Brasilia is the capital of Brazil and the verdant Rio de Janeiro the city that appears on all the postcards. However, the urban jungle of São Paulo is the real powerhouse of the country. Whether you look up, down or straight ahead, Rio de Janeiro doesn’t feel like a city because of the natural swathes of yellow, blue and green splashed all over the place, and one can’t help but admire its natural beauty. São Paulo, on the other hand, or Sampa, as the natives like to call it, what with its high-rise building and busy buzz, feels like a city worthy of its super urban metropolis tag.
I decided I’d take a midweek trip down the Atlantic coast, the main objective being to visit as many museums, exhibitions and events as possible so as to have a ‘cultural’ experience. I left late on a Monday night in order to be able to sleep on the bus, which cost just short of 100 Reais with Expresso do Brasil and took around 6 hours, arriving at Tietê terminal at about 7am.
I took the metro to Faria Lima before walking a few minutes to Hey Hostel (30 Reais per night). The underground network in São Paulo makes it fabulously easy to get around the city and you can transfer between lines as many times as you like once you are inside the system. It costs 3.80 Reais per journey, and if there is a lack of change, they reduce the ticket price to 3 Reais while they recoup enough coins. The only downfall is the lack of signage inside the stations themselves, especially when connecting, and I found myself walking around in circles a few times.
Public transport often gives you an insight into the demographic make-up of a city, and I noted that there seemed to be more whiter and European-looking Brazilians than in Rio. That said, greater São Paulo is inhabited by the richer while the lesser well-off live in the outskirts, whereas Rio de Janeiro has a mix of all backgrounds in pretty much all parts of the city. Not to generalise and say that all whites are rich and all blacks are poor, but anyone who knows the country will know there is still an underlying social divide in Brazil.
The hostel itself was fine and functional, including a simple breakfast, but lacked any kind of social atmosphere. Perhaps it didn’t help that while I was there the only guests were young males, most of whom spent the majority of their time in bed in the 12-bed dorm in the dark. Most of them didn’t appear to be experienced hostel-users, as shoes were splayed all over the floor, lanterns flashed menacingly in eyes at ungodly hours and music was listened to loudly via headphones. Rather than get flustered, I simply put myself to sleep through listening to YouTube waterfall audio recordings. Over the course of three days, I only had proper chats with an exuberantly gay maths teacher from Bahia and a recently-arrived Tunisian who’d come to Brazil to sell typical food from his country on the streets. Nevertheless, I wasn’t visiting SP to make friends, but to do a little bit of urban tourism.
In fact, I’d done lots of research regarding which places I wanted to visit, but as I was walking around the city and getting off at metro stations, signs to other attractions popped up everywhere and I ended up going with the flow. I figured the best starting point was along Avenida Paulista, the main street of the city, so I got off at Brigadeiros metro station down one end of it. As it happened, I alighted by the Centro Cultural Itaú, which was free and had an array of exhibitions. There was an interesting one on Art in Motion by Calder, as well as some interesting panoramic pictures in another section exhibiting landscapes of the country in the latter half of the nineteenth century, which exploded when the Portuguese (who were still kind of ruling in an apparently independent Brazil) lifted the ban on foreigners painting landscapes, including the jewel in the crown, Rio de Janeiro. There was also an interesting section on the life of Cartola, a famous Carioca samba musician from the Mangueira favela, who only recorded CDs well into his sixties due to his refusal to self-promote and wish to remain out of the public eye. Most samba musicians come from the poorer neighbourhoods of Rio, and at one time the genre was rejected by the elite in favour of styles imported from Europe and the US, though when it was getting popular many record producers would go into the favelas asking musicians such as Cartola to throw together new songs for them to produce and sell.
I then walked all the way down Avenida Paulista, which actually isn’t that long, and had to dodge several beggars and students asking for donations to UNICEF. My number one priority was the football museum at Estádio Pacaembu, so I made my way there (about 15 minutes from Av. Paulista) and paid the 9 Reais entrance fee. I was largely impressed, as there is a lot of information provided in the form of videos, photos, documents, statistics and other memorabilia. My favourite parts were the sections which included archive footage of the best goals in Brazilian football in the opinion of famous commentators, the exhibit collating photos, videos and quirky info on all of the World Cups ever played, and the area in which masses of football statistics and anecdotes are displayed. I managed to do my good deed for the day when I ran after an Argentine lady who’d left her phone on a bench, though I’d have to wait for the Bank of Favours to reciprocate, as when I bought my ticket for the São Paulo vs Santos due to take place a few days after, the woman in the ticket office was an extremely grumpy creature.
I left the museum with a little more of the afternoon to burn, and in doing some internet research found that MASP (São Paulo Art Museum) was free on Tuesdays, despite usually costing 30 Reais. I thus hotfooted my way to the big red museum in the middle of Avenida Paulista, and got there just before it started bucketing it down in what I was to realise was a daily occurrence in the city. There were some interesting pieces of art upstairs and a less-interesting area with Brazilian artisan products since the 1960s downstairs.
There was nothing to write home about in the evening, or about any nocturnal activities during my stay, to be honest, though on a few occasions I had ‘pratos feitos’, basically rice + beans + salad + meat of your choice which were larger in size than in Rio, and lesser in price, generally coming in at around 13 Reais.
I set off the next day early so as to take in as many activities as possible on what was a Brazilian public holiday and started by jumping off the metro at Brigadeiro and walking to Parque Ibirapuera, a massive park with a range of things to do in the fresh air, such as skate, cycle or run, and a prime destination for families on such a day. Unfortunately, I had opted to wear jeans, a mistake as the sun belted down until about 3pm, so I couldn’t be bothered walking around the park properly and I instead visited a few of the museums within the park. A good idea in São Paulo is to take a change of clothes in your bag so as to cover all weather possibilities.
Given my inappropriate attire wasn’t conducive to walking, I opted to go in the AfroBrasil museum for 6 Reais, which was well worth the fee. There was a quite interesting exhibition downstairs concerning art from Portugal, and upstairs there was a lot of information about Brazil’s African ancestry with a plethora of information and displays, but the layout was poor and you have to double back on yourself so as to cover everything, therefore I reckon there were some parts I didn’t see. I learned that the region of Maranhão, controlled by the Dutch at various times, operated effectively as an autonomous state following the independence of Brazil, and there was even a push for complete independence which didn’t end up bearing fruit.
Also within Ibirapuera is the Pavilhão Japonesa, which at 10 Reais is a complete waste of time. Although the building itself is pretty and based on Japanese architecture, the museum itself is poor, with just a small room of unspectacular artifacts and a pool of carps upstairs which fascinated nobody but the children buying fish food to throw at them and provoke some splashes.
My eyes and mind were tired of museums at this point, especially as I like to look at and read everything I come across, so I made my way to the Potato and Milkshake Festival at Monumento da América Latina, next to Barra Funda metro station and within striking distance of Palmeiras FC’s Allianz Stadium, but only after spending an eternity trying to find Line 7 of the metro, which ended up being an overground train.
After taking some snaps with the memorial, I browsed all the food and drink stands crammed into a square and eventually chose what to eat dependent not on the food itself, but the shortness of the queue. I ended up eating some potatoes with a Parmigiana sauce, which was edible, drank a decent dark beer and then queued for about 20 minutes for a brigadeiro (Brazilian chocolatey fudge shavings) milkshake, which was just a vanilla milkshake with a simple topping. You know, when in Rome and all that. Next to the tents was a small exhibit about tattoos and I learned the meaning of various gang tattoos, namely that gangsters with clown images have usually killed a police officer.
The final activity of the day was to attend a talk about the Italian filmmaker Pasolini, in which some relatively well-known names in the Brazilian movie world debated. It was good for my culture hit and I felt that I had been intellectually indulged in São Paulo, but I didn’t let the buzz get to my head and declined to queue for complimentary chocolates and champagne on offer following the talk for those who wished to discuss Pasolini.
Day three would fall on the birthday of my late grandmother, so I spent part of the morning in the cemetery composing a poem in memory of her as I felt I had to make an effort to remember her. Though in reality it probably wasn’t that apt, as being in a graveyard didn’t actually make a difference, especially when it’s full of bourgeoisie tombs that have nothing to do with me. My trip there only felt vindicated when I saw what I thought was a dead body on one of the shelves in an open grave, though I’m not sure if my mind was playing tricks on me.
I went from there to São Bento metro station, where there is quite a concentration of places to visit. I took in the monastery of the same name, which was nothing spectacular, as religious buildings generally never are, and visited the Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil, which had no exhibit on that day. Next stop was the Mercadão Municipal, which though vibrantly coloured and buzzing with visitors, shouldn’t be so high on a city’s to-do list. I perused all the stands and realised that prices were no cheaper than elsewhere, though I thought I’d make my visit worthwhile and bought a pack of four huge cashew fruit for 10 Reais, but not before one of the marketeers tried selling me two for the same price. Opportunists.
I then took a walk to Bairro Liberdade, the Japanese district of the city. The concentration of Japanese, and indeed Chinese people, was impressive and there was lots of Oriental cuisine on offer as well as some quirky traffic lights, lamp posts and buildings with a Far East twist. I ate a huge Yakisoba made by an authentic Japanese man that I barely managed to finish for 15 Reais and on the way back to the metro I bought a São Paulo FC shirt after negotiating with various street vendors.
As with most of my days, I walked quite a lot, and in doing so, realised that SP isn’t as flat as you’d believe. There are lots of ups and downs, especially by the old centre in and around São Bento and Liberdade. As a pedestrian, or for that matter, a driver, it’s easy to navigate your way around the city as places are generally well-signposted and signs generally indicate the name of the streets coming up on both your left and right.
Still in the São Bento area, I scaled the Martinelli building, via the elevator, and got a 360 degrees view of São Paulo, which would only emphasise the beastly size of the city, as the horizon was full of high-rise buildings in whichever direction you looked.
Next stop was Luz, a metro station built under an aesthetically-pleasing old train station, and another place with a concentration of museums in the vicinity. One of which was the Portuguese Language Museum, unfortunately closed due to a recent fire. I instead went to Pinacoteca art museum, located just across the road from the train station. It cost just 6 Reais, and though it didn’t leave me open-mouthed, I’m not loathe to spending money on art galleries as long as the price isn’t ridiculous. As it happened, there some decent works on display, and much as in other museums in the city, my attention was grabbed more by art depicting landscapes and historical moments than by portraits of apparently important people.
Later that night, I went to watch a football game, as described here.
On my final day in São Paulo I decided to head out to Santos, a coastal city about an hour and a half away, famous for being the focal point of the Brazilian coffee industry and the place where none other than Pelé made his footballing name. To take a bus to Santos you need to go to the end of the blue line to Jabaquara and from there they set off at all hours of the day with various companies for approximately 26 Reais. On arriving at the terminal in Santos I was disappointed to find that the luggage storage facility was no longer available, so I had to lug my backpack around with me for the day.
Obviously, my first stop was the Pelé museum, with a cost of 10 Reais, which was indeed very well-organised, as you start by following a timeline on the ground floor, before going to the top floor and working your way down through exhibitions on the four world cups he participated in. It was very informative and I learned that in the aftermath of the ‘Maracanazo’, when Uruguay surprised Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final in the Maracanã, Pelé made a promise as a 10-year-old to his father that he would win the trophy for him one day, as well as finding out that the 1962 and 1966 World Cups were tough for Pelé as he was chopped down into injury in both of them and hit his real heights in 1958 and 1970.
Inside the Pelé museum, you can buy tickets for the touristic tram for 6.50 Reais and it sets off hourly from outside the old train station across from the museum. Having been restored within the last 10 years, the tram uses the carriages and tracks that date back to the 1860s when it was inaugurated. It lasts about 40 minutes and goes around the historical centre of the city, a guide pointing out buildings as you go along. The tour was OK, despite our guide severely lacking in enthusiasm, and takes in most of the old buildings of the city such as the old customs buildings, forts and places relevant to coffee production, the industry for which the city is famed. Unfortunately, it absolutely tanked it down with rain during our run, so we had to close the windows and had something of an obscured view of the sights.
Following this, I dashed through the rain to the coffee museum, thankfully just around the corner. Again, as was the pattern in São Paulo, the museum was generally well-laid-out, as the bottom floor details the various stages in coffee production and the first floor focuses on the role played by the various workers involved in the process, including recordings with people who had worked in the trade. I also learned that Santos was the place where world coffee prices were set back in the days when everything wasn’t monopolised by the US. As is the norm in museums in Brazil, there was a section detailing the history of the building itself and how it was put together and renovated over the years, with clear emphasis on which companies were involved. Being recognised for restoration works and maintenance must be part of the deal for maintaining the museums, methinks.
Given the cafeteria was rather overpriced, I figured I’d go to the central square in search of a coffee, which couldn’t be so tasking seeing as I was in a city full of coffee. I opted for Carioca Café on the corner of the main square, and asked for a pastry and a pingado, basically a coffee with milk that usually costs about 2 Reais. However, when I went to pay, though I expected it to be a touch more expensive than usual, I was shocked when after deliberating on how much he wanted to rip me off, the old turtle at the till charged me 5.30 Reais. If one were to compare to this to general coffee prices around the world, you’d think I was going over the top, but it’s not the price paid which irks one, but the fact that you are overcharged for something you full well know the normal price of. Serves me right for not asking how much it was before ordering, I suppose. In my ire, I proceeded to make my first ever TripAdvisor post, raging about how I’d been conned, which goes to show how much one should trust such online forums, that is if the majority of comments tend to be as reactionary as mine were.
The rain was still pounding down and I decided to head back to the bus station and towards São Paulo centre again to catch a bus to Rio. I delayed as much as possible so as to be able to get a night bus, and thus ended up swigging numerous beers in a dingy snack bar opposite the Jabaquara terminal before heading over to the intercity bus station of Tietê.
Which brought to an end my express tourism in São Paulo. Although you can’t see the woods for the grey in this massive city, there is an abundance of things to see and do. There are more than enough museums to keep you busy and the ease of getting around the city on the metro reduces travel time and security concerns. Whether I’d like to live in the city is another matter, but visiting now and again wouldn’t do any harm and I get the feeling that the more time you spend in the city, the more you will find gems of places and cool events in the nooks and crannies of the place.