IT'S STILL A BIG WORLD
How I Fell in Love With São Paulo
The largest city in Brazil often gets short shrift from tourists, but with one of Latin America's best food scenes and some of its best architecture, people should reconsider.
Whenever I become enamored with a destination, family and friends pay a price. They bear the brunt of my ardor, as I tirelessly champion its underrated qualities and harangue people to add it to their itineraries.
Few places are the beneficiary of my zeal like São Paulo. The largest city in Brazil often gets short shrift from American tourists—they go to Brazil for the beach, after all, or maybe to the Amazon or Iguazu Falls. And fears about crime make an urban destination a nonstarter.
As a result, São Paulo is one of the best examples of how the evaluation of your experience begins before you leave. Expectations can be one of the biggest factors in determining how you remember a place (See Paris Syndrome for Chinese tourists). And given—in the face of low expectations—that São Paulo has some of the world’s best architecture, an exploding food scene, fantastic nightlife, and great cultural institutions, we’ve chosen it to kick off a new series, It’s Still a Big World, on underrated destinations.
Take, for instance, the Minhocão in São Paulo. A giant raised highway cutting through the heart of the city, built under the military dictatorship, it has long been considered an urban planning disaster. But at 1 a.m. on a recent Friday night, I agreed to meet an architect friend at an on-ramp not far from Oscar Niemeyer’s Edifício Copan.
While NYC may have the High Line with its multi-million dollar condos and landscaped path, São Paulo has an asphalt highway that at night (and all day Sunday) becomes a giant playground for runners, dogs and their walkers, love-struck teens, and groups of friends enjoying some beer. But what makes the Minhocão truly special is that, late at night, there are few souls wandering its lanes and so you get a post-apocalyptic, eerie, quiet, and beautiful walk in the core of a mega-city. I say eerie because the Minhocão was built on what had once been one of São Paulo’s nicer boulevards, but the highway caused many of the owners of the grand apartments to flee. So many of the buildings that line its railings decorate the highway with their faded glory.
When it comes to architecture, São Paulo as a whole is far from faded glory. It has one of my favorite early 20th-century skyscrapers (the Edifício Martinelli), as well as Art Deco gems like the Empire State Building lookalike the Edifício Altino Arantes (Banespa) and Mid-century Modern ones like Hotel Jaraguá. But it was really with the rise of Modernism that São Paulo became iconic. In the city itself, there is the aforementioned Edifício Copan, the iconic undulating apartment building designed by Niemeyer, which has a top floor apartment with unforgettable views you can now rent on AirBnB. One can also head out and tour the Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano, a stunning 1970s mansion wrapped around a lush water feature and set on immaculate grounds. While the collection inside is a bit odd (it focuses on objects from colonial era Brazil, whereas pictures of what the house looked like when the original couple lived there will make you wish it had been preserved in all its modernist glory), the house is very much worth the visit.
It would be a tall task to mark out the complete evolution of the city’s architecture scene, but it’s worth focusing for tourism purposes on the two giants of the second half of the 20th century—Lina Bo Bardi and Paulo Mendes da Rocha—and their masterworks you can visit.
Bo Bardi was an Italian-born architect and designer whose career was defined by her work in Brazil. Her most iconic works in the city include her former home, the Casa de Vidro (Glass House); her still-revered elevated central building for MASP (the city’s fantastic art museum); and her staggering conversion of a sugar mill into the SESC Pompéia (a cultural center). All three can be visited, although word seems to have gotten out about the Casa de Vidro, and according to its employees on my recent visit, the numbers of visitors has exploded.
Mendes da Rocha, the 90-year-old Pritzker Prize winner, has also created a handful of must-sees in the metropolis, including the easy-to-miss Brazilian Sculpture Museum, a restrained piece of Brazilian Brutalist architecture that barely pokes out of the ground but is full of clever visuals. While Bo Bardi’s MASP is a statement, Mendes da Rocha is the man behind the renovation of the São Paulo Pinacoteca, another must-see for art and architecture visitors, and one that pulls off the tricky feat of leaving a historic building largely intact while simultaneously bringing it bang up to date.
But the best reason to visit São Paulo is its exploding food scene. Years ago, when I first visited, the must-do restaurants were Alex Atala’s D.O.M. and the more affordable (all relative, as with dollar exchange rate, everything is affordable) Dalva e Dito. While those still remain top-notch and must-dos for those looking to experience an inventive menu focusing on Brazilian ingredients, three restaurants on my most recent visit gave me some of my best meals of the year.
The first was the Korean restaurant Komah—undoubtedly one of the hottest in the city, as evidenced by the two- to three-hour wait to get in (small space). My two can’t-miss items on chef Paulo Shin’s menu are the semi-frozen tartar and the samgiopsal.
While at Komah, my friend and I struck up a conversation with the bartender, who, on seeing me devouring the tartar, told me that if I wanted the best tartar in town, to check out a brand new restaurant called Corrutela.
Located in the uber-hip neighborhood of Vila Madalena (a colorful, young, and walkable neighborhood of hills and interesting shops and architecture), Corrutela is decorated in gorgeous mid-century modern pastels. Run by the affable Cesar Costa (he had no idea I was a journalist, and yet he went out of his way to walk through the menu, talk about his inspirations, and how they make certain dishes), the restaurant is a gem. First, the bread is divine. And yes, the tartar was to die for—light and fluffy and far from overwhelming. He also plays with Brazilian products, such as using the jenipapo fruit for his floating island dessert. (Jenipapo, when mixed with dairy at a certain temperature, turns a sort of cerulean blue.) The menu changes regularly, but if the brownie made with roasted and ground Bahia cacao with roasted banana ice cream is there, order it ASAP.
On my last day, I was set up with a reservation at the chef’s table at the city’s current restaurant king—A Casa do Porco. Right in the heart of downtown, a block or so from the Edifício Copan, the restaurant is run by Jefferson Rueda—who, along with his wife, Janaina, has been at the center of a push to revitalize the historic center. (They also own an ice cream shop around the corner, a hot dog shop, an apartment in the Edifício Copan they’ve turned into a test kitchen, and the Bar da Dona Onça.) Jefferson, in between bone-crunching cuts at the cooked pork on the table in front of me, tells me that he is on a mission to change the way people think about pork. Therefore, on his tasting menu, he challenges diners with items like pork sushi and pork tartar. (It should be noted that there is a vegetarian tasting menu.) He pushed my boundary with his crackling panceta with guava jam and onion pickles (I HATE guava).
But the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the roasted pork cheek served with banana tartar. It was, no exaggeration, one of the best combinations I’ve ever had.
I will not pretend there are not negatives with São Paulo. The pollution in a city of 20-million-plus people, while nowhere near as bad as the megacities of Asia, can be tough. And there is a palpable tension in the country about what happens next after the presidential victory of Jair Bolsonaro.
On the other hand, when it comes to safety, I’ve always found São Paulo far safer than Rio de Janeiro, and have always felt safe walking around during the daytime or in groups at night. And the nightlife offers something for everybody, from giant clubs where you can rage into the next day, to artsy venues where you can drink with hyper-engaged (enraged?) Paulistas.
So yes, it doesn’t have a beach right outside your hotel. But for me, no visit to Brazil that attempts to understand the vibrancy of this country and its people is complete without a visit to its most dynamic city. And not to mention that with a conversion rate of nearly 4 to 1, you can do it while living like a king (or queen).
Other tips worth mentioning. Instagrammers and the devout alike will love a visit to Igreja Nossa Senhora do Brasil, a charming church best known for its starry sky apse. Two other restaurants worth checking out include Futuro Refeitório, a delicious bougie hipster brunch spot, and for those looking for a fancy tasting in a cool design setting, check out Tuju. As far as where to stay, obviously the aforementioned AirBnB in the Edifício Copan (also available on VRBO). Otherwise, I’ve always stayed in the Pullman Sao Paulo Ibirapuera as it fit my needs in terms of large rooms, quiet, cost, safety, convenience, and huge fitness center.