Sao Paulo, Brazil: What to See, What to Do, and Where to Stay

by  Katie McElveen | Nov 6, 2019
Sao Paulo, Brazil skyline
Sao Paulo, Brazil skyline / dabldy/iStock

Sao Paulo may be known as the business capital of Brazil, but, the city works just as hard at having fun: colorful street art lights up alleyways and staircases, music spills from lively cafes and, on Sundays, bustling Paulista Avenue shuts down to cars and turns into a mile-long street party.  

Sprawling over an area more than half the size of Rhode Island, Sao Paulo can be challenging to navigate. Our advice? Stick to the center of the map, where you can explore atmospheric neighborhoods, lush parks, quirky shopping districts, and museums galore, without spending your time caught up in gridlocked traffic.

Where to Stay

Filled with pale wood, light, and energy, the Ruy Ohtake-designed Renaissance Sao Paulo has an edgy vibe that’s softened by a young, welcoming staff of “navigators” who dispense free sparkling wine at check in along with thoughtful advice about how to enjoy the city. A prime location near the leafy, mansion-strewn Jardins neighborhoods, Paulista Avenue and the Rua Oscar Freire shopping district makes the soaring lobby bar a natural stop for well-dressed locals and visitors, who pile in day and night for passion fruit-infused caipirinhas, sushi and, at night, live music. There’s also a terrific restaurant on-site, Terraco Jardins, where you can sample tasty Brazilian staples like tender hearts of palm, octopus, crunchy, bacon-infused farofa and the puffy, stretchy, highly addictive cheese puffs that appear on every table. Rooms on all sides overlook the endless urban skyline, but, thanks to the hotel’s hilltop location, the view becomes almost mesmerizing, particularly at night. If you can, book one of the Madison suites, which show off Ohtake’s design with curving glass corners set with tall windows. The city hotel also offers several resort-style amenities including an outdoor pool and sun deck, a full-service spa, and a fitness center. The hotel is a bargain in January, which is considered low season due to hot summer weather; you can score a suite with access to free food and drinks in the club lounge for $202 per night (standard rates start at $138 per night).

What to See and Do 

That Brutalist giant with the eye-catching red “legs” that dominates Paulista Avenue’s busiest block? That would be the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo — MASP for short — which was designed by modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi in 1968 to preserve the view from the museum toward the city center. MASP is home to works by European masters such as Raphael, Ingres, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, and Picasso as well as Brazilian artists Maria Auxiliadora, Agostinho Batista de Freitas, Albino Braz, José Antônio da Silva, Rafael Borjes de Oliveira, and others. Bardi also designed the museum’s second-level picture gallery, which displays paintings on what she called “crystal easels” suspended from the ceiling. The arrangement echoes the building, which floats over the street, while encouraging visitors to explore them in no particular order. Consider visiting on a Sunday; not only is this stretch of Paulista Avenue closed to traffic, but a weekly antique market takes place in the shady plaza beneath the building. From there it’s an easy walk to Trianon Park, which opened in 1892 as a recreational area for the families of the coffee barons whose mansions once lined the street. Today, the lush space is filled with native plants and dotted with sculpture. Another nearby museum, the Moreira Salles Institute, is known for photography exhibitions, a Richard Serra sculpture on display in the garden, and its restaurant, Balaio, where you can sample star Chef Rodrigo Oliveira’s fresh Brazilian flavors.

Sophisticated shoppers should visit Rua Oscar Freire and the surrounding streets. Here, you'll find designer goods from Brazil — Animale, Osklen, and Schutz all have outposts here — as well as the Havaianas flagship. You’ll also find national brands, cafés, and a L’Occitane spa.

Sao Paulo’s talented street artists have transformed a multitude of the city’s walls, buildings, and street partitions into vibrant murals. Within vast Ibirapuera Park you’ll find works from Eduardo Kobra and twins Os Gemeos; Kobra’s massive portrait of architect Oscar Niemeyer, can be seen on the side of a Paulista Avenue skyscraper. For the most concentrated dose of street art, head to Vila Madalena, a hip but friendly enclave located a couple of miles west of the Renaissance. Start on Rua Medeiros de Albuquerque, where stairways, sidewalks, and whole buildings are covered with images and galleries like Choque Cultural, with its bright neon sculptures, line the streets. This street will lead to Beco do Batman, or Batman Alley, which features works from Kobra, Speto, Binho Ribeiro, and other Brazilian street artists. 

Vila Madalena is also known for small, local shops. Try Simultanea for flowy skirts, tops, and scarves; Attom, where bowls, trays, and furnishings are hand-carved from sustainable wood and beach-glass jewelry is fashioned by the owner’s mother; and La Da Venda, a breezy café that also stocks vintage-inspired kitchenware and fair trade Brazilian coffee beans to take home.

Where to Eat

It’s all about fish at Peixaria Bar e Venda, a storefront eatery where ceviche, paella, grilled fish, and shrimp are fresh, delicious, and come on plates heaped with sides. The caipirinhas are pretty good, too. Open since 1949, Riviera Bar is a Sao Paulo favorite. Slide into a booth or pick a seat at the bright red bar and listen to live jazz sets or grab a rattan chair at a table on the patio. Either way, Chef Valter Roza’s old-school dishes (shrimp cocktail, beef tartar, seafood pastas) are a perfect match for the classic cocktails. Chef Alex Atala opened DOM restaurant in 1999, and since then, it’s become one of Sao Paulo’s most awarded restaurants for its creative and delicious use of native Brazilian ingredients. Paired with acai, Pirarucu, an air-breathing Amazonian fish, is one of his best-known dishes and a staple on the menu. As tempting and gorgeous as they are, don’t make the rookie mistake of overloading your buffet plate with apps — an ever-changing bounty of lettuces, grilled vegetables, couscous, guacamole, and other seasonal dishes at Chef Morena Leite’s snappy Brazilian fast-casual lunch spot, Santinho. Not only will your plate overflow, but you might not have enough room for mains like kafta with mint sauce, ceviche and savory meat, or fish-filled tapioca crepes.

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