You know Rio – the 2016 Summer Olympics host, the city of samba and carnival, the kingdom of beautiful people and beautiful beaches. But what do you really know about the second most populous municipality in Brazil (after financial center São Paulo, of course)? Check out our 15 facts about Rio de Janeiro below.
1. Rio de Janeiro means January River, but the river is actually a bay
Rio de Janeiro, or January River, is a very poetic name for a city with more than 200 rivers running through it. But which river does it refer to? Well, the answer is: none of them.
It was in January 1502 that Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos first arrived in Rio. Legend has it that Lemos was sailing through Guanabara Bay when he came up with the name for the city, mistaking the bay as the mouth of a big river.
Today, some historians dispute the theory, arguing that the Portuguese were too skilled sailors to commit such a mistake, and that the word for river in the 16th century was also used to identify bays. Regardless, the name for Rio de Janeiro stuck.
2. Most of Rio’s samba schools are located in favelas
There are more than 1,000 slums, or favelas, in Rio – and almost one fourth of Cariocas (locals) live in them. Rio’s modest residents have been living in favelas since the end of the 19th century, being the most affordable housing option. It was there, in the favelas, that former African slaves and their descendants first created the music style we now know as samba.
Nowadays, most of the city’s renowned samba schools that compete in the world famous parade every carnival are located in favelas, or close by. Mangueira, Salgueiro, and Unidos da Tijuca are some of them.
3. The statue of Christ the Redeemer was elected one of the world’s new seven wonders
Rio doesn’t lack natural beauty for postcards, but its most acclaimed feature is not only man-made, but was also elected one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007, alongside masterpieces like the Roman Colosseum and the Taj Mahal. The statue of Christ the Redeemer, in fact, defies nature: its 92-feet-wide arms had to be built over the precipices of Corcovado Mountain without room for scaffolding.
Inaugurated in 1931, as a tribute to Rio’s 100th anniversary, the Christ is 98-feet-tall (not including the 26-foot pedestal) and the largest Art Deco statue in the world. The statue was financed by Brazilians, designed by a Frenchmen, and built from Swedish stones. The result is truly divine: despite the fact it is struck by lightning a couple times a year, it lives on strong, watching over the citizens of the Marvelous City.
4. Rio de Janeiro has the world’s bluest sky
Clear skies, warm sand, a cold drink… Isn’t that what everyone wants for their holiday? Well, in Rio you will not only find that, but also the bluest sky in the whole wide world. The statement seems audacious, but it’s actually based on a survey done in 2006 by a TV researcher who traveled around the globe in search of the world’s “bluest” sky.
Twenty-seven year old Anya Hohnbaum visited 20 different destinations including New Zealand and South Africa on a 72-day trip as part of a competition she had won. In order to get accurate results, she used a special portable spectrometer developed by scientists at the British National Physical Laboratory. It’s scientifically approved!
5. Rio’s carnival party is the biggest carnival in the world
According to the Guinness Book of Records, in 2004 the city’s most illustrious party attracted a record 400,000 foreign visitors, becoming the biggest carnival party in the world. Apart from the outside visitors, every year, around 5 million people take over the streets of Rio to participate in hundreds of street parties, called “blocos”, held by the samba groups. Not to mention the thousands that purchase expensive tickets to watch the acclaimed competitive parades, starring Rio’s best samba schools. A party not to be missed!
6. There are more than one hundred islands in Guanabara Bay
What do the Sugar Loaf, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, and Copacabana beach postcards have in common? The Guanabara Bay is in the backdrop of all of them. No wonder, it’s enormous and goes through no less than 15 different cities. The bay is the second biggest in the country, with its 256 square mile surface, 53 beaches, and more than one hundred islands.
You will probably visit at least one of them, the biggest one, in fact. Ilha do Governador, or Governor’s Island, is where the international airport of Rio is located.
7. Rio is home to the eighth biggest library in the world
It was November 1807, and the Royal Family of Portugal had to make a tough decision – To run to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to escape Napoleon and his troops. The departure was well organised: about 15,000 people among family members and servants traveled to Brazil in 14 ships. With them, came one of Portugal’s most important riches: the Royal Library and its 60,000 items.
In fact, one of the first acts of Dom João VI, the Portuguese Prince Regent, in Brazil was to establish the National Library, which went on to become the eighth biggest library in the world, with more than 15 million items.
Read more: The most beautiful libraries in the world
8. People from Rio are among the quickest getting on and off buses
Buses are the most affordable way to get around Rio, and they will take visitors almost anywhere in the city. Riding a bus in Rio isn’t, however, as straight forward an experience as one might hope for. Bus drivers aren’t exactly cautious, trustworthy drivers, and they will often leave passengers behind if they are not quick enough to get on.
With years of experience as a savvy passenger, a researcher called Ronaldo Balassiano got curious and decided to look into this social phenomenon. What he found was that the fear to be left behind made Cariocas be quicker in the process of getting on and off buses. When compared to busy, commuting Londoners, Cariocas take 1.85 seconds to get on a bus, while Londoners take 2.4 seconds. You’ve been warned!
9. Rio is home to the biggest urban forest in the world
Rio is a big city, with more than 6 million inhabitants, but it can feel like a small town, especially when you find yourself in the middle of a forest, under the hard-hitting cascade of a waterfall. The reason for that is Rio is home to the largest urban forest in the world, Floresta da Tijuca.
This 33-square-kilometre conservation area is the result of reforestation, done in the end of the 19th century, on the order of Brazil’s emperor Dom Pedro II. The idea was to restore the area that had been destroyed by coffee plantations in order to avoid the erosion of the hills that surround the city. Quite a few of Rio’s most touristy spots are partly in the Tijuca Forest – the Botanical Gardens, Parque Lage, and the Corcovado Mountain are a few of them.
Read more: What to do in Rio for free!
10. Carioca really means “white man’s house”
Carioca is what Rio’s locals are called. The word has its origins in the Tupi-Guarani language, used by the indigenous peoples who inhabited this blessed sliver of land long before any European knew it existed. Carioca, or Kari’Oka, is what the Indians called the city the Portuguese colonizers were building in their land. The word means white man’s house.
11. Rio de Janeiro was almost not the 2016 Summer Olympics host
When Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in 2009, the news was met with a party that attracted thousands to the iconic Copacabana beach. It was the third time the city was trying, and everyone felt like this was Rio’s turn. But it almost wasn’t.
Rio nearly didn’t make the four city short-list the International Olympics Committee selected before the final decision. It had a lower grade than Doha, which ended up discarded because of a technicality (due to the high temperatures in the city during the European summer, Doha had suggested to hold the Olympics in October, but that didn’t stick). Clenching to the uncomfortable 6.4 grade given to the city by the IOC, Rio held strong in the competition. And it ended up winning, against all odds.
12. Rio was once the only European capital outside Europe
Desperate times require desperate measures, at least that’s what it was like for Dom João VI. It was 1807, and Napoleon’s troops were getting closer and closer to invading Portugal in order to ensure the small coastal country would bow to France’s rule. Dom João VI wanted nothing of the sort, and instead packed his bags and moved the whole kingdom to Rio, between 1808 and 1821, when it was safe for the royals to go back home.
After getting a taste of being the headquarters of the Empire, Rio didn’t want to go back to the old ways. Brazil’s independence was declared in 1822.
13. Every Carnival, the city is run by the mythical King Momo
They say Cariocas’ only reason of living lies in one moment – the Summer Friday when the mayor of Rio gives the key of the city to King Momo, marking the beginning of Carnival, “a maior festa do mundo” (the biggest party in the world, as they call it here).
King Momo is a mythical figure, a joker whose historical origins go back to Ancient Greece. He symbolizes the rule of party and freedom over reason, and is normally played by a chubby, happy fellow who is comfortable wearing a silly crown with a cape.
The official tradition in Rio has been going on since 1933, and everyone takes it fairly seriously, with hundreds of reporters covering the symbolic moment every year. The key remains in King Momo’s possession until Ash Wednesday, when mundane living forces its way back into Rio’s life.
14. The world’s biggest football match was held here
Brazilians don’t remember it fondly, but 16 July 1950 was a historical day. Brazil was playing Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup. The stage was Maracanã, built especially for the occasion and, at the time, the biggest stadium in the world.
A total of 173,850 paid spectators – and an estimated 20,000 free loaders – were there to see what everyone thought was going to be Brazil’s first time receiving the World Cup. But Uruguay snatched Brazilians’ victory away, and the silence of the dozens of thousands was so loud, they gave it a name: Maracanazo.
15. It’s where Oscar Niemeyer was born
Brasília is certainly one of Oscar Niemeyer’s most outstanding trophies, but the man behind the modern architecture was born and raised in Rio. Maybe that’s where Niemeyer learned how to be so poetic, by drawing unlikely waves in concrete buildings.
A good share of his work – including the famous spaceship-like museum, MAC – is located in Niterói, the city that looks at Rio from the other side of Guanabara Bay. The museum is part of the Caminho Niemeyer, or Niemeyer Pathway, that takes visitors through seven buildings designed by the architect. But Rio also has its Niemeyer gems: the Gustavo Capanema Palace and the Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí, to name a few.
Read more: 7 must-see museums in Rio