Rio is intoxicating — and it's not just the caipirinhas

Pope Benedict XVI prayed at a chapel upon arrival at the Sao Bento Monastery in Sao Paulo, Wednesday, May 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Angela Barbour, Visita do Papa-HO)
Pope Benedict XVI prayed at a chapel upon arrival at the Sao Bento Monastery in Sao Paulo, Wednesday, May 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Angela Barbour, Visita do Papa-HO)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — My first day in this glamorous South American city is a total blank — well, most of it, at least.

I remember checking into the palatial Copacabana Palace Hotel after a flight that seemed twice as long as it actually was — and it was plenty long to begin with. I remember the nice lady at the check-in desk telling me that my room wasn't quite ready and would I perhaps like to have a drink in the bar while I waited. I remember the bartender suggesting that I try a caipirinha, the Brazilian national drink, and I remember me — in the spirit of research — taking him up on his suggestion.

I vaguely remember finally getting my room key and just making it inside before collapsing on the bed. After that, I don't remember a thing until I woke up later that night, head pounding and eyes barely able to focus.

Lesson learned: It is probably a good idea to work your way up to ordering a caipirinha, an intoxicating blend of sugar, limes and cachaça, a Brazilian liquor made from distilled, unrefined sugar cane juice.

Fortunately, the rest of my time in Rio I remember well. That's a good thing because Rio, along with Hong Kong; San Francisco; Capetown, South Africa; and Sydney, Australia, form a pantheon of the world's most naturally beautiful cities. In Rio's case, that beauty is the result of mountains, rainforests, beaches, lagoons, tropical vegetation and the South Atlantic coming together to form a dramatic backdrop.

It's the beaches, more than any other single aspect, with the possible exception of its world famous carnival, that best define life in Rio. While the city has 56 miles of beach running through its very heart, two of them — Ipanema and Copacabana — rank among the world's most famous strips of sand.

The tall and tan and young and lovely girl from Ipanema might just be a figment of a songwriter's imagination, but the upscale boutiques (think H. Stern and his collection of precious jewels), million-dollar mansions and trendy sidewalk cafés that line the beach are very real. TV's Travel Channel has dubbed Ipanema "the world's sexiest beach."

Although equally beautiful, Copacabana seems less intimidating. By day, volleyball players dominate the sand, and vendors sell everything from Coca-Colas to that Rio staple, the thong bikini. At night, the cafés fill up with tourists and Cariocas (locals), and the mosaic walkway that runs parallel to the beach hums with activity until the wee hours.

Rich architectural history

As tempting as it is to spend all of your time at the beach, Rio has much to offer beyond it. And as the preparations for the city to host the 2016 Summer Olympics get under way, the offerings are sure to ramp up.

Start by taking the train up Corcovado Mountain for a close look at the city's most visible symbol, the statue of Christ the Redeemer. At 130 feet tall and weighing 635 tons, it is the largest Art Deco statue in the world.

You'll also want to go by cable car (or if you're incredibly fit, by foot) up Rio's other famous mountain, Sugar Loaf, overlooking Guanabara Bay, for the city's most spectacular view.

There's plenty to do at ground level as well. Rio, discovered in 1502 and reaching its zenith with the arrival of the Portuguese court in the early 1800s, has many vestiges of its past on display. One of the most interesting is Largo do Boticário, seven colorful colonial town houses set in a grove of date palms.

Another link with the past is São Bento Monastery, which occupies a solitary position on a hill overlooking the city and provides a tranquil oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle. Built between 1617 and 1641, the monastery has a richly decorated interior, and during Sunday Masses, the monks spice up the liturgy with Gregorian chants.

For Brazilian history of a slightly more recent vintage, spend a few hours at the Museum of the Republic in the impressive Catete Palace, the former residence of Brazil's presidents. While the museum's focus is on paintings, furniture and other decorative arts, it does have a more eerie twist. One of the country's former presidents, faced with a public scandal in the 1950s, shot himself in a third-floor bedroom, and his ghost is said to roam the palace.

Like its South American sister, Buenos Aires, Rio is a city of magnificent architecture, with many stunning examples of the Belle Epoque period of the 19th century. Perhaps the most exquisite is the Municipal Theater, home to the city's opera and ballet. Modeled after the Paris Opera House, it has stained glass windows, crystal chandeliers and curved marble staircases.

Another Belle Epoque gem is Confeitaria Colombo Coffee House in the heart of the old city. The Art Deco salon, with its stained-glass skylight, wall-to-wall mirrors and ceiling fans, is the perfect spot to enjoy a steaming cup of rich Brazilian coffee.

If Rio by day is active, Rio by night is positively mind-boggling, with seemingly endless choices. You can get as upscale as you want (an evening at a champagne bar or jazz club on Ipanema Beach) or indulge in local color with a visit to one of the numerous samba schools to watch members prepare for carnival, or to check out a gafeiras, a typical Brazilian dance hall (visitors are welcome at both). If you can't get to Rio during carnival, the next best thing is to book a table at one of the samba extravaganzas such as Plataforma. Sure, it's touristy, with its flashy dance numbers and colorful Carmen Miranda costumes, but hey, you're a tourist, aren't you?

Whatever form of entertainment you choose, make it late — say, about midnight. You have to eat first, and Cariocas like to dine late. Many restaurants don't even open for dinner until 9 p.m. and finally get hopping around 10. Like any cosmopolitan city, Rio has every variety of ethnic food from which to choose, but for real Brazilian flavor, you must sample feijoada, the national dish, and churrascaria, a smorgasbord of meat dishes.

Tradition dictates that feijoada, a stew of black beans, dried beef, bacon, salt cured pork and ribs and various types of sausage, is served in Brazilian homes only on Saturday nights, but thankfully, Casa da Feijoada in the Ipanema District, serves it every night.

A churrascaria dinner is often likened to a Roman emperor's banquet for its jaw-dropping array of courses. If you have the appetite for it (and the money — it's pricey) book a table at Marius Carnes Churrascaria on Copacabana Beach. Waiters just keep bringing different meat courses until you signal you've had enough.

You might have to surrender after the fifth or sixth course, but it's unlikely that you will decide you've had enough of anything else this beautiful city has to offer.