City Brief: Rio de Janeiro

By Arnout Nuijt

Rio de Janeiro may be on paper Brazil’s second urban and economic center after Sao Paulo, to many – and not just its inhabitants – the city is number one. With its 6,3 million cariocas (and no less than 12,6 million people in the metropolitan area), Rio is the capital of the State of Rio de Janeiro, home to around 16 million people. Set in a gorgeous scenery, Rio is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The Marvelous City or Cidade Maravilhosa as the locals call their home, was Brazil’s colonial and later national capital from 1763 until 1960, the year when Brasília became the new federal government center. What followed was pure downturn for Rio, a process that was only revised by the recent oil and gas boom.

Some government agencies and state-owned enterprises however remained in the city. Among them were CVRD (now Vale, the world’s second biggest mining company), Petrobras, Eletrobras, federal investment bank BNDES and several military facilities (most notably the navy and air force HQs). The city has bounced back from decades of decay and is now a booming global business city again. On top of that Rio was picked as the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games, the first city in South America to do so.

Rio is now the continent’s center for oil and gas exploration, pharmaceuticals, media, creative industries, cultural events and some finance and venture capital funds. Recently founded companies include billionaire entrepreneur Eike Batista’s EBX group, engaged in mining, logistics, oil & gas, etc. But Rio is also South America’s number one tourist attraction and it boasts a large number of universities and research facilities, like the huge Petrobras research center and the Fundação Getúlio Vargas or FGV business school.

The decades of decay were marred by rampant crime, out of control favelas and other social and political problems. Fortunately, the oil and gas based economic upswing happened more or less simultaneously with a new political consensus – for the first time after many years –between federal, state and city government levels.

The city embarked on a huge strategy of improving the city and the lives of its inhabitants, even before it knew it would host the 2016 Olympic Games. A long awaited revitalization of the city’s port area, the Porto Maravilha project, a plan dating back from the 1970s, finally found the right backers. Porto Maravilha is in fact a huge extension of Rio’s city center. An area bigger than London’s Canary Wharf is now under development, with apartments selling at a high rate. Infrastructure is improving: the city’s metro will be extended and new fast bus lanes are under construction. All government levels have cooperated as well in improving public security and with a huge show of force many notorious drug gangs have been chased out of the city’s worst favelas.

Rio’s port is only the third largest in the country in volume, but huge new developments are taking place to the north and south of the city, like the Açu and Sudeste “Superports”, both conceived by entrepreneur Eike Batista. The rest of the state is booming too. Towns like Macaé, Rio das Ostras, Campos and others are all profiting from the oil and offshore industry upswing.

No wonder that “The Golden Age of Rio” has arrived, at least according to the management of FIRJAN, the industrial federation of Rio State. FIRJAN is working hard to facilitate the boom and now employs 6500 staff, half of them trainers. For example, welders are being trained in three shifts a day and a staggering 100.000 people have been trained over the last few years. FIRJAN staff does not have the time for organizing outbound missions, they have their hands full at just catering to foreign missions coming to Rio. So pay them a visit to hear the latest opportunities and developments. The world is flocking again to the Marvelous City!

Oil and gas are the drivers of Rio de Janeiro’s business opportunities. Forget about the big sports events coming up, they are “just” cherries on Rio’s cake, but straining hotel infrastructure and driving up prices all over town. To get an impression about what is going on, take a look at the amazing supply list published by Petrobras and learn how to become their supplier.

The City

Rio de Janeiro is a huge and spread out city and urban development has always been constrained by its natural settings. Centro, as the locals call the Central Business District, is a very compact area, that, though not popular with foreign visitors as it appears deserted at night and on weekends, actually has a lot going for it. Since you will do most of your business here, just try to appreciate Centro between your meetings. It is full of historic buildings, café’s and good restaurants. Rio Branco Avenue is a Manhattan style urban canyon and very busy in the daytime. All over Centro you will notice buildings in old Portuguese and Brazilian baroque style, some Belle Epoque jewels like the Theatro Munical, examples of Brazilian modernism, art deco and contemporary architecture, all mixed up. Many cultural buildings like museums and theatres churches are worth a visit. Meanwhile, a lot of development is going on and new office towers are still rising up.

Centro also has some trump cards in store. Besides the Porto Maravilha project that will expand the center substantially, two interesting neighborhoods can be found adjacent to Centro: vibrant Lapa, with its bars, historic restaurants and nightlife and green Santa Teresa, now being gentrified and gaining various new hotels (including its first five star one, the Santa Teresa).

Most visitors opt to stay in the Zona Sul, the Southern Zone beach areas of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon and you can’t blame them. Most of Rio’s hotels (and the best) are in Zona Sul, especially in Copacabana. In those areas you will find everything what you are looking for, except maybe your business. Barring some exceptions, basically all of your business appointments will take place in Centro. Some companies can be found in faraway Barra da Tijuca or much better, in the Flamengo and Botafogo areas, that conveniently lie between Zona Sul and Centro. Ipanema and Leblon are among the most expensive places in the world, for eating, sleeping and living. Prices of real estate have gone sky high, but there is very little in the way of new construction or renovation. Here you will find the most expensive real estate in the world, but sadly most buildings are at least “dated” or of mediocre quality. Barra da Tijuca is seeing a lot of new residential developments these days, but the area is too far from everything. But note that most of the Olympic Games ‘s activities will take place in Barra da Tijuca and better connections are under construction.


Rio has two main airports and the international one is Galeão or Tom Jobim International Airport, located on an island in Guanabara Bay. Rio has gained lots of new international flights recently and more expansion is foreseen. You can fly now to Buenos Aires, Paris, Amsterdam London, Rome, Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami, New York, Bógota, Panama, Atlanta, Dubai, Caracas, Madrid, Santiago de Chile, Frankfurt, Luanda, Lima, Santo Domingo, Montevideo, Orlando, Lisbon, Porto, Houston, Washington DC and Charlotte.

Upon arrival book a cooperative taxi with your credit card in the arrival hall. The trip from Galeão will bring you along the infamous Red Line highway to the center of Rio, passing some notorious and enormous slums, only partly “pacified” and brought back under government control in the recent police operations. Try to relax as you speed along, but taxistas are fast and switch lanes whenever it suits them. Beware of even faster going city buses roaring all around you though.

Santos-Dumont is Rio’s convenient city airport, serving an excellent shuttle service to São Paulo Congonhas city airport (several flights per hour offered by TAM, Gol and Avianca), as well as to most major Brazilian airports. The airport, named after Brazil’s own aviation pioneer, sits next to Centro, with its runway stretched out in Guanabara Bay. Prepare for a spectacular landing and some serious braking on the runway. But then you are there, in Rio! Take a normal taxi to your hotel when arriving on Santos-Dumont.

A complicated system of multi-lane roads, where only locals seem to know their way, constitute the main link between Centro and Zona Sul. The Aterros, as they are called, lie stretched out in front of the neighborhoods of Flamengo and Botafogo. Well designed tropical gardens (by Roberto Burle Marx) flank the roads and while you are sitting in your cab you will note the various clusters of tropical trees full of the strangest fruits.


Rio’s hotel prices are outrageous and beware that most hotels are fully booked for months in advance. So where to set up? Forget Barra da Tijuca, unless your business is there. Zona Sul is the most obvious location, but note that you are still far from centro and traffic is becoming increasingly heavy. Nevertheless, Rio’s best hotels are in Copacabana and Ipanema, like the Sofitel, Marriott, the historic Copacabana Palace, the Fasano, Caesar Park and so on. Other good options are the Mercure and Windsor chain hotels as well as the Ipanema Plaza.

Unfortunately there are just a few good hotels in Centro, but you could try the Novotel or the Windsor Guanabara and Asturias hotels. These are not five star, but for a few days of business they are excellently located and you could even walk to some of your appointments and restaurants. Botafogo and Flamengo have a few options too, like the Hotel Novo Mundo and the Caesar Business Botafogo.

You can support Brazil Weekly/Rotterdam Week and book your hotel at our dedicated Rio hotel booking page on

Of course we value the opinion of our readers, so what do you think are Rio’s best hotels?


Rio has its fair share of good restaurants. Fine gastronomy is found throughout the city and especially in the Leblon and Jardim Botánico neighborhoods. These highly sophisticated areas are however located to far out for an efficient business lunch. For that, try the Marcutta Cittá in the FIRJAN building. Some of Brazil’s most famous businessmen lunch here. Another good option is the Barracuda restaurant, safely tucked inside Rio’s marina, the Marina da Glóra.

Other venues in Centro include the Villarino (with a good wine list) and the noisy but fabulous Cristovão Restaurant on the first floor of the famous Confeitaria Colombo (you can reach it by a rickety historical elevator). Cristovão may not serve the best food in town, but the buffet usually includes several local and traditional dishes well worth exploring. Other interesting places for a typical carioca lunch are Cosmopolita (on the edge of Lapa) for its famous steak à la Osvaldo Aranha and the Rio Minho, for the equally famous Leão Veloso soup, Rio’s answer to bouillabaisse.

In Zona Sul some of the best places are the top notch Pré Catalan restaurant at the Sofitel, the Antiquarius (fish), the Hotel Fasano (Italian) and Roberta Sudbrack, a former presidential chef. The Sofitel and Copacabana Hotels are also excellent places for informal business meetings or drinks.

So what do our readers think?

When to best visit Rio? Always check the Brazilian holiday calendar for “long weekends”. From the second half of December (the start of the summer holidays) until beyond Carnival (on shifting dates in February), most business in Rio comes to a standstill. The rest of the year is fine and if you want to avoid the very busy business seasons from March-May and September-December, why don’t you try to visit Rio in its winter (June-August). Not many gringos do, as it is the Northern Hemisphere holiday season…

Tip: it always rains in Rio! No, of course not, but the city has a tropical climate, so sunshine is not guaranteed. Bring a small umbrella or a light raincoat.


Safety has improved in Rio over the last few years, but you should remain very cautious. Always take taxis, so bring enough cash in your pocket. Metros are supposed to be safe, though crowded at peak hours.

Weekend breaks

If you can find the time during the week, try to visit the Corcovado or Sugar Loaf mountains in Rio. On weekends those places get very crowded and visiting them can take several hours of your time. You don’t need to leave Rio over the weekends, because you can explore the beaches. Note that every “tribe” of carioca society has its own area on the beach, so ask around with your local contacts what stretch of beach would suited for you or just go to the beach and find out for yourself! Out of town there are lots of options for a weekend break. But these places require some effort in getting there. For instance the sophisticated resort town of Búzios (two hours by car or bus), historic Paraty (a stiff four hours by bus or car), Ilha Grande (more than two hours by bus plus a boat trip) or Petrópolis, Brazil’s imperial city up in the mountains. More about these places in future editions of our Weekend Break series!

December 11th, 2012. All rights reserved by Brazil Weekly/Rotterdam Week.


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