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Beyond the World Cup: Exploring Brazil’s Major Cities

Image: An aerial view of the Christ the Redeemer statue

An aerial view of the Christ the Redeemer statue on top of Corcovado mountain on July 27, 2011, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Michael Regan / Getty Images

Over the next month, Brazil will host 64 soccer matches in 12 cities as millions of fans cheer on their favorite teams. With so much attention being paid to the on-field action at FIFA World Cup 2014, which kicks off today, you could almost forget that there’s more to Brazil than soccer.

That would be a mistake, especially in the host cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Manaus, each of which offers its own take on one of the world’s most diverse, vibrant and exciting destinations. Whether your plans include a game or just a good time, here’s what to do after the stadium lights are switched off.

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Rio de Janeiro

Given its prime location on the shore of Guanabara Bay, it’s only fitting that Rio, also known as the “Cidade Maravilhosa” or Marvelous City, serves as primary host for what has become known as “the beautiful game.”

“You have the mountains, the beaches, the Tijuca rainforest and a huge lake,” said New Jersey-based travel agent Jill Siegel of SouthAmericanEscapes.com, who worked as a tour director in Rio for six years. “It’s physically stunning, just a delight for the eyes.”

Image: A woman poses for a selfie in front of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro
A woman poses for a selfie on June 8, 2014, in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. TONY GENTILE / Reuters

Some of the best views, of course, are found amid the city’s most famous landmarks, such as the Christ the Redeemer statue atop 2,300-foot-high Corcovado or via the cable-car ride to the top of the granite monolith of Sugarloaf. World-famous beaches including upscale Ipanema and party-hearty Copacabana offer their own eye-popping scenery.

But Rio really comes alive in its streets and neighborhoods. From the colonial-era buildings of Centro to the art galleries of Santa Teresa to the samba houses of Lapa, the city is an exuberant mix of carioca (native) and foreign cultures that expresses itself in a non-stop party. And while crime and poverty remain a problem, particularly in poorer neighborhoods and after dark, most visitors find the locals’ warmth and vitality as intoxicating as a beachside caipirinha.

“The people are literally the friendliest people on earth,” said Siegel. “Everywhere I’ve been has made me homesick for Rio.”

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São Paulo

Even as 61,000 fans pour into Arena de São Paulo for the tournament’s opening match (Brazil vs. Croatia), other visitors will be getting their first glimpse of a teeming megalopolis of skyscrapers, shopping malls and 20 million people.

“São Paulo is not only the financial capital of Latin America and the Southern Hemisphere but also the cultural capital now,” said personal guide Flavia Liz Di Paolo, who leads a variety of tours of the city. “It’s like a tropical New York City.”

Image: People shop for Brazilian soccer memorabilia on June 10, 2014, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
People shop for Brazilian soccer memorabilia on June 10, 2014, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Mario Tama / Getty Images

As such, it is equal parts cosmopolitan and chaotic, as sophisticated as Rio is sultry and filled with Brazil’s best restaurants, its most elegant boutiques and museums and galleries by the score.

To experience them (while avoiding the city’s horrendous traffic), smart visitors stay in the centrally located neighborhoods of Centro, Jardins and Higienópolis. Stroll the city’s grandest boulevard, Avenida Paulista; take in world-class museums, including the Museu de Arte de São Paulo and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, and soak up the sights, smells and flavors at the Municipal Market.

Finally, when the sensory overload becomes too much, head for Ibirapuera Park, where winding paths lead to meadows, gardens, playfields and even more museums.

“It combines nature with sports, art and architecture,” said Di Paolo. “You can spend days there.”

Manaus

A four-hour flight from either Rio or São Paulo, Manaus is often viewed as little more than a stopover for travelers heading for Amazon adventures, but it’s worth a stop in its own right. It’s a big, crowded city (1.8 million people) but so far off the beaten path, it can leave visitors a bit discombobulated.

“It’s part of the same country but it’s another world,” said Adam Carter, president of Brazil Nuts, a tour company based in Naples, Florida. “It’s so remote that it’s developed its own rhythm.”

Consider the city’s main attraction, the Teatro Amazonas, a grand Belle Epoque building that dates back to the 1890s, when Manaus grew wealthy as the capital of Brazil’s rubber boom. During the World Cup, visitors can tour the building or attend a variety of musical, dance and theater productions held in connection with the games.

Other popular attractions include the Rio Negro Palace museum, the iron-and-glass Adolpho Lisboa Market and day trips out to the so-called Meeting of the Waters, where the light-brown flow of the Rio Solimões meets the “black” water of the Rio Negro.

Together they form the Amazon, although the two currents actually glide side-by-side for miles. The result is a bizarre, two-toned flow that some visitors find so captivating, it’s likely to prove more memorable than the outcome of the game(s) that brought them here.

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