Four Hours in Rio de Janeiro

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JARDIM BOTANICO

There are few places where dense rainforest, towering mountains, sandy beaches and urban sprawl all sit together. The result is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Start at the Jardim Botanico, a peaceful paradise minutes in a cab from Copacabana. The gardens have been open to the public since 1822. Pick up a map from the visitor’s centre and follow the trails. Highlights include the avenue of towering royal palms, the giant Victoria Regia water lilies and the superb views of Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer. Entry $3. Rua Jardim Botanico 920. Open 08h00-17h00. Visit jbrj.gov.br

PARQUE LAGE

A five-minute walk along Rua Jardim Botanico takes you to pretty Parque Lage and the Escola de Artes Visuais (School of Visual Arts, number 414), housed in an Italianate mansion. The school promotes Brazilian art and culture and, depending on when you visit, you can take in one of the many exhibits or a live performance. Café du Lage, in the cloisters, offers a perfect pit stop, selling tasty pastries and quiches. Open daily 09h00-17h00. Entry is free. Visit eavparquelage.rj.gov.br

CENTRO CULTURAL BANCO DO BRASIL

Jump in a taxi and head for the CCBB in the Centro neighbourhood, the financial heart of Rio. (It will take about 25 minutes and cost about $22.) One of the leading cultural centres in Brazil, it is home to several gallery spaces, theatres and a cinema. It’s housed in the former headquarters of Brazil’s national bank, a stunning neoclassical building dating back to 1906 with soaring Corinthian columns, ornamental details, marble floors and sweeping staircases. Entry is free. Open 09h00-21h00 Tuesday-Sunday. Rua Primeiro de Marco 66. Visit bb.com.br

CATEDRAL METROPOLITANA DE SAO SEBASTIAO

Rio’s monolithic Metropolitan Cathedral is about 10 minutes’ away by taxi. The 20,000-capacity building opened in 1979. Four stained-glass panels rise from floor to ceiling and form a cross at the apex of the building – the vivid colours create an atmospheric effect as the sun moves position, casting an ever-changing kaleidoscope of light. In the basement, the Sacred Art Museum features the throne of former emperor Dom Pedro II and fonts used to christen royalty. Entry is free. Open daily 07h00-18h00. Avenue Republica do Chile 245. Visit catedral.com.br

SANTA TERESA

This hilltop district is best accessed by the rickety Santa Teresa tram, in use since 1891. It’ll cost you less than a dollar. Take it from Carioca station on Rua Professor Lelio Gama, a five-minute walk along Avenue Republica do Chile. As you ascend you’ll cross Arcos da Lapa, a Roman-style aqueduct from the 1700s. Large 19th-century mansions, once home to wealthy merchants, sit upon the hillside. Once down at heel, the area has been gentrifying since the 1990s, and many buildings are now boho-chic restaurants and galleries. Get off at Largo dos Guimaraes and drop by Santa Teresa hotel (santa-teresa-hotel. com) for a cocktail and panoramic view.