From the summit of Corcovado Mountain, the 360-view of Rio is a showstopper. Nearly two million people each year head up to snap a selfie and pay their respects to Christ the Redeemer, the 30-metre statue that watches over the city. On a clear day, standing under the concrete open arms of art deco Jesus, it's easy to spot the sparkling blue crescent of Copacabana Beach way down below. It beckons visitors to dive in and join the party.
One of the most famous beaches in the world, Copacabana is the very heart and soul of Brazil's sassy former capital, Rio de Janeiro. It's also the city's de facto gym, bar, restaurant and concert stage, all rolled into one sizzling four-kilometre stretch of sand. To visit Rio and not walk along Copa's beachfront promenade or browse the night market stalls would be akin to skipping the Opera House and the Bridge on a first visit to Sydney.
Sure, other beachside neighbourhoods in Rio have come into vogue over the years: Ipanema, made famous in the 1960s by that song and now the place for chic boutiques and popular wine bars, and upscale Leblon, where a tranquil beach and ritzy shopping centres soothe the souls of wealthy Brazilians. Yet Copacabana continues to hold court on centre stage, in flamboyant booty-shaking fashion.
During the 2016 Summer Olympics, beach volleyball competitors fought it out for top honours on the beach's white sands. Three years before that, the city welcomed 3 million worshippers who celebrated Mass with Pope Francis on the beach as part of World Youth Day. On New Year's Eve in 1994, singer Rod Stewart had pulled an even bigger crowd – 3.5 million – believed to be the largest concert crowd ever gathered. Come Sunday, the mosaic-tiled promenade is mostly closed to traffic while on fine days the beach is towel-to-towel packed.
Rio locals (known as Cariocas) like to keep fit and strut their toned, tanned bodies on the sand. With multiple volleyball nets, football courts and outdoor workout equipment dotted along the sand, it's an egalitarian Anytime Fitness, where the poorest kid from the nearby favela could be working out next to a bikini-clad Insta star doing a live feed to thousands of followers. But it's not all push-ups and Pilates under the blazing sun. Across the road from the sand, the striking white Belmond Copacabana Palace hotel is a 1920s architectural masterpiece harking back to Flapper days. In the surrounding streets, swimwear shops sell itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny ribbons of lycra, while homegrown Havaianas stores offer the latest thong designs.
Beach bars line the promenade, serving icy cold "chopps" of draft beer, strong caipirinhas and tasty empanadas. To satisfy more substantial appetites, follow the locals to an all-you-can-eat restaurant, known as a rodizio. One of the best is Churrascaria Palace, operating since 1951. Waiters in crisp suits circulate with flame-grilled meat skewers, dripping with the juices of prime rib, sirloin steak, chicken hearts, pork ribs and more. They keep carving and serving until diners can't fit in another delicious bite.
Plates of polenta wedges, fries, onion rings and grilled cheese at each table compete with an endless buffet of sushi, seafood, soups and salad. The wine flows, the band plays. Rio sure knows how to throw a party.
Kristie Kellahan travelled to Brazil as a guest of Collette.
LATAM Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Rio de Janeiro. See latam.com
The beachfront Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel & Resort is in Leblon, just five minutes' drive from Copacabana Beach. See marriott.com
Collette's nine-day Highlights of South America tour includes three nights in Rio de Janeiro. See gocollette.com.au