São Paulo: 5 days in Brazil’s Largest City
São Paulo is a grey concrete monster that grew too big for its legs. It’s the largest metropolis in Latin America with more than 20 million people living in the metropolitan area. The city is intimidating. While my plane was landing at the Congonhas Airport, I was the only one curious enough to look down through the window. I was astonished to see that there were no mountains, rivers or trees, just buildings as far as my eye could see.
At first, the city may seem unattractive. Most visitors come for business rather than leisure. In a country like Brazil, known by its exuberant nature, São Paulo is often underrated. Although São Paulo is not blessed with the same natural beauty as its rival city, Rio de Janeiro, you can still have a good time there. A deeper look reveals that São Paulo is full cultural attractions to nurture your soul and good food to fill your belly.
Day 1 – Wednesday
The Avenida Paulista is closed to traffic on Sundays and holidays. The Paulistanos (people who live in São Paulo), flock to their most famous street to see and be seen. Who can blame them when there are so few options to spend time outside. The Avenida Paulista becomes a playground from Consolação to Paraíso. People ride bikes, walk their dogs, watch the performance of street artists, eat street food and buy handmade crafts.
The Avenida Paulista is the symbol of São Paulo. It used to be the city’s financial center. This title is shifting to the Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima with its brand new mirrored office buildings. To understand São Paulo, you must go to Avenida Paulista.
Casa das Rosas is a cultural center dedicated to poetry and literature. The admission is free. In the gardens, among the roses, there’s a charming outdoor cafe. This classic French style mansion is a refreshing sight amid modern skyscrapers in Avenida Paulista.
The mansion was built in 1935 as a home to the Azevedo family. Ramos de Azevedo, a prominent architect, designed the house and other notable buildings in São Paulo, such as the Teatro Municipal, the Mercado Municipal, and the Pinacoteca. At the time, the Avenida Paulista was settled by wealthy landowners. In the 1980s São Paulo industrial development reshaped Avenida Paulista to become the financial center of São Paulo. The homes of the millionaire Coffee Barons gave way to commercial buildings but Casa das Rosas was spared.
Day 2 – Thursday
The Ibirapuera Park is the Paulistanos favorite place to spend time outdoors. The park receives 300 thousand visitors during the weekends. To escape the crowds visit the park on weekdays when it’s an oasis of tranquility. The Ibirapuera is more than just a park. The complex has museums and a planetarium. It encompasses five buildings designed by famous architect Oscar Niemeyer including the Museu Afro Brasil, the OCA (Museu da Cidade), the Auditório Ibirapuera, the Museu de Arte Contemporânea and the Museu de Arte Moderna. The admission to the park is free.
From the bucolic Ibirapuera Park, I moved to an urban vibe at Beco do Batman (Batman Alley). The area around Rua Gonçalo Afonso and Rua Medeiros de Albuquerque in Vila Madalena neighborhood have become a sanctuary of graffiti – bold, bright and colorful. In the selfie era, the alley has attracted hundreds of visitors looking for a pretty picture. They move to one click to another without taking a minute to reflect on the meaning of the art on the walls. The graffiti as a form of art has recently gained force in Brazil. The artists are constantly changing the art on the walls. You can visit it many times. It will never be the same.
Leaving the Beco do Batman I explored the neighborhood by foot. Vila Madalena is a bohemian neighborhood filled with authentic restaurants and bars. While I was looking for a place to rest my sore feet, I entered Ekoa Café. They have an amazing hot chocolate with spices called Masala Hot Chocolate. It was the best hot chocolate I have ever had!
To call it a day I had dinner at the Mexican Restaurant Si Señor. The food is delicious, and the service is great. Before 8 PM the frozen margaritas are half the price. Happiness lies in the little things. For me, happiness is a glass of frozen margarita in one hand and a taco in the other.
Day 3 – Friday
The Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo is a museum dedicated to Brazilian art. It’s the oldest museum in São Paulo founded in 1905. The second floor houses the permanent collection with beautiful paintings from Brazil’s colonial era. The first floor houses the temporary exhibitions.
Eataly is an Italian gourmet market where you can buy high-quality products and eat delicious Italian food. The concept was created in Italy. Due to its huge success, it expanded to the rest of the world. Besides Italy, there are Eataly markets in Japan, US, Dubai, Turkey, and Brazil. Inside the market, the restaurants are divided into specialties: La Carne, Il Pesce, La Risotteria, La Pasta, La Pizza and so on.
São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. The Liberdade neighborhood is the meeting place for people who want to experience the Japanese culture in Sao Paulo. The area has many interesting shops and traditional Japanese restaurants. My favorite store was Fancy Goods where I bought my beloved notepad (yes, I do write on paper like the old days). After shopping, I stopped at the Tea Station to taste the famous bubble tea (tea served with milk and tapioca pearls). I loved it!
Back to Vila Madalena neighborhood to a night out, I ended up in São Cristóvão Bar. The walls are covered with pictures of the same theme: soccer. I was attracted by the relaxed atmosphere and the original decor. The bar serves simple bar food at a good price. This is my kind of place.
Day 4 – Saturday
The people who pass through the Vale do Anhangabaú today forget that there’s a river running through this beautiful park. The Anhangabaú river was canalized for the construction of the park, and it’s running underground. Before the construction of the park, the area around the river was occupied by small tea plantations. The urbanization of the area began in 1877 when the Viaduto do Chá was idealized. The farms were expropriated and the Viaduto do Chá was inaugurated in 1892. To cross the bridge people had to pay a tax. Most people could not afford it. The bridge was used by the people that belonged to the upper class on their way to the Theatro Municipal or the shops in the city.
The park is a lovely space with gardens, fountains, and sculptures. It’s a shame that it looks so abandoned. From there you can see the Theatro Municipal, the Martinelli Building, the Banespa Building, the Shopping Light, the Matarazzo Building, and headquarters of the City Hall.
The Pateo do Colégio is the birthplace of São Paulo. Here, in 1554, the Jesuit priests established a mission to evangelize the indigenous people. There’s little left of the original church where the Jesuit priests celebrated their first mass. The only thing that still stands is a wattle and daub wall, enclosed in a huge glass case to protect it.
The colonial-style building stands out of for its simplicity. Inside the Museu Anchieta and the Museu de Arte Sacra dos Jesuítas displays sacred art pieces. The guided visit costs only R$ 8. The Café do Pateo is a great place to relax and have a cup of coffee.
The Theatro Municipal was inaugurated in 1911. The city of São Paulo was flourishing at the time due to the coffee agriculture. The wealthy landowners of the time were deeply influenced by the European culture. The building architectural reference was Palais Garnier of Paris. The majority of the materials was imported from Europe.
The Theatro Municipal offers free guided tours. All you have to do is to arrive around 10 AM to register. The guides don’t follow a rigid script. Each one adds their personal touch to the tour.
I had lunch at the Mercado Municipal. I was eager to try the infamous bologna sandwich at the Hocca Bar since I saw it for the first time on TV. The sandwich is great, but nothing could prepare me for their delicious pepper sauce. Lucky for me they sell it. I bought one bottle to bring home with me. I’m already making plans to return soon to buy some more. That’s how much I loved it. I also tried their famous cod pastry.
The Catedral da Sé, located in Praça da Sé, is the main religious destination in São Paulo. The imponent building, constructed in the Neo-Gothic style, was inaugurated in 1954, for the celebration of São Paulo 400th anniversary. The cathedral has guided visits and free concerts that offer an opportunity to hear the sound of the cathedral’s organ (one of the largest in Latin America).
I strongly discourage a visit to the cathedral. The place is abandoned and dangerous. Hundreds of people live here on the streets. Beggars, drugs addicts, and prostitutes. Many came to São Paulo in a search for a better life but found a cruel fate instead.
In São Paulo is customary to go to the bakeries for breakfast, lunch or even dinner. Most bakeries offer an unimaginable variety of food. At Bella Paulista Bakery they have a bit of everything: pastries, pizza, ice cream, pies, soups, and of course, coffee. I ordered a Belém’s pastry and a cappuccino.
Day 5 – Sunday
Every Sunday the MASP houses the MASP Antique Market. The fair is organized by the Association of Antiquaries of São Paulo. Unlike other antique markets I’ve been before, here I found many interesting things. They only sell authentic products such as vintage jewelry, furniture, paintings, porcelain, posters, records, and even a gramophone. I was immediately drawn to the old coins but I could not get myself to choose which ones to take home with me.
Right across the street, there’s a small haven of the tropical forest right in Avenida Paulista, the Parque Trianon. The park was founded in 1892, a year after the inauguration of the Avenida Paulista. The park was built for the Coffee Barons and the high society that lived in the Avenida Paulista at that time.
My last stop in São Paulo was the MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo). The building, inaugurated in 1968, is the most famous landmark in São Paulo. Its brutalist structure is an example of modern Brazilian architecture. The museum has a fine collection of European paintings including Picasso, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Botticelli.