What to See in Rio: São Conrado, Barra, and Recreio

After Leblon, Rio’s coastal road, Avenida Niemeyer, goes through a long tunnel that burrows beneath the Morro de Dois Irmãos, whose slopes are home to one of Rio’s largest favelas, Vidigal. Although from a socioeconomic perspective the successive beach neighborhoods are considered extensions of the Zona Sul, geographically they are part of the Zona Oeste, since they are situated west of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. These sprawling neighborhoods are much more recent and lack the history and charm of the Zona Sul. While their beaches are attractive and unspoiled, the neighborhoods themselves offer little aside from a collection of soulless restaurants, bars, and gigantic shopping malls where the middle class Cariocas and novo ricos (nouveaux riches) hang out. None of these neighborhoods were laid out with pedestrians in mind. Cars rule, but the coastline is also well served by buses from the Zona Sul with destinations marked “Barra” and “Recreio.”

São Conrado is a small and very posh neighborhood full of luxury high-rise condominiums and a fancy shopping mall. In a disarming contrast, these chic edifices gaze directly onto Rio’s biggest and most notorious favela: Rocinha, home to over 200,000 Brazilians, whose brick and cement dwellings cover the otherwise rain forest–carpeted Morro de Dois Irmãos. Although Rio is all about glaring contradictions and brutal extremes, nowhere else is the divide between rich and poor so prominently, fascinatingly, and perversely apparent. São Conrado’s main draw is the small and spectacular Praia do Pepino (Cucumber Beach), where hang gliders burn off their adrenaline after taking off from the neighboring peaks of Pedra da Gávea and Pedra Bonita.

Another long tunnel brings you to the mega-developed, super-suburban, Miami-like bairro of Barra da Tijuca, known simply as Barra. Two decades ago, this 16-kilometer (10-mile) stretch of coastline was little more than a long, wild sweep of white sand with a few barracas. Now it is the playground for Rio’s middle classes, who alternate days spent on the beaches and at the many shoppings with nights at the bairro’s many bars, clubs, and shoppings. Barra’s one saving grace is its beach, which remains amazingly unspoiled, particularly during the week. On weekends, however, the sands sizzle with lots of young tanned and toned bodies in a partying frame of mind. The trendiest strip, at the beginning of the Barra between Postos 1 and 2, is known as Praia do Pepê (access from Av. do Pepê). Although the surf is rough, you can swim here. You can also engage in all varieties of sports in the water and on the sand.

Barra da Tijuca becomes more deserted the farther west you travel. Eventually it turns into the 11-kilometer (7-mile) long beach known as Recreio dos Bandeirantes, whose untamed surroundings and rough waves are a magnet for Rio’s surfing crowd. Particularly attractive is the small and secluded Prainha beach, at the end of Recreio. The spectacular waves and presence of several renowned surfing academies make it a mecca for surfers. Even more deserted is Grumari, whose reddish sands are framed by spectacular mountains covered in lush native Atlantic forest. Both Prainha and Grumari are located in protected nature reserves. Despite the fact they can’t be reached by bus, they can fill up on the weekends with Cariocas seeking a quick back-to-nature fix. Near Grumari, Praia de Abricó is Rio’s only nude beach.

Museu Casa do Pontal

Inland from the far end of Recreio dos Bandeirantes is the Museu Casa do Pontal (Estrada do Pontal 3295, tel. 21/2490-3278, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$10). Although it takes well over an hour to get here, the final destination is worth it. Back in the late 1940s, French designer and art collector Jacques Van de Beuque began traveling throughout Brazil (especially the Northeast), where he discovered a fantastically rich artisanal tradition that nobody—not even Brazilians—was aware of. To preserve and promote these works, he built a vast house surrounded by tranquil gardens. Today, it shelters the largest collection of Brazilian folk art in the country, with over 5,000 works ranging from wonderful clay figures of popular Northeast characters to the extravagant costumes worn by celebrants of traditional Bumba-Meu-Boi festas. To get here by bus from the Zona Sul, take any bus going to Barra da Tijuca and get off in front of Barra Shopping to transfer to the 73 bus going to Recreio, which will let you off in front of the museum’s entrance.

Sítio Roberto Burle Marx

The idyllic Sítio Roberto Burle Marx (Estrada da Barra de Guaratiba 2019, tel. 21/2410-1412, tours by appointment only 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$5) is another attraction worth the time and effort to get to. Between 1949 and 1994 this bucolic country estate was the primary residence of renowned landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, whose most famous projects in Rio include the Parque do Flamengo and Copacabana’s iconic black-and-white mosaic “wave” promenade. The surrounding nursery and gardens—featuring more than 3,500 plant species collected from Brazil and around the world—were designed with great flair. Indeed, it was said about Marx—who was also a painter—that he used plants as other artists used paint. The colonial house (originally part of a coffee plantation) and adjoining atelier have been transformed into a museum where you can admire the artist’s works, possessions, and rich collection of Brazilian folk art. If you don’t have a car, take the bus marked “Marambaia-Passeio” (No. 387) that passes through the Zona Sul.