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Brazil's former capital (until Brasília took over that title in 1960) is beautifully situated on the Baía de Guanabara, which is littered with islets. When the Portuguese discovered the bay on January 1, 1502 they believed it to be the mouth of a river. Therefore they called the settlement they founded here January River, i.e. Rio de Janeiro. Rio is divided into three zones. Most historic buildings and museums are located in the city center (Centro), the soccer temple Maracanã lies in the northern districts (Zona Norte) and the beaches are south of the city center (Zona Sul).
In the historic Centro you can find many buildings from the colonial era in a fascinating mix of styles. The heart is formed by the square Praça 15 de Novembro with the Paço Imperial (Imperial Palace). Not far from here lies the Museu Histórico Nacional (National Historical Museum) which provides an interesting overview of the Brazilian history from before the Portuguese arrived until today. In this area there are also many churches. One of the most impressive being the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária with a beautiful dome and inside a combination of marble and Portuguese woodcarvings. The modern Catedral de São Sebastião is also impressive, although definitely not to everyone's taste. In no way does it resemble a cathedral as we know it: it's a conical tower with lots of concrete. We still recommend to have a look inside though, if only for the way the light shines through the colored windows.
Works by Brazilian artists from the seventeenth to the twentieth century are shown in the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts). Here you see works by for example Meireles, Americo, Visconti and Ridolfo. The museum also has a collection of African art. The Contemporary Art Museum is not only worth visiting on the inside. The building was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and resembles a spaceship. The exhibition spaces follow the outside structure of the building whereby the windows provide beautiful incidence of light. Here you can experience abstract sculptures and paintings.
The city is built on hills and between rocks, the most famous one being Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar). Most people choose to take the cable car to get to the top, but there is also a hiking trail. It does take about two hours to hike to the top, but you walk through a beautiful area, in the middle of the city.
Corcovado Mountain with at the top the 36-meter-high statue of 'Christ the Redeemer' is another symbol of Rio. At an altitude of 700 meters, this Christ with extended arms overlooks the huge disparities in the city: on the one side shiny skyscrapers and expensive villas and on the other side the favelas, the slums.
Rio is famous for its beaches. The most famous one is the beach of Copacabana which once was a separate fishing village. Together with Ipanema, these are the city's fashionable beaches; the more ordinary beaches can be found near Barra. All beaches are extremely busy. If you prefer peace and quiet, you will have to travel a bit further as the coastline near Rio is a long urbanized area.
Rio de Janeiro and carnival are often bracketed together. The city's carnival, a colorful and sensual show, is world-famous. The party is really a battle between the city's different samba schools. Each school wants to give the most original performance during the grand parade on the Avenido Rio Branco.
Paquetá Island is an island in Guanabara Bay. It is a popular day trip for residents of Rio especially during the weekend. You can reach the island with a slow (travel time of one hour) or fast (travel time of twenty minutes) ferry. The island has beautiful beaches that are covered with shells.
Rio also has its own 'city jungle', the Parque Nacional da Tijuca. This jungle is 'glued' to the city and forms a green haven of peace. It has wells, ponds and waterfalls (for example the Cascatinha do Taunay and the Cascata Gabriela). In addition you'll find lizards, monkeys and possibly even cobras.
Finding a parking space in the center of Rio can be difficult. It is also not always advised to leave your rental car unattended in the streets. We recommend parking your car at one of the city's parking garages (many are signposted) or on a guarded parking lot.
Galeão Airport is Rio de Janeiro's main airport. It is located on an island in Guanabara Bay, twenty kilometers from the city center. You can reach the airport by rental car via freeway BR-101 (Avenida Brasil) or the Via Expressa Presidente Joao Goulart. Rio's second, smaller airport, Santos Dumont Airport, is located at only two kilometers from the city center.