SAO PAULO (Reuters) - If your idea of Brazil is beaches and bikinis, São Paulo is not the place to go. That’s what Rio de Janeiro is for.
But if you’re a seasoned traveler who tends to shun traditional tourism hot spots for urban adventures off the beaten trail, then put Brazil’s biggest city on your bucket list.
A sprawling metropolitan area of nearly 20 million people, São Paulo is sometimes referred to as the New York of South America. While the comparison may be a bit overstated, Brazil's business capital boasts a rich cultural life and a bar and restaurant scene that rival the world's premier cities. (Map: goo.gl/maps/3UJKd)
It is also Brazil’s most global city, with long-established immigrant communities from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Japan and the Middle East. More recently it has attracted waves of immigrants from west Africa, China, Haiti and neighboring Spanish-speaking countries such as Bolivia and Peru, giving it a distinctly international vibe felt nowhere else in Latin America.
Antonio Carlos Jobim, the late singer-songwriter who was the godfather of bossa nova, once famously said, “Brazil is not for beginners.” That rings particularly true in São Paulo, whose sheer size, helter-skelter urban blueprint and epic traffic jams can wear down even the most experienced globetrotter.
But that chaos is also São Paulo’s allure. Whereas Rio’s natural beauty overwhelms the senses, São Paulo plays hard to get. It takes time and tenacity to discover its many charms, but once you do, you’ll feel like you’ve joined a select club of travelers who have cracked one of the world’s toughest cities.
Soccer fans will get a chance to do so in June and July, when São Paulo will hold six World Cup games at a brand-new stadium on the city’s long-neglected east side. In addition to the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, the stadium will host Uruguay vs England, Netherlands vs Chile, South Korea vs Belgium, plus a Round of 16 showdown and a semi-final.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to São Paulo from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
What São Paulo lacks in beaches and beauty, it makes up for in food. From world-class haute cuisine to simple but satisfying lunch buffets where you pay by the weight of your serving, there is something for just about every appetite and wallet size.
True to its immigrant roots, São Paulo has long been known for Italian cantinas, Japanese sushi bars and authentic Lebanese food. Until recently, however, one cuisine that the city’s restaurant scene largely lacked was, oddly enough, Brazilian.
That changed in the last decade, thanks to a group of chefs whose passion for local ingredients spawned a Brazilian food revolution that put São Paulo on the global gourmet map.
At the forefront of this movement is Alex Atala, a tattoo-loving celebrity chef whose restaurant D.O.M. in the swanky Jardins district ranks sixth on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list sponsored by Britain’s Restaurant magazine. If you have deep pockets and you’re lucky enough to secure a reservation, D.O.M.’s eight-course tasting menu will take your palate on a tour of the Amazon. (www.domrestaurante.com.br)
For a more down-to-earth Brazilian food experience, try Tordesilhas about six blocks away. This place serves up regional classics and caipirinhas, the national cocktail made from a sugarcane spirit called cachaça and your choice of fruit. If you’re in a group, get the barreado, a succulent beef feast that simmers in a sealed clay pot for 14 hours. (www.tordesilhas.com)
Two other flag-bearers of São Paulo’s Brazilian food movement are Brasil a Gosto (www.brasilagosto.com.br), a stone’s throw from D.O.M., and Mocotó (www.mocoto.com.br), where chef Rodrigo Oliveira turned his father’s eatery on the city’s unglamorous north side into a mecca for frugal foodies. It’s well worth the 30-plus minute taxi ride from downtown.
Another long-overlooked cuisine that has taken São Paulo by storm in recent years is Portuguese. For a taste of the sun-baked shores of the Algarve, order the grilled sardines and octopus rice at Taberna 474, a lively resto-bar with a mouth-watering wine list in Jardim Paulistano. (www.taberna474.com.br)
Other popular newcomers to the city’s food scene hail from Brazil’s Andean neighbors. Suri, a Peruvian ceviche bar run by a Colombian chef, draws a hipster crowd and is packed on weekends. Wash down your meal with a pisco sour, the cocktail that both Peru and Chile claim as their own. (www.suri.com.br)
Make no mistake, the automobile is king is São Paulo. There are almost 6 million cars, more than a million motorcycles and nearly 34,000 taxis on the congested streets, causing up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) of gridlock at rush hour on a bad night.
Fortunately, some of the city’s most interesting attractions are best discovered on foot. Just be careful when crossing the street, because Brazilian motorists rarely stop for pedestrians.
For a walking tour of old downtown, take the metro on a weekday to São Bento, the historic monastery that Pope Benedict XVI visited on a trip to Brazil in 2007.
From there, stroll through the center’s maze of pedestrian streets and take in the architecture of a more elegant São Paulo of yesteryear, including the Depression-era Martinelli building, the city’s first skyscraper. (www.prediomartinelli.com.br)
Other must-see downtown landmarks: the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center (www.bb.com.br/cultura), which hosts art exhibits and cultural events for free in a beautiful building from 1901; and the Municipal Theater, a recently restored gem from 1911 that houses the São Paulo Symphonic Orchestra.
When hunger sets in, walk a few more blocks and get the lunch special at Bar da Dona Onça, another exponent of the Brazilian food movement. (www.bardadonaonca.com.br) It is located in one of São Paulo’s most iconic buildings, the curvy Edifício Copan designed in 1954 by the late Oscar Niemeyer.
After lunch, grab a cab and head over to the art deco Pacaembu Stadium, which houses one of the city’s most beloved museums. Opened in 2008, the Museu do Futebol is a shrine to soccer that uses interactive technology to chronicle the history of Brazil’s national pastime. (www.museudofutebol.org.br)
Another good spot for a walk is Avenida Paulista, the quintessential São Paulo postcard. Once a sleepy residential boulevard where coffee barons built lavishly ornate mansions, today it is a bustling thoroughfare lined with skyscrapers, stores and, this being São Paulo, restaurants.
Spend a Saturday exploring Vila Madalena, a hilly bohemian enclave of bars, art galleries and shops. Make sure to sample the tropical fruits on offer at the farmer’s market on Rua Mourato Coelho, and eventually circle back to Rua Fidalga for a traditional feijoada lunch at Bar Filial. (www.barfilial.com.br)
If you weren’t lucky enough to score any World Cup tickets, don’t despair. It might be just as fun to watch the games at Filial or any other of the dozens of botecos - as Brazilian bars are called - scattered around Vila Madalena. Another local favorite is São Cristóvão, where the walls and ceilings are lined with sports memorabilia and the waiters wear throwback soccer shirts. This may very well have been the loudest place in the city when Brazil last won a World Cup in 2002.
If you’re not in a food coma by now, wind up your trip with a nightcap at Skye Bar on the roof of Hotel Unique, a boat-shaped boutique hotel designed by the Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake. The drinks at Skye are expensive, but what you’re really paying for is the stunning view of the never-ending São Paulo skyline. (www.hotelunique.com.br)
Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman