For starters, a five-mile stroll along the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema – Rio de Janeiro’s two most legendary sandy brackets – will stir feelings even in those who have long and without irony listed « walks on the beach » as a favorite pastime.
Such reactions can range from counterfactual nostalgia (« Imagine coming of age in a place like this ») to cultural moments (« Bossa nova makes so much sense now ») to mid-term reverie (« What are the rules about digital- nomad again?”).
After more than 20 visits, I still feel some kind of thrill every time I go back to Rio and set foot on the boardless walkway where most of this walk takes place. Brazilians call such a beach sidewalk the « calçadão, » but forget to pronounce it and concentrate on its official sound: a thousand flip-flops slapping the Portuguese pavement in waves.
The route is simple: walk along the first beach, cut inland briefly to skirt a rocky peninsula, then walk along a second beach. Stop for refreshment at the countless kiosks along the way. When the desire strikes, turn left for a dip in the water or right for an urban foray.
Start mid-afternoon on a sunny day: Rio’s beach scene under gray skies is like Italy during a pasta shortage. Weekends are good, summer weekends from December to February are best, and Sundays are ideal, as the town shuts down the adjacent beachfront boulevard for crowds and thongs of strolling locals.
Sneakers or flip flops will do, but please no sandals with socks – Rio de Janeiro’s beaches are accepting of all body types and the locals are used to tourist fads like baggy bikinis and roasted gringo skin the color of shrimp juicy, but they too draw the line somewhere. Grab the sunscreen, a credit card—wireless tap to pay is nearly ubiquitous, even at street vendors—and keep your smartphone buried in your pocket. (This is a stretch of Rio where tourists can walk in relative safety by day, but still.) No need for a pedometer; track progress from save posts (postos) along the way, numbered 1 to 12.
Start at the northernmost end of Leme Beach (soon to be Copacabana), taking the time to stroll the « Fisherman’s Path » along the rocks to salute the bronze statue of Clarice the Inspector, one of the greatest Brazilian novelists of the 20th century, or to real fishermen, potentially more reactive. Then the scene around Posto 1 passes, with young people sunbathing and playing altinha, the exhibitionist game, which holds the soccer ball in the air.
Posto 2 means that you are in Copacabana, both touristy (because of the hotels) and diverse (due to public transport). It’s crackling with energy, foot volleyball, sand sculptures and a remarkable non-sand sculpture of Ayrton Senna, the Formula 1 championship driver who holds Pele status around here. Stop and stare at the Copacabana Palacethe French Riviera-inspired hotel that opened in 1923 and is still rated on the beach.
Not far from Posto 6, your first beach ends Fort Copacabana. Cross Francisco Otaviano Street more than three blocks, winding through a park to Arpoador Beach, best known for its morning surfers and late afternoon sunset cheers, but also home to a charming little park at the top of the peninsula.
Between Postos 7 and 8 is your next bronze statue, guitarist Tom Jobim, composer of (what else) bossa nova classic »Ipanema girl.” If it’s Sunday, take a detour a block to General Osório square for handicrafts at the Hippie marketthen head to the finely sculpted human specimens near Posto 9. This might be the time to take a break on the sand: a friendly neighborhood beach chair renter will magically appear.
If you haven’t left the beach yet, consider turning right onto Rua Vinícius de Moraes (named after the lyricist of « Girl From Ipanema ») on the main street of Ipanema’s posh neighborhood for one of two ice creams at True or a frozen guava juice or grilled sandwich Polis Sucos.
Then walk back to the beach and cross the channel and you are on the gentler (even more elegant) stretch known as Leblon. From the end of the beach, walk up the short but winding road to the viewpoint or better yet, head inland to join the local crowd at Boteco Boa Praca and order a chopp—there’s so much more than Rio to reach, but there’s no Rio at all without an ice-cold, frothy draft beer at the end of a day by the sea.
Distance: Five miles
Difficulty: Easy, because it’s almost entirely flat, but you’ll get hot and sweaty on a sunny day.
Time to walk: From two and a half to three hours, with persistence.
Good for kids: Probably not the best fit for small children given the length and the fact that they will probably be more interested in playing on the beach.