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Brazil is relatively young – it declared independence from Portugal in 1822, and the first republic was established in 1889 – but in comparison, Rio de Janeiro is an old city: In 2015, it will celebrate its 450th birthday. The city has seen a great deal of history unfold over the centuries, and many sites around the city are living proof of the changes it has undergone. The Mercado São José das Artes (San Joseph Art Market) is one of these. Built in the middle of the 17th century, it served for more than 100 years as a senzala, the slave house for the plantation that once dominated this part of the city.

With the end of slavery in 1888, the building was transformed into a marketplace for fruits and vegetables and lasted as such until the 1960s, when the place was abandoned. But in 1988, the city government fixed it up and turned it into a kind of art and culture market, mixing art studios, stores and bars. Since then, the Mercadinho, as it’s known by locals, has become a symbol of the city. In the 1990s, it was a popular gathering place among music celebrities, politicians and journalists. Tom Jobim, one of the greatest musicians of our time, used to drink there almost every night.

Snacks at ZBar in the Mercado São José, photo by Nadia SussmanBy the beginning of this century, however, the market had again fallen into neglect. Fortunately, in 2012, two bars helped to bring new life to the building. Nowadays, the best way to experience Mercadinho São José das Artes is to visit its two art studios, eat at Bar Botero and then listen to some good rock’n’roll and blues at Bar do B. There are four other bars in the market, but those two are the soul of the place.

Botero, which we’ve written about previously, is run by a young chef who left a career in fancy restaurants in New York to open his own botequim (small bar serving food) at Mercadinho São José. And he has found huge success here, thanks to his wonderful, thoughtfully prepared food. Botero’s tables, located on the market’s patio, are always crowded. In addition to the good food menu, the bar also offers excellent specialty beers.

On the second floor of the market, Bar do B is mainly a musical venue. The “B” is for Bernard Fuerth, the owner and one of the most renowned blues enthusiasts in town. We don’t recommend the food – that’s what Botero’s for; instead, enjoy the drinks and the best live blues performances you’ll find in Rio. Shows take place Tuesday through Saturday, starting at 10 p.m. (the bar opens at 9 p.m.).

Botero, in Mercado São José das Artes, photo by Nadia SussmanSo here’s our suggested itinerary: come to Mercadinho early in the afternoon, have some drinks and tasty snacks at Botero or at one of the smaller bars on the patio and then head up to Bar do B for an unforgettable night of music.

We don’t know what the next decades will bring to the Mercado São José, but for now, we are happy to be a part of history in the making.

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Nadia Sussman

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