The bohemian district of Santa Teresa is nestled high up in the hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro, offering a pleasant alternative to the heady heat of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Originally an upper-class neighbourhood, the area fell into disuse and disrepair with the spread of the favelas – poorer districts that scatter over the mountainside, driving the wealthy out into the suburbs – before enjoying an artistic resurgence in the 1960s and 70s. Now it is a hive of bohemian activity, its streets littered with bookstores, artisanal outlets and coffee shops, bars and restaurants.
In times gone by, an antiquated tram – the last operational one in Rio – used to meander through the streets and glide atop the Lapa Arches, offering great views of the city. Unfortunately, an accident in 2011 meant the indefinite closure of the tramway, though there are rumours of it reopening in the next couple of years.
At the time of writing, however, the tramway was still closed, and reaching the neighbourhood can be done by taking the metro to the stop Glória and then walking the short 10-minute distance down Rua da Lapa and onto Rua Joaquim Silva. Halfway along the latter you will come to one of Santa Teresa’s highlights – Escadaria Selaron (the Selaron Staircase). Built lovingly by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron (who himself lived on the stairs), they are, in his own words, “a tribute to the Brazilian people”. Selaron was constantly updating the stairs, making them a continually evolving work of art, up until his tragic death in 2013.
After snapping some essential photos on the stairs and climbing triumphantly to the top, you will find yourself on Ladeira de Santa Teresa. Just a 20 minute walk from there is another of Santa Teresa’s big attractions, the Parque das Ruinas. Originally a mansion owned by the heiress Laurinda Santos Lobo who used it as a salon and cultural meeting point for the 1920s artistic scene, the building suffered a serious fire and has now been converted into a cultural centre, housing art installations, live music, a café and metal walkways which link the surviving ramparts of the mansion. From these you can see sweeping vistas of the city – though not comparable to those offered atop Pão de Acúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain).
After all that climbing stairs and traipsing round the winding streets of Santa Teresa, you’ll have no doubt worked up quite an appetite. Luckily, the neighbourhood offers a plethora of delightful little restaurants serving local cuisine. The prices aren’t cheap but the food is excellent. Try feijoada, a traditional Brazilian stew of pork, beans and rice… although expect to require a nap after consumption! This is best for a lazy meal over which you can take your time and savour the flavours and the indulgence of a long lunch. Most restaurants in the area serve equally exquisite dishes (at similarly inflated prices); for a firm recommendation, try Espírito Santo on Rua Almirante Alexandrino.
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To help you shake off the slumber brought on by the heavy Brazilian cuisine, why not perk up with a locally-grown coffee from one of the charming little outlets all around Santa Teresa. You may also want to browse the myriad bookstores, handicraft shops and artisanal markets that line the streets of the quaint neighbourhood. The nearby Chácara do Céu Museum is an old colonial house crammed with artwork by modern masters, for those who haven’t quite got their cultural fill.
If you’re planning on staying the night in Santa Teresa, there are no shortage of bars selling cheap beers and expensive cocktails. Caipirinha, as a Brazilian classic, is unmissable; though be wary of the potent punch it packs! As always, be mindful of your belongings and avoid walking alone anywhere in the neighbourhood, especially at night, as stories of muggings are sadly all too common. Use your common sense, however, and you should have an unforgettable time exploring this picturesque corner of the vibrant city.