On our city tour at the start of our time in Rio, I had spotted a monumental conical pyramid at the edge of the central business district. It is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian, built in the 60s and 70s. While we have already seen our fair share of churches in our travels, the architect in me wanted to see this unusual brutalist cathedral.
We Ubered to the neighborhood, arriving just before lunchtime. We collected our bearings along a busy street within sight of the cathedral. Around us were anonymous corporate towers clad in granite, and older low-rise street fronts with funky shops and restaurants. It was great to see ordinary Carioca heading into local restaurants for work-day lunches, and people walking around staring at their phones — just like every single other place on the planet.
The cathedral hunkers like a missile launch structure or a command headquarters!
Nonetheless, inside, while somber compared to the tropical day outside, we found a vast volume lit by stained glass. The concrete frame and structure are heavy. The immense colorful windows rise steeply to a bold white cross. It is not a lush or cozy church; to us, it embodied very stern protection, watchfulness, and even menace. That architect in me respected its unconventional boldness.
From this part of downtown, a historic yellow tram heads up the hill to the district of Santa Teresa. This tram is the last of its kind in Rio. It has run continuously since opening in 1877, and has been electrically powered since 1896. The tram car that took us up the hill is a replica of the 19th century originals. Upon departure from the downtown terminus, the tram proceeds atop the Roman-style Rio Aqueduct, which was built around 1750 to bring water from the Carioca River to the city. Then the route squeals and screeches through meandering streets up the hill.
We had thought that the tram route would be simple for us tourists: start downtown; get off in Santa Teresa. What do you know: the route is full of stops for ordinary people to use. Even with Google Maps in our hands, we had to guess where to jump off. As the tram continued on its way without us, we stood at a little city overlook, under shady trees, wondering where we were exactly. The neighborhood was quaint, with winding streets and older houses and buildings. There were a few boutique storefronts in sight, but almost no people. Graffiti, like elsewhere in Rio, covered every surface. After the sense of familiarity of the downtown area, we suddenly weren’t sure if we were safe. But we had read consistently that this neighborhood is a gentrifying artsy district, full of studios, shops, cafés and restaurants, and very safe.
Perhaps you’ve been in a city new to you and come out of a subway station and pulled out your phone to use Google Maps to find your destination. Somehow that little blue arrow that is supposed to show you which way you are facing doesn’t always work quite right. We had a few of those moments, trying to choose which winding street to follow.
Along the way, we encountered very few people and moving cars. The quiet and inactivity were calm after the bustle of downtown, but it was also a little eerie: Where is everyone?!
We weren’t completely alone, however. Marmosets scrambled overhead, along the power lines.
With relief, after about ten minutes, we started to find arty boutiques and cafés. Even so, being a gentrifying neighborhood, most of the houses and buildings look run-down, with the Rio-typical blanket of graffiti and street art. At least here, street-art outnumbers gang-type marks.
After some exploring and a little shopping, we started to feel tired of braving all these new places. I had read about a boutique hotel set in the middle of Santa Teresa, including its foodie restaurant. This time, Google Maps helped us easily. We passed through a simple tall portal into an intimate garden oasis. Like the neighborhood, the garden seemed empty of people. We glimpsed just a young couple lounging next to the little pool, but no one else.
Down some stairs was the entry to the restaurant.
The glass doors were closed, and the restaurant was dark and empty.
I was already trying to come up with Plan B, but Mike boldly pulled the door open. A waiter appeared out of the darkness and welcomed us in. “Yes indeed, we are serving lunch.” Apparently the only guests there, we were seated before an open window with a view over the neighborhood.
The menu was the perfect amount of fancy! We enjoyed a bottle of South-American rosé, and number of delicious and beautiful courses. Since this was our last day in Rio, this private relaxed fine lunch was a celebration of our time here.
After lunch, getting up from our table and paying our bill, we spotted a waiter opening a door on the other side of our open-air dining room. Beyond lay another dining room, air-conditioned, and full of people! We had dined in a parallel universe.