How to experience São Paulo like a local
I like to think of São Paulo as a not particularly beautiful, but stylish, smart and interesting woman. She (because a city is feminine in Portuguese) is not easy, but is worth the effort. One of the largest city in the world, São Paulo is also one of the most populous and polluted. During summer it can become unbearably hot, and during winter, uncomfortably cold. Shopping is expensive. The architecture is confusing. Traffic jams are legendary. And when someone invites you for a drink at the top of the highest skyscraper in town, saying “the view is amazing” you’re met with a vast sea of buildings. But between the grey and the grit lies a great city. Here’s is how to find it.
If you’re going to try to see São Paulo outside of your hotel’s lobby, then you must learn some basic Portuguese. You don’t have to be an expert, but you should know just enough to get directions, buy a caipirinha and pay for a subway ticket.
If you are familiar with Spanish, it will be easy. If not, well, it can be tough. Good thing is that Paulistanos are kind, helpful people. It never hurts to ask for directions or help. And, no, not everyone is trying to scam you.
Avoid cars like the plague. If you stick to central areas (where most of the interesting museums, food and nightlife are), you’ll do fine using the subway (metrô). Buses are an option and cover all the city, but don’t expect the driver or collector to help you with directions in English. Apps like GoogleMaps or Moovit will get you easily from A to B.
Be aware that during morning and evening rush hours the roads can get unbelievably crowded. You’d be better spending an hour visiting a bookstore, photographing graffiti or just walking than trying to get across Paulista metrô station or riding a cab around 6PM. Trust me.
São Paulo is a megalopolis, and you must act according. Apply the golden rules: look like you know what you’re doing, don’t flash out your expensive camera around, don’t count dollars in the middle of the street. If in doubt, ask for help at a shop or restaurant. Play it safe, there’s no need to enter the strange van with darkened windows alone, at the end of the night, after severe drinking. You wouldn’t do it anywhere, would you?
Food in São Paulo at the surface isn’t much different than in any other big city. Pizza and pasta are as common as hamburgers and hot-dogs, but most of the pastries and snacks you’ll find in the padarias (or padocas, bakeries) have a Portuguese origin.
Things really begin to look interesting when you expand food options outside of North American or European cuisine. Consider Japanese, for instance. São Paulo has the biggest Japanese community outside of Japan, and Paulistanos are crazy about sushi and temaki.
As with sushi just about anywhere in the world, the cheaper varieties are hardly worth it. The good news is that Izakayas (sake bars serving small portions of delicious food) are popular too. You’ll find the best in the Liberdade (the traditional Asian neighborhood) and Pinheiros areas.
Then there’s Syrian, Armenian and Turkish food. What you’ll find in São Paulo is an amalgam of eastern food, the heritage of immigrants that chose São Paulo as a home during the last century. Funny enough, Paulistanos can’t tell the difference between eastern cuisines and tend to call everything “Arabic” (árabe).
You’ll also find fresh Peruvian ceviche. Tasty and cheap Chilean empanadas. State of the art Argentinian barbecue and wine. Delicious Colombian arepas. Spanish tapas and paella. Moroccan couscous. Belgian moules-et-fritters. Dutch stroopwafels. German currywurst. Even African food is starting to come around, courtesy of a growing community of Nigerian and Kenyan expats.
Last but not least, there’s Brazilian food. It can be hard to define since it’s a big country, full of micro-climates and very different regions. In São Paulo, you’ll find everything from Mato-Grosso’s approach to oriental noodles (yes, this is a thing, and it’s delicious) to Amazonian fish to the African-inspired food of Bahia. The gaucho barbecue of the rodízio kind, a live show of never-ending grilled meat, is mandatory.
The daily cuisine is rice, beans, steak/chicken, a simple salad and a small sweet like fruit salad for desert. Saturday is for feijoada; a pork and beans super heavy stew that will kill any plans you had for the rest of the day. You’ll find it from the most simple boteco (the Brazilian version of a pub: small, no-frills, cheap bar) to expensive hotel’s buffet. My personal choice is Feijoada da Lana, serving feijoada every Mon-Sat for more than 30 years in the heart of the bohemian area of Vila Madalena.
More food: Breakfast and Snacks
Paulistanos start the day lightly. Enter the nearest padoca and have milk and coffee plus bread with butter. “Na chapa” means frying the bread before serving. Add a glass of fresh orange juice or a portion of fruit like papayas, melon or pineapple.
During the day, you’ll find pão de queijo almost anywhere. These little fluffy white balls are gluten-free, made of manioc. Same goes for like the city’s second favourite: tapioca, white small pancakes served with all kind of filling in small stalls on the streets.
Coffee is the fuel of the city. Even kids drink it with milk. The traditional way is a coado (filtered), but espresso is widely available. And if you want a small sweet treat to go with it, ask for a brigadeiro: condensed milk with cocoa, served as a tiny ball or inside a small cup.
Whether you rented an apartment via Airbnb in the Consolação region or are staying in a Vila Madalena hostel, the weekly, open-air neighbourhood markets are the choice to buy fresh products and everything from towels to spices. Feiras are not endemic to São Paulo, but they are the soul of the city, a crazy mix of colours, flavours, scents and noises. Also, highly Instagramable.
Even if there’s no need for groceries, don’t miss the chance to visit. Talk to hotel someone or use this app to discover the address and day of the week of the feira closest to you. Go, sit down in a plastic chair near the pastel stand and enjoy this deep fried squares of dough filled with minced meat – cheese and palm hearts are the other local champions. The traditional drink of feiras is garapa, sugar cane juice that tastes like liquid, pure sugar, so try and break it with lemon, ginger or pineapple. As Paulistano as can be.
No beaches. Few green areas that get crowded during weekends. And who wants to be at a shopping mall when the weather is lovely? The good news is that there are a lot of things happening all the time!
Paulistanos are reclaiming the city streets. It means there are free, fun and alternative things going on all the time. As I write this, for instance, there’s a jazz and beer festival preparing to take place at Beco do Batman, the open air graffiti gallery of Vila Madalena.
The best place to witness this ongoing transformation is Minhocão (“big worm”) on a Sunday evening. During the weekdays, this is a six-lane elevated speedway for cars crossing trough the city center.
On the weekends, Minhocão is closed for cars to give the habitants of the buildings (which were already there when this urbanist nightmare was built, in the 1970s) some well deserved rest. So, Saturday and Sunday is when people use the concrete to fool around, walk the dog or invite friends for a barbecue. Check Parque Minhocão on Facebook.
More Info & Weekly Guides
To find out more info, there is a Time Out SP online, but the magazine never took off in São Paulo the way it did in New York or London. I wonder if it’s because Paulistanos are faithful to the weekly guides that come with local newspapers. Dailies ”Folha de São Paulo” and “Estado de São Paulo” have their pocket-sized guides our every Friday, covering all there’s to know in the city for the upcoming week. From opera to food trucks, from markets to night clubs.
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