I was in Ipanema, Rio's beachside neighborhood, chatting with the Cariocas I met about my plans for the rest of the week, which included a visit to Centro, the downtown neighborhood on the north end of the city.
"Centro? Really? Are you sure you want to go? No one goes there. It's a little dicey." The response seemed universally negative.
"Dicey how?" I asked.
I roll my eyes when I hear this term, either because I'm reckless (true) or because "dangerous" is never really scary (also true). But when the people doing the telling are street smart, level-headed, and not easily spooked, well, it gave me pause.
"Bullshit," said Hugo Gonçalves, a writer pal who moved to Rio from Lisbon. "I work in Centro. Come down. I'll show you around."
And that was that. I spent a day in Centro, and I loved it. If Ipanema and Leblon are all about beachy living and hippie-bourgeois style — flip-flops, surfers, açai smoothies, overpriced bikinis, and sushi restaurants — Centro is gritty, historic, and industrious — colonial libraries and churches, street vendors, emerging art galleries, and skyscrapers.
Centro was the heart of Rio in the beginning of the 20th century. But as society and tastes moved south, the neighborhood lost its luster and became riddled with drugs, crime, and the ills that befall formerly prosperous urban centers. Now, however, the neighborhood is coming back, thanks to a revitalization that's the result of government effort and business development. Construction cranes are everywhere.
I was with Hugo for a few hours, but was otherwise alone in my wanderings. It made for an amazing day.
A fantastic art museum by the water built in a historic building and a modern annex linked by a suspended walkway on the top floors. I learned the history of Rio in a permanent collection, and saw a temporary exhibit about surf and skate culture.
The first place Hugo took me was this beautiful old cafe from 1894 with magnificent stained glass ceilings, elaborate tiled floors, and all the attending Belle Epoque grandeur. It's a tourist attraction for sure, but also packed with locals. Have a pastry.
Rua Uruguaiana, Rua Regente Feijó, Avenida Presidente Vargas
The streets in Centro are packed with open-air vendors and shops that sell everything. It's a real bazaar with just about everything on offer: candy, toys, household supplies, clothing, hammocks, spices, electronics, you name it. Very cheap, of course. The shops on Rua Feijó are especially cute.
The most stunning thing I saw in Rio, hands down. The classic 19th-century public library is a cathedral to literature, with volumes piled to the heavens.
A Gentil Carioca
From old to new. A Gentil Carioca, whose name roughly translates as "the people of Rio," is an exhibition space for emerging contemporary art.
Another gallery of emerging art. I liked it even better than the better-known A Gentil Carioca.
The city is full of small neighborhood parks. Cruise through, find a bench in front of a good local scene, and chill for a few minutes.
A lively antiques shop and restaurant serving traditional Brazilian fare and decorated with religious objects. (If you grew up Catholic, you'll love this.)
Rua do Lavradio
We're in the Lapa part of Centro, a neighborhood known for its nightlife and antiques. Spend a few hours on Rua do Lavradio between Rua Visconde do Rio Bravo and Avenida Mem de Sá, where the best shops are Scenarium Antique, Ateliê Belmonte, Mercado Moderno, and Lavradio 15. Have a drink and a snack at one of the restaurants on the pedestrians-only block between Rua Visconde and Rua do Senado and pause whenever you hear live music streaming from inside. Impromptu street party!
Talk about colonialist imperialism: The Catholic cathedral looks like a Mayan ziggurat from the outside and inside is so dark and moody it feels dystopian. If ever a place could scare you into good behavior, this is it.
Stroll along Avenida República do Chile on the elevated walkway above the insane traffic below. Those curvilinear black-and-white cobblestones are so symbolic of Rio. I wonder if everyone rushing to their big important jobs at the banks in the surrounding skyscrapers notices that the ground beneath them feels like a funky dance floor.
Igreja de São Francisco da Penitência
This is what you think churches look like: grand, imposing, lots of gold and statues everywhere. The antithesis of the cathedral, in other words.
I loved this very cool Italian restaurant where the bartenders are hot and the pastas are tasty. It had just opened, so it wasn't on any of my neighborhood lists. I met co-owner Nicola Rombi, a former fashion world denizen, who explained that at Momus, "we use the old to make the new." Note then the classic tiles arranged in psychedelic patterns. The furniture, built by Italian artists and carpenters using pine floors that had lined the second floor. The bookshelves came from Cafe Lidador, one of Rio's oldest cafes and bars, which recently closed, and the chairs had originally been used at Gianfranco Ferre's fashion shows.
A massive, three-floor traditional dance hall, restaurant, bar, and music venue with displays of musical curios and bric-a-brac throughout. You get a ticket when you go in and pay at the exit. It's packed, with nightly shows that draw crowds. It has been covered everywhere and has the makings of a hideous tourist trap. But it's actually totally fun, and on the night I was there I saw more locals than visitors. Everyone is dancing, but no one is showing off. Except maybe the samba drummer on stage.
This is the place to end the night — a thumping, raucous bar where the band is at top volume and the crowd is totally digging it. It's hardly a secret, but, then again, it shouldn't be.
Photos by Pavia Rosati.