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Rio de Janeiro
Brazil's insider take:

The empty beaches and picturesque fishing villages of Niterói, on the eastern shore of Guanabara Bay, provide a pleasant step-down from Rio's pace. Three ferries leave each hour from Praça XV de Novembro in Centro ($1.70 each way), affording superb views of the Sugarloaf and Niterói's hills. Also visible on the 20-minute ride across the bay is Ilha Fiscal, a lime green, Gothic-style castle built as a customs house in 1889 but better known as the site of the last Imperial Ball that same year, when outgoing Emperor Pedro II nearly bankrupted the soon-to-be-declared republic by hosting a party so lavish that it drained the state's coffers.

Niterói's principal attraction is the Oscar Niemeyer–designed Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC), a curvilinear, saucer-shaped fantasy swathed by a swirling catwalk that is splendidly situated on a rocky outcropping above the bay's glittering waters. (Catch a cab or the 47B bus from Niterói's congested dock area.) Other highlights include the 1612-built Fortaleza de Santa Cruz da Barra, where artillery batteries once guarded the entrance to Guanabara Bay; the nearby fishing village of Jurujuba; and a long stretch of unspoiled, little-visited beach towns (including Piratininga, Itaipu, and surfers' favorite Itacoatiara) along the Atlantic coast.

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