The 'Cidade Maravilhosa', or marvellous city, as Rio de Janeiro proudly proclaims itself, should be on everyone's must-visit list. One of the world's most electric destinations, it's those famous beaches, mountains, the explosion of sequins that is Carnival, the world's briefest beachwear and some of the world's most stunning inhabitants modelling it...
From Copacabana and Ipanema to the charm of cobbled Santa Teresa with its bright yellow trams, you're watched over by the huge statue of Christ and overshadowed by Sugar Loaf Mountain. There's addictive beats to dance too until dawn and cachaca-fuelled cocktails to give you the energy.
With Rio hosting the Olympics in 2016, and the World Cup heading to Brazil in 2014, the city is firmly in the spotlight. And it's never been easier to get there, with new direct flights from London Heathrow with TAM Airlines. So pack your Havaianas and head to the sun.
Hotels in Rio aren't the cheapest option, especially if you want to be close to the action in Copacabana and Ipanema, so do consider areas like Santa Teresa, which are further out but is becoming the places to stay for those in the know.
If you're splashing out, the Sofitel Rio de Janeiro Copacabana is one of the city's flashest places to stay, right on the famous Copacabana beach. There are two pools, personalised butler service and free local beer in your mini bar. Rooms cost from £314.
Or Hotel Portinari is right between Copacabana and Ipanema, designed by 10 of Brazil's top architects and designers, who each got to go wild on a different floor – so the 66 rooms and suites include bright tropical and chic minimalist among others. Rates start from around £118, book at i-escape.com.
And Castelinho38, is a converted mini castle with just 10 rooms, in the heart of artistic hotspot of Santa Teresa. Decorated with vintage furniture, there's daily Pilates classes in the garden. You're a little way out from the tourist centres, but it's perfect for escaping to. Rates start from £84.
You can't come to Rio without getting the song, The Girl from Ipanema, stuck in your head on a regular basis – so make the most of it by watching the modern-day versions sway along the beachfront. From Copacabana to Ipanema and Leblon, the famous beaches all have their own personality, and attract local Cariocas as much as the tourists.
Copacabana has lost some of its glam image over the years, although the new Museum of Image and Sound due to open in 2011 is hoping to change that. For now, start at Ipanema and wander towards Leblon for cleaner sands – although at weekends, you'll barely be able to see the beach for the people. As you go, keep a look out for the numbered lifeguard posts, which traditionally attract different groups – number seven is for surfers, eight is the gay post, while nine and 10 bring in the young, rich and famous, as well as being a centre for sports lovers with volleyball and soccer.
If you're taking a dip, only swim where the locals do and be wary of more than paddling if you're not a strong swimmer – ipanema translates as 'bad, dangerous waters'.
Set between the mountains and the sea, you'll get fantastic views throughout Rio but one that's not to be missed is from the top of Pao de Acucar, the Sugar Loaf mountain. The 396m granite mountain is one of the city's famous landmarks – popping up in a Bond film – and if you're feeling energetic, you can join a climbing tour to reach the summit.
Most people opt for the cable cars, which have swung gently up the slope in two stages for nearly a century – although they have been rebuilt several times! Start on Avenida Pasteur, 520, at Urca, for the first stage, then up to the peak.
From the top you can see down to Guanabara bay, and over to Corcovado mountain on one side, as well as the curve of Copacabana beach. Tickets cost around £16.50. The peak is busiest between 10-11am and 2-3pm, but for the best views head up before sunset on a clear day.
One of the seven new wonders of the world, the statue of Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer, is instantly recognisable. Not only is the 35m high soapstone and concrete monument familiar from a thousand images, it's always present on the horizon in Rio.
Topping the 710m high Corcovado Mountain, the statue has just had a £2.7 million facelift, and emerged from its scaffolding again. Skip the walk for the 20-minute trip on the little red cog train which climbs the slopes every half hour from 8.30am to 7pm, priced around £13.50 return. You pick it up from the Cosme Velho subway station.
When the weather's good, you get the full impact of the stark white statue against the blue sky, but even if you get caught in the clouds, there's something impressive about suddenly seeing it looming out of the mist.
You needn't fly up to the Amazon if you want a walk in a rainforest, as Rio has its very own. Tijuca Forest, the world's largest urban forest, is part-way up Corcovado, so you can combine it with a visit to see Cristo Redentor. Get off at Paineiras Station on the funicular railway, and you'll find the gateway to Tijuca National Park, 8,000 acres of forest which is home to 30 waterfalls, at least 100 different specials of animals, as well as hundreds of plants and trees.
If you're feeling brave, you can hang-glide down from the peak of Pedra Bonita – watch out for the pagoda-style gazebo at Vista Chinesa - or you can pick up jeep tours of the forest. If you do decide to explore without a tour or guide, you're advised not to go alone, and it can be dangerous after dark.
Brazilian churrascarias will mean steak-lovers are in carnivorous heaven – pay a single fee, and you get as much meat as you can stomach, along with a salad bar and occasional assorted side dishes.
But make a stop at Garota de Ipanema as well. The former bar where The Girl from Ipanema was written, there's lots of memorabilia and even the street it's on - Rua Vinicius de Moraes – is named after one of the song's writers.
Or for something distinctly different, Zaza Bistro Tropical is a fairy-lit retro taste of Asia, plus a north African upstairs, all Moroccan tables and pillows. It might not be traditional Brazilian but with dishes like seared tuna and fish ceviche, you won't feel hard done by.
And for lunch with a view, head to Bar Lagoa, alongside the lake which will be used in the 2016 Olympics for rowing events.
The base for Rio's famous caipirinha cocktails, cachaca – or sugar cane liquor – hasn't always got the best reputation, and there's no doubt some of the cheaper versions could strip paint. But you'll discover that there's far more to it than firewater, with different varieties depending on the barrels it's kept in. Head to Academia da Cachaca in Leblon where you can choose from around 500 different types, including passion fruit specials or straight up with honey and lime.
Or drink and dance the night away at Rio Scenarium, three antique-filled floors in an old mansion with the strains of samba in the air. It's a mix of tourists and locals on a Friday and Saturday night, where you can get chatting with Cariocas. Entry costs £5-10.
Rehydrate the next morning at a suco stall, where you pick your tropical fruit from the endless array and get it blended for a few pounds. Unless you've got a sugar craving, ask for it 'sem acucar' (without) or 'pouco acucar' (a little sugar). Try Polis Sucos or Big Nectar in Ipanema, Bibi in Copacabana and Leblon, or Horti Fruti in Copacabana.
The most famous market in the city, Feira de Arte de Ipanema – better known as the hippie market – runs on Sundays in Praca General Osorio in Ipanema, where you can pick up everything from work by local artists to jewellery and crafts, all fuelled by food from the north east of the country.
For more local handiwork, Parceria Carioca (on Rua Jardim Botanico and in Forum Ipanema on Rua Visconde de Piraja) sells everything from handbags and T-shirts to shoes and jewellery, with a modern twist given to traditional crafts. The store also works with co-ops helping to provide jobs for craftsmen and women from poorer communities.
Or at the other end of the scale, there's Chanel, Ferragamo and Armani at Leblon Shopping, as well as the infinitesimal dental floss bikinis made by local brand Bum Bum Ipanema.
Set aside some time to hit the boutiques in and around Ipanema too. Favela Hype started in Santa Teresa, and you can now pick up the retro and vintage styles in Arpoador. Or Luko, on Rua Visconde de Pairaja, is perfect for jewellery, sultry lingerie and silk scarves.
Rio calls itself the samba capital of the world, and whether you're visiting on a wet Wednesday in winter or in the middle of the famous four-day celebrating of Carnival, you can find somewhere to dance until dawn. For the coolest nightlife, the neighbourhood of Lapa, not far from Centro and Santa Teresa, is buzzing after dark – don't take any valuables with you though.
Nothing compares to seeing Carnival first hand – although you'll need to book well in advance, and hotel prices rocket – for the city-wide party. But if you're travelling at other times, you can head to Samba City or Cidade do Samba in Gamboa to learn samba moves, and get a behind the scenes view of the floats, as well as learning more about the history of the dance.
It's open to tourists every day from 9am to 5pm except Tuesdays, priced around £7.50 as entrance fee. On Thursdays, it's only open from 12 noon to 5pm, or you can pay £30 to be part of an evening show.