The Liveliest Nightlife in Rio's Buzzing Downtown Party District
By Lucy Bryson
Rio de Janeiro Local Expert
Partiers looking to discover the hedonistic heart of Rio de Janeiro won't find it by the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon. For the true taste of nightlife in Rio, there's only one neighborhood to head for, and that's Lapa. Located at the historic center of Rio's downtown, this party district has long been synonymous with alcohol-fueled excess, and until recently had become something of a hotbed for crime and a somewhat seedy nocturnal scene. Today, many of the crumbling mansions have been given a lick of paint and transformed into hip bars and lively nightclubs, as part of an ongoing gentrification that has also seen an increased police presence and an influx of cosmopolitan clubbers heading in from Rio's affluent Zona Sul. Locals rub shoulders with the ever-growing number of foreign visitors heading here to dance the night away in clubs such as long-standing favorite Scenarium or to exchange chat up lines at the legendary weekend street parties that pack out the area around the iconic Arcos da Lapa. While some mourn the fact that Lapa's down-and-dirty dive bars are becoming wiped out by the new wave of hip hangouts such as Leviano and Barzinho, there's no questioning the fact that this remains the destination of choice for those who like to party hard. A few words to the wise - leave valuables at home (pickpockets remain a problem), wear comfy dancing shoes and prepare to party until dawn.
Carnival in Rio
As colorful, flamboyant and attention-grabbing as the city itself, Rio Carnival is a four-day celebration that demands that you throw caution and inhibition to the wind. While the British eat pancakes to mark the four days before lent, here the keys of the city are symbolically handed over to 'Rei Momo' (King Momo), the Lord of Misrule, and Rio explodes into a riot of colorful costumes, driving samba beats and free-flowing caipirinhas. The world famous samba schools compete at the city's vast, purpose-built Sambodromo, but the hundreds of street parties that take part across the city mean that those without tickets can still join in the fun and frolics. (No phone)
Carioca da Gema
Samba lovers of all ages flock to this downtown dance house, where the fleet of foot and supple of rump shimmy and shake around the dance floor. The club is housed in a tall and handsome colonial building, with a balcony overlooking the crowded streets of Lapa - perfect for people-watching and catching a breath of fresh air before you carry on your dance-athon. If you don't feel confident to take to the floor yourself, just admire the locals' skill and sip on a caipirinha until the Dutch courage kicks in. It is largely assumed that foreigners can't dance, so nobody will judge too harshly. ((21) 2221-0043)
Rua do Lavradio
Visitors looking for the historic heart of Rio won't find it by the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, but in the heart of downtown Lapa. Rua do Lavradio was one of the first streets to be built in Rio de Janeiro back in the 1770s, and its handsome colonial buildings offer plenty to offer architecture buffs. Fittingly, many of the buildings have been converted into antiques stores, while others now serve as bars and restaurants. On the first Saturday of each month, the street packs with vendors, shoppers and sightseers when the famous Feira do Rio Antigo - an antiques, fashion and arts fair - takes place. (N/A)
Escadaria Selaron (Lapa Steps)
Be sure to set aside time in your schedule to visit this unique, grand-scale artwork in downtown. Named after the Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who dedicated the last decades of his life to tirelessly working on this 'tribute to the Brazilian people', the Escadaria Selaron (often referred to as the 'Lapa Steps') is a long, steep stairwell linking the bohemian neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, covered in brightly-hued and intricately-patterned tiles from across the world. These tiles are interspersed with distinctive artworks from Selaron himself - look out for the pregnant woman motif that appears in almost all his works - and was an ongoing, ever-evolving labour of love for the artist until he was killed at his home by the stairs, in early 2013. The stairwell makes a great photo opportunity, and has appeared in music videos from Snoop Dogg and Pharell, as well as the Black Eyed Peas. (No phone)
Rio is synonymous with samba, and the city's historical downtown district of Lapa should be the first port of call for anybody looking to hear the real thing played live. At Rio Scenarium, the kooky factor is ramped up to 11 thanks to the fact that this vast venue for samba shows is also a storage space for antiques and film props, so fascinating costumes, masks and other historical artefacts form the backdrop to the dancing, eating and drinking. Even if you have two left feet it is worth a visit here just to see the highy skilled locals show how samba dancing should be done, and there's a restaurant serving sit-down meals for those who just want to take in the show. (21 3147 9000)
The name translates as 'little bar', but this lively Lapa hangout packs a lot into its less than palatial layout. Regular events such as samba and feijoada afternoons on the first Saturday of the month, and vinyl-only DJ marathons on Tuesday evenings make this a top spot for those who take their music seriously, while the pumping electro that soundtracks Friday and Saturday nights at Barzinho ensure that the bar attracts a hipped up, clubby crowd. Like most drinking dens in Rio, food has a major part to play, too, and the menu here offers some tasty takes on traditional bar snacks such as pasteis (little stuffed pastries) which here come filled with a mix of flavorsome cheeses. It's open well into the early hours most nights of the week, and the funky decor gives a nightclub-esque vibe to this small space. (21 2221 4709)
Located in the historic heart of Lapa, this reformed colonial mansion home has received a colorful makeover with illuminated artworks on the brick walls, vibrantly-colored cocktails and an equally bright and breezy playlist. An eclectic musical menu takes in electro-heavy club nights, more gentile jazz-fests and live samba sessions, and downstairs dancefloors are packed well into the small hours almost every night of the week. A mezzanine balcony provides ample space for sipping drinks and chatting - should you be able to make yourself heard over the pumping music. Alongside an extensive cocktail list, some tempting finger food. Groups of friends may want to opt for the mixed platter, which includes tasty finger foods such as rosemary and garlic breadsticks, focaccia, sundried tomato paste and little oven-baked pastries. ((21) 2507 5779)
Clube dos Democraticos
An eye-catching - if somewhat weather-beaten - art deco building is the setting for some of the longest-standing samba parties in Rio at this much-loved venue. Clube dos Democraticos was founded over a century ago as a carnival society uniting musicians, dancers and others imbued with carnival spirit. Today, the club continues to attract live music lovers, with regular samba sessions packing out the vast dancefloor. For a change of musical scene, it's worth checking out the Wednesday night Forro sessions - this popular weekly event is a great place to get aquainted with this sultry musical style from Brazil's northeast. And if you can't dance a step, don't worry - the fleet-footed locals will be happy to show you a move or two. (21 2252 4611)
Much more than a concert venue, this multi-functional spot in the heart of Lapa hosts hip local bands and international visitors, as well as holding some of the most popular regular club nights in the city. In addition, dance and percussion workshops and nocturnal art exhibitions make this a truly unique venue, frequented by a young, largely middle-class crowd. Prices are less prohibitively-high than some larger music arenas in Rio, making this an affordable place to catch big Brazilian names such as Jorge Ben Jor, or visiting bands - Scottish indie heroes Primal Scream and Belle and Sebastian are among the recent acts to have performed here. (21 2533 0354)
Arcos da Lapa
Along with the beaches, the Christ statue and Sugar Loaf mountain, another postcard-perfect image of Rio are the mammoth white arches that stand in city's historic center. At night, revelers gather below the arches as a huge street party unfurls - head here on a Friday night to see Rio's party spirit at its liveliest. The area around the arches is taken over by hundreds of stalls selling all manner of tempting treats to eat and drink, from fresh-baked pizzas and beers to Northeastern acaraje and fruity-but-potent cocktails. Surrounded by bars and clubs pumping out everything from hip hop and favela funk to samba and pagode, the Arcos da Lapa are the starting point for many a memorable night out in Rio. ((21) 2333-1037)
About Lucy Bryson
Lucy is a British freelance writer living in Rio de Janeiro since 2007. While there are some things she misses about her home country, the lure of year-round sunshine has proved too powerful to resist.
Read more about Lucy Bryson here.