Test your nerve with a brave ride up to Sugarloaf Mountain

Brazil is training up for a busy couple of years. Football mania is set to take over the country during 2014’s World Cup, and then it will be time for Rio to shine in the 2016 Olympics. Get to know this booming country’s best cities before all the action starts.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Barely-there bikinis, heart-stopping scenery and red-hot nightlife

Brazil Feature RioSugarloaf Mountain rises above all the skyscrapers
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Why go? Rio de Janeiro’s reputation as the planet’s sexiest city is well-deserved. The gorgeous Cariocas (Rio residents) seem to spend all their downtime either sizzling on the beach or gyrating at wild favela parties - which is exactly why you should make a point of factoring both of these activities into your trip too. Spend the rest of the time ticking off everything on the classic Rio must-do list: snapping a picture of Christ the Redeemer, riding a cable car to the dizzying heights of Sugarloaf Mountain, or sipping açai (palm tree producing berries) blends in the laid-back juice bars.

Further afield: The tropical island of Ilha Grande, just off Rio’s coast, is the perfect place to spend a day or two at a slower pace. Trek, swim, sunbathe and wildlife watch to your heart’s content, surrounded by lush forests and quiet bays.

Insider tip: Got an appetite? Set aside an evening for an all-you-can-eat meat feast at one of Rio’s famed churrascaria restaurants. Porcão (Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, Aterro do Flamengo) is renowned for its endless supply of juicy cuts and succulent sauces.

SÃO PAULO – Cocktails, nightclubs and a dynamic arts scene in Brazil’s most driven city

Brazil Feature Sao PauloSão Paulo is the place for cocktails and gourmet dinners
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Why go? Sprawling São Paulo might be the driving force of Brazil’s economy, but the people put every bit as much energy into playing as they do working. Seek out the city’s glamorous side in the Moema district, where gourmet restaurants and low-lit cocktail bars make a great start to any evening out. The nightlife here is exceptional – bolstered in no small part by the enormous gay and lesbian scene – so prepare to hit the all-night clubs hard. During the day, a spot of gallery-hopping to see some of São Paulo’s finest works is your best bet – don’t miss Choque Cultural’s eclectic installations (Rua João Moura 997), contemporary works at Museu de Arte Contemporânea (Rua da Praça do Relógio 160) or emerging artists at Galeria Raquel Arnaud (Rua Fidalga 125).

Further afield: Can’t manage a few days without a beach fix? Do what the locals do and drive to the Paulista Coast to soak up some sun and feast on the terrific seafood.

Insider tip: Drag yourself out of bed for the Sunday morning market at Praça Dom Orione in Bixiga, where you’re bound to find a souvenir among the vintage Brazilian threads, antiques and posters.

SALVADOR – Discover a remarkable African heritage in a city bursting with character

Brazil Feature SalvadorJoin in Salvador's dynamic festival and dance scene
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Why go? Salvador may be a little less chaotic than Brazil’s bigger cities but it’s every bit as exciting. Renowned for its vibrant arts and music festivals, the streets of Salvador are constantly filled with the sounds of drumming and the smells of tasty snacks frying. Previously Brazil’s colonial capital, the African influence lives on in the city’s colourful religious festivals, live music, bright fashions and flavoursome cuisine. Spend your time here wandering the streets, and sipping on fresh coconut juice while you admire the colonial architecture and the capoeira sessions (martial art/dance form) that spring up in the public plazas.

Further afield: Take a day trip up the coast to Praia do Forte, where you can spend a few hours browsing in the boutiques, lunching by the shore and see Project TAMAR’s protected sea turtles.

Insider tips: Hands down, the best place to watch the sunset is Solar do Unhão, a preserved 18th-century complex with a restaurant, museum and gardens.

MANAUS – The starting point for an exhilarating jungle adventure

Brazil Feature ManausThe Rio Negro flows through Manaus making it perfect for boat trips
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Why go? Smack bang in the middle of the Amazon, most travellers come to Manaus to plan their treks and boat trips into the rainforest. But the city itself has plenty going for it too. Most impressive of all Manaus’ sights is probably the imposing opera house, The Amazon Theatre (Praça São Sebastião), where you can hear the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra play. The tilework outside is inspired by the Encontro das Águas (meaning ‘Meeting of Waters’ – see Further Afield below). Manaus also has lots of bright and busy markets selling everything from Amazonian handicrafts to fresh fish.

Further afield: Before you head off into the jungle, take a day to visit the Encontro das Águas. Just 20km (12 miles) downriver from Manaus, the dark water of the Rio Negro meets the light water of the Rio Solimões. Because of differences in flow and temperature, they don’t mix for several kilometres, but flow side by side instead.

Insider tip: Get up at the crack of dawn and go to the port to see countless different species of fish being loaded off the fishing boats, ready for market.

NATAL – It’s all about the sandy beaches in ‘The City of the Sun’

Brazil Feature NatalNatal is home to both steep dunes and relaxing beaches
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Why go? It’s all about the beaches, bars and buggy rides in sunny Natal. The city is surrounded by huge sand dunes, up to 9m (30ft) tall – careering over one of these on a dune buggy is an essential part of any adrenaline junkie’s visit. Those who prefer lying on sand rather than bouncing over it will love relaxing at the clean and quiet beaches of the Rio Grande do Norte beaches. There are also plenty of sports on offer here – the surf is great and kite-surfing is very popular among the locals too. Spend your nights in the friendly restaurants and bars of Alto de Ponta Negra, which really get going after midnight.

Further afield: Visit Maracajau, which is known as the ‘Brazilian Caribbean’. The diving is eye-popping here, with a deep reef formation and tropical fish to marvel at.

Insider tip: Order one of the finest cocktails in Brazil at Sgt Pepper’s Rock Bar (Rua Dr Manoel A B de Araújo 130, Rio Grande do Norte): the northeast caipirinha, a delicious concoction of pineapple, mint and cinnamon/clove-infused cachaca (Brazilian rum). There’s great live music here too.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.