IT SOUNDS ABSURD: a three-day trip to Rio on the (metaphorical) eve of the Olympic Games? Who am I, Kanye’s butler? The oldest member of Taylor Swift’s squad? But the idea started to make delicious sense. We all know how life’s roots can sometimes innocently take hold, conspiring to keep us married to routine. But the ambitious long weekend—one that requires a passport—can reboot your frontal lobe. It sharpens your senses, as all travel does, without draining your vacation bank.
The ambitious long weekend works like magic, provided you keep time zones and exchange rates in mind. Which makes Rio ideal. For one thing, the U.S. dollar is the strongest it’s been in a decade, and since you’re only paying for two nights at a hotel, you can afford to live like a boss and double down on thread count. Also, time is on your side. The clock change between New York and Rio is just three hours, the equivalent of flying from Los Angeles to the East Coast. (See? Easy.) I boarded a Friday night flight from JFK, chased a glass of red wine with half an Ambien, and woke up with the salt air beckoning. Bom dia, Rio.
Debbie Downers may protest: What can you possibly see in three days? But that’s sort of the point. In a potentially overwhelming city like Rio, where you might be tempted to run yourself ragged ticking off every so-called must-see spot, you’re now free to focus on one thing (food, say, or the beach—or, in my case, both) and have the immersive experience you crave. You know, before NBC’s camera crews topple the city. Besides, the ambitious weekend gives you bragging rights—we’re looking at you, Instagram—with a carioca (local to Rio) tan as your badge of honor. As bossa nova star Antônio Carlos Jobim once said, “Brazil is not for beginners.” Luckily, we’ve got your master’s class here.
How to Pull It Off
Your 72-hour mini-break begins at Hotel Fasano, a chic boutique escape with beachfront rooms facing Ipanema and a sleek lobby bar and restaurant. (If you don’t make it to Christ the Redeemer on this trip, no worries: You can see the iconic statue from the Fasano’s rooftop pool.) Drop your bags and hit the open-air Copacabana Market, where a stout woman might crack open a coconut with a sword and call it breakfast. Still hungry? Order an açai bowl from Polis Sucos, a juice bar in Ipanema, then head to the Lapa district, a gathering place for Rio’s creative types. Time it right—the first Saturday of the month—and you’ll find the Feira do Rio Antigo, a massive antique fair on the streets of Lapa. (It turns into a serious block party at night.) The best sightseeing is on the beach, of course, which is where you should spend the bulk of your days, but downtown Rio is in the midst of a cultural renaissance, and the futuristic Museum of Tomorrow—designed by Santiago Calatrava—is worth at least a selfie.
Rio’s food scene is the perfect mix of high and low. Hit up Lasai in Botafogo, where chef (and urban farmer) Rafa Costa e Silva earned a Michelin star for his Basque- and local-foods inspired tasting menu, which includes an “egg” fashioned out of coconut cream and yams. But perhaps just as memorable is Academia de Cachaça’s budget-friendly feijoada—a stew made with pork, bacon, and sausage served in a ceramic pot ($24 feeds two). Stylish bars serving caipirinhas are everywhere. Bar dos Descasados in the Santa Teresa Hotel (up the hill from Ipanema in artsy Santa Teresa) is fashionable as hell, but don’t skip the caipirinha at Galeto Sat’s, a seriously good cocktail bar masquerading as a rotisserie chicken joint in Copacabana.
The Brazilian flag reads ORDEM E PROGRESSO, or “order and progress.” Which, as far as we can tell, is how the locals enjoy a Sunday afternoon pub crawl through the Leblon neighborhood, with stops at Jobi for pão de queijo (cheese bread) and Bar Bracarense for fried codfish balls. Then head to Bip Bip, a storefront space in Copacabana where aging musicians play samba for a street-side crowd, a happening scene since 1968. Grab a beer from the self-serve fridge, where a local told us about a song, “Samba da Minha Terra” (Samba of My Land), with lyrics that translate to: “No man can live if he does not love samba. He has no idea in his head. He is ill in the head.” Who are we to argue?