The sprawling city of Sao Paulo offers much to explore in its vibrant art and eclectic architecture
Art and architecture in Sao Paulo
If you were in Sao Paulo for business and wanted to extend your Brazilian trip across the weekend, you might be forgiven for heading for the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. But if you’re a fan of art and architecture, then you’re also in the right place. The gallery scene is exemplary, as is the array of world-class buildings, and exploring it all makes for a fascinating couple of days’ break before heading home.
This youthful, rich, stimulating city is enormous – the largest in the Americas and one of the biggest on Earth, with a population of almost 20 million. So it sprawls.
The historic downtown district is Se, while Avenida Paulista to the south is one of the city’s newer business and cultural zones. The area from Avenida Paulista stretching further south, downhill to the Parque Ibirapuera, is where you’ll find most of the sights – although this is a city of loosely defined neighborhoods.
The subway is limited, so taxis can be the easiest way to get around, although be prepared to sit in traffic.
Paulistas like to think they live in the New York of South America. Like the Big Apple, Sao Paulo is ethnically diverse. It is home to the largest Japanese community outside Japan, mostly based in Liberdade, where you can get the freshest sushi.
Still, it’s the towers along Avenida Paulista that will make you feel as if you’re on Broadway. The street follows a ridge line with skyscraper soldiers standing to attention along it – when darkness falls, the sight is mesmerizing.
Add in the soaring TV masts and incessantly flashing red lights as a warning to the helicopters that buzz around the towers like bees, and it’s almost overpowering.
Art Inside and Out
The best place to see art in the city – and arguably in the whole of Brazil – is MASP, the Museum of Art (1578 Avenida Paulista; open Tues-Sun 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, 8:00 PM on Thurs; masp.art.br). The 1968 Brutalist building itself is the first attraction. Designed by Italy’s Lina Bo Bardi – who loved Sao Paulo so much that she made it her home – it sits on four pillars and looks a little like a robotic shoebox on steroids that’s grown legs.
Inside are wonderful works by homegrown artists such as Jose Ferraz de Almeida Junior, one of the country’s leading 19th-century painters, as well as pieces by Constable and Turner. Entry is R$15 ($4), or free on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings).
The subway is also full of public art. Colorful murals decorate the station at Se, while two stops east at Bras is Amelia Toledo’s intriguing Kaleidoscope, a cluster of 25 plates of curved steel and plastic.
It was NewYork’s illegal subway graffiti artists that influenced Sao Paulo’s most famous contemporary artists, Osgemeos (the Twins), who have painted everything from a community center in a Sao Paulo favela to one of Brazilian airline GOL’s 737800 aircraft.
Their work ranges from family portraits to social-political and Brazilian folklore. Grafitti, by its nature, is hard to find – sometimes in underpasses, then on buildings, so check for new work on Osgemeos com.br/en.
As with Brazil in general, the passion with which people live their lives is evident in Sao Paulo’s bars, and also in the sometimes riotous architecture the city displays. Its buildings are about bluster and boasting – an attempt to build manmade landmarks to outshine Rio’s natural ones.
Take the 1961-built Edificio Copan (200 Ipiranga; copansp.com.br) in the Republica neighborhood, west of Se. It’s a masterly exercise in “big is better” from Brazil’s bestknown architect, Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the distinctive buildings of the capital, Brasilia.
From above, this bulky bit of concrete Brutalism has the form of a wave. Its 38 floors stretch 460 feet into the sky – yet its shape and brise-soleil sun blinds, which run horizontally along the face of the building, give it an elegance. While mainly apartments, and thus off limits to visitors, you can linger in the wood-paneled foyer, where there are barbers, shops and a café that serves delicious ice cream.
Luz station is also worth seeking out in the vicinity. Designed by Englishman Charles Henry Driver and built by Glaswegians at the turn of the 1900s, its Victorian style and huge size make it a very British-looking addition to the city.
It’s this mishmash of styles from around the world – Britain, Japan, the US and the Mediterranean – that marks Sao Paulo’s architecture.
There are also buildings from every period – today’s modern city gives way to the older Imperial Portuguese city at Se. The cathedral here is beautiful Gothic, while the handsome old coffee merchants’ offices and banking halls from
the late 1800s show how the city made its money, satisfying the European and North American thirst for a morning cup of coffee.
One of the banking halls has been transformed into the Caixa Cultural (111 Praca da Se; Tues-Sun 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM, free; programasculturaiscaixa.com.br), which sta stages traveling exhibitions.
Se is th the old money of Sao Paulo, and Jardins is the new. This is the most pleasant part of th the city to wander around. From MASP, st stroll through the bucolic Parque Trianon, then downhill on Alameda Casa Branca, p past hip boutiques, car showrooms, cocktail b bars and trendy eateries.
Two ho hotels stand out in Jardins. Both are desig design gems with excellent food and service. TheT first is the Emiliano (384 Rua Oscar Fre Freire; emiliano.com.br), housed in a skyscra skyscraper that boasts a rooftop helipad to whisk guests to the airport or to a polo estancia u upcountry.
The ot other is Hotel Unique (4700 Avenida Brigadeir Brigadeiro Luis Antonio; hotelunique.com. br). Part o of the Design Hotels collection, its rooms and public spaces are pure minimali minimalist class, while the rooftop pool bar is the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail with co-workers and locals.
The building itself – a distinctive silver semi-circle perched on pillars – was designed by Ruy Ohtake, one of the city’s best-known architects. His mother was Japanese artist Tomie Ohtake. In 2001, he built a gallery in her honor, the Instituto Tomie Ohtake, to celebrate the city’s inherited Japanese and Oriental culture (201 Avenida Faria Lima; open Tues-Sun 11:00 AM – 8:00 PM; free; institutotomieohtake.org.br). Located in the cool Pinheiros district, it’s a riot of deconstructed purple and pink banners.
Across from the Unique is Ibirapuera park, the city’s giant green lung, which opened in 1954 to celebrate Sao Paulo’s 400th anniversary. In addition to exploring its lush gardens, you can visit MAM, the Museum of Modern Art, which is located here (open Tues-Sun 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM; R$6/$1.50, free on Sundays; mam.org.br). It boasts works by Miro, Chagall and Picasso as well as Brazilian modernists.
The park is also home to the Japanese and Biennial pavilions – the latter another Oscar Niemeyer creation. So, too, is the show-stopping Auditorio Ibirapuera (Avenida Pedro Alvares Cabral; auditorioibirapuera.com.br), which looks like a sideways slice of wedding cake with a red dragon’s tongue poking out. Like Sao Paulo, it’s an attention seeker that you can’t stop looking at.
Food & Drink
TERRACO ITALIA Built in 1965, this restaurant in the Republica district features kitsch, gentleman’s club-style décor and has an outdoor terrace overlooking the city 42 floors below – perfect for sundowners.
Entrees R$80-121 ($20-$31), cocktails R$20 (%5). Open Mon-Fri 12:00 PM – 3:00 PM, 7:00 PM – 12:00 AM (Sat until 1:00 AM), Sun 12:00 PM – 4:00 PM, 7:00 PM – 11:00 PM. 344 Avenida Ipiranga; tel +55 112 1892 929; terracoitalia.com.br FIGUEIRA RUBAIYAT There’s a huge tree growing in the middle of Figueira, hence the name (it means fig tree). This Jardins eatery is always popular, thanks to the relaxed, outdoor dining and the fish scooped from the Amazon and tossed over the Brazilian grill.
Mains R$61-102 ($16-$26). Open Mon-Thurs 12:00 PM – 12:30 AM, Fri-Sat until 1:00 AM, Sun until 12:00 AM. 1738 Rua Haddock Lobo; tel +55 113 0871 399; rubaiyat.com.br MAM RESTAURANT Finish your visit at MAM with a trip to its restaurant, which serves a light lunch of Brazilian delicacies such as palm hearts and mashed corn, as well as salads. Grab a table by the window, overlooking the sculptures in the garden.
Buffet lunch R$49 ($13). Open Tues-Sun 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM. Parque Ibirapuera; tel +55 115 0851 306; mam.org.br BT
Clockise: Hotel Unique, Museum of Sao Paulo, Instituto Tomie Ohtake