São Paulo in a nutshell
How to get a hold of São Paulo? It is one of the largest and most populated cities in the world, the biggest metropolis in South America, where 20 million inhabitants live in 1.523 km² divided in five main zones, 93 official districts and hundreds of different sub-zones. Sure no guide can proper cover it. But you can start small, exploring certain areas or, as we say it, “bairros”. Bellow are five of Paulistanos favourites neighborhoods.
More São Paulo? Be sure to check these links for more local knowledge on what to see and do around the city:
– Read this recent post at Foto Strasse where I talk about my favourite places in Vila Madalena;
– Download my “green” São Paulo travel guide at Ecoalsur for iOS or Android;
– Check the (free!) Avenida Paulista, Vila Madalena and Pinheiros guides exclusively on Guidrr app.
São Paulo was founded around what is today the Sé region, the old center. But it was at the Hospedaria do Imigrante (Immigrant hostel), in the East section of the city, that some of the many nationalities that make São Paulo first arrived in the city. From here Italian, Portuguese, Armenian, German, Japanese, Turkish, Sirian and many others running from war, plague or religious persecution started their new lives. Even though Mooca has an unyielding Italian vibe (you’ll see cantinas, Italian flags, even the local accent is different) the stories of all these people are in the Immigration Museum. It’s a fascinating way to understand São Paulo.
Vila Madalena and Pinheiros
Before becoming the bohemian quarter of São Paulo, Vila Madalena was just a small segment of one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city: Pinheiros. Graffiti and cool stuff happening on a daily basis are characteristics of both places but, as a general rule, think Pinheiros for restaurants and art shops and Vila Madalena for beer and cheap eats.
Starting with Pinheiros, the area is divided in “Alto” and “Baixo”. The latter is around Largo da Batata (“potato square”) and the old Pinheiros market, where Japanese families used to live and commerce. The market itself is going through a moment of rediscovery and deserves a visit. The “higher” part of Pinheiros, near Praça Benedito Calixto, has a lot of cafes, restaurants and art spaces. As for Rua dos Pinheiros, it is a sequence of restaurants for all budgets and tastes.
Vila Madalena been known as São Paulo’s bohemian/left-wing “bairro”, but now is also a place for dive bars, loud music, expensive cafes and a lot of offices. But resistance stands! For every newly gentrified office building, there’s another mandala workshop, yoga studio or vegan food truck. And come weekends, the streets get energetic with open air events and people walking up and down the Harmonia and Girassol hills.
Did you know that São Paulo has the biggest Japanese community outside of Japan? Most of the families arrived in the early XX century, establishing themselves in what’s today know as Bairro da Liberdade, in the central segment. For a long time Liberdade was the only place where Paulistanos could find raw fish and sake, but today what you’ll encounter here is much more, a chaos of Japanese/Chinese/Korean stalls selling everything from Pokemon outfits to pottery, from takoyaki to bubble tea. A Japanese friend described the traditional (and super crowded) weekend open air food market as “a Chinese version of Japan as imagined by Brazilian people”. Don’t get me wrong: there is a lot of smart things to see, eat and do in Liberdade. Thing is, you need a local friend to guide you. For instance, the best pastel in São Paulo is at Yoka, on Rua dos Estudantes. And I dare you’ll find a better place for beers and cheap eats than Kintarô, a small, simple joint run by two sumô wrestler brothers.
São Paulo’s downtown is several different central areas, like Sé, Luz, São Bento and Bom Retiro. República is the region around the square of the same name, near Largo do Arouche, Avenida São Luiz, and calçadões that bring you from the República subway station towards the classically gorgeous Municipal Theater. The modernist prime art piece Copan building is also nearby.
Centro is where São Paulo’s best architecture and street art is, and younger crowds occupying the area are creating an imaginative environment, best seen during weekends. Practice a little Portuguese and check out centro.cx, a site map of the creative occupation of São Paulo’s downtown. Use public transportation and favour weekends to avoid crowds.
Not exactly a neighbourhood, but an avenue. Starting in the Paraíso (“paradise”) region and ending at Consolação (“consolation”) Avenue, Paulista has been the place where the coffee barons had their mansions, turned into the financial district of São Paulo and now it’s a commercial center meets artisanal open air market. It is also where many of the current Brazilian protests are happening. On Sundays, closed to cars, it is here that São Paulo’s heart beats.