At first, a weekend might not seem enough to do justice to São Paulo, South America’s largest city. It's not just its size that's impressive: Sampa (as it’s known to its friends) has a bounty of superlatives tucked under its belt, from the world’s biggest Pride parade to the greatest collection of museums on the continent, and what might be the finest pizza outside Italy and best sushi outside Japan.
All reasons shouted from the rooftop bars by Paulistanos (arguably the world’s proudest citizens) when explaining why their city trumps that other marvellous city to the northeast. Though don’t get too intimidated by this big, brash metropolis: with a few wise choices you can optimise your time and spend the perfect weekend in São Paulo.
Fit for a pope (just ask Benedict XVI who stayed here during his state visit), Mosteiro São Bento makes for quite a sight to widen tired eyes. A church has been established on this site almost since the first city founders pitched up to find their fortunes way back in 1598. After taking in the details of the stunning murals and sumptuous stained glass windows, grab a coffee and a pastry for breakfast, freshly baked by the live-in monks.
Next up, head to Farol Santander, another of São Paulo’s iconic buildings. If it looks familiar, you won’t be surprised to learn that this early art-deco skyscraper and former bank was modelled on New York’s Empire State Building. The exhibits inside are a little staid at first (historical portraits of bank governors anyone?), but improve significantly as you scale the building, with impressive contemporary art spaces making way for fascinating photography exhibitions that document the city’s meteoric rise. The climb culminates in a sweeping panorama from the viewing platform.
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With lunchtime approaching, it’s time to discover Sampa’s gastronomic reputation at the Mercado Municipal. With its glittering columns and endless stalls bedecked with colourful fruit you’ve never heard of, this covered market is a true temple for gourmands.
Don’t choose your food too quickly, though; ambling along the aisles while free samples of global cuisine are thrust towards you is a joy. For our money, we’d keep things simple: grab a soft mortadella ham sandwich from Hocca Bar and wash it down with a sweet Brahma beer.
Fully sated and with your pre-booked tour tickets to hand, make a beeline for Theatro Municipal, the glittering jewel in São Paulo’s cultural crown. Exploring the various architectural stylings of this golden-hued theatre may even inspire you to linger in the booking office to catch a show.
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Plot your next moves at the Bar da Dona Onça in the shadows of the striking Edifício Copan, once dubbed the coolest building in Latin America. With a caipirinha in hand, this is a top spot to appreciate Oscar Niemeyer’s curvy modernist triumph up close.
Hail a taxi to the Pinheiros bairro, an amazing part of town to sample some of São Paulo’s renowned nightlife. Line your stomach at Braz Elettrica, which dishes up cheap, thin-crust pizza paulista by the slice, and get set for an evening of bar-hopping.
There are endless boteco (traditional bar) options in Pinheiros, but hopheads will get a buzz from the best of Brazil’s microbeers at Ambar, whilst No Name draws a more sophisticated crowd of locals. If you’re up for a big night, consider Love Story, where you can dance till dawn with all walks of Paulista life.
Catch the metro to leafy Rua Oscar Freire, Sampa’s answer to Fifth Avenue, for a bit of window-gazing at some of the luxury boutiques on offer. There’s a multitude of good cafes here to start your day; we recommend Santo Grão for some excellent, authentic coffee.
Head to iconic Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s most important thoroughfare and beating heart. Sundays are a wonderful time to explore, thanks to the avenue being closed to traffic and the haunt only of pedestrians, dog-walkers and the occasional samba school erupting into a roda de samba improvised jam session.
You could spend hours gawking up at skyscrapers towering above, but don’t forget to look down or you’ll miss a plethora of sights at street level. The historic villa Casa das Rosas jockeys for your attention with more modern sights like newly opened Japan House, while street murals by artist Kobra beam overhead.
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Pavement pounding makes for hungry work, so retrace your steps towards SESC Paulista, another newcomer to Avenida Paulista in a fabulous building bursting with libraries, art spaces and sports complexes. The cafe at the top is a good place for a quick bite paired with more amazing views.
Next up, art lovers should head to MASP, the greatest art museum in Latin America. Works by Brazilian masters like Di Cavalcanti and De Almeida Júnior rub shoulders with an impressive Western collection, and there’s an array of world-class revolving exhibitions that are well worth scoping out.
There’s only one way to top MASP’s impressive collection: Batman-themed street art! Set your sights for Vila Madalena, where you’ll be thrilled to discover a whole web of alleys resplendent with street art devoted to the Cape Crusader and a cast of other heroes (Tudo bem, Pelé?). Beco do Batman’s urban art is completely transformed every few months so no two visits are the same. And that vibrant graffiti not only offers excellent Instagram opportunities, but also provides a sneak peek into this truly bohemian bairro.
Any self-respecting Paulista will implore you not to leave the city without tasting some of its first-class Japanese food. Luckily for you, nearby Izakaya Matsu is a good place to devour mouthwatering tonkatsu, slurp down noodles and savour fiery sake.
Your weekend may be coming to an end, but don’t despair; there’s still time for a final few beers to toast São Paulo. Pull up a chair at boteco São Cristóvão, grab yourself a cold cerveja and begin planning your next trip to this truly incredible city.