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Sugarloaf (Pão de Açucar), Rio de Janeiro

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Rio de Janeiro
Brazil's insider take:

If you only have the time (or the inclination) for one scenic overview of the city, do Corcovado's Cristo instead. But on sunny, clear days, the cable car ride up to 700-foot Morro da Urca and then on to the taller, 1,300-foot PŃo de Ašucar is a classic Rio experience. The truly energetic can scale a route up the near-vertical rock face, exploiting barely visible crevices to rise through wild flowers, bromeliads, and circling vultures before emerging triumphantly among camera-toting tourists on the Sugarloaf's upper platform. Even novice climbers can make it to the top: Guiding outfit Companhia da Escalada provides all the gear—and encouragement—you'll need.

One of Rio's few neighborhoods with detached residences, the rest of Urca is also worth exploring. Surrounded by military housing and officers' clubs, it's one of the city's safest areas. To the right of the cable car station (as you exit), caught between Sugarloaf and the jungle-covered Morro do Urubu, is the 300-yard-long Praia Vermelha beach, a pretty stretch of sand with scintillating views of Niterói's rolling hills on the far shore. At its northern end, a well-maintained path (it's patrolled by military police until 6 pm every day) zigzags through the dense vegetation that lines the rocky coast. It's great for a morning stroll, when black vultures whirl overhead, and butterflies and flycatchers flit through the undergrowth. You can even spot some rare brazilwood trees, recently planted by a local environmental outfit. At the beach's southern end, accessible through a military club, is Praia Vermelha Bar e Restaurante, where the decor is nothing special—plastic chairs, zinc tables, and a girder roof—and even the food is forgettable, a mix of stodgy meat, caldo de peixe, and fried chicken. But the barman mixes a mean caipirinha, and there's live music at nights, when the party shifts down onto the sand, directly beneath the improbable lump of the Sugarloaf (Praça General Tibúrcio, Urca; 55-21-2543-7284; 11 am–1 am, every day except Monday).

The rest of picturesque Urca "village," straddling the Morro da Urca's base on the city-facing side, is a ten-minute walk away. Pretty cottages and palatial mansions border its winding lanes—one house, now marked with a plaque, once belonged to Carmen Miranda—which never stray far from the sparkling waters of Guanabara Bay. There's even a tiny beach where kayakers practice on weekends, and a decent restaurant, Bar Urca, known for its fine seafood. Try the chowder, served in a mug—it's been voted the best in the city by a local travel magazine (205 Rua Cândido Gaffrée, Urca; 55-21-2295-8744). You can eat formally upstairs, but most locals crowd along the sea wall, gaze at the lights of Niterói gleaming on the far shore, and order from circulating waiters who happily bring your food across the street.

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