Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Olympics 2016. Travel guide and things to do in the world's most seductive city

You don't need to speak much Portuguese to enjoy Rio's sensory charms. But there is one word I wish I'd known beforehand: garota. It means girl, as in Garota da Ipanema. And everyone goes: Ahhh.  

During my visit to Rio last year for the World Cup of football, our group was wandering around the fashionable Ipanema neighbourhood looking for a decent meal. We turned a corner and there in front of us stood the Garota, the bar and grill where that song was written in the early 1960s and made into a worldwide hit by the gossamer voice of Astrud Gilberto​.

Inside is a glorious temple to everything about the spirit of Brazil in the exuberant '60s. The Garota is decorated with historic photos of the songwriters, Antonio Carlos Jobim​ and  Vinicius de Moraes writing at the bar, original music and lyric sheets, articles about the actual girl, and design motifs from the time. We could not stay away, and each time we rocked up, an infectious  joy radiated through the front door to the queue of customers waiting to get in.

Oh, to be back there again next year when, between August 5 and August 21, Rio basks in its second global moment in as many years, the Olympics leg of a rare quinella that only Mexico City has enjoyed up till now (1968 Olympics and 1970 World Cup). Rio 2016 also coincides with a surge of interest in travel to South America among Australians, with better, and more affordable air connections. In December, Air New Zealand, in a code-share partnership with Argentine national carrier, will begin services to Buenos Aires.

Major events imbue everything with a heightened reality that makes the experience more exciting and often more exasperating. The volume is turned up to 11 on everything. If the goal of travel is to leave a deep imprint, then special events are serious bucket-list items. 

Everything shakes in a country where samba is part of the DNA.

Everyone feels touched by the sense of kinship, but only after they have endured a familiar roller-coaster during the build-up: frustration at bureaucratic waste, outrage at corporate ticket deals, annoyance at endless construction work and private sniggering when deadlines are not met. 

Hosting the two biggest events on the planet in rapid succession is a big ask for Rio, the first South American city to host an Olympics. On one hand, the officials have learned lessons from the first, specifically around transport arrangements and crowd control. In addition, where the World Cup drew hundreds of thousands of foreign fans, the Olympics are basically home-town events. The number of tourists next year will be modest, and mainly domestic. So crowd management should be much smoother.

But the range of venues needed for Olympics always raises environmental questions, and one year out, Rio faces major challenges. The sailing venue, Guanabara Bay, is filthy with industrial waste and in nearby Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, site of the rowing regatta, 50 tonnes of rotting fish carcasses were reportedly found floating in May, prompting the head of the world rowing federation to threaten delaying the regatta unless officials could guarantee the safety of rowers.

I'm getting a strong feeling of deja vu. In the months before last year's World Cup began, Rio and Sao Paulo were beset by protests over the amount of money spent by government on stadiums instead of public infrastructure and services. The locals grumbled about disruptions to traffic and the ticket allocation systems.  

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A few days before the first match, a man sitting next to me in our bus to Copacabana beach – one of the small minority of Brazilians who spoke any English – explained that locals were ambivalent about the upcoming fiesta of football.  "Our hearts are proud but our heads are angry," he said ruefully. "But I think the love of football will take over." 

He was spot on. Brazil's opening-day victory changed the national mood and across the land, scowls turned to smiles. Hundreds of volunteers in specially designed shirts appeared everywhere (sound familiar?) and explained in halting English how proud they were of Brazil's moment in the sun. The streets were filled with whistles and fireworks, and everyone wearing the national colours.

AT THE COPA, COPACABANA

When people celebrate in Rio, they head straight for Copacabana Beach. A gentle crescent of sand four kilometres long (Bondi Beach is one kilometre), Copacabana is a massive expanse; more than  2 million people squeezed on to the beach  two years ago to celebrate a Mass with Pope Francis.

It's warm enough to swim during winter and although the locals do venture into the surf, most of the activity is on the beach, where men play a hybrid version of football and volleyball, and women nurture their suntans.

Behind the beach a line of kiosks runs along the promenade. If you can resist the street vendors hawking grilled prawns and lobsters, sit down at a kiosk and order a caipirinha, the local cocktail made of sugar cane brandy, sugar and lime. On a warm evening, with a steak sizzling under your nose, the beach shimmering into the distance, this is a feeling to savour. 

During the World Cup, organisers erected two giant screens on Copacabana: one inside the Fan Fest and another in the centre of the beach, where people could rent a deckchair or sit on their towels and soak up the entertainment.

The Olympics will probably surpass this with the beach volleyball, which has long been a signature sport for the Brazilians. Next year, to accommodate European TV broadcasting schedules, the IOC has announced that some of the beach volleyball will be played at midnight on Copacabana.

Floodlights on the beach, bouncing bodies flinging themselves around in front of a home crowd in the middle of the night: this will surely be the quintessential Rio Olympics experience. I feel nostalgic just thinking about the vibe around the beach and bars nearby. 

For a taste of old-world elegance, you can't go past the Copacabana Palace hotel, opened in 1923 to attract the rich and famous from  the US and beyond. A glistening white castle that fell into neglect when Brasilia became the national capital in 1960, the palace has been restored to its original glory and has been described as South America's premier hotel.

It definitely attracts a certain crowd. This is a place where middle-aged men smoke fat cigars while their wives lie on divans in white towelling coats and their nannies take the kids for a swim. During the World cup, disgraced FIFA president Sepp Blatter stayed here too, and I can't blame him. 

No visit to Rio is complete without a meal or drink at the palace. The bouncers make you feel like a trespasser for trying to enter but anyone is allowed to go in for a meal. The food is delicious and reasonably priced, the coffee excellent. I rang my wife while lounging around the pool, gave her a smartphone camera tour and promised to bring her here one day.

LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

You can't stay at Copacabana all the time, which introduces a tedious truth about Rio. It's a sprawling metropolis of  6 million residents. The traffic is heavy, really heavy, no matter  the time of day and, despite an extensive bus network, we found ourselves hardly moving for minutes on end. Although the subway system is clean and safe, it's not overflowing with stations.

Taxis are handy, especially late at night, but once inside you're at their mercy. Brazilian taxi drivers like to stay right on the bumper bar of the car ahead and some take their hands off the wheel to answer a question. After a few days we drew straws to see who would sit in the front seat. 

Between the traffic and visitor volume, Rio's chief tourist sights – the cable cars up to Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer statue – require careful planning. Stroll up mid-morning and you could be waiting for three hours or more to get in, as we did with Sugarloaf. It's almost worth the wait. 

The lookout commands a spectacular view back over Rio's beaches and harbour, though diminished slightly by a moderate haze. Having laboured for hours to get up there, I was dubious about going up to see Christ the Redeemer.  "It's just another mountain panorama," I whined. "We've been to Sugarloaf. How much more can we see?" I was quickly slapped down and we booked seats online for an early-morning ride a few days in advance. 

Thank God my group overruled me, and thank God we booked. The morning was crystal clear and even at 9am the viewing platform was packed. Standing there among hordes of tourists stretching their arms out in pretend Christ poses, the statue is simply awesome to behold. More than that, an engineering marvel. How on earth did they build it, all the way up here?

A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

Before anyone could tell me, I found answers to another, deeper question. No, not the meaning of life. It's too late for that now. Up at the statue I bumped into a young Brazilian woman, Vanessa, who was born in Sao Paulo and now works as a teacher in Dubai. 

Why did you leave? "There are things I don't like about Dubai but I prefer them to the things I don't like about Brazil." What don't you like about your home country? 

"I have been robbed nine times, and kidnapped once. The kidnapping happened at an ATM in an affluent neighbourhood of Sao Paulo. The two men made me take extra money out, kept me overnight until the ATMs reopened in the morning. Then they made me take more money out, drove me to a favela [urban slum] and dumped me there. That made me leave Brazil." 

Without skipping a beat, Vanessa declared this was her first visit to Rio. "This city is more dangerous than Sao Paulo…they kill 30 people a day here," she whispered. "Until now, I have been too scared. But with the World Cup and all the police around, it is OK  now."

She scanned the incredulity on my face. "It's the truth. The Brazilians won't talk about these things with foreigners. They are too proud, they don't want to give a bad impression.

"You think I am lying, but I am not. This is happening every day here but locals will never talk about it with you…In the favelas, if you get lost…you won't come out. They burn people alive in their cars in the favelas."

Right, scratch the favela tour. Yet despite all the unrest and stories of urban violence, my personal safety was never threatened  in Rio, or any other part of Brazil. To be frank, there is probably never a safer time to visit an edgy city or country than during a major international event.  

With the world's media upon them, governments know a couple of ugly muggings can ruin years of hard planning.  The sporting venues are declared special zones, police and army are deployed in force to ensure simmering domestic problems never spill into the cameras' hungry lenses. In the end, I think personal safety depends on staying in populated, well lit areas and luck.

RIO, YOU REALLY GOT ME

Which brings me to Lapa, Rio's night-life capital, a precinct of run-down mansions that have been reborn as teeming samba clubs. Lapa is near the city's huge white aqueduct, just under bohemian Santa Teresa, which is up the hill. Everyone should go there. It's a core Rio experience. 

I don't think I have ever seen such a mass of youthful exuberance as the drinking, eating and dancing on the streets of Lapa at 1am. It makes New Year's Eve at The Rocks feel like a nursing home.  If you want to get inside one of the main clubs, you need to get there early because after 9pm the queues are ridiculous. 

We settled for walking around to watch people dancing and drinking outside. Brazilians also like to play pool, and we strolled into one pool hall for a few games of eight-ball at midnight. Afterwards, we followed a loud noise back to the aqueduct, where a crowd had gathered around an all-women brass band having a red-hot go at The Kinks' You Really Got Me. What a scene. They really got me. 

Amid all the noise and drink and revelry, I also felt pretty safe. In retrospect, there were only two occasions I felt scared in Rio. The first was an early-morning taxi ride to the airport in thick fog. Simply terrifying. At least in clear weather  you can see how close you are to the bumper bar ahead.

The second was after the match between Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Maracana stadium, which was packed with fevered Argentine fans. When Messi scored the crucial second goal with a beautiful curling shot, they went berserk, and continued to celebrate after the match as we inched our way back to the subway.

Our path back to the concourse was via some temporary wooden stairs that stood on scaffolding. On the way in, everyone was calm and the stairs were solid. But on the way out, the convergence of excited fans made the stairs wobble and shake violently.  It suddenly dawned on me that if just one plank gave way, the whole construction might collapse. The local media felt the same way and ran a story; authorities rectified the problem in time for the next game. That's another reason to visit during a special event: when things break down, they get fixed fast. 

Then again, everything shakes in a country where samba is part of the DNA. Brazil is a virus that everyone should catch once in their life and Rio is the perfect place to get infected. The memory of it makes we want to go, ahhh

FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN RIO

SANTA TERESA

The hillside neighbourhood of Santa Teresa was originally an area of farms and woods where runaway slaves sought refuge. In the 1960s artists, writers and musicians were drawn to its cheap, run-down accommodation. Today it remains a bohemian village filled with craft and art galleries, football street murals and graffiti artists.

LAPA STEPS

The ideal way to return to the city is a leisurely walk down to the now-famous Lapa Steps, a fabulous work of street art by self-taught Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who moved to Rio in 1983 in a tiny house just in front of the desolate stairway connecting Santa Teresa with Lapa. There are 215 steps that he entirely covered with bright red majolica collected in urban areas of Rio or donated by visitors from around the world. 

BUZIOS

This lovely fishing village, about 180 kilometres north of the city, was "discovered" by Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s and is a still lovely, but upmarket resort. Buzios boasts a spider's web of limpid beaches, some still empty, a chic shopping strip, some impressive restaurants and a bustling nightlife. Accommodation is pricey  in summer but affordable in winter, when the water is still warm enough to swim. Buzios is accessible  from Rio's main bus terminal. Buses leave frequently all day. See buziosonline.com.br

ILHA GRANDE

A prison island until 20 years ago, the Ilha Grande is regularly listed among the world's most beautiful beaches. An easy ferry ride from Rio (take a bus, then a boat: four hours all up), the island is consciously low-key, with modest hostels and pousadas, no roads and cars banned. Besides the beaches, Ilha Grande also boasts great forest walks, diving and marine life, and the vibe is youthful, laidback, with plenty of live music  in the main harbour town if you want it. See hotel-ilhagrande.com

NITEROI

Strictly speaking, Niteroi is just across the harbour from Rio proper but it warrants a day trip to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, the famous "flying saucer museum" designed by legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer, who created the Brazilian capital Brasilia in the 1960s. The museum is irresistibly romantic, a temple of modernism built onto a cliffside, with a beach below. From a distance it stands like an otherworldly obelisk. The museum has a stylish cafe, which provides beautiful views around the harbour and Niteroi beachfront. See  macniteroi.com.br

I GO TO RIO 2016: 

FIVE GREAT EVENTS

The Olympic sports for the 2016 Games are divided into four venues – Copacabana, Maracana, Deodora and Barra. Copacabana and Maracana are relatively close to each other but the other two are a long way from them, and each other. 

BEACH VOLLEYBALL

What: A signature Brazilian event (they have won it 11 times since being introduced in 1996), this will be played in a party atmosphere on Rio's most famous beach, A combination of skimpy costumes, warm winter sun and partisan local fans. Not to be missed. Where: Copacabana Beach.

FOOTBALL

What: Watch the locals urge on the home team to redeem Brazil's spectacular self-destruction last year against Germany. Where: Will be played in six cities: Rio (Maracana Stadium), Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Salvador and Manaus

TENNIS

What: A chance to see the world's best players – Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Wawrinka, Nadal playing for their country. Where: Barra

RUGBY SEVENS

What: A debut Olympic event, this will have curiosity value for Brazilians but deliver great entertainment for any Australian visitors. Where: Deodoro

MARATHON

What: The Rio marathon will start and finish in the Sambadrome (home of Carnevale), whose steeply raked stands on either side of the circuit will evoke memories of ancient Greece.  See rio2016.com/en/the-games/competition-venues/sports-map

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

riodejaneiro.com

smartraveller.gov.au

GOING THERE

Australians require a visa to travel to Brazil. See brazil.visahq.com.au. Note that many hotels will not accept bookings well in advance and when they do, prices may be nearly double or more for the Olympics, judging by last year's World Cup. CoSport, on behalf of the Australian Olympic Committee, is offering a limited number of tickets and packages for the Rio 2016 Games to residents of Australia. For more details, see cosport.com.au

GETTING THERE

Qantas and LAN fly daily from Sydney to Rio via Santiago, under a code-share agreement. Flights from Melbourne connect via Sydney. Some flights also stop in Auckland and be connected to there. See qantas.com.au. Phone 131313 See www.lan.com Phone 1800 126 038 

STAYING THERE

Mar Ipanema Hotel (Rua Visc de Pirajá, 539 – Ipanema) is a comfortable, affordable base in the heart of elegant Ipanema, a short walk from the beach and 20 minutes from neighbouring Copacabana. It's an excellent base for sightseeing, swimming and shopping. Rooms start at  $240 a night. maripanema.com.br. For something fancier, the Belmond Copacabana Palace, just across the street from Copacabana beach, offers a taste of Latin luxury. Rooms start at  $510. See belmond.com/copacabana-palace-rio-de-janeiro/.

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