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Cariocas divide their city into four main sections: the suburban Zona Norte (North Zone), the chic Zona Sul (South Zone), the sprawling Zona Oeste (West Zone), and the urban Centro.
Most tourist activity is in beach- and hotel-laden Zona Sul, the heartbeat of Rio, where you'll find a mix of residential areas, office buildings, shops, restaurants, bars, and beaches. It's the most affluent part of the city, with beautiful condos housing Rio's middle and upper class. It's also the most culturally diverse part of the city, home to dozens of theaters and music halls.
Centro is filled with the remnants of the old Portuguese colony, including some impressive neoclassical architecture housing churches, museums, and art galleries. The Zona Norte is primarily a residential area, but the international airport and the soccer stadium are here. Zona Oeste is the "up and coming" part of Rio, occupied by the nouveaux riches and replete with malls, superstores, and untouched beaches.
Architectural gems left behind from the days of Portuguese colonialism share space with modern high-rises in Rio's financial district. Ornately decorated churches, museums, and palaces are just some of the highlights. The neighborhood is a virtual ghost town from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning, when the workweek begins. Have a look in one of Centro's many used book stores for good buys on Brazilian literature, literatura de cordel, and foreign books, too.
Santa Teresa & Lapa
Adjacent to Centro, the historic neighborhood of Lapa has some of the best music halls and dance clubs in the city. If you're looking to explore Rio's nightlife, you'll become intimately familiar with Lapa. One of the first residential neighborhoods in Rio, Santa Teresa is worth a visit to explore its narrow, cobblestone streets lined with beautiful, Portuguese-style homes. Take a ride on the Bonde de Santa Teresa, Rio's last trolley. It also has some traditional Brazilian restaurants, excellent local craft stores, and art galleries.
Flamengo & Botafogo
Home to some of the cheapest accommodations, least-popular beaches, but plenty of restaurants, including the exquisite beachside Porcão. Beaches in both neighborhoods are populated each morning by walkers, runners, and joggers. The stunning, palm-lined Rua Paissandu in Flamengo is clearly visible from any high point in Rio.
If you continue along the bay east from Botafogo you arrive at the tiny, mainly residential neighborhood of Urca, where you can ascend the Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf). Adventurers will love the Sugar Loaf's first hill, which is climbable, and everyone will enjoy the view from inside the glass-lined bonde, the tram that ascends this oddly shaped landmark. It's quite windy up top, so hold on to your hats.
Copacabana beach is the main attraction in the city's most tourist-packed neighborhood. It's the perfect place to stroll, people-watch, buy souvenirs at the open-air night market, soak up the sun, or gaze in awe at the giant old apartment buildings and hotels (including the Copacabana Palace) that line the Avenida Atlântica.
Famous for being the place where the "Girl from Ipanema" was spied and then written into lyrical history by Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes back in the '60s, this posh neighborhood today is a collection of tree-lined streets harboring upscale condos, fabulous restaurants, and trendy shopping. The beach is beautiful and attracts not only travelers but cariocas from all over the city.
Extending west from Ipanema, this affluent, intimate community borrows some of its neighbor's trendy charms, but is slightly funkier. The narrow streets are flush with small restaurants and bars. Sadly, the beach here is not great for swimming since the water is often polluted, though it's a popular spot for families.
São Conrado & Barra da Tijuca
West of Leblon, these low-key neighborhoods have long stretches of unspoiled beach. Residential condos and malls crowd the streets in these wealthy parts. It's best to take a cab straight to the beaches, which are quieter than Copacabana and Ipanema and are especially recommended for kids. Hang gliders and paragliders land just behind São Conrado Beach. Stop by Barra Shopping, a huge mall in Barra da Tijuca, for a glimpse of a scaled-down Statue of Liberty in the New York wing and a flick in the state-of-the-art cinema.
The Lush Inland
You can find Jardim Botânico, Gávea, Lagoa, Cosme Velho, and Tijuca to be much more residential than Ipanema and Copacabana, but it's definitely worth it to visit these neighborhoods, especially if you enjoy long walks or nature. Don't miss Rio's Botanical Garden in Jardim Botânico, the ascension to the Christ statue in Cosme Velho, Gávea's planetarium, Tijuca's samba school, or a refreshing lap around the massive lagoon in Lagoa.
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