Long ignored by beach-bound tourists, Brazil’s economic capital is fast, festive and fun. Ernest White II selects his highlights for a hedonistic stopover.
At once the biggest city in Brazil and the biggest city in South America, São Paulo is all about superlatives. The city’s traffic might be the worst and its commuters may have reached critical mass years ago, but the delicious abundance of restaurants, the cultural diversity of the population and the hedonistic intensity of its nightlife remain unsurpassed on the continent. São Paulo is the engine driving Brazil’s economic boom, and the evidence is everywhere – from ramshackle communities of jobseekers on the outskirts to swanky penthouses, new art galleries and plush play spaces. All the conflicting energies of the place can be summed up in one word: exhilarating.
Gritty and bustling, Centro – the old downtown area – mixes nineteenth-century European architecture with Latin American hustle. Packed with peddlers of kitsch and tat, shopping street Rua 25 de Março remains a tackily entertaining place to experience the city’s street life, though the area can get sketchy at night. Just south of Centro is Liberdade, São Paulo’s Japantown, rife with kanji and kana signage, Asian cuisine, sundry doodads for sale and a festive atmosphere at the main plaza’s weekly market.
For a splash of cool green in the midst of the urban canyon of Avenida Paulista, Parque Trianon (officially Parque Tenente Siqueira Campos, Rua Peixoto Gomide 949, +55 11 3289 2160), offers precious respite as the last remnant of the original Mata Atlântica, the coastal rainforest that’s been decimated by development. For the culturally inclined, São Paulo’s splendid Museu Afro Brasil (Parque do Ibirapuera Portão 10, +55 11 3320 8900), located in the expansive Parque do Ibirapuera, has on display more than 4,000 impressive paintings, photographs, costumes and exhibitions related to the African strands of history and culture in Brazil and the Americas. And for worshippers of the beautiful game, the Museu do Futebol (Praça Charles Miller 1, +55 11 3663 3848), in the city’s art deco Pacaembu Stadium, is a treat.
Unlike in Rio, where the homes of the poorest are always in view, São Paulo’s favelas are less visible to the casual visitor. Head out into the city’s vast perifería on a tour with guide Flavia Liz di Paolo of the ‘Unique in São Paulo’ tour company (+55 11 3032 2692). She will take you to Paraisópolis and into the home of Estevão, whose oddly beautiful house is made of teacups and saucers, fragments of ceramic, old telephones and thousands of other bits and pieces, all embedded into lattice-work walls.
Eating out is a popular pastime in São Paulo, as evidenced by the abundance of chic restaurants, full-service bakeries, por quilo buffets, corner snack bars and 24-hour luncheonettes. Many eateries are informal, community-centred social spaces where friends and families get together to chew the fat for hours, especially at weekends. Pop in to a boteco or lanchonete – one of the innumerable casual diners around town – and have a salgadinho (assorted golden-fried goodness) or a freshly made juice in one of a hundred tropical flavours. Check the selection box for our pick of the city’s best dining options, but don’t forget to visit the vast, animated Mercado Municipal (aka Mercadão, Rua da Cantareira 306, +55 11 3313 1326), home of what claims to be the world’s biggest Mortadella sandwich.
If you need a nip to warm you up, downtown’s Alberta #3 (Avenida São Luis 272, +55 11 3151 5299) is rapidly becoming a classic, with its beatnik vibe, rock soundtrack and images of youthful Jagger and Dylan watching over the place. Over in the busy entertainment district of Vila Madalena, the biggest stand-out is Astor and its downstairs companion, SubAstor. Upstairs, Astor (Rua Delfina 163, +55 11 3815 1364) is a vintage, high-ceilinged boteco or bar-restaurant, while SubAstor down below, decked out in dramatic red and black, does some of the best cocktails in town – find a spot at the bar and order up the delicious Aviation.
The art of acquisition in the city is concentrated in the hundreds of shopping malls, called simply ‘shoppings’. Shopping Pátio Higienópolis (Avenida Higienópolis 618, +55 11 3823 2300), in the ritzy, easily accessible suburb of Higienópolis, combines pricy Brazilian brands with international names in a multi-storey edifice. Jardins’s Rua Oscar Freire is known as the Rodeo Drive of São Paulo, but it also boasts a good collection of key Brazilian brands within walking distance of one another – from shoe emporium Melissa (Rua Oscar Freire 827, +55 11 3083 3612), with its ever-changing storefront exhibitions, to hip shop Surface to Air (Alameda Lorena 1985, +55 11 3063 4206) and the flagship store of clothier Skyland and Sea (Rua Oscar Freire 678, +55 11 3064 6633). Just a block away from the latter, Rio-based Granado Pharmácias (Rua Haddock Lobo 1353, +55 11 3061 0891 concocts inexpensive vintage-style soaps, lotions and oils made from tropical ingredients like brazil-nut and açaí.
São Paulo’s in a serious artistic mood after having successfully hosted another edition of the Bienal, South America’s largest art fair. Appreciators of painting and sculpture can get their fill at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) (Avenida Paulista 1578, +55 11 3251 5644), a modern glass edifice suspended beneath two giant red upturned ‘U’s. Temporary exhibitions of Brazilian artists share floor space with biggies like Picasso and Gainsborough. The Pinacoteca do Estado (Praça da Luz, +55 11 3324 1000) is another striking building and the home to work by Brazil’s most important modernists.
For cutting-edge contemporary art, Galeria Baró (Rua Barra Funda 216, +55 11 3666 6489) couldn’t get any sharper. Housed in a large industrial space, the gallery actively pursues provocative, ambitious installations by young artists. At the opposite end of the size spectrum, intimate but impressive Choque Cultural (Rua João Moura 997, +55 11 3061 4051) dedicates itself to Brazilian urban artists, from graffiti merchants to skateboard designers and printmakers, earnestly and stylishly fostering an appreciation for street-level art.
Having held Gay Pride parades so big that the police force stopped counting at 2.5 million paradegoers, São Paulo is quite possibly the gayest city in Latin America. Neighbourhoods such as Jardins and the area around Rua Frei Caneca are home to gay-friendly restaurants, bars, clubs and saunas, but venues catering to lesbians, gays and transsexuals dot half the city. For pre-club drinks and flirting, try neon-lit Volt (Rua Haddock Lobo 40, +55 11 2936 4041), which makes an art out of mixing tropical libations. Farol Madalena (Rua Jericó 179, +55 11 3032 6470) serves up a menu of tasty Brazilian appetisers, beach-themed drinks and live music, strictly for the ladies. The shebang of the week, however, is The Week (Rua Guaicurus 324, +55 11 3868 9944), one of the biggest clubs in Brazil and gay party-turned-international brand, with popular Saturday-night bashes and monthly pool parties in São Paulo. The club’s DJs and dancers frequently go on the road, carrying Brazilian – nay, Paulistano – flavour to gays and lesbians in cities such as London, Barcelona and Mexico City.
The hottest samba spot in town, Ó do Borogodó (Rua Horácio Lane 21, +55 11 3814 4087), hosts famous names in the genre – from Gafiera Nacional to Dona Inah – that get hips swinging and feet stomping in the syncopated haze of Brazil’s most famous rhythm. The elegant Auditório Ibirapuera (Parque do Ibirapuera Portão 2, +55 11 3629 1075), one of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s most recent creations, presents a diverse array of Brazilian and international acts. Its most striking feature is the retractable wall behind the stage, offering audience members a panorama of the park during selected shows, and folk in the park a glimpse inside.
One of the more interesting music venues in town is actually a whole set of them: the city’s excellent collection of SESCs (various locations), a city-wide chain of non-profit community centres. They offer athletic facilities, libraries, courses and exhibitions, and an always cheap, always solid line-up of established and up-and-coming musical acts. If you only go to one, make it the stunning SESC Pompeia, designed by architect Lina Bo Bardi, who also created the MASP. But if nothing on the schedule tickles your fancy, for rock and pop, samba and salsa, any genre, any night, head to delightfully funky Rua Augusta.
The strip just north of Avenida Paulista, dubbed ‘Baixo Augusta,’ bursts with bars, live music venues and clubs for every type: punks, models, trannies, rastas, preppies and any other social group you can think of. The performance space at Studio SP (Rua Augusta 591, +55 11 3129 7040) rocks.
Nightlife doesn’t exist in São Paulo, because the party runs 24 hours; between the mega-clubs, intimate venues and after-hours spots, it’s amazing anyone gets any sleep. The hottest club is D-Edge (Alameda Olga 170, +55 11 3667 8334), a newly dolled-up place with a spectral lighting scheme and a constant line-up of heavy-hitting electronic DJs like John Digweed and Booka Shade. Hip hop heads can get their fix at unassuming Clash Club (Rua Barra Funda 969, +55 11 3661 1500) on Tuesday nights, where trainers trump high heels and serious dancers rule the roost at the weekly ‘Chocolate’ party. If neither of these fêtes wears you out, the debauchery at Love Story (Rua Araújo 232, +55 11 3231 3101) doesn’t even start until almost three in the morning, when the hookers and go-go dancers get together with night owls, tourists and other random partiers to unwind after work.
British Airways has daily flights to São Paulo from Heathrow. Fares start from £919 return including taxes, fees and charges (0844 493 0787). TAM Airlines offers a daily service between Heathrow and São Paulo. In June, returns start at £930 including taxes (020 8741 2005). Flight time is 11hr 30min.
For boutique luxury, go to 76-room, art-themed L’Hotel Porto Bay (doubles from R$1,450 or £550). Budget options are Pousada Dona Zilah (doubles from R$212 or £80) and Normandie Design Hotel (doubles from R$199 or £75).
This monthly magazine in English is available at newspaper stands and bookshops – and is distributed free in many of the city’s best hotels.
São Paulo city guide
Time Out's resident team helps you get the best from this endlessly fascinating Brazillian city. Alongside the Sao Paulo Museum of Art and the array of modernist architecture, Time Out Sao Paulo gives you the inside track on local cuisine, nightlife and the arts, with independent reviews and incisive features on topics ranging from cachaca culture to the vibrancy of Carnival.