The word “Rio” conjures up an image that is something like this:
And that’s all good fun, of course, but it’s not the full picture. Rio de Janeiro, in its entirety, is a city with much more richness and depth than its glamorous coast might suggest. Heading inland, away from the famed beaches of Leblon and Ipanema, I discovered a much different Rio.
This is the real Rio – a packed city, functional and full of urban beauty.
Far enough inland, and far enough uphill, and we found ourselves in Santa Teresa. Named after the hill
it’s perched atop, Santa Teresa is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Rio, and it used to be one of the richest.
Hundreds of years after its foundation, and Santa Teresa has lost some of its former wealth, but none of its glory.
The neighborhood clings precariously to the edge of the mountain. On one side, it faces the city; on the other, it is enveloped by the vastness of the Tijuca Forest.
In Santa Teresa, dazzling street art pops from the walls while haphazard vines spill over into the streets.
For our first eight days, we stayed in Rio Palazzo , an adorable B&B with outstanding service, lovely rooms, and reasonable prices (from 165 reals/night – just under $50, but check their website).
We stayed in the Tijuca Suite, the largest room on the property (and the only one with a private bathroom):
At the Rio Palazzo, we got to enjoy breakfast fresh-cooked by Paulo, the owner. He was very friendly (not to mention an excellent cook).
And Natalia, our concierge and receptionist, helped us map out our day on more than one occasion.
Another perk of staying in the Rio Palazzo? This view:
After a walk down the steep, windy main road, Rua Almirante Alexandrino, we find ourselves at the workshop of Getulio Damado, a local artist and a bit of a public figure. Using bottlecaps, discarded cameras, and anything else he can find, Getulio fashions all kinds of objects, from figurines to houses to Brazilian flags.
His work is wildly imaginitive, a little bit insane, and not at all expensive if you want to take home a piece.
Getulio’s shop is modeled after the famed Bondinho de Santa Teresa which, much like Getulio himself, is a symbol of the neighborhood. The Bondinho used to be the neighborhood streetcar and was one of the oldest in the world; it ran from 1877 until a fatal accident in 2011, and it’s been out of service since.
When we were there, there was construction work on the rails – no information on exactly when, but it’s a fair bet that Santa Teresa’s Bondinho will be up and running by the the Olympics.
Further on, Rua Almirante Alexandrino branches off downhill. A short walk and we get to Cafecito, a lovely little cafe attached to a gift shop. I stop here for a refreshingly tangy suco de maracuja (passion fruit juice) before wandering down the street.
A little further on and we reach Santa Arte Gastronomia, a mid-priced lunch place with peculiar hours but excellent food. And what else to get but the famed feijoada, a stew that is not only the national specialty but a cultural symbol:
A quick note: there is a lot of feijoada in Rio. Over the course of two weeks, I sampled it probably six or seven times. You should probably not do this. It’s a pretty heavy dish and can probably stand in for two meals. Feijoada can also be quite expensive – though, like most food in Rio, it can be found for a good price.
At the end of Santa Teresa’s superb culinary strip is Bar do Miniero, a well-known neighborhood restaurant. On various visits I got feijoada, other meat dishes, sandwiches and, of course, beverages:
After drinks, lunch, and more drinks, you can walk back up the street and catch the delightfully rickety bus (R$ 3.40 – a little over a buck) back up the hill.
Or, you can keep walking down on Rua Almirante Alexandrino. Just a little down the way is Galeria Camayoc-Huasi, a gift shop-meets-gallery where you can purchase artwork made by local artisans and owner Domingos Cardoso.
For us, the highlight of Santa Teresa was at the end of the road.
Parque das Ruinas – (park of the ruins) – used to be a mansion owned by heiress Laurinda Santos Lobo, a wealthy carioca (Rio native). After her death in 1946, the place was abandoned and looted. The property fell into the city’s hands in 1997, and a modern restoration breathed life into the crumbling shell of the mansion’s former self.
Since then, it’s been converted into a cultural center, but some say that Parque das Ruinas is still haunted by the ghost of Laurinda Santos Lobo.
The countless beams and walkways piercing the building create a decidedly Escheresque effect.
But it’s not just the architecture of Parque das Ruinas that makes it a worthwhile destination- at the top of a spiral staircase was one of the best views of Rio we had seen.
At this point, we catch a bus back to the Rio Palazzo. Across the street, hanging over the edge of Santa Teresa hill, is Cardapio – Cantina do Gaucho, a wonderful little restaurant specializing in thin-crust pizza and barbecue dishes.
The best part of dinner at Cardapio: watching a magnificent sunset over the city.