Off to Brazil, with a goal

The World Cup frenzy erupts From Sao Paulo, it spreads through 11 more host cities. Sample their many attractions, when you're not dancing to the rhythm of samba soccer
Little football fanatics playing the game at a beach in Brazil
Little football fanatics playing the game at a beach in Brazil

The countdown is over. For a month from June 12, the centre of the universe will be Brazil, the country famous for its football, beaches and bikinis. Check out what the host cities have to offer &ndash in the games and beyond.

&nbsp1. SAO PAULO
Brazil&rsquos biggest city is where the action begins on June 12, as the home team kick-starts the campaign against Croatia. And rest assured, this is going to be one hell of a party. Sampa &ndash as the city is called &ndash is a sort of a mecca for those love football and the beach Home to Santos, the legendary Pele&rsquos club, this is one place on earth that has something for everyone. With four group stage matches &ndash featuring exciting teams like Brazil, England, the Netherlands, Uruguay &ndash a quarter- and a semi-final, Sampa is a good place to set up your base.

What to do
Matches will be played at the newly built Arena de Sao Paulo on the eastern fringes of the city. On other days, there&rsquos a lot to do in Sao Paulo. To the south is the&nbspmountain range of Parque Estadual Serra do Mar, a Unesco World Heritage rainforest site, ideal for a day trek or biking. You can spend more time if you opt for camping. Avenida Paulista is perhaps the most &lsquohappening&rsquo and upmarket hangout zone in the city. Dotted with a number of pubs and restaurants &ndash both posh and budget &ndash art galleries, museums, shopping arcades, the avenue is bustling with life and also provides a great view of the town.
Drive out or take local transport to the beach in Santos or Ilhabela. You&rsquod probably want to spend more than a day there. Santos has many options for beachfront accommodation. Sao Paulo has a vibrant nightlife, which is also quite open for the gay community. The city offers all kind of lodging options, so budget accordingly.

Reaching there
Sao Paulo is catered to by three airports &ndash Guarulhos International (GRU) and Viracopos (CPQ) for all major international transit, and Congonhas (CGH) for most domestic and short-haul flights to and from the city. Though it has a good network of metro railways, taxis and buses, Sao Paulo is an extremely crowded city &ndash keep time in hand while planning your day.

 The other World Cup destinations that are within driving distance (maximum 3-6 hours) are Rio de Janeiro (433 km) in the north and Coritiba (405 km) in the south. Porto Alegre in the east will be an overnight journey (13-15 hours). Belo Horizonte (585 km) takes a bit over 8 hours.

2. BRASILIA
The capital city of Brazil &ndash no, it&rsquos not Rio &ndash is naturally the most well-connected in the country. Football action begins here from June 15, with Switzerland taking on Ecuador at the Estadio Nacional. The city hosts four group stage matches &ndash featuring heavyweights Brazil and Portugal &ndash one Round of 16, one quarter-final and the consolatory, but the ever exciting, 3rd place encounter. So if you don&rsquot have a ticket to the final, you next best bet is to remain at Brasilia.   

What to do
Brasilia, whose aerial view resembles that of a bird with its wings spread, has quite a few entertainment options for non-match days. Apart from the beach &ndash for the usual sun &rsquon&rsquo sand variety of Brazilian fun &ndash there are other day trips. The town of Cristalina is about a couple of hours to the south through the picturesque Goi&aacutes plateau. The rustic town is a hub for semi-precious stone and crystal items. The Salto de Itiquira waterfall near the town of Formosa is another place you can visit. Brasilia itself has a number of cathedrals and museums for art and history lovers. Those fond of modern architecture will also have several places to see. In fact, thanks to its wealth of Modernist architecture, the whole city is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer is credited with giving the city its design flair. The city is divided into sectors housing different things &ndash best to pick a local guide map to get familiarised before you begin sight-seeing. A great place to hang out is by the Lake Paranoa, with a number of restaurants on the waterfront for a nice, relaxing time. The Po&ccedilo Azul waterfall is another place to visit. The water falls into a beautiful rock-bound natural pool, a marvellous place for a swim. The nightlife in Brasilia may not be as buzzing as in Sao Paulo or Rio, but the city has its fair share of pubs and bars, usually open till 2am.

Reaching there
Most major airlines fly into Brasilia. The Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport caters to both domestic and international traffic and is just 11 km from the city centre. But there may not be very many direct flight options, so plan accordingly. Local transport is well organised, including buses, taxis and the subway (metro), which operates only till 7pm during weekends. If you want to travel to other World Cup venues from Brasilia by road, Bela Horizonte is to the south (12 hours), with Rio is another 4 hours from there. Other venues can be accessed by flights.

3. RIO DE JANEIRO
Brazil&rsquos most rocking city &ndash the one with the eye-popping samba carnival &ndash is hosting four group stage matches that should be absolutely superb, featuring heavyweights like Argentina, France and reigning champions Spain, one Round of 16, a quarter-final and then the ultimate once-in-four-years-showdown &ndash the grand finale on July 13 at the Estadio de Maracana. Yes, you got it right &ndash if you haven&rsquot planned your Rio stay yet, you may be in for a tough time.

What to do
Well, we should be saying &lsquowhat not to do&rsquo Rio is the carnival capital of the world &ndash and the party never ends. Period. With breathtaking views from mountaintops overlooking bays, an unparalleled beach culture and beer flowing like water, you might even miss your match due to a hangover Vermelha, Flamengo, Ramos&hellip are the names of possibly the most sought-after beaches in the world. For the more adventurous, we suggest checking out the nudist beach Abrico. For a quieter beach experience, head to Leblon and Ipanema at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas bay. And need we even mention Copacabana, the beach that has practically developed a myth of its own If you are done (like, if ever) being at the beach, head for the spectacular Sugar Loaf mountains by cable car. From across the city, standing on another mountaintop, the spectacular statue of Corcovado Cristo Redentor or Christ the Redeemer, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world, gazes at the Sugar Loaf. The terrace sunset point at Arpoador, a rocky outcrop by the sea shore, is another scenic place from where to watch the night descend. Once the night does descend, Rio celebrates it like few other cities can. A must-do on your nightlife list &ndash apart from the usual fancy pub-hopping &ndash should be a session at a botequin, the city&rsquos version of a beach shack. Botequins are spots where locals gather for sundowners or some late-night chatting. Brazilians call botequins &ldquopé sujos (dirty feet)&rdquo, an allusion to the very informal setting of plastic tables and fluorescent lights. Cheap beer notwithstanding, Rio is probably Brazil&rsquos most expensive city to stay. But with homestays opening up, and various offers during the mega event, budget options shouldn&rsquot be such a problem. Expect to cough up more than usual, but at this time, who cares that much

Reaching there
Most international, and a few domestic, flights operate out of Gale&atildeo International Airport, 20km from the city centre. The Santos Dumont Airport caters to most of the domestic flights to-and-from Sao Paulo or Brasilia. Buses and taxis are great options to go around, and out of, Rio. But if you can ride a scooter or a bike, there&rsquos nothing better than seeing the place at your own pace. For day cruises or for visiting one of the many little islands and bays within 30 minutes from the city, board a ferry &ndash there are several run by tour operators in Rio. If you make Rio your base &ndash something that half the world wants to do this June-July &ndash the other World Cup destinations nearby are Sao Paulo to the south (6-7 hours by road 430km) and Belo Horizonte to the west (7 hours 438 km).

 4. SALVADOR
The Arena Fonte Nova will host some of most anticipated matches in this World Cup, featuring big boys Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. It gets four group stage matches and one each in the Round of 16 and quarters. Making it a base may not be your first option, but if you do, it&rsquoll be a very experience from Rio.

What to do
If Rio leaves you gasping, Salvador is rather a breather, but with similar things on offer. The biggest carnival in the world is held in Salvador and hence the place has enough party options and a throbbing nightlife. Salvador is also rich in its musical culture &ndash expect quite a few live performances and concerts, even during the World Cup. The All Saints Bay is a major attraction that has some top-rated beaches, the Porto da Barra Beach hailed as one of the Top 5 in the world. Take a day trip to the Itaparica Island on a ferry, go surfing or check out the various museums and art centres for their collections &ndash nothing is too far off. The Portuguese-influenced architecture is a striking feature of the town, leading to it being listed a Unesco World Heritage Site.There are many hotels on the fragmented-but-long coastline overlooking the bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Homestays and other budget options are also available, especially due to the mega event. Salvador, due to its African and Portuguese cultural blend, has a distinctive cuisine there is lot to be explored when it comes to food.

Reaching there
The Deputado Lu&iacutes Eduardo Magalh&atildees International Airport, 40km from the city, is connected with the rest of the country by direct flights, but international direct flights are limited. Salvador has a decent network of buses, taxis and metro. The nearest World Cup destination is Recife, which takes around 12 hours (808 km) to reach by road.

&nbsp5. BELO HORIZONTE
The newly built Estadio Mineirao may not be hosting home favourites Brazil, but there&rsquos no dearth of action as the four group stage matches here will feature Argentina, England, Belgium and Greece, among others. Plus, there&rsquos one Round of 16 and the exciting first semi-final clash of July 8.

What to do
&lsquoBH&rsquo, as the city is called, loves to drink and it shows. The place is dotted with a number of upmarket and affordable places to hang out at. But remember, DO NOT drink and drive&hellip ever&hellip in Brazil. Due to its central position in the country&rsquos map, BH brings together people from everywhere in Brazil. Its cuisine and party life reflect that. If you are interested in Brazilian architecture, visit Pampulha for the S&atildeo Francisco de Assis Church &ndash for a structure that doesn&rsquot reveal from outside that it&rsquos a place of worship There&rsquos no beach nearby, but the Alta Vila Tower offers a spectacular view of the city. Besides, there are many parks and museums to be visited.

Reaching there
Confins or the Aeroporto Internacional Tancredo Neves (CNF) caters to the domestic traffic as well as quite a few flights to the US, Europe and the Caribbeans. BH hasone of the best taxi services in the country. Buses and metro services through the city are also available. The national capital Brasilia is around 10 hours by road, while you can reach Sao Paulo and Rio in 8 and 7 hours, respectively.

6. CUIABA
Towards the western part of Brazil, it&rsquos quite an inter-continental tussle on the plate at the Arena Pantanal as Australia, Japan, Russia, Korean Republic and Chile &ndash among others &ndash fight it out. There are no knockout matches here, so you can move to another city once the league matches are over.

What to do
This is a laidback little town with an idyllic atmosphere the mainstay of commerce was cattle-farming until very recently. You can see some attempt at modernisation in the swanky shopping malls, and the downtown nightlife revolving around open-air markets and music. Away from the city life, a guided canoeing trip in the rivers to the north is a good option. In addition, you can hike or bike in the highlands of Chapada dos Guimar&atildees. Due to its rich vegetation and the cattle-farming heritage, Cuiaba has a very special dining culture, rich in succulent meat, fresh catch and fresh produce. The Popular Square houses many restaurants and pubs and is a hotspot where the buzz stays alive late into the night. A day trip to the Pantanal Park Road, aka Transpantaneira, is a must as it is a wildlife haven.

Reaching there
TheAeroporto Internacional de&nbspCuiabá is connected to other parts of Brazil, but there are not too many direct international flights. It is best to go around in taxis while in the city, or rent a bike. Brasilia is the only place that can be reached overnight by road (16 hours). For other match venues, it&rsquos better to fly out.

&nbsp7. FORTALEZA
The Latin rivalries unfold here &ndash expect to see some crackerjack matches with Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico. Germany and Greece add the European touch at the Estadio Castelao, which hosts four group matches, a knockout stage and a quarter-final match.

What to do
This northeastern coastal town is quite vibrant. The Beira Mar or the sea side is a 3km stretch that has tourists and locals flocking there. Hop on to the history trains running on alternate Saturdays for a glimpse of the colonial past. Pra&ccedila do Ferreira is the city centre, which houses many restaurants and pubs.The Praia de Iracema&nbspand Meireles beaches are dotted with a number of shacks offering drinks along with fish and sea food varieties throughout the day. Brazil is popular as a surfing destination and Fortaleza has no dearth of it. One can also try out kite-surfing here. There are quite a few out-of-town beach options within a couple of hours&rsquo drive at the most.

Reaching there
The Pinto Martins Airport caters to most of the domestic flights within Brazil. There are a few international flights, too, from here. With most of the activity happening around the seafront and the blocks around it, hopping on to the buses or taking a taxi is the best option to go around in Fortaleza. Natal is 435km from Fortaleza, which should be around 7-8 hours by road. The other World Cup venue is Recife, nearly 11 hours away.

8. RECIFE
With four group matches and a knockout, it may not seem such an exciting place to be at. But Arena Pernambuco will host Italy, Germany, Mexico, Japan and USA, among others. So, even the league matches may have plenty of excitement.

What to do
Called the Veneza Brasileira or the Brazilian Venice, Recife is on the Atlantic coast and promises a vibrant life. Divided into four zones, the city is cut through by various canals and rivers, down which you can ride a ferry. The Boa Viagem beachfront is a prime attraction. It&rsquos the perfect place to party and swim. Surrounded by corals, the waters have sometimes seen the shadow of a shark. So be cautious. The Pina Beach is a quieter option. The Franciscan Convent of Saint Anthony is a big attraction for tourists and locals. Also learn about the history of slavery and how the place overcame it at the Abolition Museum. In fact, Recife is full of museums and historical architecture. Due to its African influence, Recife has a great culinary culture, too, with seafood taking the centrestage. While lazing around on the beaches, if you feel peckish, choose from prawns, oysters, crabs and squids and other fresh catches of the day. Dance bars in the city liven up the night-out scene. Accommodation at Recife may not be as expensive as in the other major host cities. For people travelling in groups, an apartment is the best way to stay. The rental options have increased because of the World Cup tourism.

Reaching there
The Guararapes-Gilberto Freyre International Airport is very modern, well-equipped and well-connected to all other parts of Brazil. A few international airlines also have direct flights arriving here. Taxis are best for getting around the city. The metro is good for a quick ride, but the connections are limited. The closest match venue from here is Natal, which is about 4 hours by road. Salvador to the south will take around 12 hours by road.

9. CURITIBA
The Arena da Baixada is probably the least glamorous in terms of the teams playing there. The four group stage matches here include one cracker of a game between Argentina and Spain. That apart, it&rsquos a lukewarm affair here, but that doesn&rsquot mean this city isn&rsquot a good place to visit.

What to do
Curitiba, in the southeast of Brazil, is much smaller than other commercial hubs. But it&rsquos one of the largest cities in the south, getting its present-day look and flavour from the years of German, Russian, Polish and Italian influence. In fact, you may find it much more planned and easier to navigate than bigger Brazilian cities. The place has a number of museums, churches and a lot natural parks. The Botanical Garden is another place to visit in Curitiba. The French styled gardens with a metallic principal greenhouse resembling the Crystal Palace in London, looks great even in the evenings with yellow and green changing-lights specially done for the World Cup. A good day (or two) trip from Curitiba is seeing the Atlantic rainforest while heading towards the coastal town of Morretes. It&rsquos also a great place to hike if you want to experience the forest up close.

Reaching there
The Aeroporto Afonso Pena, about 17 km from Curitiba town, is well connected to other parts of the country.  Within the town, the bus service network is fine and can take you almost everywhere.

10. MANAUS
The Arena Amazonia, with a capacity of more than 42,600, may be hosting just four group games, but that starts with the all-important Group D tie between England and Italy on June 14. Other teams that will battle it out here include Portugal, Croatia and Cameroon.

What to do
Located right in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, at the confluence of two rivers, this city is unique in every way, with its combination of exceptional natural beauty, culture and urbanised atmosphere. Visit the Manaus Zoo or spare an entire day to go on a river cruise along the Amazon. Exploring the wildlife is high on everyone&rsquos agenda when visiting Manaus. The Meeting of the Waters, where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon but never mixes with it, is a fascinating place. The Opera House at Manaus, known as the Amazon Theatre, has a spectacular dome &ndash it&rsquos covered in 36,000 decorated ceramic tiles, set in a mosaic design that depicts the yellow-green-blue national flag of Brazil. A stroll around the Alfredo Lisboa Market offers fresh local produce and handicrafts at reasonable prices.

Reaching there
The Manaus airport is around 15 km by road from the city centre. Within the city, buses and taxis are the best option. There are quite a few ferry and cruise options to explore the rivers. Manaus is at the extreme northwest of Brazil and the nearest match venue from here is Cuiaba, which is about 2 hours 15 minutes by air. It takes a 3 hour 30 minute flight to reach Fortaleza. 

 11. NATAL
The Estadio Das Gunas will hold only four group stage games, but those will feature teams like Italy, Uruguay, Japan, USA and Mexico, among others. Tucked away in the northeast, you can always move on to other nearby destinations for the knockout stages.

What to do
Better known as the Sun City, Natal boasts some great beaches famed for their wild and rustic beauty and unending sand dunes. The most loved is the Ponta Negra Beach, which is lined with bars, restaurants and shops. For a more laidback experience, visit the Redinha beach. The buggy rides along the sand dunes are very popular here, as is sand surfing. And you must stand under the Maior cajueiro do mundo, supposedly the biggest cashew tree in the world. The tree covers an area of a whopping 8,400 square metres Aerial views make it appear like a small forest surrounded by city blocks. And do visit the Forte dos Reis Magos, the place from where the city of Natal grew. Another nice spot is Cape S&atildeo Roque, the extreme northeastern point of South America, closest to the continent of Europe. The place was named by the famous Portuguese navigator Amerigo Vespucci.

Reaching there
Natal can be accessed by the Augusto Severo International Airport (Aeroporto Internacional Augusto Severo), 20 km from city center. It connects all major Brazilian cities with direct flights. Natal is best explored by taxi. The bus routes are also extensive.
While the nearest World Cup venue is Recife, which takes about 4 hours by road, you can also go to Fortaleza, 7 hours and 30 minutes by road, for other matches.

 12. PORTO ALEGRE
The southernmost World Cup town will host four group stage games along with one knockout. Teams that descend at the Estadio Beira-Rio are Argentina, France, The Netherlands and Nigeria, among others.

What to do
Porto Alegre is a significant place due its history of revolutions and civil wars by the native gauchos. The Linha Turismo, or the tourist bus, will take you around the town, stopping at major historical sites. There are a number of monuments and museums around the town with free entry. The river side at Gua&iacuteba is a place where most locals and tourist converge during the evening to have a relaxed time.

Reaching there
The Salgado Filho airport is just 7km from the town and is connected to other parts of the country. The buses are the best option to go around the town.The nearest World Cup town is Curitiba, around 9 hours by road. Reaching Sao Paulo will take over 15 hours by road.

With inputs from Snigdha Sharma

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