Apart from the fact that you constantly have Barry Manilow going round in your head, there’s very little negative you can say about Rio de Janeiro. It’s colourful, friendly, relaxed and you can wear teeny tiny swimsuits in the middle of winter (and people do).
I went there to find the secrets of Brazilian football. I even stayed in the Windsor Atlantica hotel: the hotel that will house the England team, should they qualify for the 2014 World Cup. However, I discovered so much more: great food, fantastic nightlife, many more trees than I’d expected and one of the most vibrant cities on Earth. It’s the kind of place that makes you smile so much that, if you were in London, would get you some very funny looks.
Did you know…
…If you get lost, you can turn to Christ. Literally. The left hand of the Christ the Redeemer statue points north, the right to the south.
…The beautiful Tijuca National Park was in fact hand-planted in the late 19th century. The original forest was destroyed to grow coffee.
…The Maracana Stadium holds the record for the largest ever attendance at a football match: a shoulder-squaring 199,584 for the 1950 World Cup Final.
…Churrascos, the fantastic Brazilian barbeques are ‘all you can eat’. I’d certainly take it easy on the sides.
..Being tropical, you can barely detect winter in Rio. Average temperature for January is 27C, for June it’s 21C.
Five things to do in Rio
Immerse yourself in samba: Head to the Lapa district for dozens of chilled out bars, fantastic live music and the snakiest hips you’ll ever see. On Sunday evening check out BipBip in Copacabana – a tiny bar where samba legends gather round a table and fill the streets with onlookers.
Embrace the local cuisine: By this, I mean caipirinhas and churrasco. The lime and sugar cocktails are cheap, plentiful and fuel you for a night of dancing. And you’ll need that after eating your weight in meat at one of the famous all-you-can-eat barbecues.
Don’t pack your flip flops: You’ll only chuck them once you see the price of Havaianas, Brazil’s most famous footwear. Imports are pricey in Rio, but these home-grown must-haves are well worth stocking up on.
Take a hike: Taking a daytime stroll around the streets of the city or a cave-hunting hike into the beautiful Tijuca National Park will give you a much better perspective of Rio.
Bring a ball: Or, indeed, don’t. The beaches of Rio are awash with sporting activity, from jogging to yoga to tightrope-walking. But the most popular pastimes are football, volleyball or their lovechild: foot-volley. Don’t be afraid to start your own game or ask to join in.
5 ways to explore the world of sport in Rio
Play football in a favela – If you don’t make Roy Hodgson’s cut next year, you’re unlikely to ever face Brazil’s current crop of Samba Stars – but you can take on the next generation on one of the city’s favelas. Through Rio Football Tours, I was able to play against some of the best young street players around.
Go kayaking – Why hire a pedalo when you can go ocean kayaking? Yes, ocean. Even without any experience, though, I lived to tell the tale and experienced views of Rio you won`t get on any bus tour – all while working up a bit of a sweat (and tan).
Play golf – To the delight of anyone who likes pastel clothing and fist-pumping, golf will be part of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. I played at the stunning Itanhangá Golf Club. With two courses (one for those without a handicap) it offers 360-degree views of hilly rainforest and the possibility of your ball being nicked by a monkey.
Take a Rio tour – Sometimes on holiday, you just want to sit back, relax and let someone else do all the work. So leave the maps and the Lycra clothing at the hotel and join a brain-filling Rio City Tour .
Get on your bike – Gentle beach road tours are available, or you can opt for something a little (okay, a lot) more challenging and climb the hills of the beautiful Tijuca National Park. The good news is, you can use the fantastic views as an excuse to stop.
So, while Rio eats, sleeps and breathes football – across all social strata – it’s no one-trick town. It has many tricks, and some of them don’t even involve balls.
The locals call their home ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’, the Marvellous City. And I, for one, couldn’t agree more.