Nearshore Americas

Day and Night in Lapa, the Cultural Heart of Rio de Janeiro

Ask anyone in the cidade maravilhosa for the best place to live the carioca experience and you’re likely to get the same answer: Lapa. Rio de Janeiro’s quintessential bohemian bairro, Lapa is a perfect blend of the sights, sounds, and sensations that make Rio unique even among the world’s most iconic cities.

Lapa, situated between Rio’s bustling downtown district and the charming, rustic Santa Teresa neighborhood, has long been known as the city’s gritty nightlife district, but its draw extends far beyond the samba halls and bars. No need to wait until the sun sets to hit the winding streets, Lapa is a district buzzing both day and night.

Seeing the Sights

After spending the day lounging on one Rio’s postcard beaches, hop on the subway at Ipanema’s General Osório station or one of the multiple stops in Copacabana. Take the subway to the Cinelândia station and do what a carioca would do and ask the first person you encounter the way to the Arcos da Lapa (just a few blocks from the metro station).

The whitewashed Arcos da Lapa (Lapa Arches), the colonial centerpiece of the neighborhood, tower over Lapa. In the 18th century, the arches served as aqueduct used to pump fresh water into Rio’s growing urban core. More recently, they act as the support for the cable car track that runs between the hills of Santa Teresa.

Around a quarter of a mile to the west is the kaleidoscopic Escadaria Selarón, the frenetic art piece that consumed the life (and became the place of his mysterious death in 2013) of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón.

The iconic steps are a favorite for tourists looking for the perfect backdrop for their Facebook pictures, and also attract a various tribes of funky locals. Climbing the steps, which lead up to the Santa Teresa neighborhood, is a bit of a haul, but Selarón’s unique (somewhat schizophrenic) handiwork makes it well worth the effort.

Once back down in Lapa proper, take some time to admire the colonial buildings that make up the district. In the 1990s, locals fought to preserve the architectural identity of the neighborhood, which is now one of the few with a solid collection of structures dating back to the 19th century.

The whitewashed Arcos da Lapa (Lapa Arches) are the colonial centerpiece of the neighborhood.
The whitewashed Arcos da Lapa (Lapa Arches) are the colonial centerpiece of the neighborhood. (Photo: Howcheng)

Lapa After Dark

After a few hours of walking, it’s time to sit back and enjoy one of Brazil’s famous caipirinhas or a frosty chopp. Both are easy to find at the many nearby bars.

Boteco Belmonte is a local favorite, and a truly great place to sit streetside sipping a crisp draught beer and watch Rio life pass by. Located on Lapa’s main drag (Avenida Mem de Sá) Belmonte opens early and stays open until around 2AM. For those feeling peckish, the bar is perfect spot for a quick bite (the coxinhas are guaranteed to please).

If your limbs are loosened up it is time to try a little samba action at the intimate Carioca da Gema. Located across the street from Belmonte, this traditional samba bar has live music throughout the night until around 3AM. The dancehall is usually swarming with high-spirited tourists keen to take a chance on the dance that made Brazil famous.

Once the dancing juices are flowing, head back towards the Lapa Arches to the legendary Circo Voador (Flying Circus). Rio’s most popular open air venue, Circo Voador has live acts most every night and is a must-see for those interested in living life like a carioca. Acts usually start late (around 12AM) and go until 3AM. Packed with locals, the venue’s vibe is as varied as the acts that grace the stage, but is always a great time.

Before heading back to your hotel, stop off at the traditional Nova Capela restaurant (across the street from Carioca da Gema). This 24-hour Portuguese inspired restaurant matches class with taste and has been a local favorite for decades. If you are properly famished, try the braised goat. Or for those just looking for some post-drinking snacks, the bolinhos de bacalhau (fried cod balls) are thought to be some of the best the city has to offer.

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Lapa is ground zero for street culture movements that have helped shape Rio’s urban landscape. While bouncing between drinking holes, take the time to admire the street art that graces the neighborhood’s walls and don’t be surprised to see rap battles and a wide range of dance troupes performing in the middle of the street.

Though Lapa’s rough edge has been softened in recent years, the district still has enough spunky authenticity to bring out Rio’s younger crowd. The result is a great mix of young and old, tourist and locals.

The district still has its fair share of prostitutes and other seedy characters, but is definitely more tourist-friendly than just a decade ago. Be curious and sensible, and enjoy.

Nathan Walters

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