Easy vibe high on the hill

Ute Junker goes above and beyond Rio's beaches for a taste of the city's hippest food.

It is a sunny Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, and the beachfront suburbs of Ipanema and Leblon are feeling the love. The crowds are out and strutting their stuff.

Some are displaying their dare-to-bare swimsuits on the beach. Others are demonstrating their rollerblading prowess along the black-and-white boardwalk or posing over lunch at Sushi Leblon.

Up in the hills, however, a different vibe prevails. Sundays in the bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa also pull a crowd, but here, no one is out to impress.

At the favoured hangout, the Bar do Mineiro, the early arrivals are already relaxing at the small tables, their backs to the cool, white, tile walls which are covered by a haphazard assortment of posters, black-and-white photos and colourful paintings.

Those who have arrived later know better than to congregate at the wood-topped bar. Once they have bought their drinks, everyone heads outside to hang out near the doorway or sit on the stoop of neighbouring properties.

A sizeable contingent props up the wall on the opposite side of the street. Unlike in the streets below, where gridlock prevails, there is only an occasional passing car to keep an eye out for.

The Bar do Mineiro, a low-key hangout with no pretensions but plenty of cool, is just one of the things to love about Santa Teresa.

Located in the high slopes above the city, Rio's most individual neighbourhood feels cut off from the chaos below. The area's inaccessibility is what attracted the first European residents.

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The first to come were a pair of nuns who, in 1750, set up the convent of Santa Teresa, which gave the area its name. Much later, some intrepid farmers followed.

The only other people drawn to the area were runaway slaves, who hid in the dense forest that covered the slopes.

The coffee boom of the 1880s changed everything. Cashed-up capitalists built mansions and made the area fashionable. Its popularity grew when an electric tram was introduced, running along the old aqueduct. The yellow tram - the only tram left in Rio - is a city icon, but it was shut down in 2011 after an accident in which five people were killed. The upgraded line may reopen next year. Until then, visitors wanting to explore what may be Rio's last village have to either take a bus from Avenida Gomes Freire in Lapa or find a taxi willing to make the climb.

Santa Teresa owes much of its charm to its cobbled streets and beautiful colonial houses, features that have disappeared from most of the city.

In the 1960s and '70s, artists moved into the then dilapidated neighbourhood, opening studios and creating the colourful murals that have become another of the area's signatures.

The heart of the district is the Largo dos Guimaraes, where the tram line stops. From here, wander along Rua dias de Barros, where the small shops and restaurants don't bother with fancy features like doors. When they are ready to open, they just pull up their shutters and wait for customers.

Some of the small bars have tiny terraces out the back, which seem to cling precariously to the hillside but offer spectacular views out over the city and towards the ocean. Walk past one of the side streets sloping down from the plateau and a shock of blue announces another stunning panorama of Rio's foreshore.

Just 10 minutes' walk brings you to the Parque das Ruinas. This was once the home of heiress Laurinda Santos Lobo, who hosted soirees for Rio's artistic communities. These days, the decaying shell of the house has been equipped with metal walkways, allowing visitors to clamber around the structure.

Next door, the Museo Chacara do Ceu has some quality works in its small collection, including pieces by Brazilian artist Di Cavalcanti. If you are in the mood for more art, a number of locally based artists open their studios by appointment, including sculptor Pedro Grapiuna and painter Carlos Vergara. The area's most famous artwork, however, is the Escadaria Selaron, one of the long flights of stairs linking Santa Teresa with the neighbourhoods below.

Renovated by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who lived nearby, the 250 stairs are covered in mirrors, ceramics and 2000 tiles collected from about 60 different countries. The surreal staircase has featured in videos by Snoop Dogg, among others.

Don't leave Santa Teresa without a stop at one of the area's many acclaimed restaurants. Sobrenatural specialises in seafood. At Espirito Santa, chef Natacha Fink focuses on Amazonian ingredients, including river fish such as tambaqui and fruit such as the bacuri.

Santa Teresa's most popular Sunday lunch spot, however, is Aprazivel, which owner Ana Castilho set up in the garden of her hillside home. The leafy surrounds make you feel as if you are in a tree house, the views are stellar and the modern Brazilian cuisine is superb.

Who needs the beach?

The writer travelled courtesy of LAN Airways and The Classic Safari Company.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

LAN Airlines has a fare to Rio de Janeiro for about $2760 low-season return from Sydney including tax. You fly to Santiago (about 16hr including transit time in Auckland) and then to Rio (4hr 15min). See lan.com, phone 1300 558 129. Melbourne passengers pay about $100 more and fly Qantas to Sydney or Auckland to connect.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Santa Teresa is housed in a converted mansion set in a leafy garden. It also has a superb restaurant. Rooms start at around $468. See santa-teresa-hotel.com.

EATING THERE

Sobrenatural has some of the best seafood in town. See restaurantesobrenatural.com.br.

Espirito Santa showcases unusual ingredients from the Amazon. See espiritosanta.com.br.

Aprazivel's lush garden setting makes it perfect for a leisurely lunch. See aprazivel.com.br.

MORE INFORMATION

classicsafaricompany.com.au; visitbrasil.com.

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