Barra da Tijuca is a soulless expanse of freeways, carparks, megamalls and apartment towers, jutting out of Rio de Janeiro. You'd struggle to tell the difference between it and almost anywhere in the USA. It's certainly not a bad place to live compared to the rest of the city - crime is low, houses are spacious and cheap - but don't expect any kind of Brazilian culture. If you want to live in the 'real' Rio, an apartment in Copacabana or Ipanema will do nicely, but has a good chance of being expensive, small, old, and overlooked. Barra is where the city is expanding; Rio is built in the gap between the sea and the mountains, so there's literally no other direction for it to expand into. It's delimited by the Pedra da Gavea, Rio's tallest mountain, and Recreio, otherwise known as the end of Barra which is yet to be developed. Beyond are some nice secluded beaches. Barra's own beach is quite nice too.Pedra da Gavea
Avenida das Americanas is the arterial freeway that connects to Sao Conrado at one end, and peters out towards Recreio. Practically all of Barra is accessible from this road. The whole area has been built in the last 30-40 years, so everything is fairly modern.
The first megamall is not so much a mall as a gated commercial village, with yellow and orange Disneylandesque buildings. The only serious feature is the cinema, which is always packed at the weekends. There are hundreds of little shops crowded around the village, few of them practical. You'll find lots of arty crafty places, small cafes, and hair salons. There's a large restaurant opposite the cinema called Gourmet, which is an all-you-can-eat buffet place. It's nicely done, and astonishingly cheap for what it is (as is everything in Brazil, except technology) - about USD10 per head. Downtown (it's not 'down' any town - it's called 'Downtown') also features lots of 'LAN' shops, which are basically internet cafes which cater to gamers. The computers are top notch, complete with headsets, and they have all the latest multiplayer games, and of course, are very cheap. Maybe USD5 for several hours?
During the day, Downtown is often deserted, but at night, it comes to life. I went there a few weekends ago, and there were some performance artist people abseiling down a building, stopping, and dancing on the wall, sideways. No charge, just wander past. What few bars and restaurants there are have live music seemingly most nights. The cinema is probably the only thing that makes money, but it draws huge crowds. Finally, there is a hairdresser there called Claudio Miguel, in a salon of the same name, who speaks English, which might be essential if you have complicated hair. He says his dream is to travel to London to go to one of the world famous schools of hair. I doubt there's anything the Brits could teach him.
This place is actually before Downtown, but it's so boring I thought it deserved to come second. There is nothing there I can remember. Maybe a few craft places. Maybe not. It really made zero impression on me. The only reason I'm listing it is because if you go inside, and out the back, and down to the river, there is a little pier. If you go to this, and wave or whistle at the boat ('raft' perhaps), it'll come across and take you to a restaurant on an island, which is amazing. It's run by a friendly German guy, and although the menu is limited (if you're a vegetarian, it's the banana curry or nothing), the setting is perfect. Highly recommended. It's just a shame the big useless Barra Point gets in the way of people seeing it.
This is another megamall, probably the newest one, and as a result, the emptiest. There's a Hard Rock cafe, which is only worth going to if you collect the T-Shirts. It's landscaped beautifully inside, even though it looks like a stickle brick from the outside. I went there once, it was rubbish, and I never went back. It's probably improved a lot since then, but I wouldn't know. They say it has a theme park...
Bon Marche, Carrefour and Extra
These are all large supermarkets. Hypermarkets more like. Extra has lots of useful stuff, like a fish food shop in the basement carpark. The other two are just not worth going to when you have...
The name means "Sugar Loaf", after Rio's Sugarloaf mountain, and it's the best of the supermarkets. The only nicer ones are Zona Sul, but they can only be found in the city, and are quite small. This one has nice food and it doesn't stink like the others.
A word about food in Brazil: I'm not impressed, and I think I know why: it's the milk. Now, I'm predisposed to hating milk, since I can't drink it on its own without thinking of words like udders and squeeze and curdle, but the milk in Brazil is of a particularly foul nature, and this corrupts the whole dairy food chain. Chocolate is mostly milk, so Brazilian chocolate is nasty. In fact, sweet things here generally just taste of sugar and nothing else. Cheese, being in itself just rotten milk, is not as bad as you might imagine. Marilia cheese is about as close to Cheddar as you can get, and thus quite nice. Doce de leite, a milk byproduct in the same way radioactive waste is a fission byproduct, tastes like a cross between milk, sugar, toffee and sugar. It is tolerable when hidden in other foodstuffs. Brazilians drink their coffee black. They must wonder why anyone would want to add milk.
There is a single exception to the Brazilian Milk Foulness Theorem: a small shop in Ipanema called Torta Torta (in Rua Vinicius de Moraes). They sell a cake called torta alemao which is the human race's finest achievement in the field of cake making. They must import the cream.
Japanese food is popular in Brazil. People talk about Japanese and German people immigrating after WWII... The best type of sushi is the Hot Philadelphia, which is rice, salmon, and cream cheese (hence the name), wrapped in seaweed and deep fried. Yes, deep fried sushi! The best incarnation of these can be found in Take in Sao Conrado.
This is less of a megamall, and more of a gigamall. The largest in South America. Remember arcologies from Sim City 2000? It doesn't go up into the air, but sprawls out in a spaghetti bolognese of shops and offices. It has its own internal monorail system. You can work in the offices, shop in the shops, eat in the restaurants, go to the cinemas, cross the road, and sleep in the apartments. It's very nearly a self contained gated mini-city. Valet parking is cheap and necessary, since it's always packed in the evening.
There is a Shiny Things shop called Fast, which sells things like PDAs, iMacs, plasma TVs, and LCD projectors - all for the low low price of Way Too Much. The presentation is good, but it's all Toys For The Boys junk. At the food end of the main building is a Japanese buffet restaurant called Benkei Sushi. All you can eat sushi for ~USD8! Also in the food hall is a kilo bar. These are common across Rio - you walk round a buffet, loading up your plate with whatever you want, then weigh it at the end, and pay accordingly. Of course, the plates are heavy.
New York City Center
This is technically part of Barra Shopping, but it's in a different building, with a scale replica (maybe 1/3?) of the Statue of Liberty outside. Sometimes they dress the statue up in a Coca-Cola vest. Tasteful. Inside is an always-packed cinema, an Outback steakhouse (which serves traditional restaurant steak: cinders on the outside, blood on the inside), and a Gameworks, which is a good restaurant as well as a huge arcade. There's at least one big bookshop too, I think.
On the whole, if you want to see a film, Downtown is better - bigger screens, less manic.
Ahh, computers. Where would we be without them? Brazil, perhaps. The only serious place to buy computers is Info Barra, a small semicircle strip mall of vaguely connected hardware shops. It's terrifying. They sell hard drives in plastic bags, CPUs and motherboards unboxed, and all manner of unbelievably dodgy looking computer miscellany. It works more like a market than a shop - all the stalls have individual names, and thus individual prices. I went to buy a PCMCIA ethernet card recently. About 7 shops had them - all the same model (most likely fell off the same van) - but the highest price was R$250, the lowest R$100. They'll give you a receipt, and it appears to be above board, but the whole place is seedy and scrappy, and you'll get 6-month old technology at 12-month old prices. If you're moving to Brazil, bring a computer with you, import duty be damned.
Update 18/8/2003: how could I forget the far reaches of Recreio?
Rio Design Center
It's huge, and it's far away, but it's got a nice car park, and the best Japanese restaurant in Rio so far - lunchtime buffet in which they'll do you anything you like. I forget the name. The top floor also has a bookshop and a (very) small Cinema. And a Gula Gula, which is quite nice. The rest of the Design Center is what you'd expect: furniture and craft shops. Shiny and dull.
Barra World Shopping
Avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid. This is the place with the fake eiffel tower, fake leaning tower of pisa, fake tower of london and fake absolutely everything else. It's what happens when a person is told to single mindedly create the tackiest thing possible, and then given infinite resources to do it with. Avoid. Avoid.