With no ocean and beaches to help its case, São Paulo is Brazil’s urban villain. But it has its ways to make you stay. Here’s six of them.
The human river bubbles as it goes up São Bento street, towards the megacity’s main market. And the main target, the Gothic building in Rua da Cantereira is just the disciplined, touristy part of the market, built in 1933. Trade has spilled across the neighborhood and paves your path with vintage on sale, rainbow-wigs, while loaders arch their backs under heavy merchandise and customers walk around confused. Go into Mercadão (as the locals call it), and bask into the afternoon light, filtered by more than 70 stained glass windows; then follow your instincts.
Take advantage of the friendly traders and indulge in olive and cheese tasters, but also make some serious supplies of exotic fruits – surprise your taste buds with a sour guava or with a crunchy jabuticaba, a local type of grape. Vegetarians will be a bit far from heaven; butcheries are the lawmakers here. Keeping their family tradition, O Rei dos Cabritos have been selling goat meat at the same stall since the market first opened. Pork might be the star in Porco Feliz’s brand, but is not its only treat – steaks share the space with frog, alligator and capibara meat. If you’ve got a strong stomach, stop at Quiosque da Pimenta, for an eruption of hot peppers. For a daily sizzle, get yourself a creamy Geleia da Pimenta for sandwiches spreads or some Argentinian chimichurri sauce for barbecues.
Go up to the top floor for a lunch to remember. Most restaurants in the gourmet lounge boast the market’s signature dish: sanduíche de mortadela. You need ergonomics and quite a bit of compression to neatly layer about 200 g of Italian meat in a bun stretched to its limit. Approach it depending to your level of hunger – fork or hand. At Mortadela Brasil, join local families and try a brazuca with parmesan or a Fenomeno with gorgonzola.
Sampa buzzes with traffic, people, helicopters carrying anybody who’s somebody to the office or shopping malls. But there’s another vibe to it – just stare at the walls. Ever-present graffitis inject buildings with an edgy freshness, thanks to both artists and ordinary people. Sure, you can absorb surprising works at QAZ Street Art Gallery or in Jardins neighbourhood, at Concreto SP, but it’s best to set aside a couple hours to stroll the streets of Vila Madalena, a colorful neighborhood part of the touristic circuit. Walk through Harmonia, Luiz Murat, Belmiro Braga or Beco do Aprendiz streets and indulge in genuine art. There are stencils, obese insects, 3D effects, flower-power VW vans – white walls come high in demand and artists duel in styles and themes. By far the most famous, Beco de Batman street hosts some of the earliest spray paintings by street group Tupinãodá, dating from the 1980s. Some drawings keep popping up around the city – such as a certain blueish indigenous guy protesting against Amazon deforestation.
“Sampa – it’s all about graffiti” a local told me. Some treat the city like a sketchbook in progress, speaking through their art about a wide range of social problems. They might lack aesthetics, but the so-called pixadores don’t shy away from acrobatics on high buildings, if that’s how they can get their message across.
Limes explode as the pestle crushes them. The mortar swallows up the cachaca that fills every space between the acid citrus bits. Stir. Tame it with lots of sugar and ice. It’s basic caipirinha, Brazil’s favorite drink. But the rum-like distilled alcohol made from sugarcane did not start out as a social incentive during warm Sampa nights, but as an old-school remedy for Spanish influenza wreaking havoc in 1918: cachaça, lemon, garlic and honey. In the meantime, lime took over, sugar was preferred for sweetness, the garlic was ditched, and the drink gained more flavours, adding raspberry, pineapple, tangerines or passion fruit. Ray Isle, editor at Food and Wine magazine, took a break from the wine and traveled to Brazil to search for an authentic alcohol; he discovered that herbs are essential to the drink’s salty or spicy aroma, while it matures in exotic wood barrels.
São Paolo is always up for a caipirinha. Almost every streetcorner lanchoneta can splash your samba night with some alcohol, while bartenders at Sancho Bar y Tapas, on Rua Augusta, will mix your caipirinka cocktail with apple and maracuja. If you like it pure, go to Mocotó restaurant in Vila Medeiros. If you’re a careful planner, go to their website (http://www.mocoto.com.br/cachacas.html) and choose from over 300 types of cachaca from all over Brazil.
Starting from the 19th century, a big part of Brazil’s economy revolved around the coffee bean; São Paolo itself owes much of its cultural richness and industrial supremacy to coffee crops in Brazil’s southeast where immigrants starting flowing.
A correct dose of caffeine can help you navigate the overwhelming metropolis. Venture once again through graffiti galleries in Vila Madalena, all the way to Fradique Coutinho street and stop at Coffee Lab, Sampa’s best coffee shop in 2012 according to Veja Comer & Beber. Owner Isabela Raposeiras, the first Brazilian barrista champion scientifically plays with the dark flavoured beans. The place is a hub for amateurs and pros, for those wanting to learn more about coffee or simply indulging in the roasted air. Try an Aeropress coffee (6 R$).
Seen from above, Sampa is not completely grey. Getting to Parque Estadual da Cantereira requires some stamina – it’s located 10 km north of the city center – but it’s worth it. Search for oxygen in one of the largest urban tropical forests. The remains of the Atlantic forest (slashed for coffee crops) host over 200 species of animals, many endemic. The park has 3 areas – Pedra Grande, Figueias and Ica – and blends the precise geometry of alleys with a wilderness of ferns and exotic trees. Pedra Grande Observatory (located at 1,000 m above sea level) offers wide city views; to see locals indulging in picnics or capibaras basking in the sun, head for Lago das Carpas.
Bits of Asia
On weekends take the subway and get down at Liberdade, the hub of Sampa’s Japanese community, the biggest outside Japan. In 1908, 167 Japanese families landed their boats in Santos to work on coffee plantations in the state of Sao Paolo. Step by step, difficult working conditions and urban industrial development drew them to the city, and several waves of immigrants followed.
Every week for the last 33 years, Feira da Liberdade becomes a market with over 200 stalls selling wooden souvenirs, origami and jewelry, as well as traditional Japanese food. You might not benefit from the Japanese hygiene or disciplined queues, but sacrifice yourself for a steamy gyoza (dumplings fried in sesame oil, filled with meat or seafood), for a generous yakisoba (noodles with vegetables and meat dipped in sauce and aonori, algae powder) or for extravagant sweets with azuki beans. Slightly more organized are stalls on the edge of the market, where Japanese opened a buffet selling food per kilo at fix prices.
Article featured in National Geographic Traveler Romania in the 2013 Fall issue.