It’s fair to say that, at first glance, I wasn’t that impressed with Sao Paulo. The disastrous inefficiency of the airport and the thick smog that had stopped the plane landing on my arrival to South America had left me feeling a little bitter towards the place.
However, I was back in Brazil, almost four months later and, giddy with the wonder of Rio de Janeiro, my attitude to Sao Paulo had softened somewhat. I had some time spare and a friend living in the city who had offered to put me up for a few days. I figured: why not?
So I arrived into Sao Paulo, with no expectations and no particular anticipation for it – on the South America ‘circuit’ Sao Paulo barely features – travellers might use it as a transition point from one popular tourist destination to another, but very few of them see outside of the airport or bus station. It is not considered to be a desireable destination.
However, this city is the biggest in the southern hemisphere; it is also the economic powerhouse of the continent. I figured that there must be at least something worth seeing.Luckily my host – and paulistas in general – are proud of their city and keen to show it off. After a brief fly-by-night tour of the city, I had the next day to explore more thoroughly on my own.
It was a revelation. I had expected the skyscrapers, the towering financial buildings which line Avenida Paulista, I had envisaged the same blanket of smog that had first welcomed me. However, it was a beautiful ‘winter’ day which felt like summer, a blue sky with just the odd fluffy, white cloud. I successfully navigated my way through the subway system to the central downtown area – and emerged to find big streets lined with grand historical buildings. I must have looked a little lost, because a friendly passer-by pointed me in the direction of the tourist office. I was greeted warmly by the girl behind the desk, who asked where I was from and pulled out an English-language guide and map for me, circling the key sights. I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel more welcome in a city.
Armed with my map, I set off confidently, finding the cathedral just a few blocks away. It is a pretty impressive sight with its twin spires and palm-tree-lined plaza. There were also some of the strangest trees I have ever seen – they looked like they had been uprooted from an enchanted forest.
Just around the corner from the cathedral, I found an even older, smaller building in its own square. It is an original colonial building from 1554, the building which marks the founding of the city by the conquistadores. It is utterly charming.
When I began to get hungry, I wandered down a side street and found a cheap buffet restaurant. I piled my plate with delicious Brazilian food and sat down to lunch at a communal table with city workers on their lunch break. People chatted to me, asked where I was from and offered me suggestions of things to do and places to see.
For the rest of the time, I was left on my own to do as I pleased. There were few other tourists, no crowds anywhere, just friendly locals going about their business and offering me advice when I needed it. I spent the afternoon at two wonderful museums; the first was teh Caixa Cultural – an art museum with some incredible exhibitions. Apart from a few intellectual-types occasionally drifting through, I had the place to myself, able to spend as long as I liked in front of each piece. Then, across town, I visited the Museo da lingua portuguesa (Museum of Portuguese language), a place of global cultural significance, with a whizzy technological exhibit.
When a rowdy group of children arrived on a school trip, I decided it was time to go, and I headed back outside. The sun was just beginning to get low in the sky, giving that golden late-afternoon glow. I crossed the street and walked into the aptly named Parque da Luz – divine at that time of day.
At 5pm, I had to make my way back to my friend’s house – we were going to a small indie gig in a ‘bohemian’ quarter of town that evening. Sao Paulo’s subway system at 5pm is the only thing I would not reccommend – I have never been on anything like it! At the moment, the network is simply far too limited for the size of the city and the number of people. It was a bit of a hellish journey, but nothing could shake my good feelings towards Sao Paulo – there had to be something in this place that wasn’t perfect, otherwise it would just be weird. The gig, needless to say, was brilliant.
I have never been so surprised by a city. Sao Paulo completely disarmed me and there is so much to recommend it. Rio may be the party captial, but Sao Paulo has unparalleled culture and architecture. It is a locals’ city, but it is a diverse, multicultural place. It has everything you would expect of a modern, forward-thinking metropolis, while keeping its Brazilian soul.
Sao Paulo is the polar opposite of the grey, polluted dump of a place that many people (including, at one point, me) seem to think it is – if you are planning a visit to Brazil, make sure Sao Paulo is on your itinerary – you won’t regret it.
Which city has surprised you?