Sao Paulo is bigger and the capital moved to Brasília 54 years ago, but Rio de Janeiro, with its white beaches, blue ocean and jungle-covered mountains, is still the place that comes to mind when people think of Brazil.
Home to samba and Carnival, bossa nova and modern architecture, imperial palaces and shantytowns, notorious drug gangs and world-renowned telenovellas, the 448-year-old harbor city is a microcosm of Latin America's largest country.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Rio.
BODIES, BEACHES, JUICE BARS
By all means visit tourist favorites such as Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) and the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado, but here are places that locals enjoy, too.
Despite its party reputation, Rio is also a daytime city. Obsessed with health and good looks, many Cariocas, as the locals are known, work hard to keep tan and fit.
Start the day by the sea with a morning walk or jog along the shoreline and its tiled Portuguese stone walkways in Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon.
Equally good routes can be found along Flamengo and Botafogo's bayside parkways, or on the 7.5 kilometre walk around the Lagoa, a lagoon between Ipanema and the mountains. Bike rentals are easy to find.
Quench your thirst with a coconut water or have breakfast at Balada Sumos (Av. Ataulfo de Paiva, No. 620, Leblon).
Balada and the dozens of snack and juice bars along the main shopping streets in Ipanema and Leblon serve tropical juices and "natural" sandwiches. There are also options for the not-so-health-conscious, such as pork-and-pineapple sandwiches, a Rio classic.
The beach is best at late morning and late afternoon. The most popular spots are between Posto 7 and Posto 10 in Ipanema. Each posto is a lifeguard station whose number serves as a beach address.
For a beachside seafood lunch and a caipirinha - the Brazilian cocktail made with fruit and local sugarcane liquor - try Restaurante Azul Marinho (www.cozinhatipica.com.br) in the Arpoador Inn (Av. Francisco Bhering, near Posto 7).
While Ipanema beach has the cleanest water, avoid swimming the day after a heavy rain. Local newspapers print beach conditions daily, and you can ask your hotel for details.
Always bring as little as possible to the beach. Chances of getting robbed are slim, but it's best to tuck cash or a bank card in your shorts or swimsuit. Cariocas keep their hands free.
You can buy everything you need at the beach. Instead of a towel, buy a canga, a colourful shawl-beach blanket to lie on, to dry off and to keep the sun off your shoulders. Rent beach chairs from the drinks tents.
HISTORY, MUSIC, NIGHTLIFE
If the beach isn't your thing, visit Jardim Botanico, the lush gardens built by the Portuguese royal family after fleeing to Rio in 1808 as Napoleon attacked Lisbon. The stately palms and jungle walks offer soothing shelter from the midday sun (Rua Jardim Botânico, No. 1008).
Lunch at Braseiro da Gávea (www.braseirodagavea.com.br) or Hipódromo da Gávea (Praça Santos Dumont, No. 108), three blocks away. Braseiro's picanha (grilled rump steak) can't be beat. The cozido (meat and vegetable stew) at Hipodromo is a Sunday delight.
For a look at Rio's colonial, royal and imperial past, head to Museu Histórico Nacional (www.museuhistoriconacional.com.br) and other museums and churches near Praça XV. The Church-Monastery of São Bento, near Praça Mauá, is a Baroque gem. On Sundays the monks say Mass with Gregorian chant (//www.osb.org.br/mosteiro/).
Rio food lacks Sao Paulo sophistication but is served with panache. For a classic Rio food experience, take a cab to Santa Teresa, the charming old neighborhood overlooking downtown.
The streetcar tracks along Av. Almirante Alexandrino past some fun restaurants. Try rabbit, pork chops and draft beer at Adega do Pimenta (www.adegadopimenta.com.br) or moqueca (fish stew) at Sobrenatural (www.restaurantesobrenatural.com.br).
Around the corner, Bar do Mineiro has a great feijoada, the bean and jerked-beef stew that is Brazil's national dish (www.bardomineiro.net).
In the evening head to Lapa, the old bohemian neighborhood where Carmen Miranda got her start and where events are held beside the arches of the old aqueduct.
There are dozens of dance and music bars playing samba and chorinho, a kind of "Dixieland Samba," along Rua Mem de Sa, Rua do Riachuelo and Rua do Lavradio. One of the most famous is Rio Scenarium, a series of concert rooms in renovated buildings (www.rioscenarium.com.br).
Once you've worked up an appetite, end the night with cabrito assado (roasted goat) at Restaurante Nova Capela (Rua Mem de Sa, No. 96). At sunrise, you'll be ready for a walk on the beach.