Rio de Janeiro is an awe-inspiring city; its stunning tropical setting is matched by its fun-loving residents. Sheer granite peaks rise from the ocean between glorious stretches of sand. Skyscrapers vie for space with gracefully aging colonial buildings as lush forests tumble down hillsides up to the city limits.
Brazil’s former capital has retained much of its distinguished character, with magnificent churches and mansions clustered in downtown Centro. However, it has long since outgrown its original site.
Such has been the success of its urban planning though, much of Rio’s coastal landscape (including the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer) has been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO.
Frequently voted the happiest city in the world, Rio revels in life. Irregardless of background or status, Cariocas (locals) share a passion for existence through three obsessions: the beach, football and Carnival.
The annual Mardi Gras pageant is Rio’s way of showing the world what it does best: party. Spectators pack the Sambódromo to watch the dazzling parades. Cidade do Samba, Carnival’s exhibition centre, houses floats and hosts samba shows all year round, giving visitors a flavour of the big event.
High above all this fun and frivolity are Rio's ever-present landmarks: Corcovado (Hunchback) mountain and Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) with its historic cable car. Rio also boasts a wealth of attractions, plus great food, music and entertainment - enough to keep a visitor busy for any length of stay.
Nevertheless, Rio is constantly re-inventing itself and a vibrant agenda, including the hosting the 2016 Olympic Games, is transforming the city.
Copacabana, birthplace of its original hedonistic image of the 1920s, is still impressive but no longer the centre of attention. Now, further flung areas are drawing more visitors. Barra is booming with Cidade da Música, a huge new arts centre, giant shopping malls and gourmet restaurants.
Downtown Lapa, a formerly seedy district, is now the arty hub of Rio’s live music scene. Nearby, the rundown docks are also being transformed with a futuristic new museum, art gallery and pedestrian-friendly spaces, giving tourists even more reasons to visit this incredible city.
The growing collection of eye-catching attractions. First-time visitors simply shouldn't miss a scenic ride up Sugar Loaf Mountain, and the view from the stunning Christ the Redeemer statue. I also love the otherworldly Museu de Arte Contemporanea (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Niteroi, which was designed by Brazil's most famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer, as well as Rio's futuristic cathedral, which seems ready to soar into the sky like a spacecraft.
The 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics will bring thousands of athletes and sports fans to Rio de Janeiro, but you can already enjoy some of the excitement. As Maracana Stadium -- the massive facility built originally for the 1950 World Cup -- undergoes a massive renovation, you can check out its visitor center, which offers up-close views of the work, as well as exhibits about the history of the venue and Brazil's favorite sport.
Delicious food and drink. Whether you're looking for a quick bite on the beach (fresh fruit and bacalhau are among the choices) or prefer to dine in the city's finest establishments, there are lots of ways to enjoy Brazilian cuisine in Rio. I checked out six excellent Rio de Janeiro restaurants during my most recent visit.