The greatest concentration of hotels, restaurants, and beaches is in Zona Sul, or the Southern Zone, encompassing Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. The beaches are all connected to one another, and it's easy to travel by sidewalk on the main street (Avenida Atlântica in Copa and Avenida Vieira Souto in Ipanema). The good shopping and restaurants in Ipanema are off Rua Visconde de Pirajá, which runs parallel to the beach two blocks in. Walking is fine during the day, but at night you're best off hiring a taxi—they are plentiful, safe, and cheap. The international airport is a 45-minute haul from Zona Sul.
WHEN TO GO
South America's seasons are reversed from ours, so the holiday season, beginning around December 15, pulls double duty as both Christmas time and the full swing of summer. New Year's, called Révellion, is huge too, with major celebrations on the beach. Next up is Carnaval, which usually falls in February. Book way in advance for these seasons. If you're looking for lower rates and summer weather, come right after the end of Carnaval.
Weather-wise, summer heats up around October, with temperatures regularly clocking three figures by December. It can be quite humid, and few establishments except hotels are air-conditioned. March, the beginning of fall, is rainy season, with winter starting in June. By July, the temperature drops to around 70° F and it gets dark much earlier. Spring is very pleasant and less humid, with temperatures in the comfortable 70° F to 90° F range.
HOW TO GET THERE
Many flights to and from the East Coast are overnight, making Rio a feasible weekend destination (Thursday night to Monday morning). You'll land at the only airport to be immortalized in song ("Samba do Avião") and consequently named after that song's composer: Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport. It's linked to Zona Sul by the Linha Vermelha expressway; a taxi will cost approximately $40, and you should give yourself at least 45 minutes for the trip.
Dangers: The film City of God, although stunning, didn't exactly quell the perception of Rio as a crime-infested shantytown. There is a huge disparity between the wealth of Zona Sul and the shantytowns, called favelas. (One infamous favela, Rocinha, is a city unto itself.) But Rio is a relatively safe city as long as you keep your wits about you. Don't leave valuables—ever—on the beach as you go swimming. At night, stay off the beach and use taxis. On an unrelated note, be careful crossing the street, especially at night. After 10 p.m. motorists are permitted to treat stoplights as stop signs. If you do run into any trouble, the tourist police can be reached at 55-21-2332-2924.
Money: Brazil is First World in most ways, but the banking situation here is hopeless. The majority of ATMs only accept Brazilian-issued credit and debit cards—a very rude awakening to seasoned travelers used to getting local currency this way from Morocco to Mongolia. The ATMs at the international airport work, sometimes, but if they don't, you'll have to exchange cash for reis at the airport kiosk to get taxi fare. The best bets otherwise are the Citibank locations in Ipanema (459 Rua Visconde de Piraja; 55-21-4009-8600) and Copacabana (828 Av. Nossa Senhora de Copacabana; 55-21-4009-8801). Many banks don't allow you to take money out after 10 p.m., though—supposedly a safety measure.
119 Praça Pio X. 9th floor
55 21 2271 7000