Rio de Janeiro: Savor Carioca Culture

July 21, 2016
Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro

A “maravilhosa” sight: the beach of Ipanema. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Rio de Janeiro is known for it spectacular natural beauty, but the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvelous City) is also home to a rich local culture. Cariocas, as the people of Rio are known, have developed a culture that reflects their character – diverse, sensual, vibrant and reveling in the pleasures of life. Superb food, art, design and, of course, music and dance are elements of Rio’s distinct carioca culture.

If you’d like to experience Rio like a local, here are places to savor Rio’s carioca culture. 

Largo do Boticario, Rio de Janeiro

Colonial cul-de-sac: the charming Largo do Boticario. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

The roots of Carioca Culture

Carioca culture is a blend of diverse traditions – primarily from the region’s indigenous people, the Portuguese who colonized the area, and the African slaves they imported.

Centuries as a European colony have left few traces of the original native communities, but the compact Museu do Índio offers multimedia exhibits on Brazil’s indigenous cultures. The Museu Historico Nacional (National History Museum) and Museu Nacional also contain relics and exhibits on Brazil’s indigenous tribes.

Pedra do Sal, Rio de Janeiro

The Pedra do Sal, where black cariocas invented samba. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

You can explore colonial Rio at the Paço Imperial, the former imperial palace that today houses exhibitions. The museum in the Forte de Copacabana includes exhibits tracing the early days of the Portuguese colony to the mid 19th century. The National History Museum includes artifacts from the colonial era, including gilded imperial coaches and a royal throne. But the finest legacies of Rio’s colonial epoch are the palaces and magnificent churches from the era (see Carioca Architecture below).

Afro-Brazilian traditions pervade all aspects of carioca culture, particularly its music, food and visual arts. To explore Rio’s African roots, follow the African Heritage Historical and Archeological Circuit. This route through Rio’s Port Region includes the Pedra do Sal (the birthplace of Samba), the slave cemetery, and the 19th century school that is now the Centro Cultural Jose Bonifacio, a hub of Rio’s contemporary black culture.

Roda de Samba, Rio de Janeiro

A joyous roda de samba at Pedra do Sal. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Carioca Music


Samba is perhaps the cariocas’ most beloved musical invention – a quintessential part of Rio. Some of the best ways to experience samba in Rio include:

  • Rio’s samba clubs, where you can hear great samba bands and hit the dance floor.
  • Samba parties. At Rio’s weekly rodas de samba you can to groove to authentic samba sessions with cariocas.
  • Samba school rehearsals – join local samba groups as they prepare to take the spotlight in the annual Carnival Parade. After rehearsal, visitors can join the sambanistas on the dance floor.
  • Take a class in samba dance, perhaps including a Samba Night Tour.
  • Explore carioca Carnival culture at Cidade do Samba, where you can see Carnival floats and costumes.

See Samba! The Sound of Rio for complete details.

Garota de Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

Bossa nova central: the restaurant where the classic song was created and, across the street, Vinicius Show Bar and Toca do Vinicius. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Bossa Nova

This languid, lyrical fusion of samba rhythms and jazz is a sound that is pure carioca. Born in the beach communities of Zona Sul in the late 1950s, it was the 1964 recording of Garota de Ipanema (“The Girl from Ipanema”) that made Bossa Nova an international sensation. Venues to hear excellent bossa nova include:

Vinicius Show Bar (directly across the street from Garota de Ipanema, the restaurant where the classic song was written), is dubbed “the temple of bossa nova” and presents nightly shows.

Becco das Garrafas claims to be the birthplace of bossa nova and presents a roster of excellent musicians.

TribOz – Rio is a Lapa venue dedicated to bossa nova, was well as Brazilian Jazz and experimental music.

The epicenter of bossa nova is Toca do Vinicius with an archive of books, music and memorabilia dedicated to the genre. The venue also hosts occasional live performances on Sundays.  Bossa nova aficionados will also want to stop by Bossa Nova & Companhia, a bookstore and record store that specializes in the genre.

While not specifically carioca conceptions, Rio hosts plenty of outstanding performances of Brazilian music, including forró, chorinho, pagoda and MPB (Brazilian Popular Music). Check the “What to Do” section of the free magazine or their website, as well as The Rio Times.

Museu de Arte do Rio, Rio de Janeiro

Inside the new Museu de Arte do Rio, which presents works focused on the city and carioca culture. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Carioca Visual Arts

Museu Nacional de Belas Artes houses works by Brazilian artists, from the colonial period through the 20th century.

Museu de Arte Moderna offers modern works by Brazilian artists.

The Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR) is a new museum presenting exhibitions focused on Rio and the carioca experience. Most works are by contemporary local artists.

Fabrica Bhering is a 1930s sweet factory that has been occupied by carioca artists. The huge structure includes workshops of painters, photographers, potters, fashion designers and graffiti artists. Check the website (in Portuguese) for events when the artists open their workshops to showcase their work.

Museu de Folclore Edison Carneiro and Casa do Pontal showcase impressive collections of Brazilian folk art.

Instituto Moreira Salles contains more than 8000 photographs, many of vintage Rio. It’s housed in an exemplary modernist home and the grounds are by famed landscape architect Burle Marx (who designed the iconic Copacabana beach promenade mosaic).

The Paço Imperial, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, and Centro Cultural Oi Futuro offer temporary exhibits, many by local artists. Casa Franca-Brasil sponsors exhibitions, often dealing with facets of carioca culture.

Finally, celebrate a unique carioca character at the Museu Carmen Miranda. Housed in a bizarre circular concrete structure in Flamengo Park, this tiny museum includes photos, recordings and a few film clips the Brazilian Bombshell in her fruity headdress.

Feijaoda, Rio de Janeiro

Feasting on feijaoda, Brazil’s national dish. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Carioca Cuisine

Rio offers many restaurants serving quality Brazilian fare and carioca classics. Platters of grilled meat, fish, or picadinho (diced meat) served with rice, beans and salad are a staple. The national dish is Feijaoda, a feast of stewed pork and black beans served with an array of fixings.

Carnivores will love Rio’s churrascarias, which serve all-you-can eat grilled meats, served tableside hot from the kitchen. Arrive hungry and be ready to gorge.

It’s fun to pull up a plastic chair and join the cariocas at their neighborhood boteco. These small, open-air bars are ubiquitous in Rio and akin to a local pub. They serve ice-cold beer in 20-oz bottles or a chopp (glass of draft beer), snacks like savory pastries and sandwiches, and a simple “plat du jour.” Newer on the scene are botecos with table service and full (inexpensive) menus.

Suco, Rio de Janeiro

This neighborhood Suco serves fresh juices and delicious quick bites. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Important elements of the carioca diet are fresh tropical fruits. Sucos serve fresh-squeezed and blended fruit juice concoctions, as well as fried bites and pastries, both savory and sweet.

Finally one must indulge in Rio’s official drink – the caipirinha. This refreshing cocktail of crushed limes, cachaça (sugar-cane alcohol) and sugar can be savored in bars, clubs and beach barracas. Sipping a caipirinha while watching the sun set over the beach is a recipe for bliss.

Sao Bento Monastery, Rio de Janeiro

Colonial splendor: the astounding Sao Bento Monastery. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Carioca Architecture and Design

To explore Rio’s colonial heritage, begin at Paço Imperial, the former imperial palace that is now a cultural center. Clustered nearby are the splendid churches of Nossa Senhora do Carmo da Antiga Se, Nossa Senhora do Monte Carmo and Ingreja de Sao Jose. Atop a nearby hill is the spectacular Sao Bento Monastery, dripping in gold. Other colonial treasures include the neo-gothic Ilha Fiscal, Casa Franca-Brasil, the Candelaria Church and the exquisite Portuguese Royal Cabinet of Literature. In Cosme Velho, just short walk from the entrance to Cristo Redentor is Largo do Boticario, a secluded cul-de-sac with brightly colored homes from the early 19th century.

Step into Rio’s elegant Belle Époque at the Theatro Municipal, which was inspired by Paris’ famous opera house. Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil is a beautifully restored 1906 edifice that hosts exhibitions and events. Many streets in Centro and Lapa are lined with early 20th century buildings in various states of repair, and Santa Teresa features mansions and taverns from the era. A fun way to soak in the refined ambiance is over treats at beautiful Confeitaria Colombo or Casa Cavé.

Confeitaria Colombo, Rio de Janeiro

Savor Rio’s Belle Époque at Confeitaria Colombo. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

In 1943, Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer’s groundbreaking Gustavo Capanema Palace started the Brazilian craze for modernist design. Rio’s other notable modernist structures include the Museu de Arte Modern, the Monument to the Dead of World War II, and the Instituto Moreira Salles. The exterior of Rio’s Metropolitan Cathedral is a hideous concrete cone, but its huge stained glass windows and hanging crucifix create an ethereal interior.

Fans of modernism and Brazil’s celebrated architect Oscar Niemeyer will want to cross the bay to Niteroi to see Caminho Niemeyer and his famous Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC).

Museu do Amanha, Rio de Janeiro

Rio’s new architectural star: the Museu do Amanha. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

While Santiago Calatrava is not a carioca, his astounding Museu do Amanha is Rio’s newest landmark.

Carioca Football

In Rio, football (known as soccer in the U.S.) is not just a passion – it’s an obsession. For a thrilling, pure carioca experience, join thousands of fans (fanatics?) for a game at Maracanã stadium. If you can’t make it to a game, you can tour the famous stadium, including visits to the V.I.P. Boxes, the locker room, and even taking to its legendary field.

For insight into the carioca football fervor, pay a visit to Museu Seleção Brasileira. The museum includes displays on the history of Brazilian football, memorabilia and high-tech interactive exhibits.

Caipirinha Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

The perfect close to day in the “Cidade Maravilhosa,” a caipirinha overlooking Ipanema. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

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