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Sao Paulo – the Heart of the City”


With due apologies to Ms Austen, it is a “truth universally acknowledged” that a man measures everything in relation to himself. Thus there is no such thing as big and small per se. Everything is either bigger or smaller than what you are or have yourself. I say this by way of contextualising my experience of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s and indeed, Latin America’s largest city. Upon arrival I was simply overwhelmed by its size and scale and found the usual matrices and parameters by which I evaluate and understand new experiences to be entirely useless. But I am from Dublin with a population of just over 1m, not New York or Toyko or Seoul.

It took two and a quarter hours to complete the 25km transfer from Guarulhos International Airport to the new business district in Sao Paulo. That time would have taken me from Dublin Airport to the other side of Belfast, Ireland’s second largest city but when I found myself making such a comparison I realised I needed to radically rebel against the “universally acknowledged truths”.

Once you accept, as do the Paulistanos, that getting from A to B in this megalopolis is going to take time – probably an hour to go from one district to another – then everything falls into place and you uncover one of the world’s most exciting, most chic and most culturally imbued cities.

Sao Paulo is a high rise city which immediately suggests New York. It is unapologetically modernist, dominated by brutalist and post-modernist buildings, the latest of which have a decidedly “high – tech”, futuristic look.  However, as you move around the city’s districts you soon notice how many beautiful green spaces and urban parks there are. The Ibirapuera Park, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx offers 2 square kilometres of cool greenery and a plethora of hugely important museums and performance spaces. I visited the park on a Saturday morning and it was alive with walkers, joggers, tai chi practitioners and cyclists (you can rent bikes there). Like New Yorkers in Central Park, Paulistanos unselfconsciously don the expensive, branded sports gear and publically put their bodies through its paces – but they are infinitely fitter and better looking!

The Museum of Modern Art was hosting a touring exhibition of the Auer Photographic Archive and the striking thing – other than the collection itself, which is stunning – was the sheer volume of young people eagerly viewing the collection. The same was the case at MASP – the Museo de Arte de Sao Paulo – where an amazing exhibition of local born Vik Muniz was on. The Museum, itself an architectural talking point, was crammed with locals whom, to me, all looked under 30 and moved confidently around the exhibition, all clearly fascinated by Muniz’s incredibly eclectic output. At the Pinacoteca do Estado, near the train station, there was another Photographic Exhibition with a French theme. And again a huge crowd of young locals immersed themselves effortlessly in the experience. The Pinacoteca itself, housed in a renovated School, is a beautiful ensemble of 19th century neo-classical Italian design with unapologetically contemporary interventions whereby covered courtyards are created by removing interior walls and new elevated RSJ supported walkways allow visitors move easily around a stunning interior.

I spent an afternoon exploring the Jardins, or Garden district which is decidedly upscale and trendy. Uncharacteristically low rise in such a high rise city, the overall feel in Jardins is chic and cool with retail and residential sitting easily side by side. The city’s best, and most expensive hotel, Fasano, is located in this district. Owned by the eponymous Italo-Brazilian family, Fasano Sao Paulo was the family’s first hotel endeavour following a stratospherically successful restaurant business. It’s a gracious and understated facility with re-assuringly expensive but not vulgar interior décor. It’s relatively small bar, Baretto, is legendary in Sao Paulo although I did have to take Rugiero Fasano to task for his poor selection of Irish whiskey!

On R. Oscar Freire, where you’ll find more designer stores side by side than Rodeo Drive, you’ll also find Hotel Emiliano, another boutique style hotel experience. Each of its 22 floors hosts two deluxe rooms and one suite, the deluxe rooms measuring a minimum of 42m2. Like Fasano the atmosphere is uber-cool with once-off furniture pieces, books and magazine and a well stocked champagne bar. Bedrooms come complete with Ipod docking stations.

While its architecture and socio-cultural context may look decidedly to the future, in gastronomy Sao Paulo is inextricably linked with its traditions. On one evening I visited a Churrascaria. Having eaten in Fogo do Chao in the US I knew what to expect but, like a pint of Guinness in Dublin, there’s something special about having Churrascaria in the place of its origin. It was indeed a magnificent gastronomic experience!

Even more special was an al fresco lunch at Figueira Rubayat on Rua Haddock Lobo in the uber-cool Jardins district. All dining takes places in the shade of a magnificent Fig Tree (the Figueira of the Restaurant’s name) which, by some miraculous feet of engineering, has been incorporated into the very structure of the facility. Some on-line reviews bill it as one of the “most beautiful” restaurants in the city (I wouldn’t disagree) while others describe it as the “best meat” restaurant in Sao Paulo. I was there on a Saturday afternoon with the express purpose of experiencing a traditional Feijoada (“bean feast”?), a pork and beans based buffet with, maybe, twenty different variations.

Ricardo Ferriera of Ovation Brazil was a gracious host intent of immersing me in the culinary traditions of this incredibly eclectic city. We sat, we ate, we ate more, we ate more still and, finally, in the very late afternoon, I moved my body, now bloated like a beach whale around Jardins and thought “what an incredible city”

Padraic Gilligan, Managing Director, Ovation Global DMC

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