Even a few years ago as Rio's resurgence was beginning, there were two Rios as far as outsiders were concerned. There was the postcard Rio: the beaches in Ipanema and Copacabana, the Christ statue and Sugarloaf, Maracanã and the Sambodrome. Then there was another Rio, incredibly rich in history and full of cultural gems: Santa Teresa, Escadaria Selarón, the old city center, excellent museums, the Portuguese Library, the Teatro Municipal, Praça XV..the list goes on. Sometimes tourists would experience both Rios, but the allure of the city for outsiders--considered for years to be a city in decline--lay in the attraction of its natural beauty, Carnival, and soccer. In other words, Rio has always been an interesting destination in terms of culture and history, but it was never quite taken seriously because of a combination of lack of security, investment, PR, and a reputation as a "real" cultural center. And despite being the headquarters for Petrobras, BNDES, and other large Brazilian corporations, it was never really taken seriously as a business city, either.
But as the city's renaissance began, the two Rios began to move closer together. This became abundantly clear this week when The New York Times named Rio as the number one place to visit in 2013 "because the whole world will be there in 2014." Appearing on CNN, Times travel editor Dan Saltzstein explained why Rio was the paper's top pick--and not just because of the World Cup and Olympics. "It's not exactly a new destination," he said, "but there are new reasons to go." Echoing the article, Salzstein listed mostly cultural destinations, and said "the arts are booming." In addition to "formly decrepit areas being revived," namely the port area, he named literary festivals, the partially inaugurated City of Arts cultural center in Barra, the forthcoming Rio Museum of Art, and the planned Museum of Tomorrow as reasons to go. Now, with the mega-events and growing investments, Rio is being taken more seriously as a "high culture" destination.
Rio, too, for expats was traditionally a place for researchers, English teachers, oil company executives, and the occasional multinational employee. Now, there's been a small explosion of foreign correspondents and a growing tide of foreign professionals. When I moved to Rio in 2007, there was almost no English news coverage of Rio--just a few major international outlets which would publish mostly about major events. Now, there are dozens of sources, some reporting daily. "For many years, São Paulo has been the place for multinationals to open a Brazil office," an August 2011 Economist article explains. But, it goes on, "it is no longer foolish to let prospective expats fly down to Rio to take a look." More and more young American professionals are heading to Rio for short-term stints to get "Brazil experience," opting to work in growing number of companies in the Cidade Maravilhosa rather than São Paulo.
Still, expats and frequent Brazil travelers often argue that tourists should avoid Rio and see what the rest of the continent-sized country has to offer. (I find that the argument is more common among expats based in São Paulo, but anyway). Rio, some say, isn't the "real" Brazil and that tourists should experience other places. And while it's true that you could spend a lifetime exploring Brazil, I can't see any reason why a first-time visitor would skip Rio. There was no good reason before, and there still isn't now.
Photo: Rio's historic downtown, Ariane Mittidieri