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The decadent life of Sao Paulo

The teeming, never-sleeping metropolis of Sao Paulo has been the wealthiest city in Brazil for a long time. Now, as David Neville Williams discovers, it has finally achieved its dream of becoming the New York of the southern hemisphere


This giant sprawl of twenty million people and four million cars revolves around making and spending money. But just a few years ago a wave of change swept the city, the third largest in the world.

Its first boutique hotels sprang up, there was a boom in restaurants, art galleries, museums, exclusive shops and nightclubs, and its Fashion Week began to make waves around the world.

Suddenly, Sao Paulo was the most exciting place in Brazil. And although it can’t match the exotic tropical beauty of Rio, it is now the financial, cultural and gastronomic heart of Brazil.

It has the best restaurants in South America, a lot of luxuriously chic hotels, shops and boutiques that even New York doesn’t have, a huge number of music venues and theatres, and one of Brazil’s most dynamic nightlife scenes. All this in an amazing forest of skyscrapers that make visitors gasp in astonishment when flying in for the first time.

As the inimitable Marlene Dietrich once said: “Rio is a beauty. But Sao Paulo…Sao Paulo is a city.”

The locals, Paulistanos, are proud of their work ethic. As well as controlling the nation’s industrial and financial worlds, they dominate Brazilian politics. Most of the nation’s wealthiest people live here – and, along with 300 heliports, own more traffic-busting helicopters than any other city on Earth.

The city’s new sophistication has even produced Brazil’s first celebrity chef. Alex Atala is the owner of DOM, first South American place to be included in Restaurant magazine’s listing of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The flamboyant Atala is renowned for his reinterpretation of Brazilian ingredients, such as black beans, codfish and ferofa (toasted flour), with a French twist.

He says Sao Paulo has flourished because of its cosmopolitan character. “We have lots of diversity and adversity, and this stimulates creativity,” he adds.

This mix of peoples stems from the Italians, who arrived more than a century ago to plant coffee, followed by large numbers of Arabs, Jews, Europeans and Japanese. This makes Sao Paulo an intoxicating place and a far cry from its humble beginnings in 1554, when Jesuit priests founded a mission on a hill close to the River Tiete.

If your visit is brief, make sure you take in the best view of the city from the 46th floor observation deck of the Edificio Italia skyscraper.

Go to the Jardins district for superb shopping and dining with museums and galleries nearby, including the unmissable Museu de Art de Sao Paulo and its fascinating collection of European paintings of Brazilian landscapes. Then take inspiration from the Sao Paulo Cathedral, which took more than 50 years to complete, or relax in the green, wide open spaces of the beautiful Ibirapuera Park.

Pick of the hotels? The Mercure Jardins, which has a small indoor pool, and Melia Higienopolis have all the sights, main shops, galleries and restaurants within easy reach. Or if you are looking for dramatic modern design, try the Hotel Unique, reckoned to be coolest place in town, complete with outdoor pool and impressive conference facilities.

The city’s world-class restaurants include O Leopolldo Plaza, a power lunch favourite for industry leaders. If you yearn for sushi, Shintori has a reputation for being among the best of the city’s 380 Japanese restaurants.

Then there’s the Fasano, once voted the best in Sao Paulo, offering classic authentic Italian cuisine, and some of the best wines in town, in surroundings reminiscent of a Roman temple. Many customers are wealthy visitors, which is no surprise when you consider that business tourism is responsible for more than 45,000 events per year in Sao Paulo, and almost 75 percent of all  fairs and congresses held in Brazil are staged in the city.

That’s Sao Paulo. The city that put the B in BRIC.

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