When I began preparing for a work trip to São Paulo, my expectations were quickly tempered: The city does not come up as a destination of choice. It is sprawling, congested, scruffy, expensive (many of the visitors are business travelers who stick to the ultra-luxurious hotels and restaurants), and not altogether coherent. There are more beautiful, more charismatic places to see in the country. Still, a week there, and I fell in love, thanks in large part to my Brazilian colleagues who pointed me toward their hometown favorites.
Here are the 5 São Paulo spots I enjoyed in particular, each one a pleasant surprise.
1. Daybreak chants at São Bento: Listening to the Gregorian chants at the São Bento Monastery, just as the city around began to awaken and prepare for its workday, is one of my most vivid travel memories. I described that morning here. It was simple, spontaneous, and, for the sincerity of the moment, surprisingly moving.
Refreshed and elated, I then walked to São Paulo’s other grand institution, Catedral da Sé, the largest cathedral in South America (by metro, it is only one stop away on the Blue Line). As you approach Sé along the palm-lined alley, its soaring lines do ruffle the senses, and the small chapels around, backed by an eclectic cityscape, are colorful–together, a picturesque postscript to a charmed morning.
2. Strolling through the Ibirapuera Park: São Paulo’s Central Park, Ibirapuera marked the city’s 400th birthday when it opened in 1954. This cultural and verdant oasis has it all: several world class museums, including the impressive MAM (Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo) and Museu Afro Brasil, a Planetarium (in 1957, the first planetarium in Latin America), and miles of greenery and picture-perfect lakes. I was there on a pleasant mid-autumn day, so every corner of the park seemed to be steeped in dappled sunlight and enjoyed by couples, families, bikers, joggers, students, tourists, and birds–lots and lots of birds.
3. The Mercado Municipal de São Paulo (Municipal Market of São Paulo): I think I would have been a little intimidated to come to the Market by myself–the area around, I was told at my hotel, is edgy. Accompanied by a Brazilian colleague on a weekday afternoon, though, I felt safe, but conscious of my purse, and he did ask me not to take too many pictures.
We arrived by metro, a great alternative to the omnipresent taxis that get expensive because of the constantly clogged traffic (this area is close to the São Bento Monastery–in fact, the best way to arrive here by public transport is to get off on São Bento or Luz stops along the metro’s Blue Line). Metro delivered us to the bustling Rua 25 de Março. The street is named after the date when the Brazilian Constitution was published–25 March 1824. It is one of the oldest streets in São Paulo. Today, it plays host to Latin America’s largest outdoor market. Around Christmas, anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people pass through here. On a Wednesday afternoon in May it was merely lively with a myriad of disparate stores and street sellers calling out to potential customers, supervised from afar by regular police posts.
Our destination, the covered market, is housed in an imposing neo-Classical structure, softened by 72 stained glass panels. The panels, depicting the idyllic joys of farming and industry, are by Sorgenicht Conrad Filho, a transplant from Russia who also decorated Catedral da Sé. Inside, the world of plenty awaits, a phantasmagoria of exotic fruits, pastries, meats, drinks, spices, cheeses, and prepared gourmet treats. Sellers offer you to try any and all of this–and you should. If you are still hungry, head to the market’s second floor with its restaurants and cafes. There you can enjoy fresh local favorites while overseeing the breathing, moving, stirring drama below. I loved my snack of bolinho de bacalhau, salt codfish fritters, a fitting accompaniment to a cold afternoon beer.
4. Liberdade: Having had our fill with the practiced chaos of the Municipal Market, we hopped on the metro again just as rush hour began to heat up (by the way, I liked São Paulo’s metro–it is crowded but orderly. The setup reminded me of the vast but efficient Tokyo metro system). Our trusty Blue Line brought us to Liberdade, the city’s Japantown. The district’s name means “freedom”: In the times of African slave trade, it was here that rebel slaves were publicly executed, finding their only path to liberty. In the early 20th century, Japanese immigrants flocked to Brazil to work at coffee plantations, many eventually settling in this area, now the world’s largest Japanese community outside of Japan. Other Asian immigrants settled here as well. Liberdade today is a kaleidoscope of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and other Asian restaurants, markets, and shops. One day, I would love to be here for one of the many festivals that brighten the district in every season. For now, I enjoyed takoyaki, a delicious savory street snack with calamari, made before me and just for me at a tiny family-owned hole-in-the-wall eatery.
5. Vila Madelena: On my last afternoon in São Paulo, a colleague drove me to Vila Madelena, an upscale bohemian haven in the city. It felt like a different place: Instead of São Paulo’s flat concrete jungle, this was a picturesque hilly community, drowning in flowers, fetching street art (it is too neatly in sync with its surroundings to be graffiti), tastefully funky boutiques, quirky cafes, and colorful restaurants with idyllic open air courtyards. I felt closer to the city’s less polished areas, but this was a sunny afternoon much enjoyed.
Together, these five faces of São Paulo left me interested. This loud, sprawling, incoherent metropolis is worthy of a second look, even in a country with so much to offer like Brazil. Give it a try.