Some people just use Sao Paulo as the entry point to Brazil - but it offers fabulous restaurants, shopping paradise and bags of history, all wrapped up in a fascinating mix of cultures
As buildings go, it’s not much to write home about. A pretty nondescript place, to be honest, in a not very attractive part of the city. But it remains one of the most iconic buildings in Brazil. Why? Because this was the place that made Brazil such a multicultural country, where nearly three million German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese immigrants passed through on their way to making Brazil their home. In fact today, Sao Paulo has the biggest Japanese community in the world outside Japan.
This historic building is now the Museum of Immigration and inside, many stories unfold in pictures that give you a real sense of what it must have been like for the families passing through its doors. In a storyline that’s not too distant from New York’s Ellis Island immigrant processing, working people came to this city to build a new life for themselves on the back of the rubber and coffee industries and as a result their legacy is the powerhouse it is today.
Sao Paulo is a vast metropolis of industry, corporates and technology, where there are more restaurants than taxis, and seemingly more cars per square foot than anywhere on earth. It may not have the valleys and beaches of Rio but make no mistake: with over 11 million people, most of them immigrants, you can begin to understand that this huge mix of cultures and backgrounds provides a diverse and intoxicating canvas of life. Not unlike New York in fact.
Sao Paulo is also an historic treasure trove. There are many parts of it similar to Victorian London, with wide grassy parks complete with round bandstands and lakes, like Ibirapuera Park and Luz railway station, which is the mirror image of the original Paddington in London. But there’s much more.
During the massive coffee boom of the late 1800s, the coffee barons built magnificent mansions all along Avenida Paulista, the once posh main spine that runs through the city; a sort of London Park Lane lookalike. And today it is still the best place to orient yourself around. It was all once very grand but sadly, when the boom bust, and land was needed to house all the immigrants, most of the wonderful buildings were torn down and high rise accommodation built instead. Glimpses of it are still here though;in fact there is a McDonald 's housed in a beautiful former mansion that is a sight to behold.
That said, the Avenida still has a cachet about it, particularly around the Jardins area which retains a real bohemian, arty atmosphere. It’s around here that you’ll find lots of young people doing what young people do, particularly at night, but it’s a great place to stroll around and enjoy the unique atmosphere. It is here that you’ll find the only poussada in SP, the Dona Zilha. A lovely old house tucked away in a side street, it offers outstanding value just a stone’s throw from Avenida Paulista.
What makes SP great is its world class restaurants, the way Paulistanos (as the people of SP like to call themselves) live their life, and the exposure to just about everything and anything you can think of. Whatever your tastes you’ll find something here. The best example has its roots in Italy but its home is most definitely Brazil and that, my friends, is the Rodrizio de Pizza. A simple but highly popular way of eating (rodrizio is the eating system where waiters keep bringing meat/pizza/sushi to your table until you signal you’ve finished), this is pizza heaven. Not only do you get starter and main course pizzas but also dessert pizzas, like chocolate, banana, cinnamon. And they just keep on coming until you can’t take another bite. You’ll find them all over the city and once tried you wont' be able to keep away!
It’s certainly not a walking city, but it’s a city of bustling, booming pockets of developments, like Liberdade, where most of the Japanese live, and Bixiga, which these days is mostly an Italian district. Morumbi is a business area with the likes of Microsoft, IBM and a host of global names. To shop till you drop is one way to describe Morumbi’s chic designer shopping mall, which quite conveniently has a fantastic Hilton to complement it. It is a stunning hotel with a breathtaking health club atop its peak, giving you a view of the city that will be hard to match anywhere else.
A trip to the municipal market (Mercado Central) is also a must-do, making sure that you get to eat delicious cod pastries (pastel de bacalhau) or mortadella sandwiches, like true Paulistanos. Check out the stained glass windows on the 1933 neo-gothic Romanesque building.
SP has a reasonably efficient underground metro system but to really become a true Paulistano, a bus ride is mandatory. Just watching how a bus navigates its way round the ridiculous amount of traffic is worth the admission money alone.
So, Sao Paolo is not just the place to fly into Brazil and then leave - it’s a city well worth a few days' exploring because as a tourist destination it is truly underrated.
D.O.M (Rua Barão de Capanema, 549) - owned by awarded chef Alex Atala.
Fasano (Rua Vitorio Fasano, 88) - a São Paulo classic.
Le Vin Bistrô (Alameda Tietê, 184) - reservation until 8:30pm.