Get ready for global football fever. In June and July 2014, a dozen Brazilian cities will host the 20th FIFA World Cup. In this series of articles, we give you the lowdown on their don't-miss sights, the best places to eat, drink and sleep – and, of course, where to catch the matches. This article covers Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Curitiba and Porto Alegre. Don't miss our hot tips for the other host cities in northeast Brazil and north Brazil and the interior.
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro. Merely whispering its name among the wanderlust set conjures cinematic panoramas of sand, samba and sun. It is the most startlingly beautiful city in the Southern Hemisphere, where world-class urban beaches collide with dramatic rainforest-draped mountaintops in a scene straight out of travel dreams the world over.
What to see: Rio's postcard-perfect attractions can easily seize your attention for weeks. The city-defining mountains of Pão de Açúcar and Corcovado; the curved perfection of Ipanema and Copacabana, two of the world's most famous urban beaches; the picturesque historic mansions of cobblestoned Santa Teresa; the lush, rain-dropped jungle of Parque Nacional de Tijuca… Need we go on?
Where to stay: Rooms will be scarce during the Cup. Book ahead! Budget favourites include Oztel, CobanaCopa Hostel and LimeTime; and a good no-frills midrange with loads of large rooms is Jucati, perfect for groups of fans. At the top end, Fasano is for hipsters and rock stars while the Copacabana Palace is the elegant classic. But you may need to think outside the box. Consider Favela Experience (www.favelaexperience.com) for friendly and affordable accommodation inside pacified favelas; and Cama e Café, the city's B&B network.
Where to eat: Delírio Tropical, with locations throughout the city, is one of the freshest, best and most honestly priced restaurants in the country – a memorable budget option. Espírito Santa in Santa Teresa is a long-time favourite for Amazonian specialities, fair prices and outstanding views, while nearby Aprazível (www.aprazivel.com.br/aprazivel.htm) is a higher-end choice that packs a similar wow. For sophisticated palates, Roberta Sudbrack (www.robertasudbrack.com.br) and Oro (www.ororestaurante.com) are the two hottest tables in town.
Where to drink: Caneco 70 (www.facebook.com/BarCaneco70), a longstanding Leblon classic named as a homage to Brazil's 1970 World Cup championship team, has reopened after eight years. Mud Bug Sports Bar, at two Copacabana locations, always goes all-out during important football matches. Mais um chope, por favor! (Another beer, please!)
Where to watch the Cup: The Holy Grail of football in a country that holds the sport next to godliness (or maybe above it) is the newly renovated Estádio do Maracanã. This hallowed ground now holds 73,531 spectators and is conveniently reached by metro. Purpose-built for the 1950 World Cup, which Brazil lost in the championship on home soil in painfully dramatic fashion to Uruguay, means the air of Maracanã will only evoke one emotion: redemption.
Superlatives rule in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city and the beating heart of its economy, its gastronomy, its culture, its nightlife, its everything (except its tourism). This monster megalopolis of 22 million people is nothing if not a concrete jungle, intimidating and on overdrive 24/7, but then that's the appeal: for urbanites, it's all here, dished out with Technicolor craziness and a wallop of Brazilian wow. Strap yourselves in.
What to see: Head to Centro, where striking architectural gems await in markets, museums and attractions such as Mercado Municipal, Theatro Municipal, Pinacoteca do Estado, Edifício Martinelli and Mosteiro São Bento. Take in the culture of Liberdade, Sampa's Japantown, and nightlife in Vila Madalena and Baixo Augusta. And don't forget the Museu do Futebol, the city's fantastic football museum – you're here for the Cup, after all.
Where to stay: The bohemian neighbourhood of Vila Madalena and the area around Av Paulista are the best budget bets (LimeTime is popular), though the nicest hostels in town are WE Hostel Design in Vila Mariana and Guest 607 in Pinheiros. For a midrange oasis in the city's most upscale neighbourhood, head straight to Pousada Dona Ziláh in Jardins. For top-end luxury, look no further than Hotel Emiliano, which straddles the refined fence between luxury and hip ever so eloquently.
Where to eat: Impossible to answer. Really. There are 12,500 restaurants here! But here's a start: pizza at Bráz Pizzaria (www.casabraz.com.br); coxinhas (breaded and fried chicken snacks) and caipirinhas at Bar Veloso; hummus and fatte at Tenda do Nilo (www.tendadonilo.com.br); sushi at Kan (www.restaurantekan.com.br); midrange Brazilian at Brasil a Gosto or Tordesilhas; fine dining at Maní or D.O.M. (pssst! Maní is cheaper and better); northeastern regional at Mocotó; feijoada (bean and pork stew, Brazil's national dish) at Feijoada da Lana; pernil (pork loin) sandwiches at Estadão; and gelato at Bacio di Latte (www.baciodilatte.com.br). Full yet?
Where to drink: São Cristóvão in Vila Madalena is a football lover's dream with great drinks and boteco food to boot. Pubs such as All Black, O'Malley's (in Jardim Paulista; www.omalleysbar.net), Blue Pub (in Bela Vista; www.thebluepub.com.br) and Queen’s Head (in Pinheiros; www.queenshead.com.br) aren't to be missed for games, either.
Where to watch the Cup: The new Arena de São Paulo sits at the end of the metro red line 20km away in Itaquera. Nicknamed ‘Itaquerão’ (Big Itaquera), its 48,000 seats (65,000 during the Cup) will be taken over by rabid Sport Club Corinthians Paulista after the Cup.
This city has been regarded the world over as a model of urban planning since the '70s, when a forward-thinking mayor began encouraging recycling and sustainable design, planting trees and creating parks on an enormous scale, and streamlining one of the world's most efficient public transit systems. Curitiba makes up for its lack of sexiness with form and function.
What to see: There is not an epidemic of attractions on offer in Curitiba, which instead comfortably hums along, self-aware of its urban near-perfection. But it has a few don't-misses: Museu Oscar Niemeyer is Brazil's best homage to its most famous native architect; the city's botanic gardens form one of the country's most pleasant inner-city parks; and the Serra Verde Express, one of Brazil's few (and by far its best) operating scenic train routes, departs here and descends through mountain canyons and tropical green lowlands to the Atlantic ocean in Morretes. It’s a must.
Where to stay: Curitiba Eco Hostel, in a swanky neighbourhood east of the city, is one of Brazil's best. Garden Curitiba Hotel (www.hotelgardencuritiba.com) is a friendly, well-located midrange hotel, while boutiquey San Juan Johnscher is the city's most design-focused high-end option.
Where to eat: Curitiba's Italian population in Brazil is second only to São Paulo’s. Head straight to Barolo (barolotrattoria.com.br) for unforgettable pasta. Manu is where Michelin minders dine on the creations of one of Brazil’s hottest young chefs, Manoella Buffara. For cheaper eats, the Mercado Municipal has something for everyone, including Brazil's first organic food court.
Where to drink: Folha Seca (www.facebook.com/folhasecabar?fref=ts), named after the nickname of beloved Didi (from Brazil's 1958 and 1962 World Cup winning teams) is a sure bet near the stadium. Aos Democratas (www.aosdemocratas.com.br) will also do brisk business during the Cup. Then there's Sheridan’s Irish Pub (of course there is; www.sheridansirishpub.com.br).
Where to watch the Cup: The ambitiously renovated 42,000-seat Arena da Baixada is just south of downtown, an easy 2.5km walk from Praça Tiradentes.
Brazil's southernmost capital doesn't bother too much with things most people consider ‘Brazilian’. Folks in this big and bustling port city on the banks of the freshwater Lagoa dos Patos speak differently, drink different beers (much better ones!), prefer chimarrão (mate, a traditional beverage) over espresso, and pride themselves on progressive politics. Porto Alegre is a modern metropolis with verdant parks and great botecos surrounding a revamped colonial downtown. Welcome to gaúcho country.
What to see: Porto Alegre branches out from its centrepiece, Praça XV de Novembro, where you'll find the excellent Mercado Público, the south's best urban market. To the east, another colonial square, Praça da Alfândega, is a shady park where the neoclassical Museo de Arte do Rio Grande do Sul holds court; and just south is picturesque Praça da Matriz, dominated by the Cathedral Metropolitana. You are also within striking distance of Brazil's gorgeous wine country, Vale dos Vinhedos, located a 2½-hour drive north near Bento Gonçalves.
Where to stay: Porto Alegre Eco Hostel, run by a re-assimilating American-Brazilian, occupies a beautiful restored mansion in the hot nightlife 'hood of Cidade Baixa. The Lido is a basic midrange choice right downtown. For top digs, head to the Sheraton Porto Alegre, a souped-up chain hotel in the hipster neighbourhood of Moinhos de Vento.
Where to eat: Don't miss the fresh and fairly priced pasta at Atelier de Massas (www.facebook.com/pages/Atelier-de-Massas/89268095282). The hottest restaurant in town at the moment is Hashi Art Cuisine (www.hashi.com.br), where chef Carlos Kristensen has dominated awards for four years straight. For a variety of classic or quick bites, the Mercado Público is flush with options.
Where to drink: Football fans will be spilling right onto Praça XV de Novembro from Chalé da Praça XV, an 1855 Victorian-style chalet and beer garden that's been serving suds for World Cup games and otherwise since 1911. Brechó do Futebol (www.brechodofutebol.com) is part football shop, part tiny-but-extreme football bar.
Where to watch the Cup: Along the riverbanks of the River Guaiba, the newly revamped Estádio Beira-Rio will hold 50,287 after World Cup renovations. It's reachable by 25 separate bus lines.