Rio's character is intricately linked to its beaches. In the long summer and on nice weekends throughout the year, Copacabana and Ipanema are packed solid with sun worshippers. But in the verdant hills a few minutes away, up the city's sole remaining tramline - the rickety yellow bonde that has become a Rio icon - Santa Teresa is an altogether different scene. Here you'll find fresh air, cobblestone streets, belle époque mansions, art-house cinema and restaurants; it's a world away from the beach.
From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, Santa Teresa was the place to live. Wealthy Cariocas, as the inhabitants of Rio call themselves, competed to create the most outlandish of buildings, marked by turrets or Corinthian columns. With the development of the beach suburbs of the Zona Sul, the rich moved away, exchanging their opulent mansions for modern beachside apartments. Decay set in, until artists and intellectuals were attracted to Santa Teresa's faded grandeur, moving in alongside the few survivors of old families. This being Brazil, they also formed a bloco (a street carnival group of dancers, drummers and other percussionists) called the Carmelitas, dressing, for no particular reason, as nuns. Although the Carmelitas parade through the neighbourhood on weekends throughout the year, it's during Carnival time - in particular, this Friday and Tuesday - when they're guaranteed to be out in force and at their most frenetic.
In recent years, Santa Teresa has been undergoing yet another transformation. This time, it's the peaceful atmosphere combined with ever-expanding dining options that, in the evenings, has been luring wealthy Cariocas here from their exclusive beach suburbs. This could bring wholesale gentrification to one of Rio's most distinctive neighbourhoods. Until then, have a caipirinha and enjoy the view.
A modernist art house
Once the home of industrialist and art collector Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya, the stunning Museu Chácara de Céu is a prime example of mid-20th-century Brazilian modernist domestic architecture. Foreign visitors should head straight for the outstanding collection of 19th-century watercolours of Rio and early-20th century Brazilian paintings by Candido Portinariand other modernist masters. Rua Murtinho Nobre 93; 55 (21) 3970-1126; www.museuscastromaya.com.br/chacara.htm .
Dine with Rio's beautiful people Why, you may wonder, travel all the way to Rio for something apparently so un-Brazilian as an Asian restaurant? Well, for one thing there's the food itself: a pan-Asian assortment of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese dishes that's absolutely outstanding. As is typical for even the best (and most expensive) restaurants in Rio, there's no dress code //at Asia//, while the general dining experience (there's a choice of either air-conditioned comfort or al fresco on one of the terraces) is delightful. But the real attraction of Asia is that it's among Rio's most trendy restaurants, so this is a place to star-watch: You may have no idea who's at the other tables, but you can be pretty certain that your fellow diners will. Rua Almirante Alexandrino 256; 55 (21) 2224-2014; http://www.asia-rio.com .
Chill out to high culture The tree-shaded grounds of an abandoned 19th-century mansion are the relaxed setting of the Parque das Ruinas, from where you can absorb some of the finest vistas across Rio. Drop by in the early evening when free musical performances turn the park into a local gathering point. The programming is eclectic, ranging from European classical music to jazz and rock, as well as more typically Brazilian sounds such as samba, forro and bossa nova. Rua Murtinho Nobre 169; 55 (21) 2242-9741.
An artists' retreat Santa Teresa has become synonymous with visual arts, though most studios and workshops are discreetly hidden behind the high walls of private homes. Keep an eye open for the periodic Arte de Portas Abertas, festive occasions when artists invite the public to their studios. For a finger on the pulse of the local creative output, drop by the continually changing exhibition space of Estúdio 260, the organizers of Arte de Portas Abertas, which displays the work of both new and established artists. Expect to find bold abstracts, installations and performances predominating over figurative styles. Rua Julio Otoni 260; 55 (21) 2285-3190; www.estudio260.com.
A modernist design icon Ricardo Fasanello is to Brazilian furniture what Oscar Niemeyer is to architecture, and Fasanello's classics of modernist design have been produced in Santa Teresa for more than 50 years. Since the designer's death in 1993, his family has overseen the production with items such as the glass-topped Arcos coffee table and the elegant leather rings of the Anel chair looking just as novel as they must have seemed when they first appeared. Rua do Paraiso 42; 55 21 2232-3164. Open by appointment only.
Get Hype Although the casual fashion styles that are the mark of Rio are generally attractive enough, local designs tend to mimic European and North American looks, with prices considerably higher than you'd expect to pay at home. But Santa Teresa is home to a more original brand, Favela Hype, that combines hippie chic with Carioca sexiness. The result is a fun, affordable range of women's clothing that is edgy yet pretty. It's all produced in factories in nearby favelas with carefully regulated working conditions. Rua Almirante Alexandrino 592; 55 (21) 2242 0063.
Afro-Brazilian eats Acarajé da Nega Teresa is something of a local institution, specializing in acaraje, an incredibly tasty street food originating in the northeastern state of Bahia. As much a feast for the eye as for the taste buds, acaraje is a kind of fritter made from ground black-eyed peas fried in palm oil and served with spicy sauces with shrimp and other ingredients. The locally famous vendor Teresa - who always dresses in a traditional Afro-Bahian colourful head wrap and billowing white skirt - has become so successful that she now offers a catering service. And she must be one of Rio's few street vendors to maintain a website. Rua Almirante Alexandrino 1458; www.negateresa.com.
The Lapa scene For many visitors, a greatattraction of staying in Santa Teresa is to be near - though separate from - Lapa, the edgy, increasingly fashionable, inner-city nightlife district. A true Carioca meeting point, as one of Rio's few spaces shared by the wealthiest residents of the Zona Sul suburbs, hillside favela dwellers and tourists, Lapa's bars and clubs draw a real cross-section of night owls. While there are plenty of large and small venues to choose from, none match the variety and excitement of Fundição Progresso. The nightclub and stages attract top artists and the coolest DJs, while in the summer months you'll also catch the hottest samba batterias (drum groups) and dancers. Rua dos Arcos 24, Lapa;
55 (21) 2220-5070; www.fundicaoprogresso.com.br .
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Where to stay
Cama e Cafe 55 (21) 2225-4366; www.camaecafe.com.br. From $42. This not-for-profit network pioneered bed and breakfast accommodation in the area. Properties are all carefully vetted, with rooms varying from simple-and-tidy to antique-bedecked opulence. Most rooms are in the homes of artists or professionals and you can ask for your personal interests to be matched with those of a host.
Casa Aurea Rua Aurea 80; 55 (21) 2242-5830; www.pousada-casa-aurea-rio.com. Private rooms from $92. Accommodation in this 19th- century building is basic (not all rooms have air conditioning or a private bathroom), but the homey, welcoming atmosphere balances that out. An excellent breakfast is served in the delightful courtyard garden.
Relais Solar Rua Ladeira do Meireles 32; 55 (21) 2221 2117; www.solardesanta.com. From $250. Built in 1890, this colonial-style villa, converted into a five-room guesthouse, must rate as one of Santa Teresa's most attractive houses. Owned by Canadian Gwenael Allan, the inn's exceptionally spacious rooms look out onto a garden bursting with tropical flowers and shaded by fruit trees. A special feature is the swimming pool with breathtaking views toward Flamengo beach and Sugar Loaf mountain.
Hotel Santa Teresa Rua Almirante Alexandrino 660; 55 (21) 3380-0200; www.santateresahotel.com. From $430. As hotels with distinct character are surprisingly rare in Rio, this 44-room luxury property stands out. The interior of the mid-19th-century plantation house (complete with slave quarters) is decorated with natural colours, using a mix of fibers and woods to convey a modern Brazilian look. The garden and infinity pool boasts panoramic views across the city centre and Guanabara Bay, and there's a fine French restaurant.