A month ago today I was in very rainy São Paulo, eating a gigantic mortadella sandwich (more about this below) and marvelling at this grey city, which has so much to offer. Let me set something straight though: São Paulo is not exactly what one would call a beautiful city. Its buildings stretch towards the sky, as if trying to make a connection to a God that might have forsaken the many poor of the city. Bursts of colour appear here and there, but especially when one thinks of the other iconic Brazilian city – Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo pales. What the city does have plenty of though, is an impressive art scene, mouth-watering food and great restaurants, and music – lots of music. For the scope of this article though, I´ll focus on seven fun things to do in this enormous and intimidating city of contrasts.
1. Walk the Avenida Paulista and see the city from above the SESC building
The Avenida Paulista is São Paulo´s main boulevard stretching over almost 3km from northwest to southeast of the city. It is the headquarters of important financial and cultural institutions, home to quite a few shopping malls and countless bars and restaurants. Built in 1891, the boulevard became the first paved street of the city in 1909. Nowadays it is surrounded by tall and mostly grey skyscrapers, and allegedly frequented by up to 100,000 vehicles on a daily basis, as well as an estimated 800,000 commuters. And the best way to observe it in all its glory is from the top of the SESC building. If you´re a local, you should book your visit online through their app. If you´re a tourist you can just tell them that fact at the entry, so that they generate a special ticket (free of charge) for you, and let you ride the elevator to the last floor on the next toured visit. Visits happen every 30 minutes and you only get 30 minutes to marvel at the view, take some pictures and time-lapses and enjoy a coffee (they have a pretty basic cafeteria on the rooftop).
Note: While it´s a lot of fun to walk the Avenida Paulista on a Sunday when the boulevard is closed for traffic and no cars can pass, it´s more impressive to observe it from above the SESC building on a regular day when traffic is flowing.
2. Visit the MASP – São Paulo´s Main Art Museum
While you´re on the Avenida Paulista, take some two hours to visit the city´s main art museum, the MASP. This embodiment of modern Brazilian architecture opened to the public in 1947 and stretched over two floors, displaying works of art by Picasso, Rembrand and many more. This was the first Brazilian institution interested in actually acquiring modern art. And acquiring it it did. Its collection travelled the world, reaching (amongst others) NY´s Met Museum, London´s Tate Gallery and Paris´ Orangerie. The main collection on the top floor is more static than the temporary exhibits on the first one and I personally preferred it. There you find everything from Hieronymus Bosch to Van Gogh and Eliseu Visconti paintings. Fun fact: In late 2007, three robbers stole a Cândido Portinari and a Pablo Picasso painting worth about 55 million dollars. All in a record 3 minutes. The paintings were luckily recovered days later.
Note: Book your ticket online. The regular price for adults is 50 BRL (a little short of 10€), but the entry is free every Tuesday and on the first Wednesday of the month (you still need to book online though, even these free entries are limited).
3. Take a Bike Ride Through The Jardim Paulista and The Ibirapuera Park
I admit that when I first heard about the Jardim Paulista I thought it was an actual garden or a park It actually turned out to be an entire district, my personal favourite part being the southern one leading up to the Ibirapuera Park. The streets there will make you feel like you´re in an urban jungle. Rather wide but with low traffic and beautiful houses on both parts, these streets have plenty of vegetation, amongst which some fantastic trees with orchids growing on them. And while personally I haven´t seen any monkeys roaming around those trees, if I did, I would find it perfectly normal. You can either bike through this dreamy neighbourhood, or walk until you´ve reached the park. Once in the park though, I really recommend you rent a bike or a family tricycle, it´s such great fun to drive it around it, passing underneath trees resembling Harry Potter´s Whomping Willow! A family tricycle costs 20 BRL for the first hour and 10 BRL for every additional 30 minutes. We needed less than an hour to drive around the entire park so that was less than 4€. Ok, add a coconut we bought for another 1.35€ to it. What a treat!
Note: A perfect way of passing time in the park is also grabbing a blanket and sitting by the water reading or picnicking.
4. Visit the Mercadão (on an empty belly!)
Open every day of the week from 6am to 6pm (except for Sundays when it closes at 4pm), the Mercadão is São Paulo´s main indoor market and it is an explosion of colours and flavours. It´s as if all the grey of the city needed to be compensated with a rainbow of goods in the mercadão. Merchants sell their goods (think exotic fruits, nuts, sausages, fish, cheese and much much more) on the ground floor of this building from 1933, while the top floor is reserved for restaurants. The building in itself is pretty cool, with beautifully painted windows, but the actual attraction are 1. the fruits and 2. the mortadella sandwich. Let´s start with the fruits. You´ll find every fruit of the world here, and the merchants selling them will promise you that each cherry they sell is the best cherry you´ll ever eat. The best part? You don´t need to trust their word, they love giving you fruit to taste in an attempt to make you buy them. Now I am not against buying them, but I do want to warn you that the prices are quite inflated. Me personally, I tried everything I was given, so by the time I managed to get upstairs to the mortadella sandwich I was already SO FULL! But the mortadella sandwich, oh the mortadella sandwich. It is 1. pretty famous and a landmark of the city and 2. an absolute abomination. So of course we shoved it down our throats. I recommend you split one, and that you have it with a cold glass of beer. Preferably eaten either at Mané or at Mortadela Brasil, always with Ceratti mortadella.
5. Stroll Through the Japanese Neighbourhood (Bairro Liberdade)
São Paulo´s Japanese neighbourhood is a quite iconic landmark that every Paulista will recommend you check out. And while I was absolutely not blown away by it (I even felt a bit unsafe while here – but that´s just me), I did find the story it tells quite interesting, so it made it to my list. I recommend you start off with the Museum of Japanese Immigration to understand the context of the large Japanese community in Brazil. The entry is free of charge on Wednesdays, or 16 BRL (less than 3€) on any other day. Here you´ll learn about the first Japanese immigrants that arrived on Brasilian soil at the beginning of the 1900s to work on the coffee plantations which were left behind by the now emancipated slaves, and how they became the community they are today. Next, you can walk the streets under the red lanterns, gawking at the many Asian stores and restaurants around you. You better stop for a ramen at one of the many fantastic restaurants there, and go buy some cheap but beautifully painted chopsticks at one of the huge stores there.
6. Buy Some Art in the Beco do Batman and have a drink in Vila Madalena
What started off with a Batman graffiti on a wall, allegedly painted by an art student in the 1980s, became a whole art movement and created a little neighbourhood of colourful streets full of graffitis. Local community members care for the ever changing graffitis. You´ll also find artists displaying their work for sale on the narrow alleyways, and they´ll be more than happy to tell you about their work. We bought a painting by artist Juliana Akina (@julianaakina on Instagram) and chatted with her for a bit, to learn about her technique but also what inspires her. Afterwards we had a caipirinha and a dance at one of the bars there, then proceeding for more drinks deeper in the Vila Madalena neighbourhood. Warning: while this is a super hip and fun area, and you can spend a whole night drinking and dancing the streets of Vila Madalena, just watch your pockets, it´s an easy target for pickpocketers.
7. Spend half a day in Embú das Artes
Some forty kilometres from the centre of São Paulo, lies Embú das Artes, a town that is still part of the municipal area of São Paulo, but that has its own story. Jesuits settled here in the 16th century, then left it in the 18th century. Life went on, and the town took an artistic turn in the 20th century thanks to Cassio M´Boy, a sculptor of religious images. The town flourished greatly and is nowadays a super colourful and large market full of artsy stores where you can find anything from arrows carved by Amazon tribes liked the Tapirape (yes, we bought one), to vivid paintings by local artists and oddly enough, a lot of animals to sell (we asked locals about it and they are quite confused at the concentration of stores selling animals too). While I disagree with the on sale animals, there´s actually an even more disturbing thing about this colourful little town. It seems like Josef Mengele, one of the monsters of Nazi Germany is buried in the local graveyard under the fake name he used after having escaped to the area (a lot of the Nazis sought and found shelter in this area after WWII). Now if you´re not put off by these two things, I really recommend you spend half a day in Embú das Artes, checking out the art, sipping on some caipirinhas and soaking in a much more quiet town before heading back to crazy busy São Paulo.
Note: You can reach Embú by Uber and despite the long drive it will cost you only some 15€ from downtown São Paulo.
If you have more fun things to do in São Paulo to add to the list, put them in the comments below!