Welcome to the Cidade Maravilhosa, or the Marvelous City, as Rio is known in Brazil. Synonymous with the girl from Ipanema, the dramatic views from Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado mountain, and fabulously flamboyant Carnival celebrations, Rio is a city of stunning architecture, abundant museums, and marvelous food. Rio is also home to 23 beaches, an almost continuous 73-km (45-mile) ribbon of sand.
As you leave the airport and head to Rio's beautiful Zona Sul (the touristic South Zone), you'll drive for about 40 minutes on a highway from where you'll begin to get a sense of the dramatic contrast between beautiful landscape and devastating poverty. In this teeming metropolis of 12 million people (6.2 million of whom live in Rio proper), the very rich and the very poor live in uneasy proximity. You'll drive past seemingly endless cinder-block favela, but by the time you reach Copacabana's breezy, sunny Avenida Atlântica—flanked on one side by white beach and azure sea and on the other by condominiums and hotels—your heart will leap with expectation as you begin to recognize the postcard-famous sights. Now you're truly in Rio, where cariocas (Rio residents) and tourists live life to its fullest.
Enthusiasm is contagious in Rio. Prepare to have your senses engaged and your inhibitions untied. Rio seduces with a host of images: the joyous bustle of vendors at Sunday's Feira Hippie (Hippie Fair); the tipsy babble at sidewalk cafés as patrons sip their last glass of icy beer under the stars; the blanket of lights beneath the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain); the bikers, joggers, strollers, and power walkers who parade along the beach each morning. Borrow the carioca spirit for your stay; you may find yourself reluctant to give it back.