For the Olympics, everything is in order, theoretically. Aside from the stadia and a plethora of other facilities, governor Sergio Cabral and mayor Eduardo Paes are planning new rail and port links, strategic roads to Olympics sites, and even a third airport. Eyesore overpasses are disappearing underground, and billions of dollars have been spent on shoring up the city’s creaking infrastructure.
Yet for all its sultry beauty and hedonistic veneer, Rio has an image problem. Once the most sophisticated city in Latin America outside of Buenos Aires, it now has the decadent air of a metropolis that has not only had its day, but that embodies seemingly insoluble social problems. Locals can tell you the exact date the city’s fortunes began to wane: April 22, 1960, when it lost its capital status to Brasília. Four years later, a military dictatorship seized power in Brazil, and Rio’s federal funding began to dry up. Before long, São Paolo, 400 kilometers to the west, had eclipsed it as the country’s economic nexus and largest city.
Rivalry between the two has been fierce ever since. São Paolo claims the better universities as well as what is arguably Brazil’s top football club; it is also home to a superb symphony orchestra based at the Sala São Paolo, a state-of-the-art concert hall created from the forecourt of a railway station. Rio, on the otherhand, has a richer history than São Paolo, not to mention the world’s largest Carnival, when samba schools compete to create extraordinary spectacles as millions look on. And it has Globo TV, the huge broadcast network that endlessly churns out telenovelas, the soap operas that feed a celebrity-fixated populace.
What Rio also has in abundance, of course, is sex, “body culture,” and the lure of the beach. Flip-flopping across the white sand in a pair of Havaianas, you’ll spot everyone from teenagers brandishing perfectly sculpted bodies to stunning septuagenarians who are walking advertisements for the country’s huge trade in plastic surgery. On Ipanema Beach, preening gays have come to symbolize the intensity of Rio’s narcissism. At nearby Leblon, exclusivity is part and parcel of the scene as a fifth of the city’s population joins their affluent friends and telenovela stars in sushi joints, gyms, and juice bars to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that they are not part of the other four-fifths.
It used to be like that in Copacabana. The stretch of wealth that for many years was synonymous with jet-setting glamour is now looking a tad tired. The women who lured Rat Pack members such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. into 1960s nightclubs are today the elderly matrons who, with poodles trotting obediently beside them, hobble suicidally across the Rua Barata Ribeiro, seemingly oblivious to the buses that thunder past at breakneck speeds.
Vignettes like this are all part of a distractingly entertaining beach scene, compulsive viewing for the flaneur. Yet even Rio’s flagrant sexuality can get tiresome. When it does—and assuming you’ve already shelled out for the brief cable-car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, or taken the cogwheel train to the summit of Corcovado to eyeball the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer—head back to Centro, where a wealth of mid-20th-century architecture is scattered amid Belle Epoque museums and theaters, gilded Jesuit churches, and bustling cafés. Edgar Fonseca’s massive concrete pyramidal Cathedral of Saint Sebastian is a standout, as is the nearby Palácio Gustavo Capanema, designed in the 1930s under the direction of Le Corbusier and considered the oldest modernist public building in the Americas.
Admirers of an earlier era will appreciate the Theatro Municipal, at the north end of Cinelândia plaza. A magnificent confection of marble, granite, and bronze that was inaugurated in 1909, it reminds one of a time when Rio hoped to be a global player in international culture. Modeled after the Louvre, the nearby Museu Nacional de Belas Artes houses some superb examples of Brazilian modernism, the post-Cubist art movement that gave birth to a national style; Di Cavalcanti’s nine-meter mural Navio Negrero is just one highlight. The similarly ornate Biblioteca Nacional on Avenida Rio Branco has a reading room with stunningly decorated ceilings and a stairway adorned with works by Brazil’s greatest turn-of-the-last-century artists.
Rio’s old glory days had their darker side, too, which I ponder at the recently excavated ruins of the notorious 19th-century wharf, Cais do Valongo, where as many as a million African slaves were once held and sold. After that, it’s time to retreat to Confeitaria Colombo, an atmospheric old-world salon where you can sample the city’s best pastries while gazing at the stained-glass cupola or into the vast infinity mirrors in their Art Nouveau frames.