São Paulo: Brazil’s ‘Big Apple’

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With a seemingly endless list of offerings, São Paulo really has something for everyone.

By: Isabella Machin 

“Brazil is not just a carnival”, my local guide told me as we merged with the crowd that glide down the Brooklin Paulista Avenue in São Paulo. I looked up to 17th century churches that were shadowed by large skyscrapers and a modern office in the shape of a fairy-tale castle positioned next to a colonial Portuguese church. The corporate equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue or London’s Oxford Circus, it became clear that Paulista Avenue is the pulmonary artery of São Paulo.  

At the time that Paulista Avenue was built in 1891, the city was home to 65,000 and coffee trade was the main source of economy. As exports boomed, the city became home to locals, as well as international residents. Paulista provided new possibilities and vast land, perfect for industrialists and coffee moguls to set the roots of their mansions with innovative architectural styles, some of which incorporated international influence. Located in the Southeast of Brazil, it is the mecca of cosmopolitan cities in South America: worthy of the title of “the Big Apple of Brazil”.  

My guide used “modernism” to describe entered São Paulo. Being a London resident, I had entered the city with a western arrogance as to what would define a “modern” city. As I gazed out of the window from the Metro carriage, I laughed and saw how wrong I had been. I looked upon the FIESP Cultural Center, a pyramidal skyscraper which looked as if it were slipping away from its two straight-faced neighbours.

Designed by Rino Levi in 1969 after a competition set to design a landmark, it is the home to exhibitions, dances, cinemas and theatres, including the popular Teatro Popular do Sesi. Near to this sits the arguably London-esque 1950s Paulicéia residential building. This faces the ski-slopped Torre Paulista building, built in 1972, which was the home of the Japanese bank Sumitomo, said to have been drawn to it for its resemblance to a Japanese temple.  

After hours spent gliding around on the Metro rail, I saw how São Paulo had grown from the historical epicentre of Centro, where the city was founded in the 1500s. It has since spread to middle class neighbourhoods, like Moóca and Bom Retiro, in the north and east, and south, to the affluent neighbourhood of Jardins.

As I stepped out onto the polished Rua Oscar Freire, São Paulo’s equivalent to Paris’s Avenue des Champs-Élysées, I immediately noticed the grand bars and the expansive collection of accredited international restaurants. I quickly gathered that perhaps the likes of Chanel, Prada and Gucci would be more openly welcomed here than my Birkenstocks, denim shorts and backpack.  

An open air gallery

Only a short walk away, I stumbled across the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). It was an impactful stumble. A mixture of something that looks like a Transformer and an outrageous art-deco table, the MASP is suspended over an open plaza and holds an ocean of artwork inside.   

São Paulo’s artwork is not only found within buildings, but also, and encouraged to be so, on them. My guide explained that graffiti artists and muralists, once chased by officials in São Paulo in the 1980s, are now promoted, and even funded.

He explained, “graffiti has become a source of expression, it is São Paulo’s therapy.” As we walked down the street of Beco de Batman in Vila Madalena, renowned for its graffiti, I saw how this was expressed. Splashes of colour came together to create images of animals, landscapes, names and even the graffiti equivalent of Monet’s impressionism.  

With a mix of graffiti and modern buildings, young and affluent, each neighbourhood has its own identity. This was particularly prevalent as I continued my venture through São Paulo’s bohemian neighbourhood of Vila Madalena.

I was told that it dates back to students from Universidade de São Paulo, who came to the city in the ’80s enticed by cheaper rent and nightlife. The area still maintains such an allure, I realised as I watched painted twenty-somethings barhop the Rua Aspicuelta’s many bars, something that is apparently also done during the day. Meanwhile, crowds filter into separate Latino Samba classes that are held every evening.  

São Paulo is the home to both artists who choose the walls on the Beco de Batman, and to large-scale muralists. The internationally acclaimed muralist, Eduardi Kobra, started out his career here two decades ago. Kobra has since contributed to a boom in turning the surrounding grey buildings into big, brightly coloured, poetic canvases.

I could see why my guide described São Paulo as a free open-air gallery as I was given a birds-eye view from the Joao Goulart Elevated Highway. Known by locals as the ‘Minhocão’ (‘the worm’), the elevated highway becomes pedestrianised at weekends, allowing one to walk and view the murals from above.

A green haven

As I looked done, I quickly became captivated by a ginormous, sprouting plant, and what looked like an Egyptian mummy, with tarmac road instead of bandages.  

The all-empowering epicentre of cosmopolitan São Paulo is Parque do Ibirapuera, inaugurated in 1954 for the 400th anniversary of São Paulo. Expanding for hundreds of acres, it is a green haven found in the centre of the city’s concrete jungle. Unlike other cities where each neighbourhood has its own green space, São Paulo only has the central Parque do Ibirapuera which brings together an eclectic grouping of people.

Crowds gather and lie around the large lake in the middle of the park as a hum of noises come from people playing basketball on the privatised, Jordan’s basketball courts, or football on Nike’s football grounds.  

The tastes of São Paulo

When deliberating where to eat, I was astounded by an endless supply of suggestions from large luxury restaurants in the heart of the city to restaurants hidden down electrified small alleys. It was, firstly, quickly made clear that cuisine was highly regarded on São Paulo’s priorities and, secondly, justified the staggering figure of an estimated 12 500 restaurants and 15 000 bars in São Paulo alone. Choosing the Pinherios neighbourhood, I experienced an enticing, sensory overload.

My pupils adjusted to the bright lights whilst my ears attempted to concentrate on my conversation as a sea of chatter surrounded us from the buzzing restaurants. My sense of smell was in overdrive as I was hit by smells from a variety of freshly cooked cuisine.

One can try nearly every kind of Brazilian regional cuisine in São Paulo, almost entirely created with locally sourced foods from areas around the city. Accompanied by the staple beans and rice, enjoy the hearty food from the Minas Gerais state to the spicey dishes of Salvador in the northeast.  

As our hunger peaked in Largo da Batata, we turned into Fitó, a restaurant famous for being a strong advocate of gender inclusion inside and outside of the kitchen. With only female employees, the restaurant serves north-eastern food from Piauí. Sitting on the outdoor terrace, I chatted to the head chef Cafira Foz about using the restaurant as a space to support gender equality in the workplace, as she recounted the importance of women leaders in her life.  

On the menu: the delicious, traditional beef paçoca, a mixture of beef and manioc flour crushed together with a pestle and mortar; fish; pork ribs and sun-dried ribs. Dating back to indigenous traditions, these popular dishes were accompanied by baião de dois, the Brazilian dish of boiled rice with string beans and topped with mouth-watering, melted coalho cheese. 

Retiring at a bohemian bar, called a boteco, I sat at a table amongst the bustling crowd. As I sipped on a glass of Cachaça, I came to the realisation that São Paulo really has an endless list of offerings. There is something for everyone.  

Getting around 

While there are taxis and Ubers, the São Paulo Metropolitan Rail Transport Network, made up of 15 lines and nearly 200 stations, is the largest urban rail system in Latin America and caters to five million passengers every day. Stations are easy to navigate, written in both English and Portuguese, and despite the size of some of the stations, there is clear signage.  

Safety 

English is commonly spoken, however, as a Brazilian megalopolis, some caution should be exercised. Stick to tourist areas and, as everywhere, be careful of petty crime and walking alone at night.  

Currency  

Unlike some other South American countries, US Dollars are rarely accepted in Brazil. The local currency used is the Brazilian Real or reais (plural), and it is recommended that you have some reais in cash.

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