Brazil’s Answer to New York

São Paulo has the vibrancy of an urgent city, and plenty of beauty too

The streets, the pace, the height of the buildings––all of these combined to make me think of New York on my first visit to São Paulo.

Even the way Paulistas, as the locals are known, speak Portuguese—fast, dropping syllables they deem unnecessary—tells you this is a city with too much to do and too little time to get it done. This sure ain’t “take it slow and easy” Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian city most visitors know best. Still, to my delight, the locals find the time to talk to strangers, as tourists are fewer here than in their sunny sister city.

Friends of mine who grew up in Rio always call it confining––hard to believe as it is, considering we think of it as a liberal paradise, at least for tourists. But São Paulo is the opposite––it’s where Brazilians and immigrants from around the world come to get ahead, make themselves known, achieve something.

Sounds familiar, huh?

São Paulo’s size––more than 18 million people––and its role as Latin America’s premiere business center mean the city has great restaurants, superb cultural outlets, and whole lot of busy people looking for something to do when they get out of work.

City Highlights

Since all of the pictures I’d ever seen of São Paulo were aerial shots of an endless cityscape of 1970s high-rises, it was hard to imagine there might be beauty here. But at street level, and with its many remaining historical buildings, São Paulo is full of hidden treasures.

Circulo Italiano, also known as Teraco Italiano is one of the city’s tallest buildings with a lookout restaurant. It’s good starting point to see the vastness of São Paulo. Nearby, the Praca da Republica is like a small jungle in the midst of the city, its trees overgrown, hanging over small canals. It’s rundown and grimy, but full of life.

You’ll find groups of men cruising women or men, depending on their tastes, and hippie street vendors selling handicrafts. A beautiful classical building overlooks the park and in front of this, there’s a tourist kiosk, a useful stopping point for maps and ideas about more to see.

Two pedestrianized streets lead off of the park, Rua Barao de Itapetininga and Rua Dom Jose de Barros. They are full of crowded shops, and the usual bible thumpers and assorted nuts you always find where people gather. This was once where all the fashionable shops were––but those have all moved into the malls and suburban shops where the wealthy now live, like the Morumbi shopping center.

Still, the street-focused scale and busy nature of the area make it a joy, and the most interesting thing to see here are the human billboards. Old men and women are paid to plaster their bodies with the latest job offerings. Crowds gather around them, taking notes, handing out resumes.

It’s also just a quick walk to the Municipal Theatre, styled after the Paris Opera. The building sits on a hill overlooking a park, and the steps and fountains that cascade from it are often full of young lovers finding quick moments of romance on their lunch breaks.

A true São Paulo gem is the excellent but small Museum of Art of São Paulo, better known as MASP. The building is funky and interesting all on its own. Inside, you’ll find works of art by all the European masters––Van Gogh, Renoir, El Greco, Hals, and many others. Paulista Avenue, where the museum sits, is best known for the hotels, banks, and fancy restaurants that surround it.

Besides the buildings of course, it’s the people that are a highlight, and São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan––more than 1.5 million in the state of São Paulo. While most of the immigrants have spread throughout the city, their traditional neighborhood is Liberdade, but there they have begun to be replaced by Koreans and other immigrants. The neighborhood has a strong Chinatown feel to it, even down to the shops.

Italians, numbering an estimated several million, also are among the leading immigrant groups in the city. Bela Vista is the city’s Little Italy, well known for its restaurants.

Very little of the old colonial city is left, but a real treasure is the Jesuit church of Ancheta downtown, on 15 of November Street. While the building is from the 1700s, the site dates to 1554 and the founding of the city. As in the Spanish colonies, the Jesuits were eventually thrown out of Brazil for trying to prevent abuses against the Indian population.

While São Paulo is known for its modern architecture––and often denigrated for it––interesting old buildings remain all over the town. I’d suggest a wander with a good map, during the daylight, to find these little old oases of history.

Gay Life in São Paulo

One of the world’s largest cities, São Paulo sports one of the largest gay pride celebrations anywhere. The 2003 Gay Pride March had nearly a million participants and viewers. This is a huge change from the small numbers who came only a few years ago, a sign of the ongoing progress in gay rights and visibility here. The route of the Parade follows Avenida Paulista, the city’s most important thoroughfare and wraps down Ipiranga Avenue towards Praca da Republica.

The 2004 parade is June 13. For more information, visit the organizer’s website at paradasp.org.br/.

A recent addition to the gay urban landscape is the Victor Victoria Mall (011 55 11 3337 2395), which opened on Rua Rego Freitas 52 last summer, around the time of gay pride. Hardly upscale, the enterprise seems aimed, at best, at satisfying your needs if you’re an aspiring drag queen, or a tweaking club kid in need of emergency party gear. You’ll also find a pleasant, spartanly furnished café in the back, ideal for chats with locals.

Here, I met Dodo, of Dodo Gifts, who dresses up in fascinating drag while tending her shop. Next door, her friend Marco Costa sells T-shirts he decorates by hand. The owner who started it all is Henrique Buenoprado, based on an idea by his business partner Victoria Cury, after whom the mall was named.

Buenoprado is hoping the mall will serve to anchor the district, and work as a revival force for an area some say has been on the decline. He was most proud of the shop Farho Leather where all the products are hand made by the designers––some are club clothes, others utilitarian but funky purses.

After the mall, it was on to bars for my friends and me. Next door to Victor Victoria was the drag heavy and club kiddy Planet G which was a quick, fun visit for us. (Rego Freitas 56; 011 55 11 3333 1627) Then, we hit Blue Space for a Cinderella drag spectacle. It’s a former theater turned club with different levels and spaces, each with its own mood. Lots of shirtless men dance without a care, yet it remains girl-friendly. (Rua Brigadeiro Galvao; 723; 011 55 11 3666 1616; www.bluespace.com.br)

A total change of pace was Vermont Bear, one of three Vermonts in São Paulo, each with its own theme. Bear is a rustic, tight place, giving the sense of partying in an overgrown log cabin. And of course, it’s full of big hairy men. (Avenida Dr. Viera de Carvalho, 63; 011 55 11 3333 6190; www.vermontbear.com.br)

Then it was on to UltraLounge, which I just loved. Red, red, red, decorated in flocked gold velvet wallpaper, red upholstery, and gilded mirrors all about. It looks like a cross between a brothel and a place a Sicilian grandmother would feel at home in. The music was great, but more than that, gorgeous men haunted every corner and filled the dance floor. (Rua da Consolacao, 3114; 011 55 11 3875 0189)

We also publish:

More from Around NYC