When we asked people to give us advice about going to Brazil, everyone always mentioned Rio de Janeiro. Rio this, Rio that, just go to Rio. But no one really said much about São Paulo. It seemed like people didn't really go there much. As our cab weaved through traffic in São Paulo's city center, our virgin eyeballs take in the first impressions of this rarely recommended city.
The immediate overwhelming feeling was its magnitude. Unlike other cities, it doesn't have a beautiful harbor, nearby mountains, or any other natural distinguishing features that generally creates a dynamic city vista; just a monotonous city horizon that seemingly spans forever. Twenty minutes into our ride and we'd seen hundreds of similar 25 story apartment buildings littered in all directions, massive favelas, and a peculiar type of graffiti (known as "pixacao") plastered on every conceivable surface. It wasn't a pretty city, that was immediately apparent, but we were eager to discover why 20 million people call this place home.
It was winter in São Paulo and the frigid 75 degrees fahrenheit made us appreciate being here during the winter. A quick left and the cab crossed an imaginary line and boom -- we hit Beverly Hills; palm trees, Gucci, Prada, high heels, bodyguards, and fancy high-rise apartments. It was gorgeously manicured and hard to believe we were still in the same city we just drove through to get there. This area is Jardins Paulista, the safe, high end shopping district of São Paulo and home to some of the top real estate in the city. And thanks to our extremely fortuitous apartment swap deal, it meant we were staying right smack dab in the center of this place.
Jardins, the "gardens" of the city, multiple around São Paulo but the one most visited as its closest to the city center is Jardins Paulista. Rua Oscar Friere is similar to Rodeo Drive or Oxford Street in London, with its decadent window displays and every notable fashion label making a statement there. The restaurants are divine although very expensive. We enjoyed a delectable dinner at Oba - a menu that prides itself on Brazilian ingredients while mixing flavors of Brazil, Mexico, Italy and Thailand. The restaurant was small, familial, eclectic in that nothing was overtly nice but contained character. Beautiful Brazilian folk art populates the walls as if you were in a gallery, all for sale. The food was flavorful and the fresh fruit caipirinhas were a perfect way soak into the first night.
Our apartment swap not only came with a sweet pad but two new friends, Luna and Ga, who took us under their wing and helped us navigate the city. They invited us to house parties, took us out to dinner, introduced us to under grounds scenes and educated us on Paulista life, culture, politics and music. One of the most memorable experiences was Casa De Francisco, a charming and intriguing turn of the century establishment that serves up delicious vegetarian dinner with a show. Not just any musical show though, some of the best Paulista artists the city has to offer. We entered the small concert hall meets restaurant through an unassuming door with a facade that one couldn't find without a tip or a local friend. The music was captivating, three musicians with just strings playing acoustic jazz/folk sets to a crowd of no more than 50 people. It was a moment that gave me goosebumps of how lucky I was to participate in such a foreign, beautiful experience.
Brazil is responsible for about a third of worldwide coffee production and has held this position for roughly the last 150 years. The coffee industry is actually what turned São Paulo from a small town into a booming industrial city. Santo Grao, which literally translates to "holy grail" is a coffee experience that fully grasps the energy of São Paulo's coffee industry. With five locations around the city theres a reason this brand is growing, it makes delicious coffee. From roasting it on location to the trendy atmosphere you enjoy its all in all, an experience.
Jardins Paulista has been a wonderful introduction for the trip ahead - safe, beautiful with every creature comfort at your fingertips but that's not to say its our favorite neighborhood...
Vila Madalina, a place where bohemians and frat boys roam; Venice Beach or Portabello Road back in the 60's. During our visit the streets closed paving the way for a Brazilian street fair pulsing with excitement. Since we were there during the World Cup it was a totally different experience from what most people would see but the street party still ensues on Friday and Saturday evenings on the corner of Rua Aspicuelta. A few notable spots that were recommended to us by our local friends were La Conga, Nola and Amuse Food Store.
You can tell a lot about a place by its various markets. Farmers markets -- with their exotic fruits, meats, fish, and spices -- all provide great insight into local daily life. Likewise, craft and flea markets give you a glimpse into the local gems and coveted items that hoarders masked as vendors have stowed away for years. Benedito Calixto, São Paulo's small, but acclaimed flea market was no different. Anticipating the artifacts we may find, we packed light hoping to come back with unique Brazilian treasures. Much to our dismay, most of what we found resembled the same old things we could find at the Brooklyn flea market back home. Slightly bummed that we couldn't find anything interesting, it was still cool to see the hodgepodge of vendors, local people, tourists and loiters enjoying the energetic ambiance and window shopping for the same unnecessary items in life. We couldn't help but notice the similarity between the Paulistas in awe of vintage sunglasses just as much as our Williamsburg hipsters would be back home.
Our first encounter with Penheiros was after Benedito Calixto. We were drifting along when we spotted a far-reaching line circling around the block. Intrigued by what could be drawing so many people we followed the line to its origin and, as well as finding the origin which was a Japanese art exhibit, we found a brewery, Brew Dog. Alas no more subdued lagers! Although we enjoyed "Original", a Brazilian lager, we yearned for a true IPA. Not only did Brew Dog have a choice of their own home brews but they also stocked obscure microbrews from around the world. Including a few from Brooklyn. We travel to foreign places to stretch our senses and cultivate our palate yet there's never anything better than something so familiar it reminds you of home.
Penheiros may have been one of our favorite neighborhoods that we unfortunately didn't explore enough. It somewhat resembles Santa Monica but with Latin grit. It's the neighborhood that when we come back, we'll Airbnb in.
After eleven days in São Paulo or Sampa as we came to know it, two new friends and an unforgettable experience we now understand what makes this city special and why 20 million Paulistas live and breath the patriotism for their home. Sometimes the uglier a place seems on the outside the more preserved it is for the people willing to give it a chance.
For a more in-depth account of our trip please read the original story at A Sense of [Place].