Jamie Durie's guide to Rio de Janeiro

The celebrity gardener gets the lowdown on the Olympic host city.

Why, oh why, has it taken me all this time to get to Brazil? With a total population of more than 205 million – and seven million in Rio de Janeiro alone – everything from the architecture, the music, the gardens, and the dance, to the food, the beaches and the people is utterly intoxicating.

At first glance the topography alone of this incredible city is breathtaking. I've never seen anything like it. My mission is to absorb all that this city has to offer in three days! Here we go.

The accommodation

I'm staying in a beautiful three-bedroom, two-bathroom Airbnb apartment in a leafy little street in the iconic Ipanema, just two streets back from the beach – and all I can hear in my head is that classic by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto. The girl from Ipanema goes walking.

My Airbnb host has been kind enough to check on me from Spain via my sweet little Airbnb app, and I meet his go-to guy who shows me around the apartment and introduces me to the maid who comes daily. They even have cold beers in the fridge; they knew I was Australian.

We polish off a couple of bottles of quality Malbec and solve all of Rio's issues.

The language

If you haven't been exposed to the Portuguese language, do yourself a favour and brush up on the basics on the way. Most of the locals here including the taxi drivers don't speak a word of English. After quickly downloading a Google translation app in the back of the cab whilst navigating through the backstreets of Copacabana, I manage to stumble across Leblon, a gorgeous series of restaurants and speakeasy bars that just ooze tropical cool. Sophisticated mood lighting, faint blends of Bossa Nova jazz and good conversation carry through the street.

The food

I discover a cute little Cuban-style restaurant/cigar bar called Esch Café and am greeted by some seasoned old waiters who look like this is the only job they've ever had and they take it very seriously. Declining the sealed-off Cigar Room offer, I sit down to easily the best salmon ceviche I've ever had. For an entree it made a great main course: I couldn't get through it all – fresh salmon and lime juice, paper-thin slices of plantain, Spanish onion with a hint of spice.

A heavy-set local guy next to me invites me to join his table, where, with his two female friends, we polish off a couple of bottles of quality Malbec and solve all of Rio's issues – including their worries about running late in preparations for the Rio Olympics influx in August.

Advertisement

The antiques

I'm a huge fan of getting to the antique districts as I believe this is where you find the soul of the city. You can learn so much about the people from the pieces that are still here long after they are gone. After some frantic local interrogating, I'm off to the Antiquarios area in Copacabana, apparently also a favourite spot of the great Mick Jagger. However, I'm wandering around saying "I can't get no satisfaction": I've seen better markets.

These are a little overpriced and there's a lack of quality curation – but it gives me a taste of the people in this colourful city. And the old guy restoring the centuries-old shrine was kind enough to let me into his workshop and photograph his handiwork.

The architecture

In this country one can't ignore the astounding legacy of Brazil's national hero, the great architect Oscar Niemeyer. The man worked every day until his death at the ripe old age of 104 – a career that spanned 78 years and more than 600 projects. He was the master of curved concrete, inspired by the sensual curves of his mountains, rivers, waves, and the body of a beloved woman.

I visit three of his projects and I've never seen such courageous work. His most famous is the Contemporary Art Museum in Niteroi, which from a distance looks like a space-ship landed on a cliff; until you realize it's solid concrete. A beautiful restaurant waits for you below after you've absorbed all of the art above.

My next stop was the work of one of my greatest hero's, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava; and his latest building, the must-see Museu do Amanha (or the Museum of Tomorrow), may just be Rio's answer to the Sydney Opera House. People are swarming over this thing of beauty that looks like a huge digital insect, clad with spines that each support solar panels. Inside it's a visual feast of high tech installations that inform, warn and inspire us all to be better custodians of our planet.

The kids are eating it up and I befriend one that stays glued to my side: it's his fourth time here and he teaches me how to calculate my carbon footprint as the interactive installations help us navigate a way forward as a race.

I then hit the Museu De Arte Do Rio next door, not as inspiring but with a great rooftop restaurant and view of the bay, lots of historic art and some amazing contemporary pieces.

The gardens

I may be a bit of a "Bot Garden-Snob" but Jardim Botanico, the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve leaves me feeling flat. After spending my days dreaming of visiting the great Roberto Burle Marx garden designs, I'm left feeling horticulturally ho-hum.

It was founded in 1808 by Dom Joáo, the Prince Regent of the United Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal, and in his defence there are some lovely parts here, including the giant Victoria lily pads that are more than a metre in diameter, with gorgeous upturned bright pink veined margins. And the Mayan-style rock grotto pavilion embedded with wild orchids, staghorns and myriad epiphytes.

My highlight is the native Toucans and the incredible ring-tailed monkeys feeding off the many date palms and dropping the seeds on my head as I try to get the money shot on a long lens. These adorable little natives stand up like meerkats on their muscular tails that are thicker than two of their legs together, much like our beloved Skippy.

"I go to Rio"

I go drown my sorrows at the beautiful Copacabana Palace poolside restaurant aptly titled Pergula, with a perfectly tender local fish steamed in banana leaf with local spices and three G and Ts to wash it down. Accompanying me are visions and the sounds of the late and great Peter Allen, serenading me – as he did believe it or not during one of my earlier live performances in my twenties in his giant multicoloured ruffled sleeves.

And this is how I say goodbye to Rio. I will see you again for Carnival.

Jamie Durie was a guest of Airbnb. Visit jamiedurie.com