Cariocas divide their city into four main sections: the suburban Zona Norte (North Zone), the chic Zona Sul (South Zone), the sprawling Zona Oeste (West Zone), and the urban Centro.
Most tourist activity takes place in the Zona Sul, with its mix of residential areas, office buildings, shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and beaches. This is the city's most affluent section, with fancy condos housing Rio's middle and upper class, and dozens of theaters and music halls.
Centro and neighboring Lapa and Santa Teresa are filled with the remnants of the old Portuguese colony, including some impressive neoclassical structures housing churches, museums, and art galleries. The vast Zona Norte is primarily residential and lower class, but the international airport and the legendary Maracanã soccer stadium are here. Zona Oeste is the "up and coming" part of Rio, occupied largely by the newly rich, and replete with malls, superstores, and untouched beaches. As the center of operations for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the West Zone is set to benefit from improved transport links to the rest of the city as well as a boost in hotel numbers.
Architectural gems left behind from the days of Portuguese colonialism share space with modern high-rises in Rio's financial district. Ornately decorated churches, museums, and palaces are just some of the highlights.
The neighborhood is a virtual ghost town from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning, when the workweek begins. Have a look in one of Centro's many used bookstores for good buys on Brazilian literature and English-language titles.
Catete and Glória
Historic Catete and Glória, two largely residential neighborhoods close to Centro, are well worth an afternoon's sightseeing. The national government formerly operated out of Catete, which still has its lovely palaces and old residences; the playground in Catete Palace grounds is one of the nicest spots in the city to bring young children. Glória is famous for its beautiful hilltop church.
Santa Teresa and Lapa
One of Rio's first residential neighborhoods, Santa Teresa is worth a visit to explore its narrow, cobblestone streets. Many of the beautiful colonial mansions lining them have been converted into stylish guesthouses and boutique hotels.
This charming neighborhood also contains excellent restaurants, craft stores, and art galleries.
Adjacent to Centro, the Lapa neighborhood has some of the best music halls and dance clubs in the city. If you've come to Rio to explore its nightlife, you'll become intimately familiar with Lapa.
Flamengo and Botafogo
The middle-class neighborhoods of Flamengo and Botafogo, both good places to find value lodgings, are famed for their rival soccer teams, two of Brazil's biggest teams. Sports rivalry aside, the Parque de Flamengo, designed by the world-famous landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, is an oasis of calm and a popular spot for walkers and joggers, while Botafogo is home to some of Rio's best independent bars and restaurants.
The beaches in both neighborhoods aren't the greatest—although there is a terrific view of Sugarloaf Mountain, the water is dirty—but a five-minute hop on the metro will bring you to Copacabana and Ipanema.
East of Botafogo is tiny, mainly residential Urca, where you can ascend the huge morro Sugarloaf by cable car. Praia Vermelha, a small, sheltered beach beneath Sugarloaf, is a wonderful spot for sunbathing, and on the easy walking trail nearby there's a good chance you'll see marmoset monkeys at play.
Copacabana and Leme
Copacabana Beach is the main attraction in the city's most tourist-packed neighborhood. It's the perfect place to sunbathe, stroll, people-watch, buy souvenirs at the open-air night market, sip a caipirinha at a beach kiosk, or gaze in awe at the giant apartment buildings and hotels (including the Copacabana Palace) that line the Avenida Atlântica. At its eastern end, Copacabana Beach becomes Leme, and this quieter spot is popular with families.
Ipanema and Leblon
Famously the place where "The Girl from Ipanema" caught the eye of bossa nova songwriters Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes in the 1960s, this affluent neighborhood is a collection of tree-lined streets harboring smart condos, fabulous restaurants, and trendy boutiques. The gorgeous beach, framed by the towering Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers) mountains, is the sunbathing spot of choice for Rio's young and beautiful. Extending west from Ipanema, affluent, intimate Leblon borrows some of its neighbor's trendy charms and is home to many of Rio's hippest restaurants.
Leblon's beach, an extension of Ipanema sheltered by the Dois Irmaos Mountains, is popular with families, but the water is often too dirty for swimming.
São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca
West of Leblon, the well-heeled neighborhoods of São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca have long stretches of unspoiled beach. São Conrado contains some striking mansions, while towering condos and vast shopping malls have earned Barra da Tijuca the nickname Estados Unidos da Barra (United States of Barra). Rio's metro system is set to reach Barra da Tijuca in time for the Rio 2016 Olympics, which will be based here. Barra's beach is the longest in the city and tends to be much quieter than Copacabana and Ipanema.
Inland Zona Sul
The middle-class residential neighborhoods of Jardim Botânico, Gávea, Lagoa, Laranjeiras, and Cosme Velho are worth visiting for their stunning scenery and opportunities for peaceful strolls and nature-spotting rambles. The highlights here include the botanical garden in Jardim Botânico, the cable-car ride to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Cosme Velho, Gávea's planetarium, Laranjeiras's street fairs, and the massive city lake in Lagoa, which is good for a brisk stroll, run, or bike ride.