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Frommer's nightlife in Rio de Janeiro

It's an open question whether Cariocas possess some hidden nightlife gene or whether they've trained themselves for decadence through years and years of practice. Whatever the case, Rio has a lot to keep you busy at night.
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It's an open question whether Cariocas possess some hidden nightlife gene or whether they've trained themselves for decadence through years and years of practice. Whatever the case, Rio has a lot to keep you busy at night.

It starts early and continues very late. Cariocas themselves don't make a big deal about a night on the town: They're happy either heading out for beers or dancing to forró music or eating shrimp in some hole-in-the-wall botequim. However, if you as a visitor want to go for the quintessential Rio experience, you have to learn to pace yourself. Whether you spend the day seeking out sights or on the beach, head back to your hotel in the afternoon for a wee nap. Trust me, this will be the key to making it through the night.

Once you're up again, head out in the cool early evening for a coconut juice on the beach. Sip it while watching the sunset (in summer around 8 p.m.), then around 9 p.m. stroll over to a patio for a predinner drink. Jobi in Leblon is a great spot. On weekends maybe walk along the pathway by the Lagoa and find a table at one of the kiosks. Plan to have dinner around 10 p.m., to be ready for your evening of dancing around midnight. (Most places don't even open until 11 p.m.) Your options at this point depend on the day and the time of year. If you're in Rio between September and Carnaval, attending one of the samba school rehearsals on Saturday night is a must. Otherwise, on a Thursday night see who's playing at some of the hip new samba spots in Lapa like the Rio Scenarium or the Centro Cultural Carioca. Or just enjoy the scene by the Arcos de Lapa on a Friday night. Of course, there are a number of discos and bars to choose from, and then there are always the botequins, Rio's neighborhood bars. Wherever you wind up, after 3 or 4 hours dancing you may find yourself getting peckish. For a late-night or early-morning snack, stop in at the Pizzeria Guanabara or Jobi, both in Leblon and open until at least 5 a.m. on weekends. By the time they throw you out, it'll just be time to wander down to the beach and watch the sunrise, ready for a new morning -- and another night -- in Rio.

To find out more about listings for arts and entertainment, check the Friday editions of the O Globo, O Dia or Jornal do Brasil newspapers. Available at all newsstands (buy early in the day, as they sell out quickly), all three publish a detailed weekly calendar of events, including nightlife, performing arts, concerts, and other events in the city. The Rio tourism agency Riotur also publishes a detailed booklet of events in English and Portuguese called Guia do Rio or Rio Guide l, available at its main information center at Av. Princesa Isabel 183 in Copacabana, or call Alô Rio at tel. 021/2542-8080 for information on events around town; they keep an updated list and their staff speak English.

Words to Help You Through the Night -- Here's some vocabulary to help you decipher the listings information from the newspapers.

Under Música or Show you will find the listings for live music. Lovers of Brazilian music should look for anything under Forró, MPB (música popular brasileira), Bossa Nova, Choro, Pagode, or Samba. Listings under Pista refer to events at nightclubs or discos. Most listings will include the price of admission: Couvert is the cover charge and consumação states the drink minimum. It is quite common to have two rates, one for women (mulher) and one for men (homem), the latter usually paying more.

Children's programs are listed under Infantil or Para Crianças. Please note that many dance clubs offer a matinee program on Saturdays or Sundays for teenagers. The days of the week are given in abbreviations: seg or 2a (Mon), ter or 3a (Tues), qua or 4a (Wed), qui or 5a (Thurs), sex or 6a (Fri), sab (Sat), and dom (Sun).

Nightlife Zones: Lapa -- Bars and clubs have their moments, so do neighborhoods over time. Lapa is definitely on the up again. In the roaring '20s Lapa's vibrant nightlife earned it the nickname "Montmartre of the Tropics." It fell on hard times in the '50s and '60s, but in the last year or two Lapa has undergone a major revival as even Cariocas from trendy Ipanema and Leblon come here to party. City and state governments have sat up and taken notice, investing money renovating some of the neighborhood's gorgeous heritage buildings, encouraging the development of restaurants and bars, and pumping R$5 million (US$1.65 million) into the revitalization of the Rua do Lavradio.

Things hop almost every night of the week, but the best days are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Lapa's nightlife consists of two different kinds of experiences. There are the carefully preserved heritage buildings turned music venues such as Carioca da Gema, Estrela da Lapa, Rio Scenarium, and Café Sacrilégio that offer some of the best samba in town. Then there is the much grittier street scene, centered around the Rua da Lapa and the parallel running Rua Joaquim Silva. These two streets are a major point where mostly young people come to drink, chat, flirt, and dance. The small music venues on the Rua Joaquem Silva are anything but nicely renovated (some are big-time sleazy), but half the fun is walking around and poking your head in (cover rarely exceeds R$5/US$2.10). In a two-block range you will hear anything from reggae to samba to brega, hip-hop, funk, and salsa. The square in front of the arches is packed with food and drink stalls. As long as you stick to the main streets that have lots of people on them the area is quite safe at night.

Ladies of The Night . . . And Day -- They've been an integral part of the neighborhood since the '40s, the working girls and their customers who occupy selected slices of the Copacabana waterfront. The good news is that these places are not dangerous or even overly sleazy. Indeed, it can be interesting observing the hustle and bustle and to and fro, though the atmosphere is not exactly family entertainment (unless you come from a very odd family). Regular hangouts for sex tourists and working women include the Balcony Bar and the Lido square, which is also home to a number of strip clubs. This area is between the Copacabana Palace and the Av. Prado Junior, Copa's main drive-by thoroughfare for street prostitutes. Further down the waterfront by the Help disco, the Terraço Atlantico is where johns and hookers hook up in the afternoon and early evening. For those who like people-watching it can make for a fascinating scene. The area around the Rio Othon Hotel is another popular meeting place. Daytime contacts are made at the Meia Petaca patio or else out on the beach while working on that tan line.

The Kiosks of Lagoa -- They began as lowly concession stands, but the kiosks around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas have evolved into a fun, casual nightlife scene. Known in Portuguese as quiosques da Lagoa, they're the perfect place to stroll, munch, drink, and people-watch. Set at regular intervals along the pleasant green path that girdles the Lagoa, the kiosks range in size and quality from simple snack stands to full-fledged restaurants and entertainment centers. The cuisine ranges from Brazilian basic to Lebanese, Japanese, or Italian, while the entertainment ranges from a boom box on volume "11" to excellent live bands (some of which charge a small cover). The thickest concentration of kiosks begins opposite the Flamengo club, on Rua Gilberto Cardoso, and continues clockwise along the area opposite the Jockey Club. Another grouping clusters around the Praça Prof. Arnaldo de Moraes, at the Ipanema end of the Lagoa. They're open year-round, but they're especially popular in summer; weekday hours are from 6 p.m. onwards -- they get busy around 10 p.m. -- and on weekends from noon onwards. A full loop around the Lagoa is 7.5km (4 1/2 miles), making for a pleasant 2-hour walk.

Making Your Point -- Rio is full of points. Pronounced poin-chee in Portuguese, a point is a location on the street that attracts people who attract other people who attract people who provide food, drinks, sometimes music, and all the other ingredients of a party. Complicated? Here's an example: One night we were headed over to Galeria Café with some friends. Just as we got there we met up with some other friends, and when we saw there was a bit of a line we got to chatting outside and bought some beers from a street vendor. Some other friends came, and other people whom we didn't know but who were there to meet some of their friends. We ordered more beers, and later some munchies from another vendor; before we noticed it was time to go home. We never did set foot in the bar we intended to patronize. That evening was a classic point -- a fun, impromptu street party. No one can say for sure when one will emerge, or why they show up where they do. Points just . . . are.

The Performing Arts
The performing-arts season in Brazil runs from early April until early December. April is a particularly good time -- the equivalent of the Northern Hemisphere's September -- as theaters and companies unveil their programs and kick off with their season premieres.

Music & Dance Clubs
Throughout the summer, the city of Rio organizes concerts, outdoor movies, and other events in Copacabana. Check with Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080) or pick up the event listing Rio Incomparavel from Riotur for a complete overview.

Check out the Rio Hiking website ( for excellent tips on where to catch live music or just grab a drink and meet people. (Click on "about us" and then "Rio hints.") Rio Hiking's owner Denise Werneck is as passionate about Rio's nightlife as she is about exploring her city's exuberant nature trails. On her site she frequently lists the best of Rio for that week, saving you the trouble of working through the Portuguese newspaper listings. If you don't like going out by yourself, Denise also conducts a nightlife tour to some of the hippest places around for R$83 (US$35) (tel. 021/2552-9204), often connecting you with other travelers.

In most clubs and discos you can expect to pay a cover charge. Women usually pay less than men; you'll see the two prices listed at the door. Often there is also a drink minimum which can go up as high as R$70 (US$29) at upscale Ipanema clubs. In most venues you are handed a card upon entry that is to be used to record all your purchases. The bill is then settled when you leave. A 10% service charge will be included, and a tip on top of that is not required. Hang on to your card for dear life. If you lose it you'll be charged an astronomical fee.

Many clubs have a restricted VIP area overlooking the dance floor, usually with comfortable couches or tables. The definition of VIP varies from club to club: Sometimes it's for members only, sometimes you can get in if you call and reserve ahead of time, and sometimes all that's required is paying a higher drink minimum. The advantage of being in the VIP area is you get a guaranteed seat in an area off-limits to most of the rest of the crowd, allowing you to leave your drinks, jackets, or purses at your table while you're dancing.

The Gafieira of Days Gone By -- The traditional ballroom dance halls known as gafieiras once defined the Carioca nightlife scene. Still worth a visit even if you can't dance, gafieiras are a legacy of the elegant days of old, when couples would dress for the occasion and everyone knew the steps. Most folks don't show up in suits or ball gowns anymore, but couples still dance with elegance and the tunes are unmistakably Brazilian: samba, pagode, a bit of rumba or foxtrot, and nowadays lots of forró.

Live Music -- Aside from the venues listed, many small chopperias and botequins will often have a singer or small combo playing. Usually there's a small cover charge (couvert in Portuguese) for this entertainment. By sitting down and listening you're agreeing to foot the bill. The fee is automatically added to your tab. If you want to know what the couvert is before deciding to stay, simply ask the waiter. The key phrase is "Quanto é o couvert?" or "How much is the cover?"

Bars & Pubs
There are various ways that bar and restaurant owners can extract money from guests: One of them is the couvert. The couvert in restaurants used to refer to the small appetizer plate that is served when you first arrive -- olives, bread and butter, pâté, and the like. Nowadays it's also the name given to a live-music fee. If the bar has a musician playing, chances are something between R$2 and R$10 (US85¢-US$4.20) per person or per table will be added to your bill. Always ask when going into a restaurant or bar with live music if there is a cover or "couvert para a música," to avoid any surprises when your bill comes.

The Culture of Botequins -- Botequins are to Rio what pubs are to London and cafes are to Paris: the spot where locals gather, be it for end-of-day drinks or impassioned late-night philosophizing. Brazilians refer to botequins as pé sujos -- literally "dirty feet" -- meaning they're nothing fancy, often just plastic tables and fluorescent lights (though rich in character and local flavor). Some botequins have developed into popular nightlife attractions, offering live music and excellent food, and drawing crowds from all over the city. But most botequins remain small, not very fancy watering holes where one can kick back with a cold beer, have some snacks, and catch up with the latest gossip.

Gay & Lesbian Nightlife
Rio's gay community is fairly small, certainly smaller than one would expect from a city of 10 million people. For all Rio's reputation for sexual hedonism, the macho culture still predominates. As lasciviously as heterosexual couples may behave in public, open displays of affection -- even hand-holding -- between same-sex couples are still not accepted in Brazil. The big exception, of course, is Carnaval, when many straight and gay men dress as women (Carmen Miranda is always a popular costume), and parades with drag queens are cheered by everyone. But this spirit of openness lasts only until the last samba drums fade away at the dawn of Ash Wednesday.

Currently, the most popular nightspot is in Ipanema around the Galeria Café on the Rua Teixeira de Melo. During the day the stretch of sand close to Posto 8 (opposite the Rua Farme de Amoedo) is also popular. Copacabana has a number of gay clubs and bars as well as a popular meeting place on the beach at Rainbow's, in front of the Copacabana Palace Hotel. In Rio's old downtown there are a few popular places around the Avenida Mem de Sá and Rua do Lavradio. A good resource to pick up is the latest edition of the Gay Guide Brazil, a small booklet available at some of the clubs and bookstores in Ipanema, or check The Brazilian term for gay friendly is GLS, which stands for gay, lesbian, and sympathizers. Often you will see this abbreviation used in listings or restaurant and bar reviews.

After you get tired of the beach, go to Bar Bofetada, Rua Farme de Amoeda 87 (tel. 021/2227-6992). Located just a few blocks from Ipanema's prime gay beach, this botequim is perfect for a beer, snack, and flirt with local guys.

The Blue Angel at Rua Julio de Castilhos 15, Copacabana (tel. 021/2513-2501; Bus: 415), is a very upscale, very classy gay and lesbian bar that plays host to beautiful people, among them artists and models, starlets and their male counterparts (starstuds?). The bar has an impressive cocktail list, and the kitchen serves appetizers and sandwiches until the wee hours. It also has a small gallery of avant-garde art. There is no cover.

Set in a lovely small gallery stunningly decorated with a changing display of work by local artists, the Galeria Café, Rua Teixeira de Melo 31E, Ipanema (tel. 021/2523-8250;; Bus: 415), packs a gorgeous collection of men, shoulder to shoulder, bicep to bicep, into its combo art space, dance club, and bar. Those that can't fit -- and there are many -- just hang out in front. The Galeria really gets hopping, inside and out, after 1 a.m. The cover charge is R$10 to R$25 (US$4.20-US$10), open from Wednesday through Sunday.

Also popular is Dama de Ferro (the Iron Lady), Rua Vinicius de Moraes 288, Ipanema (tel. 021/2247-2330; Decorated by artist Adriana Lima, who also did the amazing decor at Galeria Café, Dama de Ferro is the it-spot at the moment, popular with gays and straights; high tolerance for electronic music is a must. Cover is R$10 to R$25 (US$4.20-US$10), open Wednesday through Sunday.

Le Boy, Rua Raul Pompeia 102, Copacabana (tel. 021/2513-4993;; Bus: 415), is the largest and best-known gay club in Rio. It's glamorous, funky, and extremely spacious with a soaring four-story ceiling hovering somewhere above the dance floor. A range of special events attracts national and international celebrities and assorted (beautiful) hangers-on. Go after 11 p.m., when things really start to hop. The club is open Tuesday through Sunday; cover ranges from R$5 to R$15 (US$2-US$6.25) for men. This may be the only club in town where women pay more than men; any night of the week the cover for women is set at a hefty R$60 (US$25). All for equal opportunity, Le Boy's owner recently inaugurated La Girl next door, Rua Raul Pompeia 102 (tel. 021/2247-8342), Rio's first truly upscale nightclub for gay women with excellent DJs and Gogo girl shows. La Girl is open on Monday and Wednesday to Sunday (men only allowed on Mon and Sun). Cover ranges from R$5 to R$10 (US$2-US$4.20).

The Copa, Rua Aires Saldanha 13 A, Copacabana (tel. 021/2256-7412;; Bus: 128), is a bar, restaurant, club, and tea salon all in one. Not your typical gay bar, the Copa's ultra-kitsch '50s and '60s decor quickly established a great following amongst Rio's GLS crowd. The kitchen serves afternoon tea, sandwiches, and other dishes, though people really come for the scene. On most nights, after the clock strikes 12 the DJs start spinning tunes. Cover on the weekend is R$10 (US$4.20).

For a complete listing of what to see and do in Rio de Janeiro, visit the online attractions index at

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