Maybe the best known neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro is rowdy Copacabana. While sometimes people think it’s just made up by a long beach with hotels, restaurants, bars, and a beautiful promenade, Copacabana is far more than that. It is a rather big neighborhood (more than 140.000 inhabitants), with loads of interesting backstreets, typical bars, shops and a colorful history.
Before Europeans travellers ever set foot on the shore of Copacabana, the area was known as Sacopenapã, which in the language of the original Tupi natives means ‘path of punches’. While the city of Rio was founded in 1565 in the Bay of Guanabara area, Copacabana only came into existence after 1892. In that year a tunnel opened, that connected the area to the Botafogo neighborhood.
Initially inhabited by fisherman and natives, Copacabana soon attracted a different crowd, especially after the famous Copacabana Palace hotel opened its doors in 1923. Attracting travellers from around the world, the hotel changed the city of Rio de Janeiro for good. With French tourists, staying in the hotel, spending time on the beach, the locals for the first time were introduced to beach culture, something that previously was non existent. The first generation of cariocas, as the locals are called, that grew with the beach culture that still defines the city today, was born in Copacabana.
Nowadays it is hard to imagine Copacabana without an extremely busy beach life. Every newcomer to this city is always mesmerized by the activity on the beach. The broad beach lends itself perfectly for typical carioca sports as footvolley, volley, beach tennis, and beach football. Also, you’ll be seeing along the 5 kilometer stretch of sand people doing workouts, at outdoors stations, or in the company of a personal trainer. Cariocas love being outdoors and since you spend a good time of your social life in bikini or speedo, you might as well look fit.
Having said that, people also like to have a good time in terms of drinking and eating. Copacabana is full of bars. Some bars are hipper than others, and loads of them are very old school local corner bars, botecos and so called pé sujos. It’s where the locals meet each other, after a day of work, or to watch a game of football on a tv screen. Having a beer or a caipirinha in one of those places, will give you a good idea about local social life.
At night the beach is lit up, and the promenade a very lively affair. Lots of street vendors roam around, selling everything from delicious cocktails, cold beers, to handicrafts, football shirts and açaí bowls, the almost frozen smoothie made of the amazon berry açaí. The promenade bars tend have live music, some of them contracting great samba bands and attracting Brazilian crowds looking for a night of dancing.
The neighborhood is also home to Fort Copacabana, which is located at the end of the beach, close to Ipanema. It’s a wonderful place to visit, and houses a military museum. On Sundays many times there is live music, while people having breakfast or lunch at on the two bar restaurants situated in the fort. The fort offers some great views of Copacabana, as well of the Atlantic Ocean.
Once the fort was the place were the chapel of Copacabana was located. It is said that in the seventeenth century, Bolivian and Peruvian silver merchants had brought a replica of the image of Our Lady of Copacabana, from Bolivia where the original is from. In the Copacabana area, the current location of the fort, they built a chapel in honor of the saint, supposedly the name-giver of the neighborhood.
Copacabana also stages one of the biggest New Year’s Eve festivities in the world. On the 31st of December millions of people gather on the beach, dressed in white, to honour the sea goddess Imanjá, saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming the new year. A big stage on the sand, with big names from the Brazilian music scene, will guarantee a night out with good live music. However, the climax of the night will be the fireworks flaring up, from platforms in the sea. It’s a great and peaceful experience, one you definitely should experience if you’re looking for a spectacular new years eve.