic towns, beaches, and natural attractions throughout Rio de Janeiro state. The highly personalized tours are tailored to groups of up to four people.
Be a Local (tel. 21/9643-0366, www.bealocal.com.br) matches foreign visitors with English-speaking locals in an attempt to show them aspects of Carioca life—a funk party in a Rio favela, a soccer game at Maracanã—that they could otherwise never experience. A half-day trip with a moto-boy to a favela costs R$65.
Ika Poran (tel. 21/3852-2916, www.ikoporan.org) runs tours to cultural and social development projects located within Rio’s poorer communities and favelas in an attempt to show foreigners that social problems have solutions. Visitors get to interact with residents, and most of the tour fee goes to specific projects. A full-day tour including lunch and transportation costs R$145 per person. A half-day tour costs US$53. Trips are organized through the Triple M travel agency (tel. 21/2224-0202).
Perhaps the most spectacularly scenic tour you could ever take in Rio is by helicopter. Helisight (tel. 21/2511-2141 or 2542-7895, www.helisight.com.br) offers various breathtaking forays into Rio’s blue skies that last 6–60 minutes (with prices ranging from a hefty R$150 to a stratospheric R$875 and a required minimum of three people).
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition