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 Manaus, Cuiabá, Brasília and Belo Horizonte. Don't miss our hot tips for the other host cities in northeast Brazil and south Brazil and the southeast.
Sitting at the confluence of the Negro and Solimões rivers, sweltering Manaus is planted 2850km away from Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã stadium, in the middle of the largest tropical rainforest on earth. This former rubber boomtown is a vibrant, fast-paced urban bastion of grit getting on with it despite the oppressive jungle heat and humidity. Welcome to the Rumble in the Jungle, redefined.
What to see: Besides gawking at the Negro River itself – just off downtown and about 3.5km wide – Manaus’s five-star attraction is undoubtedly its gorgeous opera house, Teatro Amazonas, an out-of-place neoclassical remnant of rubber-boom opulence that originally opened in 1896.
Out on the water, the Encontro das Águas, the meeting point of the Negro and Solimões rivers, is the most popular excursion from the city and where the majority of trips into the jungle begin and end. The stubborn refusal of these two rivers to mix is said to be the inspiration for the wavy black-and-white tile work in the plaza in front of Teatro Amazonas and reproduced more famously along Rio de Janeiro’s beach promenade.
Where to stay: Backpackers tend towards Australian-run Hostel Manaus, the best in town. The newish Boutique Hotel Casa Teatro is a design-focused midrange choice with artsy but tiny rooms and rooftop patio views of the opera house. If you're looking for luxury, Caesar Business hotel is the city’s most exquisite; its centrepiece towering rainforest wall of bromeliads and ferns in the lobby evokes an impressive sense of place.
Where to eat: Foodies flock to Banzeiro (www.restaurantebanzeiro.com.br), famous for Chef Felipe Schaedler's award-winning tambaqui (a tasty river fish) ribs. Choupana (www.choupanarestaurante.com.br) specialises in freshly plucked river fish as well as tasty tacacá, a soup made from jambu (a mouth-numbing indigenous herb), tucupi (a manioc broth) and dried shrimp.
Where to drink: The air-conditioned Touchdown (www.facebook.com/touchdownmanaus) offers 15 TV screens on regular days, let alone during the World Cup. The upscale Cachacaria do Dedé (www.cachacariadodede.com.br) was voted the city's best happy hour and bar kitchen in 2013.
Where to watch the Cup: The new 44,500-capacity Arena da Amazônia (www.arenadaamazonia.com.br) and its jungle-inspired design sits 6km from the historic city centre and the banks of the Rio Negro.
As the northern gateway to the Pantanal, the largest freshwater swamp on the planet and one of the most fragile and biodiverse ecosystems on earth, Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state, is Brazil's lively urban cowboy. The smallest of the World Cup host cities is divided between Old Cuiabá and Varzea Grande, divided by the Rio Cuiabá.
What to see: The city itself isn't rife with attractions, though the Museu Histórico de Mato Grosso does a good overview of the state's history. Everything is focused on the wildlife-flush Transpantaneira Hwy, which begins 104km southwest in Poconé, and the impressive sandstone rock formations and waterfalls of Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Guimarães, 68km northwest.
Where to stay: The budget mainstay is the iconic Pousada Ecoverde, where the amicable Joel Souza offers a cornucopia of local knowledge in a 100-year-old colonial house. The jungle-themed Amazon Plaza Hotel is the most popular midrange: you'll overdose on kitsch, but rooms are spacious and that pool is a very welcome respite from the heat. The city's newest hotel is the sleek and modern Gran Odara, the only truly upscale game in town.
Where to eat: Peixaria Popular is the best-value spot to try regional pantaneiro river fish. Regionalíssimo in the Museu do Rio does a don't-miss buffet of regional dishes such as mujica (catfish in yuca sauce) and carne seca com abóbora (dried beef with pumpkin).
Where to drink: The signature iced tankards of frozen chope (draft beer) are sure to be slinging during World Cup matches at Choppão, a Cuiabá institution. For something a smidgeon less rowdy, go for the more highbrow Getúlio Grill (www.getuliogrill.com.br).
Where to watch the Cup: Cuiabá’s new multi-use and sustainably built Arena Pantanal (O Verdão, or the ‘Big Green’) will hold 42,968 spectators and is 3km west of Centro.
Brazil's futuristic capital in the heart of the interior remains as visually and conceptually interesting today as when it was conceived out of thin air in the 1950s by then-President Jucelino Kubitschek, architect Oscar Niemeyer, urban planner Lucio Costa and landscape architect Burle Marx. An architectural dream compounded by a head-spinning mathematical address system set in a space-age layout, Brasília is nothing if not splendidly fascinating.
What to see: The Eixo Monumental – the ‘fuselage’ of the city's plane-like design – is home to nearly all of Brasília’s attractions. At the southern end is the seat of government, Praça dos Trés Poderes; as you head north, you’ll see the Catedral Metropolitana and Museu Nacional, flanked by identical ministry buildings; and north of the ‘wings’ (home to commercial and residential sectors) is the TV Tower (ascend it for a bird's eye view) and Memorial JK, a fascinating museum dedicated to all things Kubitschek.
Where to stay: You'll need to recalibrate your budget here – Brasília isn't wallet friendly at the low end. Econotel is the closest thing to a budget option in the hotel sectors. For a bit of history, the classic Kubitschek Plaza is a top-end option that is chock full of local art and old photos of the ex-president. There is an official hostel, Albergue da Juventude Brasília, but it’s well north of the Eixo. Honestly, unless you are looking for a business hotel environment, this is a city for Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) if ever there was one.
Where to eat: You'll find Brasília's best-value meal at the contemporary and cosy Nossa Cozinha Bistrô. For excellent regional Brazilian cuisine, head to Mangai, where you pay by weight for scrumptious home-grown dishes. And don’t forget Boteco (at CLS 406 bloco D loja 35), an old school boteco doing Brasília's best bar food.
Where to drink: Choperia Maracanã (www.choperiamaracana.com.br) is true to its name: it's all about futebol and samba. Bar Beirute, a Brasília institution, is sure to throw up some large-screen TVs as well.
Where to watch the Cup: The newly renovated Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha (www.estadionacionaldebrasilia.com.br) now holds around 68,000 screaming torcedores (supporters). It's about a 30-minute walk from the hotel sectors.
Brazil's third-largest city, known locally as Beagá (Portuguese for ‘BH’ and pronounced 'bay-ah-gah'), is the modern state capital of Minas Gerais, Brazil's most hospitable and friendly state. With good museums and cultural centres, hearty food and the most bars per capita in Brazil, Belo Horizonte's young, contagious energy bubbles from this mountain-surrounded urban sprawl.
What to see: Highlights of a recent makeover of downtown's cultural hub, Praça da Liberdade, include the cool and contemporary Memorial Minas Gerais – Vale museum, but the best attraction in the area by far is the outstanding Instituto de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, 50km west of the city in Brumadinho. Without a doubt Brazil's most interesting and jaw-dropping contemporary museum, it features 12 world-class art galleries and installations spread about a sprawling garden landscape that tops 110 hectares.
Where to stay: Our favourite budget bed-down is the lovely Lá Em Casa in a historic '30s townhouse in the bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Tereza. Hotel Ibis is a well-located midrange chain near Praça da Liberdade. The Ouro Minas Palace Hotel is Beagá's nicest five-star, but a close four-star, the Royal Savassi Hotel, isn't too far off and much better located for great bars and restaurants.
Where to eat: Cheap eats abound at the venerable Casa Cheia inside the fascinating Mercado Central. Xapuri is a national reference for regional Mineira cuisine, served on picnic tables under a thatched roof. Hermengarda (www.hermengarda.com.br) is the upscale contemporary choice du moment.
Where to drink: Beagá is known as Brazil's Cidade dos Bares (City of Bars) and there are certainly way too many to single any out here. Head straight to Savassi, just south of Centro, the city's biggest and best concentration of bars, botecos and drink-friendly restaurants.
Where to watch the Cup: The completely renovated Estadio Mineirão (www.minasarena.com.br), with a capacity of 57,483, is 9km north of Centro in Pampulha. Bus 64 is your best bet from Centro.