I left São Paulo with conflicting feelings: three days absolutely flew by, but I also felt like it was enough time to get the city. It is huge, yes, but there doesn’t seem to be too much to see from a tourist perspective. I feel like I did everything I wanted to, and on top of city sights I was able to just enjoy being there for the World Cup and in the Vila Madalena neighborhood.
Monday morning (6/23) I got an early start and did a solo walking tour through Centro SP, thanks to the guidance of Lonely Planet. Centro is a bit nuts – it reminded me a lot of Taksim in Istanbul. There is some historic architecture scattered around, but it is surrounded by nondescript towers, leaving an impression that was just ok. There are pedestrian-only streets running throughout Centro, and some that you’d swear were pedestrian-only until a car almost hits you, lined by what used to be beautiful smaller buildings that have had their first floors converted into run-of-the-mill shops. People are everywhere, and right now there are people hawking Brazil paraphernalia every step you take.
What I found to be more interesting than the physical make-up of the city was observing the buzz of the city. I admit, I’m usually the pedestrian with headphones in controlling my own soundtrack as I walk around. I commuted this way on the Metro but took out the headphones once I got into Centro and just listened to the soundtrack of the city. It was fascinating to me. Hearing the local language, music, traffic, and occasional soccer horn set the scene. I was aware of this as I was walking around, and made a mental note to recommend others also ditch the headphones and let in the sounds of the city.
Monday afternoon was a completely different scene. After lunch in Vila Madalena watching the Chile/Netherlands game, and a quick wander through the Beco de Batman (the Bat Cave) street (more vibrant street art), me and a couple new friends from the hostel got ready to go into Centro again to the FIFA Fanfest for the Brazil vs. Cameroon game.
We were too late. The Fanfest was already full to capacity, so we walked half a block up and got a table on a side street that had a small TV outside. But what more do you need really than a street full of soccer fans, a TV, and access to Brahma (the beer of choice). It was so fun to watch with both locals and visitors – the Chileans that were still there from their afternoon game were definitely the most vocal but they were also supporting Brazil. Everyone was singing and chanting and just so happy to watch Brazil win.The Chile cheer has become a favorite just because it’s so addictive to yell: “Chi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Viva Chile!” But this was nothing compared to the scene in Vila Madalena.
We got back on the Metro and, after picking up some R$4 beers on the way, joined the street party on Rua Aspicuelta. Street party doesn’t even begin to do this scene justice. Block after block was entirely packed with people. If the bars were open we didn’t even know it; people had full bars set up in the trunks of their cars or in carts in the middle of the street. We navigated through a sea of people making friends on the way. “Making friends.” Most of the time this consisted of Brazilians asking us to kiss them. Sometimes they didn’t even ask but just went for it. I don’t even know how to describe this night other than hilarity and insanity. The Brazilians sure do know how to celebrate a win. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures, it wasn’t the kind of place you want to bring any electronics. We went equipped with a little cash and nothing else.
Tuesday (6/24) was a little quieter. I took the majority of the day to do some more exploring in a different are of Sao Paulo. Thanks to a recommendation, I went to the Itaú Cultural in Bela Vista to see an exhibit on Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Having an architecture background, this was right up my alley. (And being a backpacker, the free admission was also perfect.) It was a very interesting exhibit with his drawings, some models, and a documentary about his work. I was especially fascinated to see his drawings. Having been a part of producing concept design books for my job, I was captivated to see how he put his drawings together. Back in the days before computers too. This was my nerdy moment of SP.
From there, I walked down to the Ibirapuera Park. This beautiful park was a nice escape from the bustle of the city. I sat under a large tree, facing a building that resembled a modernist painting, reading and enjoying the warm weather. I stopped by the Modern Art Museum (picked up a little Brazil notebook in the gift shop that has already been so useful for addresses, directions, and general notes), and wandered through the park. I stumbled onto a little lunch spot where I had a local snack (it was basically an empanada, just a Brazilian version) and watched Uruguay beat Italy (seriously the World Cup is on everywhere) before wandering back out and home. It was lovely.
I had started out my day thinking I’d try to make it to a museum, maybe the contemporary art museum or the soccer museum. I’m happy I didn’t go that route. Not only did I really enjoy my wandering, but it further proved that cities everywhere have a lot to offer without having to cost a fortune. Since I’m still so early in my trip I’m obviously budget conscious, and I had a terrific day full of culture and nature without spending anything. If this keeps up then I’ll feel a lot better about the splurge moments (thinking ahead to Rio now).
Tuesday night was a much more tame street party, just within one block this time, and some fun chilling in the hostel. Then it was up early and off to the airport.
My impression of São Paulo is positive, but not raving. Vila Madalena is very fun, with the rest of the city seeming large but not exactly packed with a lot of attractions. The excellent Metro (R$3 per ride) makes it very manageable to get around; I was definitely impressed by the public transportation system. The Viva Design Hostel was also a highlight – new, clean, friendly, and full of other travelers, solo and in groups ranging from 23 to 38, from Australia to Chile to Holland. I even made plans with a hostelmate to go to Brasilia and Salvador together after the World Cup is over.
I would call this first stop a great success. It was what I was hoping I would find on this trip: great people, interesting places, a mixture of alone time and group fun, and the ability to navigate a new, big city where I don’t speak the language.