São Paulo does not win beauty contests. The megacity prefers to leave that to Rio de Janeiro. Instead, the „New York of South America“ scores with cultural diversity and a great nightlife.
Avenida Paulista – where the heart of São Paulo beats
The road that is almost three kilometers long is a place of superlatives. As one of the finest addresses in the country and a symbol of Brazil’s economic power, not only the modernist office buildings but also the real estate prices reach dizzying heights here. Financial companies, law firms and cultural institutions based on the Paulista are among the top players.
But the Avenida is not only interesting for business, it is also a magnet for visitors. In addition to shopping centres, good restaurants, cafés, cinemas and theatres, the Avenida is home to the Museum of Art („MASP“) with the most comprehensive collection of Latin America and changing exhibitions. If you are interested in further good exhibitions, you are at the right address in one of the many Paulista cultural centres, for example in the „FIESP“, „Itaú Cultural“ or „Reserva Cultural“.
A bit out of the ordinary – architecturally speaking – is the cultural centre „Casa das Rosas“ with one of the most beautiful rose gardens in the city and many art exhibitions and concerts. The style of the mansion, built in the early 1930s, is reminiscent of the era of the coffee barons, who used to reside in expensive villas on the Paulista. However, from the 1950s onwards, these buildings had to make way for high-rise buildings.
For those who need a breather, it is best to rest in the shady „Parque Siqueira Campos“ („Trianon“) under 300 year old trees and enjoy the heavenly silence before continuing.
Museum of Fine Arts
With its extensive art collection, the Museum of Fine Arts („MASP“) on the Avenida Paulista is a must on every sightseeing tour. The building alone is worth seeing, even if it seems to have aged: it is probably the only building in the world that – supported by four lateral columns – „floats“ freely above the ground at a height of more than 70 metres.
The exhibits in the „MASP“, which was founded in 1947 and completed in 1968, not only inspire museum enthusiasts. Those less interested in art also get their money’s worth, for example with the constantly changing exhibitions. But the museum is particularly famous for its important collection of Western art – the most extensive in all of Latin America and probably even in the entire southern hemisphere.
All the great painters of different styles are represented here, such as Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Botticelli, Cranach, Goya, Velázquez, Renoir, Cézanne, Degas, Monet, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. The museum also houses an extensive collection of Brazilian art, works from Africa and Asia, as well as archaeological finds – an estimated total of over 8,000 exhibits – and one of the country’s largest art libraries.
If you go to the „MASP“ on Sunday, you can then stroll through the antique market „Feira de Antiguidades do Vão do MASP“, where all kinds of antiques are sold. The stands are – strategically located – almost all under the museum superstructure, so that the umbrella can remain in the bag in case of heavy rain.
Market Hall „Mercado Municipal
From six o’clock in the morning, there’s a high spirits in the famous Mercado Municipal market hall in the old city centre of São Paulo. In this beautifully renovated eclectic 1930s building, which sells fresh and dried foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, spices and cereal products from all over Brazil, you should simply drift along and enjoy the flair of the exotic – and clean – market.
Gourmets spend hours at the probably more than 300 stalls and can’t get enough of the many tropical fruits, which can almost always be tasted. And it’s also worth looking up – at the colourful, huge windows that tell the story of the coffee industry and other food productions in Brazil.
But the Paulistanos do not only meet on the Mercado to shop, but also to feast. As in the whole of São Paulo, tasty fried dumplings (pastels) filled with palmito (palm heart), bacalhau (stockfish), meat, cheese or fish are offered, for example in the „Hocca Bar“. Or you can opt for the city’s classic – the mortadella sandwich in the „Bar do Mané“. Other stands tempt with fresh fruit juices, even more snacks and „Caldo de Cana“ (fresh sugar cane juice): the calorie bomb tastes super delicious and is highly appreciated as a natural source of energy.
On Sundays, a visit to the market hall is particularly worthwhile, as there is live music then. The Paulistanos like to drink an ice-cold beer and eat petiscos (snacks).
The Ibirapue Park
Park Ibirapuera is – how could it be otherwise in São Paulo – of course not only the green lung of the city: here too, the visitor encounters highlights from the worlds of culture and science. To get to know all the sights, one day is by far not enough. For most Paulistanos, walking and doing sports are their first priority. During the week they hardly see any green, which is largely due to the long, time-consuming commuting to work.
In the Parque do Ibirapuera, which opened its doors for the 400th anniversary of the city in 1954, cycle paths, jogging trails, tennis courts and football pitches invite you to do sports and shady paths invite you to go for a walk. Relax and picnic at the three artificial lakes. Vendors offer drinks, ice cream and snacks on the main paths. Street artists make children and adults laugh or marvel. And music sounds from everywhere.
In honour of the Brazilians of Japanese descent, who number an estimated 700,000 in the State of São Paulo, the Japanese community donated a Japanese-made replica of the Imperial Katsura Palace in Kyoto on a 7,500-square-metre site in 1954. The building has a banqueting hall for tea ceremonies, a permanent exhibition on Japanese culture from 1000 AD onwards, beautiful gardens and a carp pond.
And there are some interesting museums in the park, like the Afro-Brazilian Museum or the Museum of Modern Art ( MAM ). With works by Brazilian modernists and exhibits by Chagall, Miró and Picasso, the „MAM“ is one of the most important museums of modern art in Brazil. Inaugurated in 1948, it is the oldest museum of modern art in Latin America.
The oldest planetarium in Brazil, founded in 1957, promises experiences of a completely different kind. Its 18-meter diameter dome can be seen glowing from afar. The hall in the planetarium seats 300 people; you should find out in advance about the times of the tours – as well as evening performances and concerts in the park.
Already in front of the entrance of the „Museu Afro Brasil“, there is a lot going on at the weekend: here, Capoeira artists show their skills, accompanied by hot rhythms and cheers of the spectators. So that nobody from the enthusiastic audience starves to death (which is impossible in São Paulo anyway), a saleswoman from Bahia in northeast Brazil offers typical specialties of her region, for example Acarajé (balls of ground beans, crabs and spices). The queue in front of her stall is always quite long, although the waiting is not so bad because of the high entertainment value.
Then it’s off to the museum. The pavilion „Manoel da Nóbrega“, inaugurated in 1953, where the museum is located, was designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The „Museu Afro Brasil“, which has been in existence since 2004, is a public institution with social obligations; admission is free. In a vivid way, it brings the history of the Afro-Brazilian population – from slavery to the present day – to life again.
The building houses more than 3,000 objects of Afro-Brazilian cultures – including pictures, sculptures, woodcuts, books, videos, photos and documents from the 15th century to the present day. With the help of exhibits by Brazilian and foreign artists, the visitor is introduced to different aspects of Afro-Brazilian life, such as work, religion, art, slavery. At the same time, it is also about the African influence on Brazilian society … all in all, a museum that makes its guests think.
Old centre with cathedral
Although the old centre of São Paulo (Centro) is a little down-and-out, nobody should miss to visit the plaza „Praça da Sé“ with its cathedral („Sé“). The area is best visited in daylight and without an expensive camera, as there are, beside businessmen and employees, also pickpockets.
The plaza is the heart of the old São Paulo, and many times, the Paulistanos mean, when they speak about the „Centro“, the „Praça da Sé“. History was written here: Many important rallies and events took place on the Praça. In the centre is the small marble obelisk „Marco Zero“, created in 1934. From this geographical centre of the city, the distances of all places that can be reached by motorway from São Paulo are calculated.
The „Catedral Metropolitana de São Paulo“ or also „Catedral Metropolitana da Sé“ of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of the city – short „Sé“ – gives the square a little bit of glamour. Although it is adorned by a Renaissance-style dome, some consider it one of the four largest neo-Gothic cathedrals in the world. After two other churches (built in 1616 and 1764) had already stood in its place and were demolished, the construction of the current cathedral began in 1913. Apart from the towers, the work was completed in 1954.
The interior of the church with its beautiful mosaics in Byzantine style is definitely worth a visit. On a guided tour, guests may also visit the crypt, where the graves of archbishops and the mortal remains of historical personalities, such as Chief Tibiriçá, are located.
Soccer Museum „Museu do Futebol
For soccer fans, the modern soccer museum under the stands of the „Estádio Paulo Machado de Carvalho“ stadium (better known as „Estádio do Pacaembu“) is one of the absolute highlights of a stay. Even less soccer fans rave about the multimedia museum, which was inaugurated in 2008, because it reflects all the enthusiasm of the Brazilians for their favourite sport and transmits it to the visitors.
On almost 7,000 square meters, guests can learn more about the present and past of the soccer that has shaped the Brazilians and made Brazil famous. And as in the many other museums in São Paulo, there is no room for boredom. On video pillars set up for each World Cup, interesting information about the respective World Cup and the political events of the time can be found.
Old radio recordings of soccer matches from times when not everyone had a television are a feast for the ears. Here Brazilian reporters comment on the game and especially the goals. You almost have the impression that you are there yourself when you hear the uproarious soccer fans. Visitors can also embark on a cultural journey through the various eras of world history. Or they can take action themselves, for example by taking a penalty kick at a virtual goal.
Although the area is not without its problems, many European and North American tourists are attracted to the slightly run-down but all the more fascinating „Liberdade“ district. There is no city outside Japan where more Japanese live than in São Paulo (in the greater São Paulo area there are probably about 500,000); many people have their home in „Liberdade“.
The district is situated not far from the problem district „Praça do Sé“. Therefore, one should keep an eye on one’s valuables or not take them at all. The subway stops strategically under the large Sunday market, where Asian food, jewelry, toys, cosmetics, talismans, amulets, handicrafts, massages and much more are offered. It is almost impossible not to discover anything that you could not somehow use. Who finds absolutely nothing: …there’s no way you’re wrong about a little frog in your wallet. The Japanese consider frogs to be a lucky charm … and who knows if the presence of the little fellow in your wallet will have a positive effect on your finances?
If you want to see more of „Liberdade“, just join the crowd moving towards „Rua Galvão Bueno“. This shopping street is very popular with the Paulistanos, because Asian shops and restaurants, some with small Japanese gardens, line up here like pearls. If you don’t trust the powers of the lucky frogs after all, you can also ask a fortune teller about your future in the street. On Sundays, however, the old man is especially in demand and you have to allow for waiting times. Or you can consult his friend, who is just as old, who will suggest alternative dates.
The museum „Museu da Imigração Japonesa“ on the seventh floor of an office tower rounds off the visit to „Liberdade“. Here you can learn more about the life of Japanese immigrants through photos, documents and impressive replicas, for example of an immigrant farmhouse.
Noble quarter „Jardins“
In the immediate vicinity of the busy „Avenida Paulista“ you find „Jardins“. This elegant district is loved by Paulistanos and Europeans alike: by Brazilians because they can shop and go out in style here; and by Europeans also because they feel a little more at home in „Jardins“ than in the collapsing traffic of other districts:
Instead of rushing through the quarter by car, you can stroll comfortably along the shopping street here. You can take your time to have a look at the small but fine boutiques, stop for a bite to eat in hip restaurants, admire the latest works of the Brazilian artist Romero Britto or eat ice cream in the street café.
In „Jardins“ it is hard not to succumb to the shopping frenzy. On the top shopping street „Oscar Freire“, for example, the shoe temple „Galeria Melissa“ with shoe models in unusual designs attracts shoppers. The noble brand „Iodice“ from São Paulo offers exclusive women’s and men’s fashion, also at the „Oscar Freire“. In addition to luxury boutiques, however, you will also find shops with a witty, unusual range of products and cleverly decorated shop windows – and a few very interesting bookstores, where top-class writers are often invited to readings.
When it comes to restaurants, gourmets agree: the varied range of fresh, high-quality food in „Jardins“ cannot be topped. There is no cuisine in this multicultural quarter that does not influence the creations of the chefs in some way. One of the most famous restaurants with excellent dishes is the „DOM“, where master chef Alex Atala uses ingredients from the region for his creative fusion dishes. For example, duck breast with banana or gnocchi in oxtail sauce is served here. At the „Antiquarius“, the wealthy guest can expect not only the highest Portuguese elegance, but also Portuguese cuisine at its best.
Retro Bar „Terraço Itália“
High above the roofs of the skyscrapers – on the 41st floor of the „Edifício Itália“ in downtown São Paulo – you feel like you’re on cloud nine. Because the view from the trendy restaurant „Terraço Itália“ over the almost endless sea of houses is unique. You could spit on the roof of a helicopter if the windows were open, because they fly past below the restaurant.
The Italian house „Edifício Itália“, with 168 meters height and 46 floors São Paulo’s second highest building, is only topped by the 170 meters high „Mirante do Vale“, the highest building of the city and the whole country. Interestingly, the „Italian Building“ was designed by the German-Brazilian architect Franz Heep and opened in 1965.
The „Terraço Itália“ is typical for São Paulo: The retrochic of the restaurant with its brown leather armchairs does indeed give rise to nostalgic feelings. But the huge windows, which reach from floor to ceiling and allow a 360-degree panoramic view, teach the guest a better lesson. Here too, Brazil shows just how modern it is.
But if you want to enjoy the restaurant’s top location, you have to dig a little deeper into your pockets: The prices for the food are peppered and in addition there is an additional 13 Euros „entrance fee“. Alternatively, you can order a drink at the bar, which can be expensive but very exotic – like caipirinha with basil and sake.
Nevertheless: nothing is cheap in São Paulo. Therefore, one should not worry about money but simply enjoy the great view and the nice atmosphere.
More articles on Brazil
Brazil: The most amazing cities »
Brazil: The most beautiful beaches »
Top travel destinations in South America »