After months of continuous Olympic coverage two years ago, the questions still being asked about Rio de Janeiro likely include: "Wow! Rio looks incredible - is it really that beautiful?"
And: "Wow! Is Rio really so much fun?"
The answer to the first question would be a complicated one just like the city itself, full of contradictions and extremes (example: a slum with rifle-wielding drug dealers literally steps away from Copacabana's famous beaches). The wealth is ostentatious and the poverty is harsh.
Meanwhile, the answer to the second question is easy: Rio IS an absolute blast, there's no doubt whatsoever. The people are friendly and receptive, and there's always something worth seeing in any given neighborhood.
What to see in Rio
The city's geographical setting is one of the most spectacular in the world, wedged between forested mountains and stunning beaches (some are polluted, some are not). Rio is for the most part high density, which makes it pretty accessible on foot and via a decent public transport system.
The southern region (Zona Sul) includes the well-known Ipanema and Copacabana areas, among other interesting and relatively safe neighborhoods. This is where most visitors find accommodation.
However, close to these well-off neighborhoods are also many notorious slums (favelas). Are favelas really that bad? Not as bad as upper-class Brazilians would have you believe. Yet not as safe as well-meaning NGOs would have you believe, either. The reality is somewhere in between — so it's best not to go wandering inside without a proper guide. And despite the majority of favela residents being honest, hard-working people, the majority of roaming thieves (from pickpockets to armed criminals) are also from favelas.
So again, the situation is a complicated one.
Other neighborhoods of interest in this southern region include Botafogo and Jardim Botanico. Botafogo has a decent amount of cultural sites and historical landmarks, as well as bars and restaurants — too many to mention. But a couple that stand out are Hocus Pocus DNA (Rua Dezenove de Fevereiro, 186, Botafogo) and Comuna (Rua Sorocaba, 585, Botafogo). Both of these bars, although pricey by Rio standards, are interesting alternative-style spots with nice interiors and ambiances. (For more traditional hole-in-the-wall 'boteco' bars, these are literally EVERYWHERE in Rio; I don't even need to give you any specific pointers to find them).
Jardim Botanico, in addition to its namesake botanic garden, also has an incredible park called Parque Lage, with tropical foliage and an architecturally beautiful arts college right in the middle, open to the public and with a nice cafe. Both are located on Rua Jardim Botanico and within walking distance of each other. This street also includes numerous stylish restaurants and other places of interest, being a wealthy and picturesque area.
Going north to Centro (downtown), there are some sights here, although this region is rather dilapidated for the most part. City officials aren’t doing a great job of preserving the historic architecture here. Some exceptions, though, include the CCBB cultural center near Praça Candelaria, with free entry and rotating art and film exhibits inside a stunning historical building. And there’s also the Arcos dos Teles bar district, a cluster of bars and restaurants in a pedestrian-only street between the aforementioned Praça Candelaria and Praça XV, which comes to life on weekdays after the workday is over.
But THE spot for nightlife (especially on Fridays) is the Lapa district, a crumbling historic neighborhood on the southwest fringe of Centro. Here you'll find literally every social class, subculture, music scene (from cliche samba to underground Brazilian hip-hop to everything in between), trendy upscale bars and clubs, hole-in-the-wall 'boteco'-style bars illuminated by a dangling light-bulb, numerous street vendors selling potent alcoholic caipirinha and caipifruta drinks, and all kinds of other randomness. Keep in mind that the sale and consumption of alcohol in public and on the streets is totally LEGAL throughout the city (regardless of such trivialities as liquor licenses or age). So enjoy this fact!
Lapa is truly unique and always a great night (even the gas station somehow transforms into a party, with revelers drinking and smoking precariously alongside the gas pumps). Lapa's focal point is north of the famous arches, as well as directly underneath and south of (although this section is a little risky — no need to avoid it, just take care and stay alert). During the daytime hours, however, Lapa is best avoided completely, the exception being on the first Saturday of each month, when there’s an excellent arts fair along Rua Lavradio.
Above Lapa on the hillside is the historic neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Unlike Lapa and Centro, it’s managed to take care of its stunning colonial architecture. There are numerous gardens, murals, bohemian bars and restaurants, shops and galleries, and views of the city below. The streets are winding, with numerous random staircases and plazas, so it’s easy to wander and get pleasantly lost.
There’s even a trolley that can be taken up and down the hill (as well as motorbike taxis, another fun transport option). Take care with your wanderings though, as away from the main plazas it can be rather desolate and with many favelas in the vicinity, there is a very real risk of being robbed on a quiet street.
Finally, it's recommended to check out a soccer match at the famous Maracana stadium located in the northern region ('Zona Norte') and accessible via the metro system. The four Rio-based teams are the infamous Flamengo (be careful among their ultra-fanatical supporters), the more 'elite' Fluminense, Portuguese-founded Vasco (also with some fanatical supporters), and the more alternative Botafogo.
The organized supporting groups that congregate behind the goals can get a little carried away - so exercise common sense and keep a little distance from these groups of chanting, flag-waving fans. Before each match, everyone gathers outside the stadium to hang out and drink (again, remembering that drinking in the streets is perfectly legal).
So in conclusion, yes: Rio de Janeiro is loads of fun and the people are warm and fun-loving and able to improvise in any situation where necessary. But don't kid yourself into thinking that it’s all paradise — because despite the aforementioned areas being relatively safe and pleasant — geographically speaking, this region constitutes only a small percentage of this sprawling city.
And whatever improvements were made for the Olympics were very minimal and temporary. Wherever you go (even in Zona Sul), it's probably a good idea, at least in your first days while getting settled, to stash your valuables inside a hidden money belt under your shirt (or leave your stuff inside your hotel).
Oh yeah, I heard there is a big statue of Jesus somewhere around also. But I'm sure you'll find it...
'Rua' = 'street'
'Praça' = 'square' or 'plaza'
'Boteco' = traditional bar
'Favela' = slum (often on a hillside)