São Paulo: a city guide

Brazil might be synonymous with beaches and coconuts, rainforests and wildlife, carnivals and coffee, but its cities are what makes the country so fascinatingly rich. A melting pot of cultures, music, and cuisine, you’ll find just as much soul in any of Brazil’s cities as you would in an underground Jazz club. Take São Paulo, for instance: the vibrant cultural and financial capital of the world’s fifth-largest country, the city is a thriving metropolis that draws visitors in with infinite magnetic appeal. Home to 12.5 million people from all over the globe, it’s no wonder the city’s overflowing with diverse neighbourhoods; ask any paulistino what they think of their city, and they’ll be more than glad to share their favourite spots and stories. Of course, we thought we’d save you the trouble, so we’ve rounded up a selection of our very own recommendations: read on to find the best eateries for steak and sushi, epic views over the city, and the coolest cultural spots in town.

Discover São Paulo’s foodie scene 

Image: Getty/10’000 Hours

The best part of most holidays is the food, and São Paulo is no exception to the rule. With a culinary heritage that embodies Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and more interestingly, Japanese and Lebanese cuisine, the city’s food scene has plenty to draw upon and does it expertly. We’ll start with some classic rodizio recommendations: Barbacoa has two steakhouses in the city, in Itaim and Morumbi, which serve a broad range of succulent cuts alongside a generous buffet of pastas, salads, and cheeses (but be sure to leave plenty of room for the meat — it’s the star of the show, after all). While you can find Fogo do Chão here in the UK, it’s better to experience the real thing in Brazil. Attentive staff, a wine list brimming with South American vintages, and sweet sobremesas to round off your evening will leave you satisfied down to the last mouthful.

Botanikafé in Jardins. Image: Botanikafé/Bruno Geraldi

Like most cosmopolitan cities, there’s a thriving brunch scene in São Paulo. If you wanted, you could easily try somewhere new every morning and never be disappointed. You’ll find the majority of hot spots in the ever-so-trendy Jardins area, such as Botanikafé, where an all-day healthy brunch menu serves up the likes of honeyed figs and cream cheese on artisanal sourdough and acai smoothie bowls. You’ll find plenty of locals having morning coffee meetings or working remotely, thanks to the aesthetically pleasing amount of plants and foliage decorating the space. The café is open well into the evening for an unpretentious dinner, with an emphasis on Asian-inspired cuisine and gorge-worthy pizzas. 

For those with a sweet tooth, Padoca do Maní is another favourite, a rustic-style café with some great value-for-money brunch deals and an incredible selection of homemade cakes and pastries (with plenty of gluten-free and vegan recipes thrown into the mix). Casarìa, a café-slash-restaurant and bar, has a great range of European-inspired brunch dishes and a dizzying array of sweet treats to choose from; they aren’t shy of their dulce de leche here. A must-try in all of these places — and anywhere in São Paulo, or Brazil at large — is pão de queijo, doughy balls of cheesy heaven where one portion won’t simply be enough.

Image: Getty/Claudia Totir

Brazil has the largest population of Japanese descendants in the world outside Japan, so sushi lovers will be in their absolute element. Mori Ohta Sushi is an innovative sushi restaurant in Cerqueira César, with sophisticated interiors and an even more sophisticated menu. Forget the likes of Itsu or Wasabi; this is sushi at its finest, with intriguing flavour combinations that you’ll want to try time and again (luckily, there’s an all-you-can-eat option on the menu, so you can keep requesting your favourite). Some particular highlights include salmon sashimi in truffle oil, uramaki topped with quail’s yolk and caviar, and nigiri with cream cheese or foie gras. If you enjoy all things Japanese, there’s also a number of karaoke bars and more traditional restaurants in the Liberdade neighbourhood. The city’s gastronomic scene is huge, and plenty of the best spots combine gourmet cuisine with incredible views.

Take in the views

Tatuapé Neighbourhood, São Paulo. Image: Getty/Adriano Siker

With a city as sprawling as São Paulo, it’s almost an obligation to take in its skyscrapers from as many angles as possible. Thankfully, you’ll have ample opportunity to do so: the city is teeming with sky bars and restaurants where you can soar to new heights, literally and figuratively. A particular favourite is the aptly named Sky Bar at Unique Hotel, a sleek terrace featuring a rooftop swimming pool (with an underwater sound system, no less) and a fantastic restaurant headed up by chef Emmanuel Bassoleil. In between courses — or cocktails —, you can gaze out towards Ibirapuera park and the tremendous São Paulo skyline, including Avenue Paulista’s skyscrapers. The award-winning Vista Restaurant is equally impressive, having been named best Brazilian Restaurant in 2018 and Debut of the Year by Veja Comer e Beber.

Evening on Paulista Avenue, São Paulo. Image: Getty/Fandrade

It doesn’t have to be swanky dinners and low-lit terraces: there are plenty of other viewpoints scattered across the city. Take Sesc Paulista, for example. An arts and culture centre sitting on São Paulo’s busiest shopping streets, you can take the elevator to the rooftop deck and admire the urban hubbub far below. And the best part? It’s totally free. There’s a handy café one floor below if the rooftop’s closed, so it’s still worth a visit in between shopping trips. Finally, the Mirante 9 de Julho, an abandoned-tunnel-turned-multicultural-space, lets you see the underbelly of the city as you sip on an artisan coffee and admire temporary art exhibitions.  

Seek a little nature

Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo. Image: Getty/BDMcIntosh 

While bright lights and crowds are a prerequisite of any city escape, it’s always good to know you can inject some outdoor buzz into your stay. Thankfully, there are plenty of green spaces in the city, the most popular being Ibirapuera Park. The Central Park of São Paulo (albeit half the size), escape the faster pace of life in the city with a walk around the lake or along its tree-lined path. The park receives up to 150,000 visitors at the weekend, a testament to its popularity. Ibirapuera is home to a clutch of cultural attractions as well, including the Modern Art Museum, the Biennial Art Exhibition building, and the Oca and Japanese pavilions. Live music and performances are scheduled frequently, so it’s worth checking out what’s on when you plan your visit. 

Botanical Gardens, São Paulo. Image: Getty/Conrad Tramontini

The Botanical Gardens in Água Funda provide a welcome respite from the skyscrapers and shopping malls. Founded by botanist Frederico Carlos Hoehno in 1928, the gardens have gone from strength to strength and are still thriving nearly a century later. Stroll through the natural woodland and spot howler monkeys hanging from the branches, discover tropical orchids harvested from the rainforests of Brazil, and admire the marriage of art and nature in the sculpture park, where a collection of contemporary sculptures stand tall amid free-growing trees and plants.

Soak up some culture

In between visiting megamalls and flitting between the bars in Jardins or Vila Madalena, throw some art and culture into the mix. Sitting on Avenida Paulista, Museu de Arte de São Paulo is one of the city’s most prominent museums, a floating glass block propped up by four red pillars. It’s a one-stop shop for all forms of art from around the world, boasting over 10,000 works. Chinese warrior statues? African deities? Impressionist paintings? Absolutely — and that doesn’t include the ever-changing exhibitions showcasing some of Brazil’s hottest new talent.

Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Avenue Paulista. Image: Getty/Wsfurlan

The Pinacoteca is well worth a visit, not least for its stately appearance in an otherwise urban landscape, but for its 11,000-strong collection of art. It’s the oldest museum in the city, and showcases works from the likes of Anita Malfatti, Almeida Júnior,  Pedro Alexandrino, and Oscar Pereira da Silva among others. With around 30 exhibitions a year, there’s always something new to see alongside the original collection. For something more interactive and performative, the Museu da Imagem e do Som is one for your museum tick list. It’s much more than a gallery, utilising multimedia to educate and entertain locals and tourists; you’ll often find interactive stages, live music performances, independent cinema films and plenty more. 

Beco do Batman, Rua Medeiros de Albuquerque. Image: Peter Croucher

Speaking of contemporary, it doesn’t get much cooler than a stroll around Beco do Batman, an alleyway between Rua Gonçalo Afonso and Rua Medeiros de Albuquerque in the Vila Madalena. These graffiti-laden walls are chock full with alternative works of art; some are inspired by comic books (as its name suggests), others by political goings-on, but many are just vibrant forms of expression that make excellent backdrops for your insta snaps. As you can imagine, the artwork never stays long, so each walk up and down the psychedelic alleyways will be different to the last. Not only that, but there’s a decent food and music scene in the area: stop for a drink and a salgado, dance along to Brazil’s latest pop tunes, and feel yourself slip into the rhythm of urban life.