Scratching São Paulo’s Surface

However you arrive in São Paulo, by plane, bus or car, it leaves you in little doubt that it is Brazil’s business powerhouse: it is the country’s richest city, the largest city in the southern hemisphere and the 7th biggest city in the world. Miles and miles of favelas and outer neighbourhoods slowly fizzle into a smart, business-like centre that many consider the pride of Brazil.

MASP, the São Paulo Museum of Art, is unmissable on Avenida Paulista. Photo by Ben Tavener.

São Paulo – or Sampa as some locals call it – and its vast, sprawling metropolitan area are home to over 20 million Paulistanos (people from the city), Paulistas (people from the wider São Paulo state), and of course people from every corner of Brazil and the globe.

Whether you are here on business, or you are yearning for a couple of days in a busy NYC-esque megatropolis, this city – often described in shades of “bustling” and “chaotic” – is exciting, invigorating and chock full of things to see and do.

Aside from hustle-bustle, subway chaos and bankers, São Paulo is most definitely a place of culture, history and great cuisine.

Arriving here from Curitiba, we had two days in the city – of course, barely enough to scratch the surface.

We went on a weekend, hitting the museums on the Saturday – when some are free to visit, and spent our Sunday soaking up the historic centre.

A walk down Avenida Paulista – São Paulo’s most famous, seemingly never-ending central street lined with skyscrapers – will give you a sense of the city at large: one minute you walk past the headquarters of a world-class bank, the next you find yourself outside the internationally-recognised São Paulo Museum of Art, MASP (R$15, metrô Trianon-MASP).

São Paulo’s Estação da Luz houses the Museu da Língua Portuguesa. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The building housing MASP is considered a tourist attraction in itself: the Sixties-built concrete and glass gallery sits up on two red lateral beams, which support around 10,000 square metres of both permanent and temporary exhibitions, including Latin America’s biggest collection of Western art.

However, we started with the Jardim da Luz, where you’ll find the Pinacoteca do Estado (metrô Luz, R$6, free on Saturdays), São Paulo’s oldest art museum, which is set in a house built at the turn of the 20th century. The museum is dominated by paintings and sculptures by Brazilian artists.

Next to the Pinacoteca is the idyllic Jardim da Luz park: tall palm-lined avenues, ponds and park benches infused with modern and classical sculptures. Like a lot of the many parks dotted around São Paulo, Jardim da Luz offers a quick breather from the chaos of the city, a place to wander round a green space and hear the birds.

Opposite the park, in its enormous, Colonial-style home – and actually quite similar in style to St Pancras Station in London – is the Portuguese Language Museum (Museu da Língua Portuguesa, R$6, free on Saturdays), which pays homage to the history of the language and its various incarnations around the globe and is a must-see for anyone studying Portuguese or with an interest in languages.

Central, historic São Paulo: The Theatro Municipal, Praça Ramos de Azevedo and the Viaduto do Chá. Photo by Ben Tavener.

After that we headed for the historic centre, working our way from Luz down through to São Bento.

We walked down Avenida Ipiranga down to the Praça da República, and then through to the Theatro Municipal. We then continued over the Viaduto do Chá (noticing the jungle growing out of the top of the Prefeitura (City Hall) building across the street).

This area is full of enormous skyscrapers – home to banks and other financial institutions.

Make sure you leave time (and room in your stomach) for a visit to São Paulo’s historic Mercado Municipal (metrô São Bento), a massive open-plan fruit and meat market, known locally as the Mercadão, and is famous for its friendly fruit sellers – who will treat you to a taste of fruits which you have probably never even seen before.

In fact there was one fruit that even the seller couldn’t name: “We just call it café-com-mel (coffee with honey).” Just be careful if you have any strong allergies to exotic fruits or aversions to intimate physical contact – I had a lychee popped into my mouth without any warning whatsoever!

São Paulo Mercado Municipal, the “Mercadão”, is usually very busy, but is big enough to cope. Samples of fruit are given out constantly, so go hungry! Photo by Ben Tavener.

Round off your trip to the market with a traditional mortadella (hot ham or baloney) sandwich – just join the nearest line of salivating market-goers.

If you have time, head to Avenida 25 de Março, a Mecca for those who want to buy electrical goods on the cheap (much like Ciudad del Este on the Brazil-Paraguay border), or simply to experience the utter chaos of São Paulo most crowded shopping street. Just make sure you keep a close eye on your valuables!

Given São Paulo’s enormous Japanese community, it is hardly surprising that the city is famed for its excellent sushi restaurants: take advantage of a rodízio de sushi, where for a set fee (normally around R$40 at weekends, and a little cheaper during the week) they keep bringing you food until you can eat no more.

Again, make sure you’re really hungry to take full advantage of this wonderful experience!

Metrô Liberdade will lead you to a mishmash of Japanese, Chinese and Korean communities and a vast array of related restaurants. In fact, you might well hear locals telling you that there are only more Japanese people in one city in Tokyo, and that São Paulo is Japan’s second city. You be the judge on that one!

And if you like food, you’ll be utterly spoilt here: locals say there are over 12,000 restaurants, but they quip that 11,000 of those are out of their price range.

São Paulo really is a great place for tourists – and although the rhythm of Rio or the blissful beaches of Bahia or Santa Catarina certainly deserve their prestigious places in tourists’ hearts, this big, bustling, means-business bruiser is definitely worth visiting.

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