Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Some cities need no introduction, and even fewer cities live up to their reputation the way Rio de Janeiro does, in both the best sense—how visitors experience sheer exhilaration being there—and the harsh reality of its social and economic strains. It’s all about stopping at corner juice bars to enjoy fresh tropical drinks named for fruit you’ve never even heard of, and people-watching along the Copacabana and Ipanema boardwalks. You might take the plunge into Maracaña Stadium to watch a crazy match between crosstown rivals Flamengo and Fluminense or jump on a bike to discover some of Rio’s far-flung and vastly diverse districts.
If ever a city were a model for boom and bust, it would be Manaus. Like in America’s Old West, great fortunes were amassed in no time here and vanished just as quickly during the late-19th-century boom years of rubber production. These days, Manaus is busy again: A swank new soccer stadium was added for the 2014 World Cup, and a spectacular cable-stayed bridge opened in 2011 across the Rio Negro. The Ponta Negra suburb has modern high-rises, beaches that rival those on the sea and buzzing restaurants that serve Amazonian specialties like pirarucu fish and acai berries.
Maceió comes as a surprise to first-time visitors. Alagoas, the state it's in, is traditionally cowboy country: dusty and dry. But Maceió is on a stretch of coastline marked by fine beaches, lagoons, reefs and vast mangrove swamps with manatee reserves, all of which are just beginning to be discovered by travelers. The city, in recent years, has been the engine of Brazil’s ethanol boom; tourism here has just recently started to gear up. Palm trees yield coconuts galore around Maceió, and help define the rich seafood-based cuisine. Try to sample some sururu broth, made with palm oil and coconut milk, or bredo, spinach cooked in creamy coconut-milk sauce.
Customs, cuisine and music in this northeastern city are so different from Rio and São Paulo that you might as well be in another country. Recife is one of Brazil's largest metro areas, with distinct neighborhoods, including an old colonial core with buildings in various states of preservation. In the Boa Viagem district, where at low tide you can see the reefs that gave the city its name, a long seafront boardwalk is a favorite spot for locals to jog and bike. Recife's nearby sister city of Olinda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site popular for its hilltop views, stunning Baroque buildings, walkable cobblestoned streets and world-famous carnaval.