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.