Beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro
Concierge.com's insider take:
If you come to Rio with any intentions other than hitting the beach, you're mildly insane. Sand and sun inform most everything about the city and its people, from the informal and scanty dress to the happy-go-lucky attitude. (Show up on time to a party or dinner date? Perish the thought.) Drop by on a Monday morning and—yep!—the beach is packed. No wonder the citizens of São Paulo joke that Cariocas don't work.
You will be identified as a tourist, but to lessen the sting, here are a few tips: Buy one of the cheap wraps sold on the sidewalks and use it to sit on rather than a towel (which nobody uses outside their homes). Or rent a chair and umbrella beachside—it's about $3 for the day, and the vendors will bring over cold drinks or snacks. Leave your baggy board shorts or one-piece at home—you'll find the best beachwear in the world here, so pick something up. Guys, those tiny elastic shorts are de rigueur, no matter your build. Topless bathing is strictly a no-no—and actually illegal. Lastly, you'll find that almost anything sold in stores can also be bought on the beach, including drinks, jewelry, sunglasses, sunblock, and bikinis (recent city ordinances banned food sales on the sands). Everything's of good quality and fairly priced. When it's really hot out, nothing quenches a thirst (or helps a hangover) like a coco gelada—a chilled green coconut with a straw, available at sidewalk stands.
Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon are the most popular beaches, separated from the high-priced real estate by a four-lane road and those famous patterned sidewalks. In the hundred yards of sand between the road and sea you'll find a universe of commerce, sports playing, flirting, and tanning—the Carioca lifestyle at its best. Each portion of the beach has its own "address": Look for the changing stations/bathrooms, which have the number on them. Posto 3, in front of the Copacabana Palace, is where you'll find the greatest cluster of tourists. The hotel staff will look out for you, but be aware that petty thieves hang here, so watch your possessions. Walkng southwest along the beach, near Posto 6, you'll encounter a rock jetty that sticks into the ocean: This area is Arpoador, which is popular with surfers. The next beach is Ipanema, where you'll find both the hopping gay section, identified by the rainbow flag, and Posto 9, famous for being the hangout of the young, beautiful, and tragically cool. (Even if you're none of those things, be sure to take a look.) A ten-minute walk down the beach will bring you to Leblon: This is excellent middle ground—mostly locals, but rarely overpacked. Note: On Sundays the main street along the three beaches closes to traffic and locals come out to stroll, ride bikes, and hang with friends.
Farther afield are São Conrado, where hang gliders who've taken off from Pedra Bonita land quite spectacularly, and many more miles of good sand along the nouveau riche neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca. Two of Rio's best beaches, though, are secrets, and you'll need to rent a car, convince a local to take you (not that hard), or make an arrangement with a taxi to pick you back up. Prainha and Grumari are 40 minutes west of Zona Sul and are protected—there are no permanent buildings out here, and the hills behind the beaches are covered with lush green rain forest. Prainha, which means "little beach," has lots of surfers, but both places are wonderful for getting away from the crowds and feeling like you're on a (mostly) deserted isle, especially during weekdays.
Warning: The currents on all of these beaches can be quite strong, and even though there are lifeguards, be cautious. Also, stay off the beach after dark; it can be dangerous.