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 traveller 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.
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 neighbouring 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 travellers 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.
Restaurants Galore: 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.
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.
Two other flag-bearers of São Paulo’s Brazilian food movement are Brasil a Gosto, a stone’s throw from D.O.M. and Mocotó, 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.
Other popular newcomers to the city’s food scene hail from Brazil’s Andean neighbours. 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.
São Paulo By Foot?: 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 kilometres of gridlock at rush hour on a bad night.
Fortunately, some of the city’s most interesting attractions are best discovered on foot.
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