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Rio de Janeiro History

Rio has got it all: the latitude of the tropics, the swing of Africa and the European flavour of half a century of mix and match with the Old World.

After clapping eyes on the natural port of the Baía de Guanabara (Guanabara Bay), Rio was settled by the Portuguese in 1502, and founded in 1565.

French and Portuguese expeditions fought over Rio for until 1567, when the Portuguese governor, Mem de Sá, expelled the French.

More settlers arrived from Portugal and they gradually integrated with the indigenous people. Over the next 200 years, Rio developed as a major port, fighting off successive military incursions from French and other European invaders.

By 1769, when it took over from Salvador as the Brazilian capital, Rio had 50,000 inhabitants. The coffee boom brought great wealth to the city, with huge plantations spreading deep into Rio state.

Fleeing the Napoleonic wars in Europe, the Portuguese royal family moved to Rio in 1808, triggering the transformation of a simple colony into the capital of the Brazilian Empire.

Important new institutions were founded, the Brazilian railway was inaugurated here in 1858, and the first steamship service crossed the bay to Niterói in 1862.

By 1920, Rio had 1 million inhabitants; and yet more came in the 1930s and 40s. Rio lost its status as Brazilian capital to Brasilia in 1960, and was surpassed as the biggest city in Brazil by its arch rival, São Paulo.

When tourism began to boom in the 1920s however, Rio blossomed as one of the world's favourite holiday destinations.

Rio’s future clout on the world economic stage is sealed as a shining metropolis of Brazil, a member of the BRIC gang of four. And post the drama of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, Rio is enjoying its newfound status as major global player.

Did you know?
• Sailing into Guanabara Bay in January, Portuguese navigators named the city Rio de Janeiro (January River), mistakenly thinking it was an enormous river mouth.
• The Christ the Redeemer statue is the largest art deco statue in the world.
• Rod Stewart played to an estimated 3.5 million people on Copacabana beach in 1994, one of the largest concert audiences ever witnessed.

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Featured Hotels


San Marco Hotel

Located right in the heart of Ipanema, San Marco Hotel is the perfect choice for holidaymakers on a budget who want to take full advantage of the nearby beach – two blocks away - without missing out on Rio’s exciting nightlife. The small modern hotel has 56 tidy and functional rooms, all en-suite with TVs and air conditioning, and is in the thick of Ipanema’s trendy bars, shops, restaurants and clubs (ask for a room on an upper floor if on the street side). Its friendly bilingual staff, wireless internet connection, and competitive rates make this one of the few good-value budget hotels in Ipanema.

Ritz Plaza Hotel Leblon

Located in the heart of Leblon, Rio's most expensive square metre, Ritz Plaza Hotel Leblon offers quality services at affordable prices. Its rooms are well furnished if not huge, with modern décor. A generous buffet breakfast is included and the hotel has up-to-date facilities, including spa and a small pool. It's a couple of blocks in from the beach and close to cinemas, theatres, shops, restaurants and the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.


This no-frills but clean and well-run hotel is highly rated among regular visitors to Rio. It's in a handy location between downtown and the Zona Sul, in an historic, up-and-coming district. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the buffet breakfast is excellent, and facilities include a spa, gym and small roof terrace. In all, the Regina is one of the best budget hotels in the city.

Rio Hostel

This hostel in an old colonial building in Santa Teresa has basic dorms as well as three- and four-bed rooms, which are ideal for families. With its hillside location, Rio Hostel offers great city views and it also has a tiny swimming pool. Facilities include laundry service, tour information, Wi-Fi connectivity and air conditioning in some rooms. The staff are friendly, some are multilingual, and they serve a decent buffet breakfast.

Copacabana Palace

This elegant establishment is almost as famous as its beachfront location. Since it was built in 1923, famous guests have included Robert De Niro, Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles and Princess Diana. The Copacabana Palace is one of the grandest classical buildings in Rio de Janeiro; its creamy pillared façade dominates Avenida Atlântica, and is protected by a preservation order. The plush interior is even more impressive with marble floors, chandeliers, grand ballroom and elegantly decorated rooms. Facilities include a rooftop tennis court, a majestic swimming pool, a well-equipped fitness suite and a business centre. The two restaurants, Cipriani and Pergula, offer fine dining.

Hotel Mama Ruisa

This tasteful boutique hotel lies in the heart of Santa Teresa in a converted late 19th-century mansion. Laidback French proprietor Jean Michel Ruiz has had each of the seven rooms individually decorated in tribute to icons of stage and screen, including Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda and Maria Callas. The spacious lounge is filled with modern designer furniture and its walls are hung with original works of art and ethnic artefacts. The private walled garden has a small pool, with a terrace and veranda where meals and cocktails are served.