São Paulo is, as I like to call it, a bagunça quente. That means absolutely nothing in Portuguese other than a literal translation of “hot mess”. But for those who know and love it, and who appreciate a good hot mess every now and then, the city is a great place to visit. A meridional Manhattan, more Blade Runner than City of God, Brazil’s largest city is testament to everything that is right and wrong about the country. It is a true urban jungle.
Most visitors and observers dwell on the sprawling concrete skyscraper blocks, slums that look up at residential towers with pools, terrible traffic, a deficient public transportation system, and lots of petty crime. But look a little deeper and you’ll find Brazil’s bustling center of opportunity, a city that made millions of people wealthy or at least middle class, and continues to be a magnet of opportunity and creativity for Brazilians and increasingly other Latin Americans of all backgrounds.
Sadly, most people come and go during the workweek, running (or more likely sitting in traffic) from meeting to meeting, and then zooming back out as soon as possible. That’s super sad – not unlike going to New York City and only seeing lobbies in Midtown East office buildings.
Plan a visit right, and you’ll spend a weekend frolicking in the vast cultural offerings and meeting friendly Paulistanos that are still incredulous to why you’d go out of your way to visit their city. Plan it wrong, and you’ll just be stuck in traffic wondering how anyone has the money to pay for the taxicabs.
6pm – Don’t Move
Wherever your hotel or lodging is on Friday night, do not go far until the wee hours. That’s because, unless you’re traveling by train or helicopter, chances are you won’t get anywhere. Think an hour per three miles in some cases. So if you’re located by Avenida Paulista or in Jardins, take a leisurely walk down to the Hotel Unique, and head up to the Skye Bar for happy hour with some of Brazil’s most glamorous faces and names. It’s expensive, but worth it for nothing other than to gawk at devastatingly beautiful people and orient yourself against the bewildering skyline.
9pm – No more quilos
For something a bit less glitzy but no less uniquely São Paulo, head over to Mani Manioca, one of the city’s most celebrated and talked about restaurants in 2013. The kitchen, run by a Brazilian-Spanish duo, runs a gamut of traditional Brazilian flavors interpreted in a modern and creative fashion. It won’t be cheap, but then again little is.
For something nearby a little more subdued, head into the Ritz, Jardins’s standby for bistro food surrounded by quirky people. The burger is the star of the menu.
10am – Downtown
Your local friends will call you crazy, your cab driver will get lost, but you’d be remiss if you didn’t make a quick visit down to the historical center of São Paulo. A weekday visit is best to get a sense of all the bustling crowds and fun, but a weekend morning visit can also be rewarding, with other leisure visitors rather than business folk blocking your path.
While there, be sure to go up the Edificio Italia to get a sense of just how large and all-encompassing the city is – watch out for their pushy bar and restaurant folks though.
Shuffle over to the Mosteiro São Bento to see the city’s spiritual heart and marvel at the facts that there are cloistered monks living in such a chaotic urban space. Plan your visit at the right times to see the cathedral and maybe even some of the grounds.
Then it’s worth a visit to the city’s up-and-coming creative district around the main train station Estação de Luz. The star of the show is the Pinacoteca, with an interesting permanent collection and rotating exhibits of Brazilian and international artists of multiple media. The building itself is a work of art and an interesting piece of São Paulo history. Be sure to check out the sculpture garden and the neighboring Parque de Luz. Don’t wander too far off the beaten path – Cracolândia, one of São Paulo’s more nefarious neighborhoods, is right around the corner.
If you are a Portuguese speaker, you also shouldn’t miss the Museu da Lingua Portuguesa, with interactive exhibits and history of the development of Portuguese and its growth in Brazil and the world.
2pm – Find your lunch (and maybe lose it) at Museo da Imagem e do Som
Funded and supported by a number of high-profile Brazilians and international folks (here’s looking at you, Google!), the Museum curates itself on rotating three-month blocks focusing on the work of a single filmmaker. Currently residing at the museum is Stanley Kubrick – not one of my favorites but certainly worth a look at the museum’s well presented story of a filmmaker, his films, and their cultural and societal context.
The museum’s cafe, Chez Mis, is a beautifully-designed oasis in the heart of São Paulo’s Jardins, and serves a great international menu with a side of São Paulo’s most gorgeous people.
4pm – Avenida Paulista
Part Fifth Avenue and part Century City, part business district and part shopping promenade, Avenida Paulista is many things to many people. Historically, it was the place where the coffee barons built their mansions overlooking the city (it’s at one of the highest points in the center of town). These days it’s home to office buildings in various states of repair, lots of shopping, the only really sensible subway line, and a good few hours of fun things to do.
Stop into the MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo) if for nothing more than to admire the unique architecture (I’m not blown away by its collection). Beneath the museum on Saturdays there’s always an artists market that straddles the border between art market and tourist trap, but it’s worth a visit.
Cross the street to Parque Trianon, and wander through the rubber trees, winding paths, and young lovers that always populate this sanctuary from the big city. It’s one of the more charming places to sit for a few minutes and people watch, and there’s currently an interesting photo exhibition on the outside of the park called Brazil and the World from Above, with stunning aerial photos of interesting natural and man-made monuments.
Then head over the Livraria Cultura, a vast multi-storefront space of books, music, film, and all things culture. While much is in Portuguese, anybody can admire the beautifully-curated space alongside the interesting range of offerings and folks browsing them.
End your visit to Paulista with a stop at Itaú Cultural – exhibits come and go but there’s always something going on from the foundation of one of Brazil’s flagship banks. No doubt you’ve already paid an ATM fee to them on your visit so may as well get your money’s worth.
8pm – Start the evening the old-fashioned way
One of the best things about São Paulo’s patchwork culture is the boteco or lanchonete. Part bar, part restaurant, part coffee shop and all community center, the boteco serves an important part of life in the city – bringing people together over beer and Brazil’s infamously fried food, and taking advantage of the warm weather to sit outside and watch the world go by. One of the most happening botecos in town, Lanchonete Ministro is run by a colorful Portuguese immigrant with a bad hair dye job and loads of character.
Sit down, order a chopp and a coxinha, and make sure to get a saidera to get you ready for the evening ahead (or ready for bed). If you’re up for more fun afterwards, ask around at the boteco for the latest greatest spot to visit in Vila Madalena.
10am – Domingo no Parque
The heart of São Paulo might be elsewhere but the soul is in the middle of Parque Ibirapuerã, a Central Park like space smack dab in the middle of the city’s tonier districts. A walk through the park is a potent reminder that, despite the urbanism, you are still in the subtropics. The vegetation, the bird calls, and sometimes the folks walking around make sure you don’t forget. Visit the spaceship-like buildings and improbably public galleries, and make sure not to miss the Monumento às Bandeiras on the way in or out.
While you’re there, check out the MAM (Museu de Arte Moderno) and its changing collection of Brazilian contemporary art. There are often interesting exhibitions, like the current one about the design and visualization of the park itself.
Take a break for coffee and cake in the museum’s pretty cafe overlooking before continuing on to your next stop.
12pm – Under the Cea(rá)
Full disclosure – I don’t love Brazilian restaurant food. It’s often heavy, many times greasy, lacking spice, and overabundant in empty calories. Most of the time, beef is the way to go when in doubt.
But have no qualms about professing love for moquecas, Brazil’s fish stew from the heavens, a creation dripping in palm oil, coconut milk, and the sweet tears of the country’s Northeast. There are lots of permutations of moqueca, and the stewy sauce in it, but one of my favorites can be found at Coco Bambu JK. Order some pasteis de carne de sol and top it off with a moqueca de peixe e camarão for 3-4 people, and prepare to enter the Bahian/Cearense version of heaven. If you leave São Paulo with this memory alone, I’d bet my bottom dollar you’ll be back soon (and in São Paulo you’re going to need it).
How To Get There
São Paulo is not cheap to get to, cheap to be in, or cheap in any sense. So with any luck your flight will have been paid for by others. In case it wasn’t, check out Brazil’s biggest international airline TAM for occasional deals to São Paulo, although it’s unusual to score a flight for less than $1,000 round trip. Otherwise, most major airlines domestic and international, will fly nonstop to São Paulo Guarulhos.
From the airport, you can opt to take an expensive cab or São Paulo’s efficient airport bus service (conveniently named “Airport Bus Service”). For around R$50 (US$20), you can get a comfortable ride to the main parts of town including Avenida Paulista, and continue your journey from there by taxi.
If you’re coming from other parts of Brazil, see if you can get a flight to Congonhas airport, the city’s national airport. Situated smack dab in the middle of the southern district, a cab will set you back a lot less to most parts of the city plus it’s a much shorter ride if you arrive during rush hours. Plus, as a bonus, you get to arrive via one of the most hair-raising landings in aviation – nearly skimming high-rise office and residential buildings below and on either side of you as you land!
How to get around
Oh boy, it’s not fun. Unless it’s the weekend, in which case São Paulo thins out nicely to allow for easy sightseeing via taxi. From Monday-Friday, however, budget 1 hour between appointments or sights unless they are right around the corner. Taxis can be hailed on the street, and your wallet will be between R$20-40 (US$8-16) lighter depending on the length of the ride.
Many parts of the city, including Jardins and the area around Paulista and downtown, are fine places to walk. Don’t believe the hype about crime. It’s not Zurich, but it’s also not something that can’t be addressed with common sense.
São Paulo’s buses work just fine, but they’re super confusing for the casual visitor. The subway, on the other hand, is generally easy to navigate, clean and efficient. The problem it is doesn’t go many places you’ll want to go – and when it does, beware of long and confusing walks to get to and from stations. It’s your best bet, however, between Jardins/Paulista and downtown.
Where to stay
I have nothing good to say about hotels in São Paulo or in Brazil more generally. They’re overpriced, outdated, and lacking in nearly every modern convenience you’d expect for the prices you pay. The only redeeming factor is that many have an unbelievable breakfast cornucopia buffet included in the price of the room, in many instances obviating lunch or a substantive meal until late in the day.
That said, location is important with São Paulo hotels – for this itinerary and general pleasant walkability, make sure to get a hotel in the general vicinity of Avenida Paulista or Jardins (or alternatively Vila Madalena).
Also, I’d love suggestions of nice smaller inns or B&Bs in the city – I have yet to find them.
For a splurge, and I mean a real splurge, the Emiliano in São Paulo is where all the celebrities stay. Set in the heart of the toniest part of town, and equipped with its own helipad for easy access by plutocrats, you’ll impress everyone with this address. A 450 sq. foot room for a weekend in Feb. 2014 went for $850 a night.
If you have better things to do with $1,500, the Porto Bay is a nice option, with a solid pool, nice non-stodgy accommodations, and a more reasonable price tag of around $250 a night.
For something a little more downmarket without sacrificing on location, the Estanplaza Paulista is a good choice. Rooms run just under $100 and the location can’t be beat on Alameda Jaú – a few blocks from shopping meccas Oscar Freire and Rua Augusta and several blocks from the subway. There’s a nice rooftop pool, and all the 1980s ambience you’d ever want.