A strange, distantly-remembered feeling came over me on my first visit to São Paulo. I was standing outside some funky bar in Vila Madalena and there was a young couple standing next to me. As I stood there I gradually became aware that the uneasy feeling I was experiencing was somehow related to them. I slyly looked them over – she looked like she’d cut her own hair that morning, he was wearing jeans and some super-cool t-shirt and both of them had a generous smattering of badass tattoos. I looked down at my standard-issue Rio attire: Havianas, plain shorts, run-of-the-mill t-shirt and unadorned skin. It hit me with a jolt: for the first time since I left London back in 2009 I was feeling deeply uncool.
Rio has many great things going for it – beautiful landscapes, fantastic places to eat and drink, a friendly, easygoing vibe – but until relatively recently I felt that it lacked the kind of intimidatingly cool subculture that is par for the course in most major cities. I’m not saying that Cariocas are nerdy – they’re generally awesome. And no doubt there were amazing parties and scenes that I never became aware of due to my own undeniable lack of cool. But overall, the general scene seemed to be more ‘casual’ than ‘hipster’.
People here tend to dress for the beach – shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops. And on the subject of t-shirts (surely one of the greatest opportunities to show the world how awesome you are) Cariocas are the only people on earth I’ve encountered who widely choose to wear tourist t-shirts. Images of Sugarloaf Mountain and Cristo Redentor abound – slogans singing the praises of Ipanema and Copacabana are commonplace. Where else would such garb be worn, unironically, by the locals?
But in the last few years I’ve noticed a change in the air. Awesome little bars and restaurants have been popping up. I’ve been seeing menus featuring obscure international street foods, pro-biotic fermented drinks and artisanal ales. There are little cafés and bistros with locally sourced ingredients and a plethora of places regularly hosting guest chefs. This exciting wave of innovation has spread across the whole city, but one neighbourhood seems to be at the centre of it all: Botafogo.
So when I was asked by Lonely Planet if I could suggest a bairro in Rio that could go onto their list of cool neighbourhoods around the world, Botafogo was the obvious choice. Botafogo has a lot going for it – a central location, good transport links and (compared to Ipanema and Leblon) low business rental prices.
It feels like the last 12 months have been especially difficult in Rio, so let’s take a break from complaining about the undeniable problems ahead, and instead take a moment to appreciate something positive that’s happening right now in the heart of the city. Here are a few of my Botafogo favourites that are definitely worth checking out:
- The Slow Bakery (website – map): Excellent sourdough bakery which also serves proper coffee, tasty sandwiches and fancy beers (pictured above).
- WineHouse (website – map): Tired of ‘eepa’ (IPA) and caipirinhas? Rio’s wine bar of the year offers loads of different wines by the glass (as well as by the bottle, obvs) including some really excellent offerings from Brazil.
- Void – House of Food (map): This bar/store hosts a different guest-chef every day and attracts hordes of cool kids most nights of the week.
- CoLAB (website – map): Brilliant little bar and restaurant offering weekend brunch options, curries, DJs, artisanal beers and good times.
- South Ferro (website – map): Sei Shiroma’s recent addition to the Botafogo scene offers up ramen, New York style pizza, cocktails and weekend brunch. The square slice topped with brisket and chimichurri is amazing.
- Olho da Rua (website – map): A multipurpose ‘cultural space’ – part bar, restaurant, store, gallery, event space and live music venue.
- Marchezinho (website – map): Cute little bistro serving French and Italian influenced dishes made with Brazilian ingredients. These guys make a mean macchiato.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are established Botafogo stalwarts like Comuna, Plebeu and Bar Bukowski; high end options like Lasai and Oui Oui; and one of my favourite lunch spots for a cheap and hearty old-school Brazilian meal, Restaurante Adriano’s.
So tell me cool kids: what’s missing from my list?