From the beaches and Carnaval to the recent World Cup and the upcoming Olympics, there are an endless number of reasons to plan a trip to Rio de Janeiro. The Marvelous City is in the midst of a building boom to handle all of the incoming tourists. Stadiums are being built. Waterfront hotels are being added. Plus, the airport is being renovated. But don’t worry, there’s one neighborhood that isn’t changing at all.
Lapa doesn’t have beaches or gorgeous views or arenas to draw big crowds. Yet almost everyone eventually makes their way to this neighborhood in central Rio. It was established in the mid-18th century, when the Portuguese built the Carioca Aqueduct to transport fresh water from the Carioca River to neighborhoods on top of a hill. But it became popular later, in the 1950s, when intellectuals and artists started meeting in the restaurants and the bars. Today, Lapa is known for both its colonial architecture and vibrant nightlife.
During the day, Lapa is relatively quiet. The aqueduct’s white arches, known as the Arcos da Lapa, can be seen all around the neighborhood. They now carry the bonde uphill to Santa Teresa. The Santa Teresa Tram, one of the oldest tramways in the world, has yellow cars, open sides, and a bumpy track. Passeio Público, Brazil’s oldest public park, is nearby. The park has iron gates, the Fonte dos Amores (Love Fountain), and two granite pyramids. But Lapa’s biggest daytime draw might be the Escadaria Selarón (Selarón Staircase). The world-famous steps, created by a Chilean artist, are made of yellow, green, and blue tiles. The project began in the 1990s and continues to evolve today.
Yet it’s after dark that Lapa’s true colors start to emerge. The neighborhood is famous for its music. Everything from samba and Brazilian pop music (MPB) to choro and forró to modern electronic are heard here. The main streets are closed to vehicular traffic. The bars overflow onto the sidewalks. The caipirinhas are strong. The beer is ice-cold and inexpensive. And it’s impossible to not start dancing.
In the mood for samba? Clube dos Democráticos, which first opened in 1867, attracts the Carnaval partiers to its grand ballroom for samba dancing. Another good introduction to samba, Rio Scenarium, took over three floors of a 19th-century warehouse and filled it with beautiful paintings and antiques. While Carioca da Gema hosts some of the best samba bands in the city. Looking to try the slower-paced forró? Partners dance close together on the smokey, tightly packed floor at Asa Branca. Or, for a more-relaxed pace, Brazilian rock and bossa nova bands play at the open-air Circo Voador, and jazz bands jam at the tiny club Semente.
By the end of the night—early morning, really—you may be soaked in sweat, but you’ve learned some new dance moves and made a bunch of new friends. Now, after a nap, you can go to those famous beaches and relax for the rest of the day. Though we can already guess where you’ll return later in the evening.