“You walk off the plane in Rio, and your blood temperature goes up. The feel of the wind on your face, the water on your skin, the taste of the food, the music, the sexuality; Brazilians are very comfortable in their sexuality.” - Amy Irving
Rio de Janeiro, with its 6 million inhabitants, is the second biggest city in Brazil after São Paulo. It's famous for the carnival, Christ the Redeemer at the summit of Corcovado, and its favelas.
The historic centre, the seafront, Sugarloaf Mountain, the botanical gardens, etc., are all great places to visit in Rio.
In this article, we’ll look at the different areas in Rio de Janeiro.
Rio’s Slums in the North
You can’t deny it, Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world. It’s 11th in the world according to the Gini Coefficient, a method for calculating a country’s wealth distribution. A value of 0 would indicate that the country is egalitarian and 100 indicates that the country performs poorly in terms of income equality.
In 2015, Brazil had a Gini Coefficient of 51.3 with South Africa’s 63 the worst-ranked in the world. Every country ahead of Brazil is in Africa.
The city of Rio is a good example of Brazil’s income inequality. The richest rub shoulders with the poorest across the city. However, the richest enjoy the beach and coastline while the poorest live at the top of the city.
The poorest residents of the city live in the north of the city. They don’t have the means to live elsewhere in the city. Rio’s slums, the favelas, continue to grow. There are the Sumaré, Central do Brasil, Mangueira, Complexo do Alemão, Penha, and Portela favelas.
Rio de Janeiro’s Areas: The Centro
This is Rio’s business and administrative centre which is home to large modern buildings and colonial buildings. The Avenida Rio Branco, which is very busy during the week, is very quiet on weekends and evenings. As a commercial and touristy area, the Centro is also home to the middle classes. This is the area closest to the international airport and it’s also where most of Rio de Janeiro’s historical decisions were made as it was the administrative seat of the Portuguese colony before Brasilia became the country’s capital in 1960.
The Centro is a mix of the old and new, with colonial homes and modern buildings designed by Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Lucio Costa. The area is also home to the country’s largest university campuses including the Law, Philosophy, and Social Science campuses.
There are three main parts to the centre that you should visit.
Find out how to budget for a trip to Rio.
Cinelândia takes its name from the main square in the Centro. Its official name is Praça Floriano Peixoto after Brazil’s second president. This is the heart of the business district.
Until 1970, this was home to the Senate, in the Monroe Palace, which has since been destroyed. There are many fine examples of Beaux-Arts architecture including the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, the National Library of Brazil, and the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes.
The area gets its name from the many cinemas which were built by Francisco Serrador. Cinelândia means “Cinemaland” as if it were a theme park.
Behind the heart of Centro, you can find the Lapa neighbourhood, famous for its nightlife. It’s famous for the converted aqueduct and its archways which now allow the tram to cross the city.
There are plenty of parties and tourists can enjoy forro, samba, and other types of Brazilian music. This is the place to go on a night out. During the day, you can enjoy the Escadaria Selarón that leads you to the Santa Teresa neighbourhood.
In the heights of the Centro, Santa Teresa gets its name from the Carmelite Convent in the area. It’s also famous for the Santa Teresa Tram which runs over Lapa’s aqueduct. There are some great cultural sites to visit. You’ll find artists’ workshops, restaurants, bars, and museums (Museu da Chácara do Céu, for example).
Find out more about visiting Rio.
The South of the City
The south is the wealthier side of the city. You’ll find large hotel complexes and better public transport than elsewhere in Rio de Janeiro. However, in the heights of the south of the city, there's the Cantagalo favela between Ipanema beach and Copacabana beach and the adjacent neighbourhoods.
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The Flamengo Neighbourhood
The Flamengo neighbourhood is by the beach and is home to Rio’s wealthier residents. Unlike the beaches at Ipanema and Copacabana, this beach isn’t often visited by tourists. The area gets its name from the Dutch explorer Olivier van Noort, who people thought was Flemish (Flamengo in Portuguese). Flamengo is also famous for its football team and you can find large green spaces which are perfect for relaxing in what is otherwise an urban area.
The Urca neighbourhood, at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, is where you can take the cable car from to enjoy views over the city and see Christ the Redeemer. It’s considered the safest neighbourhood in the city. There’s also a statute of Chopin facing the sea, which was gifted to the city by its Polish inhabitants.
Laranjeiras is one of the oldest residential neighbourhoods in the city and is at the foot of the Corcovado mountain. Today it’s the seat of the federal government for the state of Rio de Janeiro.
This area is famous for its beach and it’s a lively area with many restaurants, bars, and cinemas. If you go to Rio, you have to visit it. You can’t miss Avenida Atlântica which runs alongside the beach. If you’re there on New Year’s Eve, you can see the fireworks show and throw flowers into the ocean at midnight, as is the tradition.
The next two neighbourhoods in the South Zone are some of the trendiest in Rio. Ipanema beach has become more popular than Copacabana. If you decide to go for a swim, be careful as there are strong currents and waves. You can also bathe in the Lagoa (lagune), a saltwater lake and a great place to avoid mosquitoes. The Ipanema neighbourhood is also the birthplace of bossa nova music.
Leblon is another trendy neighbourhood, much like Ipanema. During the Rio Carnival, there are private parties organised all through the night. Image is very important in Rio and especially in Ipanema and Leblon which explains why there are plenty of plastic surgeons springing up all over the neighbourhood.
Find out more about accommodation in Rio.
The West Zone
Like most districts in Rio, the West Zone has a rich and a poor area.
Barra da Tijuca
Located by the ocean, the Barra de Tijuca neighbourhood, often referred to as just “Barra”, has around 15 miles of beaches and 3 lakes. It’s a good place to surf. This area is home to the Olympic facilities. Additionally, the buildings are more like in American cities such as Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles than the European design you find in the Central Zone.
This is the 9th largest neighbourhood in Rio and the income inequality is even more evident here. On one side, you have a very wealthy population and on the other side, you'll find slums.
Recreio dos Bandeirantes
This relatively new neighbourhood is away from the influx of tourists in the city. This is where wealthy residents have made their homes. The buildings here aren’t as tall as the those in the neighbouring Barra da Tijuca. The beaches at Recreio were used during the Olympic Games.
Discover the best time to visit Rio.
So which areas of Rio de Janeiro are you going to check out?
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