The World Cup has come and gone, and Brazil’s economic fortunes are beginning to fade once more. Rio de Janeiro is poised to take the spotlight next year as it scrambles to finish its Jenga tower of an Olympic Games. But São Paulo is, more than ever, the beating heart of everything right and wrong about Brazil.
During Brazil’s heady peak, the city of more than 20 million people (nobody can really count) was constantly growing and building to accommodate foreign capital, and it became one of the most expensive cities in in the world. Now, as Brazil comes back down to earth, the city is changing again, with a renewed focus on all the things that make São Paulo great. Namely: diversity, adaptability, entrepreneurialism, and drive.
Foreigners and Brazilians alike come to São Paulo to get ahead, and in the process São Paulo never really had to focus on tourism to sustain its economy. Even without obvious sights to see, two days is enough time to scratch the surface, and let the city get under your skin.
3pm – Park it on Paulista
Remember those scenes from American movies in the 80s (think 9 to 5 or Working Girl) showing the hustle and bustle of a big downtown business district? Avenida Paulista is the place where you can see the Brazilian version of this up close and personal. Throw in a few colorful vagrants, some great street music, and one of the city’s most pleasant parks, and you have a delightful few hours’ stroll through the heart of Brazilian business .
Start at the Brigadeiro metro station (L2 – Verde), and don’t miss Itaú Cultural, where you can trace the beginnings of Brazilian history through maps and drawings in their fifth-floor permanent exhibition. Then as you continue, marvel at the old ˆfazendas’ which used to line the entire street. A good example of this is the Casa das Rosas, which now houses cultural events and has a lovely cafe in the back.
As you get closer to MASP-Trianon, keep your eyes leftward looking and take a first glimpse the tropical park that awaits you. Parque Trianon is one of São Paulo’s treasures – stroll through the lanes between the big, leafy trees and forget you’re in one of the most densely populated places around.
Across the street is the MASP, a small but extremely impressive collection of Brazlian and foreign art. The building, which has seen better days, is an excellent architectural highlight, and the inside is easy to manage and navigate in an hour.
Down the street is the Conjunto Nacional, which houses the famous Livraria Cultura, one of São Paulo’s cultural landmarks. The bookstore, spread over several floors and spaces, has everything you’d ever imagine in Portuguese. It also has a fair number of books towards the entrance in English.
9pm – Find your Spot
Restaurants in São Paulo, particularly trendy ones, are never easy on the wallet. But if you’re going to splurge, might as well do it in style. There’s no better place around Paulista than Spot (pronounced “spa-chee”) to observe well-to-do Paulistas see and be seen.
Take a seat on the outdoor terrace, surrounded by 60s modernist buildings and a surprisingly pleasant green plaza, and a live Brazilian soap opera will unfold for you. It’s authentic in its inauthenticity, and has some of the strongest caipirinhas that will ever be served in such a classy establishment. Oh, and the food is pretty good too – the steak and the cappelletti in brodo are highlights.
10am – Down from the mountaintop
One thing that hits you quickly about São Paulo is just how hilly it is. Nowhere will challenge your calves more than Vila Madalena and Pinheiros in the southern quarter of town. But it is well worth a stroll to discover a neighborhood full of street art, design and local furniture shops, and great dining.
Start off at the newly-opened Fradique Coutinho metro station (L4), and get caffeinated at Coffee Lab. Beyond offering some of Brazil’s great coffee varietals (São Paulo was founded on coffee, of course), the shop has a handful of innovative “rituals” allowing you to sample different methods of coffee preparation and accompaniments. It’s a great opportunity to try new things and learn at the same time, and the on-site roasting facility makes it almost irresistible.
Walk up the street and, with the help of a good map or the kindness of strangers, you’ll come across the Beco de Batman (Batman Alley). Some of São Paulo’s most well-known street artists are on display here, with wall after wall covered with colorful, innovative works. Explore the few blocks around the Beco for a good view of what’s possible with a little creative license and lax graffiti enforcement mechanisms.
Once you’ve had your fill, head over to Rua Harmonia to check out the innovative furniture and home design stores lining the street, as well as a few good places for apparel. When you’re finished double back downhill and get ready for lunch.
1pm – Rice and Beans
It’s Saturday, and that can mean only one thing: feijoada. Brazil’s loved and hated national dish, the heavy, starchy wonder of beef parts, rice, and farofa. What more could you want? Pop into Feijoada da Lana early before the crowds hit. It may not be the best food, but hey you gotta try it.
For more sophisticated palates, there’s always Martin Fierro, a Brazilian outpost of the famous Buenos Aires steakhouse. There’s no way to go wrong.
3pm – Getting more formal with art
After strolling the streets, it’s worth taking a break for modern art at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake. The gallery, with several exhibitions at any given time, currently features a large retrospective on Joan Miró with dozens of pieces over from Barcelona. Elsewhere there is a São Paulo-themed photo series alongside other assorted temporary exhibitions. As one of Brazil’s most celebrated artists and a naturalized Brazilian citizen born in Japan, Tomie Ohtake’s own story is a fascinating one.
When you’re finished, cross the street over to Ofner and indulge in Brazil’s sugar bomb attack known as a brigadeiro before continuing your day. The streets around the museum, including Deputado Lacerda Franco and Vupabussu, have delightful stores, cafés and restaurants to explore.
If you still have some artistic license left in you, make your way over to the Museu da Imagem e do Som, a short stroll away. There, you’ll find a rotating international collection of moving and still images, always meticulously curated around a theme or individual. It’s also worth checking out their evening performance schedule, since the museum often has fun concerts and live acts on weekend events. Their restaurant, Chez Mis, is an added treat and a great place to stop for a drink or coffee.
8pm – Garden Dining
If you still have the will to eat after having feijoada earlier in the day, tuck into home cooking at Micaela. Serving modern twists on regional Brazilian food, this is a memorable place for a meal. Try to get a table upstairs in the farmhouse like top floor, and don’t miss the excellent petiscos like any of the pasteis or the tira gosto.
10pm – Mad Men ao brasileiro
Stroll up to Paulista to see the lovers canoodling before taking the subway home or to the next club, and strut on over to the mod, mad Riviera Bar. Opened in 1949, you’ll step into a vision of Paulista cool that must have been the cat’s meow of Brazil’s early 50s jet set. Make sure you bypass the lower floor bar for the real wood panel and mid-century modern action upstairs.
Great lighting and great cocktails abut a passable food menu, but you’re done eating for the day.
9am – Urban jungle
Nothing beats a stroll through the center of São Paulo. There are few other urban cores in the world as dense and gritty, and even fewer in Latin America that have the range of architecture that you’ll find around the city’s core.
The best place to start is the Minhocão, or the raised highway that separates the center of the city from Santa Cecilia. On Sundays, it is entirely closed to traffic and becomes an artery filled with families on bikes, strolling lovebirds, impromptu street art, and other assorted surprises. Most rewarding, however, is the birds-eye view the Minhocão provides you of the architectural gems of the center of town. It also shows you just how poorly designed São Paulo’s street plan can be, and how short-sighted politicians and developers can be when erecting highways inches from living spaces.
Start your stroll near the Marechal Deodoro Metro, and walk the whole length until you hit the end at Consolação, which will leave you very close to República Metro for your next adventure. On the way, keep an eye out for pop-up flea market stands or other vendors, and the Santa Cecilia Sunday market right beneath the highway. A stroll through here is a fascinating glimpse into São Paulo neighborhood living.
1pm – Art and crack
The edgiest of modern artists would revel in the idea of São Paulo’s Pinacoteca, situated between the city’s main train station Estação de Luz and a feared neighborhood known as Cracolândia. But fear you not – Sunday mornings aren’t the worst moment for the area, and you’re more likely to find families strolling through the adjacent park than anyone following you in an altered state.
Stroll through their permanent collection and always interesting exhibitions for a taste of what’s new in Brazilian art, and then head over to the park next door to glimpse the sculpture collection and a great example of urban renewal through park development.
Hotels in São Paulo tend to reduce pretty drastically in price over the weekend. Given there aren’t many nice places that aren’t geared towards business travelers in this commercial city, this is great for a casual tourist. Most chains, foreign like Marriott or Accor, and local like Blue Tree, offer great rates at the weekend and comfortable stays.
Location is everything, though, so try to choose a hotel that is close enough to a major subway station or at least not too far from a main road. Otherwise you could spend a fair amount of your 36 hours in transit. Avenida Paulista area is the most central of all, with great connections and easy distances to anything most tourists would want to see. Stay away from Morumbi, Brooklin, and farther reaches of Vila Olimpia if possible – you’ll find yourself too far from the action. Similarly downtown hotels are not great news at night, so avoid unless you’re a particularly intrepid traveler.
Take the subway! It’s just that simple. And when you can’t, try to plan your trips outside of rush hour. No amount of preparation, previous knowledge, or Google Mapping can prepare you for São Paulo traffic. It will always take longer and will always be more frustrated than you expected.
São Paulo’s subway has been continually getting bigger and better — don’t overlook it and you’ll have more time to explore the city. Plus tickets are only a tad more than US$1.