Exotic and stylish São Paulo is a city of contrasts
São Paulo is mammoth. At 3,000 square miles, and 20 million people, the metro area casts a giant shadow across Brazil and indeed all of South America. But even with the crowding, the traffic and the gaping divide between rich and poor, most ardent paulistanos – residents of São Paulo city – wouldn’t even think about living anywhere but here. That’s because no other city in the South American country has such a perfect combination of internationally acclaimed style and sophistication, with a hint of Brazilian spice – to shake things up.
But size alone is not the defining feature of this metropolis. The rich pastiche that is Sampa – as the city is known colloquially – is a cultural melting pot of literally hundreds of distinct ethnic groups. Descendants of immigrants from all over the world include the largest population of Japanese descent outside Japan, the largest of group of Italian descendants outside Italy, a million people of German heritage and large communities of Lebanese, Syrians, Chinese, Armenians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Koreans and Hungarians.
The extra glamorous and the extremely poor are like different notes that together compose the melody of São Paulo city. But with its vast lower class comes highly dedicated staff throughout the city, which makes the lives of travelers like you and me a good bit easier. To have a better idea of what a proper São Paulo experience would be like, try to imagine NewYork City with waiters who smile and won’t disparage you for the size of the tip. Imagine a city where you’d be able to savor your favorite
dish, from any international or regional cuisine, at any time of the day or night. So if you happen to finish a meeting at 11 PM, don’t panic; you’ll still be able to pick your restaurant options at that time. Imagine renting a car and being able to drive around the city and not having to worry about parking (most restaurants and bars have their own valet parking service).
Like few other major cities in the world, São Paulo has the benefits of being a global city in a still-developing country.
High Energy Economy
As a true city that never sleeps, São Paulo carries both good and bad reputation and, of course, being the powerhouse of the Brazilian economy is no easy task. In a country that recognized the world over for its samba and soccer, it’s no wonder that its hard-working and industrious residents can be seen as“no fun,”snobbish or even grumpy. It is still not uncommon to hear the old adage that“paulistanos work, while the rest of Brazil relaxes.”
It goes without saying that this sentiment often ruffles feathers, especially among citizens of other states who swear they do work. Which is true, of course, although the pace and efficiency of the work done anywhere else in Brazil certainly pales in comparison to the high-energy output of this cosmopolitan center.
The undeniable fact is that São Paulo city is the biggest economy in Brazil by far. It alone contributes 15 percent of the country’s GNP, and 45 percent if the entire São Paulo state is taken into account.
Its main economic activities have gradually changed from manufacturing to the service industry over the latter part of the 20th century. Today the city is home to a large number of local and international banks, law firms, multinational companies and consumer services.
What makes São Paulo unique though is not its size, money or power but its welcoming nature. Like a generous mother, the city has embraced many different cultures throughout the years from both inside and outside of Brazil accepting them as part of its own. In the 19th century, the city experienced economic prosperity through its coffee exports. After 1881, the waves of immigrants moved to São Paulo state due to the coffee production boom and the incentives given by the
government to nationals of countries such as Italy, Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland, Portugal and Spain to immigrate.
A Cultural Tapestry
The result of that is a colorful melting pot of cultures, tones and styles that gives life to the streets of this urbane metropolis. But even as a culturally diverse city, São Paulo is unique when compared to cities such as London, Hong Kong or NewYork. The reason is that all these different cultures were absorbed into one, creating Brazil’s own special cultural breed.
The second and third generations of Japanese from São Paulo, for example, carry a special combination of oriental charm and Latin spice. That is also true for all the other migrants who have chosen to live in São Paulo. Their culture wasn’t erased; It morphed into something completely new--not fully Japanese, or Italian, or Syrian, but fully Brazilian – with a twist.
That delightful amalgam often shows up in São Paulo’s ecumenical assortment of delicious cuisine. With its large, vibrant Japanese community, even if it seems counterintuitive, when in São Paulo, think sushi.You can’t go too wrong.
The Italian influence is also very strong and paulistanos will argue that the best pizza in the world is actually made here and not in Italy.You be the judge. São Paulo’s pizza has become a commodity and visiting the city for the first time and not having pizza could be compared to going to Paris and not having croissant. But be careful – pizza in São Paulo has to be taken seriously. There is almost a ritual to it which starts with queuing up for your pizza on a Sunday night.
Sights and Highlights
São Paulo, together with Rio de Janeiro, is the spot where most overseas visitors – whether for business or leisure – land in Brazil. While a complete experience of the city would take a few weeks, it’s possible to visit all major sites within three days.
Following São Paulo’s extraordinary growth during the 20th century, most of the old city buildings have given way to contemporary architecture. This means that most tourist sights are concentrated around the historical center, where 17thcentury churches stand in the shadows of skyscrapers. The traditional ethnic neighborhoods are also fairly close to the center. Shopping and dining, though, are spread throughout the city.
São Paulo can be divided into seven main regions but for most things, you only really need to know two.
Centro Historico – The historical center is worth visiting during the day as most old buildings of the city will be found around the area. While here, stop by Mercado Municipal, a huge market that sells fresh fruits, vegetables, cured meats,
cheeses, spices and condiments. Plus it’s home to secret snack bars and restaurants that – sshh – not many foreigners know about. There you’ll be able to experience exquisite Portuguese cuisine, in particular the codfish balls, and the mortadela (a type of Italian cured meat, a relative of bologna) sandwiches to die for.
Expanded Center – A region that includes Avenida Paulista, the equivalent to Wall Street in NewYork, and three of the most sophisticated neighborhoods in São Paulo, Jardins, Itaim Bibi and Vila Olimpia. The area is full of vibrant restaurants and bars. It is also known for having the best shops in town. If you’d like to pay a visit to some of São Paulo’s finest fashion houses, don’t miss Clube Chocolate and Daslu. For the ones who would choose trendy and arty over sophistication, the areas to go would be Vila Madalena, Pinheiros, Pacaembu, Higienopolia, Lapa or Pompéia. These are all full of charm and wit but with a down to earth feel to them, especially when compared to Jardins.
If you are not staying long in São Paulo, chances are you won’t have time to try it all. But don’t worry. There will always be a next time. Meanwhile, try Vila Madalena for dinner or maybe just a casual beer after your appointments. BT
Opposite page: São Paulo Above from left: Copan residential building; Se Cathedral; Estacao da Luz train station; residential garden in the city
Opposite page: Liberdade the Japanese district; Bovespa Stock Exchange; 25 March area; Commercial buildings on Avenida Paulista; downtown architecture This page: fruit market and restaurant in Mercado Municipal