SAO PAULO, Brazil — With about 600,000 international
visitors expected in Rio de Janeiro for next month’s Summer Olympics and
September’s Paralympic Games, Sao Paulo might seem an easy side trip, but that
is by no means the afterthought image this city wants to project.
Brazil’s largest city does not view itself as second banana
to any place. Its motto, “Non ducor, duco,” translates from Portuguese
to “I am not led, I lead.”
Indeed, if Rio’s beach culture and informal attitude makes
it Brazil’s Los Angeles, Sao Paulo’s endless skyline, melting pot of cultures,
financial power (in better times, at least) and overall sophistication make it
this country’s New York, though a flight between Rio and Sao Paulo is just 70
minutes instead of six hours.
Home to more than 11 million people (compared with New
York’s 8.5 million), Sao Paulo offers a seemingly endless number of activities,
making an all-too-quick two-day trip in May just long enough for this visitor
to grasp that the city can’t be fully grasped in a truncated stopover.
Bar Samba, long a fixture in Vila Madalena, combines nightly live samba music with a laid-back vibe. Photo Credit: Danny King
Even so, our tour guide and proud Sao Paulo resident, Flavia
Liz di Paolo, did her best with the time we were allotted. What’s more, she
exuded a frenetic energy, appreciation of the arts, local knowledge and
unfiltered opinions that would have made her completely at home in Manhattan.
This is a destination for culture fanatics, foodies and
shopaholics alike. Traditionalists can explore the city’s 450-year history via
a tour of Old Downtown, where early structures, such as the stunning Sao Paulo
Cathedral, mix with a hodgepodge of 19th century buildings and gorgeous art
deco structures such as the Banco de Sao Paulo building.
Other parts of the city’s rich architectural history can be
found in Ibirapeura Park, which at 545 acres is about two-thirds the size of
New York’s Central Park and showcases some of the modernist work of Brazilian
architecture’s revered giant Oscar Niemeyer (the triangular Ibirapuera
Auditorium is particularly rakish).
More high culture can be found at the Sala Sao Paulo, the
classical-music facility at the Julio Prestes Cultural Center, which was
developed out of part of a 1930s-era train station.
The most enjoyable part of our trip, however, might have
been our visit to the city’s Vila Madalena district, which is known for its
bohemian vibe and whose hills and mix of shops, galleries and street art would
remind many visitors of what San Francisco was like before the tech industry
money’s uber-gentrification set in.
Our daytime visit meant a walk down Batman Alley and its
intricate graffiti, some of which was being finished by local artists before
our eyes. Later that night, it meant hanging out in Bar Samba, which was equal
parts festive and laid-back. Imagine a classic U.S. roadhouse with a killer
live samba band and you’ll start to appreciate the experience.
Sao Paulo’s ethnic mix means the culinary arts are well
represented, as well. Along with its Portuguese roots and longtime Italian
population base, Sao Paolo also has a substantial Japanese and Jewish
contingent. It also claims to be home to more Lebanese than Lebanon and to more
Syrians than Damascus, Syria.
While our visit stayed pretty traditional on the culinary
front — Barbacoa Churrascaria’s flagship location is a must for red-meat
lovers, while L’Hotel Porto Bay’s Trebbiano Ristorante was pretty much flawless
with its formal Italian lunch — the city also features some 15,000 restaurants
serving more than 40 types of ethnic cuisines.
Sao Paulo’s Old Downtown district boasts a mix of buildings ranging from modern to art deco to 19th century era. Photo Credit: Danny King
Brazil’s challenges have been well documented during the
lead-up to August’s Olympic Games. In addition to concerns over the Zika virus,
the country has had to contend with both its worst economic recession in more
than a century and political upheaval that in May saw president Dilma Rousseff
suspended, pending impeachment proceedings.
Our visit happened to coincide with Rousseff’s suspension.
That fact was revealed to us when protestors blocked the city’s bustling
Avenida Paulista, forcing our tour van to detour, but it otherwise presented no
other interruptions or concerns.
As for economics, the high-end boutiques and restaurants of
Rua Oscar Freire in the city’s relatively posh Jardins district seemed plenty busy
That said, judging by hotel-room demand this year, inbound
tourism has been down. Through June, RevPAR at Sao Paulo hotels fell 21%, to
194 Brazilian reals ($53.52), with room rates falling 19% and occupancy down
slightly, to 58%, according to STR. June had been Sao Paulo’s best month this
year, though, with RevPAR down 12% and occupancy holding steady at 65%.
What that means, of course, is that there are lodging deals
to be had, especially considering that with central Sao Paulo’s hotels serving
primarily business travelers, a traveler to Brazil can get the best of both
worlds by staying in Rio during the week when rates are lower, then moving on
to Sao Paulo for the weekend.
Our trip was hosted by the 220-room Tivoli Sao
Paulo-Mofarrej, which offers a 7,500-square-foot Presidential Suite whose
recent occupants included Mick Jagger. With a modern, tasteful and practical
room layout and a central location, mid-August weekend rates for what would
equal a high-four-star hotel in the U.S. are at about $190 a night, breakfast
For those wanting to stay with the larger, international
brands, the 444-room Renaissance Sao Paulo and the 195-room InterContinental
Sao Paulo appeared to be current with updates that belied their two-decade
history, with the Renaissance’s upper-floor rooms strongly exuding a Manhattan
The 60-room Fasano hotel and 56-room Emiliano both go the
lifestyle/boutique route, with funkier design touches.
Funkiest, however, was the Hotel Unique, a property that
resembles a slice of watermelon and whose slanted-wall rooms ensured the hotel
stayed true to its name, while its rooftop pool and bar area afforded gorgeous
views of Sao Paulo’s skyline.
Ibirapuera Park features the triangle-shaped Ibirapuera Auditorium concert hall, which opened in 2005 and was designed by noted Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Photo Credit: Danny King
Granted, there are precautions the uninitiated should take
when visiting Sao Paulo, and Brazil in general, according to Sarah Taylor with
All Set Concierge, an affiliate of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Montecito
Village Travel and part of Virtuoso.
Taylor, who books about 30 trips a year to Brazil, said that
the country’s high level of petty crime means that visitors should not make it
too obvious that they’re tourists. And this year’s Zika virus scare has some
family clients asking her how to find the most organic bug repellent possible.
Other than that, though, the recommendations are of the
harmless, if not charming, variety. That means getting used to being greeted
with a hug and kiss instead of a handshake and planning the largest meal of the
day around lunch instead of dinner.
“They’ve got the best chefs in the world, and they have so
many museums. It’s a great hub for Latin America culture,” Taylor said of Sao
Paulo. “You can really get anything you want.”