Leme and Copacabana are different stretches of the same four-kilometre-long beach: Leme extends for 1km, between the Morro do Leme and Avenida Princesa Isabel, by the luxury hotel Le Meridien, from where Copacabana runs for a further 3km to the Forte de Copacabana. The fort, built to protect the entrance to Guanabara Bay, is open to the public and worth visiting for the impressive views towards Copacabana beach, rather than for the military hardware on display in the Museu Histórico do Exército; there’s also a branch of the excellent Confeitaria Colombo, popular with tourists and elderly wives of officers, which serves light meals, cold drinks, tea and cakes. Leme beach is slightly less packed than Copacabana and tends to attract families – avoid walking through the Túnel Novo from Botafogo, as it’s a favourite place for tourists to be relieved of their wallets. Copacabana is amazing, the over-the-top atmosphere apparent even in the mosaic pavements, designed by Burle Marx to represent images of rolling waves. The seafront is backed by a line of prestigious, high-rise hotels and luxury apartments that have sprung up since the 1940s, while a steady stream of noisy traffic patrols the two-lane Avenida Atlântica. Some fine examples of Art Deco architecture are scattered around the bairro, none more impressive than the Copacabana Palace Hotel on Avenida Atlântica, built in 1923 and considered one of Rio’s best hotels (see Copacabana and Leme). Families, friends and couples cover the sand – at weekends, it’s no easy matter to find space – the bars and restaurants along the avenue pulsate, and the busy Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana is lined with assorted stores, which – like the bairro in general – are in a state of decline, being pushed aside by the boutiques of trendy Ipanema and the shopping malls of the Zona Sul.
Copacabana is dominated to the east by Sugar Loaf mountain and circled by a line of hills that stretch out into the bay. A popular residential area, the bairro’s expansion has been restricted by the Morro de São João, which separates it from Botafogo and the Morro dos Cabritos, which forms a natural barrier to the west. Consequently, it’s one of the world’s most densely populated areas as well as a frenzy of sensual activity. Some say that Copacabana is past its prime, and certainly it’s not as exclusive as it once was. Even so, it’s still an enjoyable place to sit and watch the world go by, and at night on the floodlit beach, football is played into the early hours.
Of course, Copacabana hasn’t always been as it is today, and traces remain of the former fishing community that dominated the area until the first decades of the twentieth century. Each morning before dawn, the boats of the colônia de pescadores (the descendants of the fishermen) set sail from the Forte de Copacabana, returning to the beach by 8am to sell their fish across from the Sofitel hotel.