Brazil’s largest city and the country’s economic nucleus, São Paulo often plays second fiddle to Rio de Janeiro, Salvador or other more exotic destinations due to its reputation as being industrial, dangerous and even ugly. Don’t buy into the hype — any traveler who visits Brazil and skips São Paulo is doing himself a massive disservice. The city is quite literally overflowing with incredible things to do, pictures to take and moments to be savored. You won’t even remember how much you miss the beach.
São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista
Broad, grand Avenida Paulista is one of the São Paulo’s largest thoroughfares, lined with modern skyscrapers and flanked by some of the São Paulo’s most interesting streets and neighborhoods. From the Consolação metro station, for example, take a stroll south on Rua Bela Cintra and stop into one of the dozens of local cafés and eateries that pepper street corners.
If you’re begin your travel in São Paulo on a Thursday or a Sunday, feast on feijoada, a sumptuous meal of pork, rice, soup and more pork only so good it’s only available two days out of the week. Alternatively, enjoy a blended açaí concoction that’s far more delicious and satisfying than any of the watery açaí juice you can buy outside of Brazil.
Avenida Paulista is also a great means of accessing the São Paulo’s world-famous art scene. Whether you visit the breathtaking, literally-on-stilts Museu de Arte de São Paulo (known among locals as “MASP,” pronounced “mass-pee”) or simply stroll through any of the avenues that extend northward or southward from Avenida Paulista, you’re in for a visual feast unlike any you’ve other seen. Head over to Rua Oscar Freire 827 to check out Galeria Melissa, an outdoor art installation that comprises a mural of 50,000 Post-It notes as of April 2011.
Downtown São Paulo
Don’t let Avenida Paulista’s skyscrapers fool you: It isn’t technically São Paulo’s central business district. This will become abundantly clear to you when you reach the top of the Banco Nacional do Estado São Paulo (or “BANESPA”) building, Brazil’s answer to New York’s Empire State Building. The BANESPA tower isn’t as tall as its American cousin, but as a consolation prize, its observation deck is free to enjoy.
Tall buildings aren’t all there is to enjoy in São Paulo’s CBD. Even the metro station you use to arrive downtown — Sé, named after the monstrous, old cathedral that sits in the shadow of the city that built up around it — is glorious in its construction, topped with a massive skylight that allows daylight to shine down on its open, multi-layer design. When walking through and away from downtown São Paulo, do take care to wear shoes in which you feel comfortable walking up hills, because the central São Paulo is full of them.
São Paulo’s Historical Center
São Paulo’s historical center is located directly adjacent to its aforementioned central business district, but I chose to list them separately because there’s really no good means of comparing the two for those who travel in Brazil.
To visit São Paulo’s historical center, descend into Sé station’s bowels and take Line 1 two stops north to Luz, a dingy, non-descript transit hub that’s just a stone’s throw from a breathtaking, old train station of the same name, which now houses the Museu da Lingua Portuguesa, as well as a node of the São Paulo commuter rail line.
Old São Paulo is also home to the city’s Mercado Municipal, whose 19th-century exterior encloses a bevy of fruit and meat sellers, fine restaurants and pastel shops within its grand walls and stained-glass windows. Indulge in a Pastel de Bacalhau, a delectable fried cod pastry unique to São Paulo. For my money — and be warned: you’ll need to spend a lot to enjoy any of the fine foods available inside the mercado — a pastel and a can of guaraná, which should run you about 12 reaís – are far more satisfying meal than any of the 50-reaí “real food” on the top floor, regardless of how incredible it looks, smells and tastes.
Liberdade, São Paulo’s Japanese Neighborhood
Although it’s located just a short ways north of Avenida Paulista’s eastern extremity, a walk into Liberdade will quite literally make you feel like you’re in another country — namely, Japan. Purportedly home to the largest Japanese population outside the Land of the Rising Sun, Liberdade (pronounced “liber-dad-jay”) is a great spot to go for sushi, photos and people-watching alike to add an Oriental element to travel in Brazil.
I accidentally discovered Liberdade one afternoon when I happened to be without my camera, so I unfortunately don’t own any photo evidence of its greatness. But trust me: It’s flipping great.