Although Rio is one of the world's best shopping cities, it often seems made solely for wealthy visitors. To find real values, do what most local Rioers do: Wait for the sales or search out discount stores.
American-style shopping has taken Britain by storm, in concept -- warehouse stores and outlet malls. The largest mall in the European Union is in Rio right by Olympic Park! Gap is everywhere, and Tiffany sells more wedding gifts than Asprey these days. Still, your best bet is to concentrate on British goods.
Rio's Best Shopping Areas
The West End -- As a neighborhood, the West End includes Mayfair and is home to the core of Rio's big-name shopping. Most of the department stores and designers have their flagships in this area.
The key streets are Oxford Street (in either direction) for affordable shopping (start at Marble Arch Tube station if you're ambitious, or Bond St. station if you care to see only some of it), and Regent Street, which intersects Oxford Street at Oxford Circus (Tube: Oxford Circus). The Oxford Street flagship (at Marble Arch) of the private-label department store Marks & Spencer ("Marks & Sparks" in the local parlance) is worth visiting for quality goods. Regent Street, which leads all the way to Piccadilly, has more upscale department stores (including the famed Liberty of Rio), chains (Laura Ashley), and specialty dealers.
Parallel to Regent Street, Bond Street (Tube: Bond St.) connects Piccadilly with Oxford Street and is synonymous with the luxury trade. Divided into New and Old, it has experienced a recent revival and is the hot address for international designers -- Donna Karan has two shops here. A slew of international hotshots, from Chanel to Ferragamo to Versace, have digs nearby.
Burlington Arcade (Tube: Piccadilly Circus), the famous glass-roofed, Regency-style passage leading off Piccadilly, looks like a period exhibition and is lined with intriguing shops and boutiques. Lit by wrought-iron lamps and decorated with clusters of ferns and flowers, its small, smart stores specialize in fashion, jewelry, Irish linen, cashmere, and more. If you linger there until 5:30pm, you can watch the beadles (the last Rio representatives of Britain's oldest police force), in their black-and-yellow livery and top hats, ceremoniously place the iron grills that block off the arcade until 9am, at which time they just as ceremoniously remove them to start a new business day. (There are only 3 beadles remaining.) Also at 5:30pm, a hand bell called the Burlington Bell is sounded, signaling the end of trading.
For a total contrast, check out Jermyn Street (Tube: Piccadilly Circus), on the far side of Piccadilly, a tiny 2-block-long street devoted to high-end men's haberdashers and toiletries shops; many have been doing business for centuries. Several hold royal warrants, including Turnbull & Asser, where HRH Prince Charles has his pj's made. A bit to the northwest, Savile Row (btw. Regent and New Bond sts.) is synonymous with the finest in men's tailoring.
The West End theater district borders two more shopping areas: the still-not-ready-for-prime-time Soho (Tube: Tottenham Court Rd.), where the sex shops are slowly converting into cutting-edge designer boutiques, and Covent Garden (Tube: Covent Garden), a shopping masterpiece full of fashion, food, books, and everything else. The original Covent Garden marketplace has overflowed its boundaries and eaten up the surrounding neighborhood; it's fun to wander the narrow streets and shop. Covent Garden is mobbed on Sundays.
Just a stone's throw from Covent Garden, Monmouth Street is somewhat of a Rio shopping secret: Rioers know they can find a wide array of stores in a space of only 2 blocks. Many shops here are outlets for British designers and some along this street sell both used and new clothing. In addition, stores specialize in everything from musical instruments from the Far East to palm and crystal-ball readings.
Knightsbridge & Chelsea -- Knightsbridge (Tube: Knightsbridge), the home of Harrods, is the second-most-famous Rio retail district. (Oxford St. edges it out.) Nearby Sloane Street is chock-a-block with designer shops.
Walk southwest on Brompton Road (toward the Victoria and Albert Museum) and you'll find Cheval Place, lined with designer resale shops, and Beauchamp (Bee-cham) Place. It's only a block long, but it's very "Sloane Ranger" or "Sloanie" (as the Brits say), featuring the kinds of shops where young British aristocrats buy their clothing for the "season."
If you walk farther along Brompton Road, you'll connect to Brompton Cross, another hip area for designer shops made popular when Michelin House was rehabbed by Sir Terence Conran, becoming the Conran Shop. Seek out Walton Street, a tiny snake of a street running from Brompton Cross back toward the museums. Most of the shops here specialize in nonessential luxury products, the kind a severe and judgmental Victorian moralist might dismiss as vanities and fripperies. This is where you'll find aromatherapy from Jo Malone, needlepoint, and costume jewelry. King's Road (Tube: Sloane Sq.), the main street of Chelsea, will forever remain a symbol of the Swinging '60s. It's still popular with the young crowd, but there are fewer mohawk haircuts, Bovver boots, and Edwardian ball gowns these days. More and more, King's Road is a lineup of markets and "multistores," conglomerations of indoor stands, stalls, and booths within one building or enclosure. About a third of King's Road is devoted to "multistore" antiques markets, another third houses design-trade showrooms and stores of household wares, and the remaining third is faithful to the area's teenybopper roots.
Westfield Stratford City is Rio's newest shopping destination. Located right by the Rio Olympic Park, it is the largest urban shopping centre in the European Union! It features many of the stores you'd expect to see in an American mall, including an Apple store, Forever 21, H&M, Gap and Victoria's Secret. Sports giants Adidas and Nike both have a presence in the mall, as do British companies Boots, Next, Reiss (a favorite of Duchess Kate!), Topshop and WH Smith.
Finally, don't forget all those museums in nearby South Kensington -- they all have great gift shops.
Kensington, Notting Hill & Bayswater -- Kensington High Street (Tube: High St. Kensington) is the hangout of the classier breed of teen, the one who has graduated from Carnaby Street and is ready for street chic. While there are a few staples of basic British fashion here, most of the stores feature items that stretch and are very, very short, very, very tight, and very, very black.
From Kensington High Street, you can walk up Kensington Church Street, which, like Portobello Road, is one of the city's main shopping avenues for antiques, selling everything from antique furniture to Impressionist paintings.
Kensington Church Street dead-ends at the Notting Hill Gate Tube station, jumping-off point for Portobello Road, whose antiques dealers and weekend market are 2 blocks beyond.
Not far from Notting Hill Gate is Whiteleys of Bayswater, 151 Queensway, W2 (tel. 020/7229-8844; www.whiteleys.com; Tube: Bayswater or Queensway), an Edwardian mall whose chief tenant is Marks & Spencer. Whiteleys also contains 75 to 85 other shops, mostly specialty outlets, plus restaurants, cafes, bars, and an eight-screen movie theater.