The New York Times
February 22, 2004

At 450, São Paulo Is Full of Energy

HE panorama from the observation deck atop the Banespa tower in downtown São Paulo, one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, was a proper introduction to the city: whitewashed skyscrapers merging with the horizon.

From the heights of the 35-story white building, my wife, Carolina, and I gazed upon an otherworldly cityscape of red brick factories, gleaming postmodern high rises, sprawling tenements, luxurious residential towers and neon-lighted motels. A drizzle blanketed the scene in warm subtropical precipitation.

Paulistanos (now numbering about 18 million) often describe their city as a kind of New York of the Southern Hemisphere, though it displays a jumble of other influences. Immigrants from Italy, Japan, Britain, Eastern Europe, Portugal, Lebanon and, more recently, Korea, China and Nigeria have all left their mark.

This year São Paulo is in the midst of its 450th anniversary commemoration, celebrating its evolution from a remote Jesuit missionary outpost to a center of architecture, art and cuisine. For two weeks in January, Carolina, a native of Brazil, and I visited the city where we had both lived and worked for several years. And we were captivated by what it had to offer.

Beneath its gritty "Blade Runner" exterior it is one of the world's liveliest cities. It has earned its hard-won reputation as a business center famous for its work ethic, but its nightclubs in the bohemian Vila Madalena and Pinheiros districts stay packed until 4 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday. Brash and cosmopolitan, São Paulo is anything but quaint. If there is an emblem of the city's global ambitions, though, it is the Hotel Unique, one of those rare examples of contemporary architecture that elicits a reaction from almost everyone who enters. We were no different.

A boutique hotel in the heart of Jardins, one of the city's leafier districts, the Unique (pronounced OO-nee-kee in Portuguese) is sheathed in a copper-colored facade and built in the shape of a hefty watermelon slice suspended in the air on two giant pillars. It has become a playground for fashion-conscious Brazilians and foreigners.

Designed by one of Brazil's leading architects, Ruy Ohtake, the Unique welcomes visitors to its minimalist lobby through two towering doors that seem to have been inspired by gothic cathedrals. Like other architectural landmarks in São Paulo, including Mr. Ohtake's own nearby Renaissance Hotel and Oscar Niemeyer's somber Memorial da América Latina in a warehouse district near the old center, the hotel makes generous use of exposed rock and concrete. From the lobby we gazed up through the atrium at a glittering transparent fountain on the top floor. The rooms, designed by João Armentano, a São Paulo designer and architect, are also stunning, with touches like floors made of rare Brazilian woods.

On its top level, the eighth floor, a luxurious bar and restaurant, Skye, caters to a crowd whose amorous adventures are often discussed in the gossip columns. Skye spills out onto a rooftop pool and deck with a view of Ibirapuera Park, the residential compounds of Jardins and the skyscrapers on the Avenida Paulista, a thoroughfare with cinemas, bookstores, shops and restaurants that doubles as one of the city's several financial districts.

On one of our first nights in town we were joined by two friends from São Paulo and headed to Skye, expecting to be shocked by its prices. But the weakness of Brazil's currency, the real, softened the blow. The bill for four of us, including a bottle of Brazilian champagne and a shared dessert of chocolate ice cream and wafers, was $29.

Mr. Ohtake's building has helped touch off a design frenzy that includes two other boutique hotels nearby, the Fasano and Emiliano, and the Hotel Lycra, which, despite its name, is not a hotel but a trendy gallery, restaurant and showcase for clothing and sunglasses.

The amalgam of architectural styles is part of São Paulo's fascination, especially notable in its old center. Recognizing the treasures that remain here despite the migration of many companies to newer areas along the banks of the Pinheiros River, city officials have been campaigning to make the center, once written off as undesirable, an alluring destination.

Since we speak Portuguese, it was easy to familiarize ourselves with maps of São Paulo's mazelike central districts before we ventured downtown. Although we had already explored some areas, like Liberdade, the frenetic Japanese district filled with sushi restaurants and karaoke bars, we were eager to see some of the city's architectural gems. Paulistanos were often eager to help with directions and other information, using a combination of gesticulations and good-natured stabs at English and Spanish. One refreshing thing about São Paulo, where foreign tourists are still relatively rare, is the cordial (and curious) welcome it extends to many visitors.

Traversing the city is easiest by taxi, but we found that the best way to explore downtown, once we got there, was on foot. We started at the Copan apartment building, a curvaceous 1951 design by Mr. Niemeyer, who also created many of the modernist palaces in Brasília, the planned capital in the nation's interior. Across from the Copan are two other modernist landmarks, the 45-story Edifício Itália, one of the city's tallest skyscrapers, with several shops inside and a stunning rooftop bar and restaurant, and the Hilton, a 1971 hotel with a retro feel that is a convenient and inexpensive place to stay with spectacular views from the upper floors. Although we spent most of our trip with friends and family, I have stayed at the Hilton on previous trips and found it the best base for getting around downtown.

Farther into the old center, at Rua Alvares Penteado 112, is the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, a cinema, art gallery and restaurant in an immaculately restored 1927 Beaux-Arts building. The real delight was the building itself, which somehow survived the area's embrace of modernist design. Also nearby is the Vale do Anhangabaú, a vast walkway where we listened to singing poets from northeastern Brazil, called repentistas, compete with witty, freshly minted rhymes. We dropped a real or two in the hat passed around after each performance.

Other gems we saw downtown included two recently restored British-built train stations, the Estação Julio Prestes, now a concert hall for the state symphony orchestra, and the Estação da Luz, still a point of origin for several rail lines. The latter was an excellent place to get a sense of São Paulo's dynamism, the station's Victorian solidness a contrast to the hectic streets around it.

Near the bustling Rua Florêncio de Abreu, a street with several beautiful if decaying old commercial and apartment buildings, is the Mercado Municipal Paulistano, a colorful market for fresh produce where BMW's and Audis are parked next to the carts of itinerant refuse collectors. Late on a Saturday morning, we joined the many people who go to the mercado at lunchtime for the pastel de bacalhau, or codfish pastry, at the Hocca Bar, which went well with a cold Brahma draft beer.

Because of the anniversary celebration there are many exhibitions about the city. The best that we saw was a show of more than 400 photos of São Paulo from the mid-19th century to today belonging to the Instituto Moreira Salles, a private foundation, at the SESI gallery. The exhibition, which lasts until June, shows São Paulo's evolution through numerous waves of immigration.

All the exploring can make one hungry. Carolina and I had several memorable meals, including sushi with Brazilian influences at Hanadoki and thin-crusted pizza at Pizzaria Bráz, a new restaurant designed like the old saloons that once served as hangouts for recently arrived immigrants from Italy. Perhaps our best meal was near the end of our trip, at Gero Caffè, an Italian restaurant in a surprisingly serene setting in the middle of the Iguatemi shopping center in the Faria Lima business district. We shared carpaccio, pheasant and squash tortellini, a dessert of chocolate profiteroles and two glasses of an Argentine malbec.

BEFORE trying Gero, Carolina had her hair styled at a chic salon in Iguatemi, Studio W, and I had a massage next door at the futuristic Kyron Spa. Both places provided a relatively affordable taste of luxury.

It would be easy to come away from São Paulo thinking it is all bustle; motoboys - daredevil motorcycle messengers - crowd the streets, weaving through the dazzling blur of the city's legendary traffic.

Fortunately, there are a few outdoor oases, including the Jockey Club de São Paulo, an upper-crust racetrack with free admission in the Cidade Jardim district, a cab ride away from the old center.

On one of our last afternoons we climbed into the stands. Minimum bets are 1 real, or about 35 cents. Between races we gawked at the well-dressed crowd, particularly those in the Cânter Bar, on the ground level. The view from the bar takes in several of the city's newest skyscrapers along the Pinheiros River, one of them a half-finished residential luxury high rise designed like an antebellum mansion on steroids. From where I sat, São Paulo showed no indication of slowing down.

Visitor Information

Getting There

We flew to São Paulo directly from Houston on Continental Airlines. Our tickets, bought on Orbitz, cost $880 each including taxes.

From Guarulhos airport, a Rádio Taxi, identified by its blue and white coloring, into São Paulo is $20 to $30, at 2.9 reals to the dollar. A visitor information booth at Guarulhos, (55-11) 6445-3001, is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Many Paulistanos we met were obsessed with relating grisly - perhaps exaggerated - tales of crime. It's best, we were told, to dress modestly and leave jewelry at the hotel; carry enough cash for immediate needs. Online information in English about São Paulo is hard to find; a new site,, does a solid job.


Swank new hotels abound in São Paulo but I'm a fan of the Hilton in the city's old center, Avenida Ipiranga 165; (55-11) 3156-4300, fax (55-11) 3257-3033, Doubles at the 380-room hotel, are $75 to $105.

At the Hotel Unique, Avenida Brigadeiro Luiz Antonio 4700, (55-11) 3055-4700, fax (55-11) 3889 8100,, doubles start at $245. Suites from $455.


Gero Caffè, Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima 2232, (55-11) 3813-8484, is a sophisticated Italian restaurant in the Iguatemi shopping center. Dinner for two, with carpaccio, pheasant and squash tortellini, a dessert of chocolate profiteroles and two glasses of an Argentine malbec, cost $40.

Pizzaria Bráz, Rua Vupabussu 271, (55-11) 3037-7973, has excellent thin-crusted pizza. Dinner for two, with Argentine wine, was $20.

Hanadoki, Rua Professor Artur Ramos 395, (55-11) 3815-2144, has some of the city's best sushi, with Brazilian influences. Dinner for two with wine, $55.


On the edge of the old center, the Pinacoteca do Estado, Praça da Luz 2, (55-11) 229-9844, has an excellent collection of Brazilian sculpture and paintings. Admission is $2.

The Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil is at Rua Alvares Penteado 112, (55-11) 3113-3600.

Through June, the Galeria de Arte do SESI, Avenida Paulista 1313, (55-11) 3146-7434, has an exhibition of historic photos of São Paulo.

The Mercado Municipal Paulistano, Rua da Cantareira 306, (55-11) 228-1377, is a produce market built in 1933. Visitors can find exotic Brazilian fruits like capoti and graviola at the Banca do Juca, codfish pastries at Hocca Bar and giant mortadella sandwiches on French bread at Bar do Mané. It is hard to spend more than $5 eating these delicacies, including drinks.

The Jockey Club de São Paulo, Avenida Lineu de Paula Machado 1263, (55-11) 3816-4011, has 9 to 11 races a day; open Saturday, Sunday and Monday, from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. Minimum bets are 35 cents; admission is free.

SIMON ROMERO is a correspondent for The Times based in Houston.