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I Turned 30 in Rio de Janeiro

Seven days eating the best Brazilian snacks, lounging on low-key beaches, and dancing to samba.

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist. Photos: Courtesy of Devine Blacksher
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist. Photos: Courtesy of Devine Blacksher

Everyone knows that person who spends weeks sniffing around travel blogs, going deep into Tripadvisor rabbit holes, collecting Google docs from friends of friends, and creating A Beautiful Mind–style spreadsheets to come up with the best vacations and itineraries possible. In this recurring series, we find those people who’ve done all the work for you and have them walk us through a particularly wonderful, especially well-thought-out vacation they took that you can actually steal.

In late November, Brooklyn-based writer Devine Blacksher invited seven friends to celebrate her 30th birthday in Rio de Janeiro, one of her favorite cities. Rio, the summer before college, is where she discovered the meaning of life — long lunches, loose schedules, and the happiness that comes from living within walking distance of a beach. It’s also where she built a strong bond with her older brother, who has lived in Brazil off and on since 2006. And where she fell in love with bossa nova music, feijoada (black-bean stew), pão de queijo (cheese bread), açaí, and thong bikinis. She’s returned many times since, but this trip was the first one that she thoroughly planned out for seven other people. Here, Blacksher shares how they spent seven days in the city, from eating the best Brazilian snacks to lounging on low-key beaches to dancing to samba in a room full of pros.

Day 1

10 a.m.: Arrive at the Ipanema apartment

I took a Delta flight, operated by LATAM, from JFK, so I had a layover in São Paulo for a couple of hours before landing in Rio; it was a 16-hour travel day. Most of my friends had multiple layovers, so they arrived after me. From the airport, I scheduled a car service because I had a ton of bags, and I wanted that VIP moment with my name on the sign to kick off my birthday week. Otherwise, Uber is the way to go. As my friends arrived at the Airbnb (Av. Vieira Souto, 136), I gave them the grand tour of our clubhouse. I found the rental months in advance. As soon as I saw it I knew it was the one; it was well designed, minimally decorated, and elegant, which is how I want my 30s to be. It was a penthouse apartment in a 12-floor condominium complex that had amazing views of the city; every angle revealed what could be a postcard of Rio. But what truly sold me on the rental was the location and private roof terrace with a pool. The beach was our front yard, and a 24-hour grocery store, Zona Sul (R. Prudente de Morais, 49), was our backyard.

11 a.m.: Meet at Posto 8 and let the party begin

With this being the first day with all my friends and family, I wanted it to be simple and relaxing, so I had everyone meet at the beach. Our section of the beach was between Posto 8 and 9 in Ipanema, which has an incredible view of Morro Dois Irãmos (Two Brothers Hill). Postos are the numbered lifeguard stations that separate the beaches and have become markers to indicate the crowd’s vibe. Where we were is known as the young people, day party, and LGBTQ beach. As soon as we stepped onto the sand, we were greeted by the men handling the beach-chair rentals. Luckily, my sister-in-law and brother speak fluent Portuguese, so I let them handle that while the rest of us bought cangas, which are used as beach towels in Brazil. They are a must-have. They are lightweight, dry fast, work as a wrap, and make for the best souvenir. I bought my first canga in 2010 and took it with me to the beach all the time until I left it in Ghana last year.

As soon as everyone got situated, we turned up the music and started the festivities with Brazil’s national cocktail, a Caipirinha. It’s made with cachaça, sugar, and lime. You can get everything you need on the beach, so it’s easy to stay there for hours. We bought bikinis, bracelets, and so many snacks. We had queijo coalho (fried cheese), sweet corn, shrimp skewers, meats, French fries, Brazilian beers, and Suculé (frozen-fruit ice cream).

7 p.m.: Relax at a welcome dinner in the neighborhood

After a long day of sun, fun, and drinks, we went to a casual dinner at Zazá Bistrô Tropical (R. Joana Angélica, 40), a seven-minute walk from the Airbnb, and fell in love with the charming décor and ambience immediately (I’d recommend making a reservation in advance). I usually throw my dietary restrictions out the window when I’m traveling, but this restaurant had plenty of gluten-free options. The bistro salad, white-fish ceviche with mango cubes, purple sweet-potato gnocchi, and lamb shoulder with ravioli were our favorite dishes. I was exhausted after dinner, so I went home to sleep while my friends went to listen to live music at a bar called Barzin Gastrobar Ipanema (R. Vinícius de Moraes, 75).

Day 2

10 a.m.: Explore Niterói

We made bacon, pão de queijo (cheese bread), and instant coffee for a cute little breakfast at home. Then we took a van service to Niterói, about 45 minutes away. I booked the van service through our Airbnb host. The first stop was the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (Mirante da Boa Viagem, s/nº), which is a saucer-shaped building designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, where we looked at some art and then took a group selfie in front of the spaceship (admission is $2). After that, we went to Solar do Jambeiro (R. Pres. Domiciano, 195), this beautiful old house that was turned into a museum, to frolic through the garden and take more pictures.

From there, we hopped back into the van to travel another 25 minutes to Itacoatiara beach, which has a super-chill and locals-only vibe. It was so different from being on the busy beaches in Ipanema and Copacabana. We ordered coconuts and spent time in the water getting hit by waves. Then a few of us walked to the end of the beach to check out the view and the rock pool. While standing in the rock pool, this guy walked over to us, told us how beautiful we all were, then went on to say he recognized my friend’s boyfriend because his band is popular in Australia. It was super-random and cool. That was when the magic of Rio started kicking in for everyone. When we got back to Ipanema, we strolled through the art market that happens every Sunday in General Osório Square (R. Visc. de Pirajá, 61), which was right next to our Airbnb. I bought some earrings and a green Brazil T-shirt to wear on my birthday.

8 p.m.: Get the lobster Thermidor at Satyricon

Before dinner, we gathered on the roof for my birthday toast. I gave seven emotional speeches to thank each person individually for being a part of my life and flying 13-plus hours to celebrate with me. Then we took an Uber to Satyricon (R. Barão da Torre, 192) for some Italian-Mediterranean cuisine (we booked in advance). Satyricon’s aesthetic is more posh than I prefer when in a large group, but the quality of service and seafood were excellent. There was a generous wine list, so we had a few bottles of wine along with two rounds of espresso martinis, tequila, and more bubbles. For food, the table favorites were the crudo di salmone, calamari, lobster Thermidor (this a hot dish in The Sims, according to my friend DeVanté), and the truffle tagliolini steamed with lobster. For dessert, they brought out the “Happy Birthday” combo: a scoop of vanilla gelato, molten chocolate cake, and pear in Barolo wine. My friends sang to me; I blew out the candle and made my wish.

11:30 p.m.: Splurge on impromptu bottle service at Casablanca

Everyone wanted to keep the night going, so we went to Casablanca Night Club (R. Duvivier, 18A) for dancing and drinks. I’m not usually a table-and-bottle-service type of girl, but for the last night of my 20s, I had to do it. For eight people, we spent $350 total, which is cheap by New York standards. I recommend bringing cash. We left the club to go home and sleep around 3 a.m.

Day 3

1 p.m.: Rent a boat

We grabbed water and a quick snack from a café down the street, then headed to Marina da Glória (Av. Infante Dom Henrique, s/n) for our private boat tour. The boat we rented was a catamaran that fit up to 40 people. At first, I thought it was going to be too spacious, but it ended up being perfect. There were lounge areas in the front, back, and roof of the boat, so we took full advantage of the space. We started the tour in Guanabara Bay and saw Museu do Amanhã (the science museum) and Niterói Contemporary Art Museum from the water. We also got to see the airplanes landing at one of the nearby airports. This was such a fun moment because everyone was jumping up and down cheering for these airplanes flying over our heads; it’s a memory I’ll cherish forever.

After that, we found an area for swimming, so we got to jump off the boat. We didn’t see any sea life while we were swimming because the water wasn’t super-clear, but we did get to take in the lush green mountain views surrounding us. There was a full-service open bar and a BBQ guy who grilled a bunch of meat with veggies. The only thing we couldn’t fit in was watching the sunset on the boat, so I’d recommend aligning your timing with that. We docked at the marina around 6 p.m.

9 p.m.: Fall asleep in a hammock

We ended the night on my brother’s roof terrace listening to his iconic travel stories, eating McDonald’s, and staring up at the stars.

Day 4

11 a.m.: Binge a show or book a spa day

We needed a slow start this morning. I watched Mammals on Amazon Prime with two of my friends; then we cooked breakfast and ate it on the roof. Some of my friends booked massage appointments at Hotel Fasano’s spa (Av. Vieira Souto, 80), which is one of the more expensive spas. They recommend getting the lymphatic-drainage body massage if you want to get your belly rubbed.

3 p.m.: Take the Corcovado Rack Railway to the Christ the Redeemer statue

After two very active days, I thought visiting the Christ the Redeemer statue would be a chill group activity. This was my third time trekking up Corcovado Mountain to see the Christ the Redeemer statue. We took two cars from our Airbnb to Corcovado Station (R. Cosme Velho, 513). It’s best to book train tickets in advance. Once you’re on the train, it takes about 20 minutes to get to the top.

On the way up, you have the best view of the Atlantic Forest scenery, and once you’re up there, the views of Rio de Janeiro are incredible. Take a minute to yourself to embrace the beautiful landscape and cherish the moment. It was a bit chilly at the top, so I’d recommend bringing a light jacket.

Day 5

9:30 a.m.: Find a coffee shop and read

I spent the morning looking for a coffee shop because I was craving an oat-milk matcha latte, and I wanted to sit and read my book somewhere. I found this place called the Coffee (R. Vinícius de Moraes, 80) and it became my go-to coffee shop for the rest of the trip. Instead of reading, I ended up talking to the barista the whole time. He suggested I check out the Samba at Pedra do Sal (R. Tia Ciata), which is a big street party that happens every Monday and Friday after 7 p.m. It didn’t fit into this trip, but I’ll definitely go next time.

11 a.m.: Lounge on the beach again

We met up with family for another beach day, but this time we went to a beach in Copacabana. We picked a spot between Posto 5 and 6, a popular area for stand-up paddleboarding and other activities. It’s also a great place to catch the sunrise over Sugarloaf Mountain. We spent the whole day on the beach drinking, eating snacks, singing “A Thousand Miles,” by Vanessa Carlton, with a Terry Crews impersonator, and making sandcastles with my niece and nephew. Then we walked back to Ipanema to catch the sunset from our roof.

7 p.m.: Take a samba class, then go dancing in Lapa

The first time I learned how to samba was at this random club my brother and sister-in-law took me to during my first visit. I just remember everyone moving their feet back and forth superfast, so I tried it, but my feet got tangled, and I fell to the ground. My footwork got better over the years, but I thought it would be fun to learn from an instructor with my friends, so I booked a samba lesson. The class was a seven-minute walk from the Airbnb in this blue building with colorful flowers painted on the outside. Our instructor, Bruno, took us through the fundamentals slowly, then picked up the pace. After about an hour of class, we headed to a samba club called Bar Carioca da Gema (Av. Mem de Sá, 79) in Lapa to listen to live music and put the steps into practice. He suggested drinking a Caipirinha before dancing, so we did that and didn’t overthink our footwork. Afterwards, we did my favorite thing to do when I’m in Brazil: sit at a boteco (bar) on a busy street corner to drink beers and talk for hours.

Day 6

2 p.m.: Spend the day at Portela samba school

My sister-in-law came over to make us salad and pasta for lunch because she’s the sweetest. Then she took us on an adventure to Portela (R. Clara Nunes, 81), a samba school about an hour and a half north of Ipanema, to watch Brazil play in the World Cup and see the school perform. We took the subway to Brazil Central Station (Praça Cristiano Ottoni, s/n), which was giving New York at rush hour. I could tell we were getting farther away from the water because everyone’s pace picked up. We purchased train tickets and then hopped onto a very packed train, which was truly locals-only. As soon as we got to the samba school, we took a group photo under this giant eagle. Then we sat down and ordered fried chicken, sausages, and fries. I got a Guaraná Antarctica, which is Brazil’s guaraná-flavored soft drink; it tastes a little like ginger ale, but more complex. Brazil lost the game, but that didn’t stop the party. Samba schools are a big part of the culture in Brazil, so being able to go to one was epic. Basically, they are clubs (not actual schools) that are devoted to practicing and performing samba. Every year, the schools showcase their routines during the carnival parades in late February. Portela is the champion of the 2017 Carnival parade in Rio, so they gave us a show during their performance. After they performed, we got to hit the dance floor with the locals, who were so welcoming and friendly. It was like a mini intimate off-season Carnival. Everyone loved it. After Portela, we went to a karaoke bar I like in Botafogo called Sarreufa Club (R. Bambina, 141) to end the night.

Day 7

10 a.m.: Browse a Saturday market for the perfect souvenir

We woke up and went to Nusa Café Bistrô (R. Vinícius de Moraes, 129) for a quick breakfast. I ordered pancakes with fruit and fresh juice. This spot was amazing; I would go back. Afterward, we headed to Feira Rio Antigo (R. do Lavradio, 20), which is one of the best outdoor markets in Rio de Janeiro (it’s only on the first Saturday of each month). Vendors with antiques, vintage items, and handmade goods line the Rua do Lavradio. It’s the perfect place to find a gift that doesn’t scream “I got it from Brazil.”

1 p.m.: Visit the steps in Lapa

Lapa is known for its bohemian culture, architecture, arches, and famous colorful steps: Escadaria Selarón (R. Manuel Carneiro). If you’ve ever seen Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” music video, he’s sitting on the steps with Pharrell. The walk to the steps is like a mini art tour because of all the wall murals along the way. It was pretty crowded while we were on the steps, so we didn’t walk to the top and then back down. I’ll come back to look at all of the tiles more closely. Afterward, we grabbed some food at a bar in Lapa.

5:30 p.m.: End the trip with a rooftop sunset BBQ

This was my final evening with my friends, so my brother invited us over for a BBQ on the roof. We ate steak, Brazilian potato salad, rice, and beans with farofa, a traditional Brazilian side dish made with toasted cassava flour. We drank some chilled Antarctica and Brahma beers, played games, and laughed all through the night. It was the perfect ending for a trip that brought me into my 30s and ever closer to my ideal life.

Devine Blacksher’s Rio Packing List

This was my everyday bag. The medium size perfectly held my book, canga, sunscreen, cameras, portable fan, and more.

This has been my go-to travel sunscreen for years. I love it because it gives me sufficient coverage without leaving a white cast on my face.

If you don’t have a film camera, definitely order a Manual camera. They will develop the film for you when you’re done. I’ve always been a big fan of film; it’s what my dad used to document family trips, so I want to keep it going.

This brown lip tint is a staple no matter where I am. I love how the color looks on my lips, and people always come up to me to ask where my lip gloss is from, so it’s a great conversation starter.

I decided to get braids for this trip, so I had to make sure I brought the perfect scrunchie to keep my hair off my face while being active.

These are my favorite travel shoes. They are comfortable, lightweight, and easy to pack, but also fashionable.

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I Turned 30 in Rio de Janeiro