Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… São Paulo

Brazil’s financial centre is also home to hip hotels, stunning shops and cultured cuisine. Lucia van der Post drinks in the sophisticated Paulistano atmosphere.

November 25 2011
Lucia van der Post

Rio may get all the rave notices, and it’s of course where you go for the carnivals and spectacular beauty, but São Paulo is the true heart of Brazil, with the guts, the vitality and the character. It’s the financial centre, the second-largest city in the world (home to 19m inhabitants) and it hums with life.

Everybody agrees that São Paulo has the best shops, hotels, clubs and restaurants. Hip designers keep local fashion buzzing, expert chefs offer almost every cuisine around, the art scene is flourishing and museums have thrilling exhibitions. All this despite the fact that it’s a relatively young city, brought to commercial life in the late 19th century, when it became the world’s largest producer of coffee. Today, it is among the most expensive cities in the world.

But there is one problem for weekend visitors: São Paulo is vast, so it is best thought of a series of neighbourhoods, some of which (particularly Jardins, an upmarket residential area with the nicest hotels and shops) are more intriguing than others.

First, where to stay. Until fairly recently, the old-fashioned Maksoud Plaza was the swankiest address, and it still has a faded glamour; but these days the Emiliano, a hip boutique hotel, has upped the stakes. It is right on São Paulo’s smartest shopping street, the Rua Oscar Freire, and is small (just 57 rooms), cool and light, beautifully designed (lots of pieces by the Campana brothers and Charles Eames), with huge, airy rooms, butlers and a great spa.

Hotel Fasano, meanwhile, is all chic retro design, boasting dark wood, shabby-chic leather chairs, a grand old-style dining room with authentic Italian cuisine (which some think is the best in Brazil), a good spa and a very sophisticated bar, the Baretto.

Ruy Ohtake, dubbed “the new Oscar Niemeyer”, designed the sought-after Hotel Unique, a curiously melon-shaped structure with every high-tech gadget you could ever need, but whose chief claims to fame are its Skye Bar and pool.

And the Tivoli hotel is close to the Avenida Paulista (the business centre), as well as a two-block park of intact Atlantic rainforest, and houses the Elements Spa by Banyan tree – the best spa in São Paulo. It has Thai massage therapists and all the tranquillity that chic Paulinstanos crave when they need a break from their hectic social lives.

When it’s time to shop, cruise around Rua Oscar Freire, which is where the beautiful (and fat-walleted) people come. Many of the shops have winter gardens, all offer something to drink, and if you pay cash you can often get 10 per cent off.

You have to visit the Havaianas flagship to see how brilliantly its designers have taken the notion of the simple flip-flop and run with it. It’s a great place for small presents – bright socks, towels, a new line of bags and replicas of 1970s espadrilles, all in a bright, market-like space.

Huis Clos is the place for conceptual clothing – particularly if you’re looking for something chic in which to down your caipirinhas. Galeria Melissa is a city institution, almost more famous for its façade, which changes all the time, than for what it sells, which is shoes of every kind. Osklen is a fundamentally Brazilian brand, with chic surfwear and other clothing created by a doctor who gave up medicine for surfing and design.

For design as avant-garde as anything in Europe, head to Coletivo Amor de Madre; it’s very cool and filled with exciting pieces ranging from the portable (a light made from a giant matchstick with a tip that glows) to a chair composed entirely of spanners.

For jewellery, Cocoon – by appointment only – is the insider’s place to go; its designers, Andrea Colli, Karina Olsen and Vivienne Ferreira, are chic and beautiful Paulistanas who produce lovely pieces using gemstones and rose gold.

Not too far away, the Vila Madalena neighbourhood has funkier shops, but it’s also home to some of the most admired graffiti in the world. Head to the Beco do Batman for the full effect.

There’s also a vibrant cultural scene. If you only have time for one museum, make it the Pinacoteca do Estado, which is a wonderful early-20th-century building, updated by Pritzker Prizewinner Paulo Mendes da Rocha and housing a collection of Brazilian art. The Parque do Ibirapuera, where Paulistanos like to stroll, features many Niemeyer buildings, which host temporary art exhibitions and fairs.

Then you need to take a ride down the Avenida Paulista. This is where São Paulo’s coffee barons built their mansions. Most have been replaced with office blocks, but a handful remain to give some idea of the wealth and grandeur of the barons and of the art-nouveau style they favoured. While there, you should make a point of visiting the Museo de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), generally acknowledged to be the best art gallery in the the southern hemisphere.

São Paulo is a city of immigrants, and almost every cuisine has a chef to do it honour. The newest trend is young chefs rediscovering authentic, indigenous food and ingredients.

At Brasil a Gosto, a simple, double-storeyed place adorned with jungly motifs to make sure you get the message, food comes almost straight from the rainforest. There are delicate salads of palm hearts and pirarucu (one of the world’s largest freshwater fish) grilled and flavoured with lemongrass and ginger, and side orders of crispy chips made from manioc (cassava) or roasted yams. Vegetables come with hot sauces, often accompanied by crunchy cashew nut embellishments, while for puddings, the chef does wondrous sorbets and concoctions with mangoes, passion fruit and pawpaws. You should try his version of cocada, a creamy coconut dish, rather like custard.

At the Arola-Vintetres, high up in the Tivoli hotel, Sergi Arola, one of Spain’s most prestigious chefs, has added Brazilian touches to his cuisine. Tapas include spicy crab stew, foie gras with dried fruits and spicy stewed tomatoes, or sardines marinated in passion fruit and peppers. Local fish comes grilled or deep-fried, with pungent sauces or mayonnaises made using pitanga berries, and all are paired with wines from the vast cellar.

DOM is an elegant, discreet, properly grown-up restaurant run by one of Brazil’s best-known chefs, Alex Atala, who’s made a point of celebrating Brazil’s home-grown ingredients, particularly the lesser-known tubers, fruits, fish and herbs found in the Amazon basin. Go for his thrilling, ever-changing tasting menu. He delivers up between four and eight unique dishes – sometimes with pirarucu, sometimes with boar (Brazil is famous for its pork), and he’s fond of using unusual plants, such as the beldroega. All are served with great elegance.

Just nearby, Atala has opened Dalva e Dito, a light, airy space with an open kitchen. His notion was to serve the “food of our grandmothers”. Saturday nights are a bit special, when at midnight he serves up an authentic “galinhada”. It’s a comforting combination of rice, chicken, peppers and herbs, rather like a Brazilian version of paella, and is usually a sell-out.

Because Brazil possesses the largest population of people with Japanese ancestry outside Japan, it has some of the best Japanese restaurants in the world. At Kinoshita, a beautifully restrained interior with quintessential Japanese elements in a Naoki Otake building, chef Tsuyoshi Murakami prepares sushi, sashimi, temaki and the rest before his customers’ eyes. His soy sauce is legendary and there’s a sake sommelier.

At Jun Sakamoto, the omakase menu fuses Japanese and Brazilian culinary traditions to come up with something new and exotic (anyone for tuna tartare with foie gras?). Both have long waiting lists, so you need to book well before you arrive.

When it comes to drinks, there’s the hotel-based Baretto Bar and Skye Bar, while Bar Numero, in the Jardins area, these days attracts the glamour crowd. Bar Secreto is where you go for the after-the-bar party (Madonna showed up last time she was in town).

Worth dropping into is the Coffee Lab, where you can indulge in all manner of coffee treats, but also learn about beans and taste coffee brewed in different ways. It’s extraordinarily inspirational.

In São Paulo, as you can see, you need never be bored. It was Marlene Dietrich who said of it, “Rio is a beauty – but São Paulo; ah... São Paulo is a city.”