The mere mention of Rio de Janeiro stirs up postcard-perfect visions of beautiful beaches, sensuous sounds and iconic landmarks: Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon; bossa nova, samba, carnival; Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain. But also Garrincha, Romario, Ronaldo; Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense; and the temple of Brazilian football: the Maracana.
There are many sides to Rio but football is never far from view. The city currently boasts four top-flight teams, and tickets can be purchased online to watch Botafogo at their Nilton Santos Stadium, Flamengo or Fluminense at the Maracana or Vasco da Gama at the endearing Sao Januario. Flamengo also compete in the national women’s League, while Bangu, Madureira and Portuguesa all ply their trade in the men’s fourth division.
This summer, the Maracana, one of only two stadiums to have hosted two World Cup Finals, will also be one of six venues for the Brazil-hosted Copa America, which runs from June 14 to July 7. Three group-stage encounters, including Chile versus Uruguay, one quarter-final and the final itself will all be played at the famous, near 80,000-capacity stadium. With Brazil the pre-tournament favourites, there may well be celebrations to be seen.
Historically curious visitors will enjoy the football museum within the Maracana grounds and also the smaller Flamengo museum at the club’s headquarters in Leblon. The Liga Retro store in Ipanema offers a wide range of classic football shirts for those seeking a souvenir. But from the street art depicting stars past and present, to the informal games that spring up on the beach or in parks, there is plenty for any football fan to take in.
Otherwise, Rio is a city that is there to be enjoyed. Find a spot on the beach, lay back and relax or stroll the promenades, making refreshment stops at the many bars and kiosks selling ice creams, tropical fruit juices or something stronger. As the sun begins to descend, grab a drink and straddle the Urca sea wall to watch it disappear behind Christ the Redeemer.
When it comes time to fill up, there are a multitude of Brazilian steak houses — churrascarias — offering as much meat as you can eat. Fish lovers will want to seek out the unassuming Arataca in Copacabana, with its seafood stews and other dishes, and the salt cod fritters at Bar do Gomez in the arty Santa Teresa district. Spazziano’s vegan buffet is well-reviewed.
From there, it is onwards into the night. Live music fans can catch the Monday samba party at Pedra do Sal, bossa nova at the Vinícius Show Bar or a spot of Jazz at TribOz. Bip Bip in Copacabana is another renowned venue. Lapa has long been regarded as Rio’s nightlife centre, but Botafogo is an up-and-coming zone with plenty of quirky bars, while a more informal scene congregates around the Praça Santos Dumont square in Gavea.
Rio certainly has its ugly side, but for the fleeting visitor, particularly for football fans, its heady mix of entertainment and enchantment is hard to resist.