I always joked about my one time visiting Brazil, setting foot inside the Embasy in Washington once when I was younger as part of a student leadership program, which technically constituted sovereign soil. I never thought I would actually visit Brazil though, especially for work. When the opportunity arrived to go to the capital and one of the world’s largest cities, Sao Paulo, to help with interviews and training, I jumped at the chance. I never visited South America before, and doubted I would have the chance anytime soon otherwise. With a week in town, I got to experience a bunch of what the city offered, though never got a chance to see large parts of town.
Sao Paulo is a massive city. Unlike New York which is only slightly larger, it feels huge and spread out due to a sprawling urban area that extend for miles and miles. The density is much lower and fewer massive sky scrapers rise from a central part of the city. Instead, big concrete apartment blocks form a repetitive pattern akin to Sim City for endless miles. One of the few parts of the city with a downtown vibe and modern glass buildings is the Villa Olympia neighborhood where I stayed and worked.
Before even arriving in Brazil I worried about what to expect. I knew Sao Paulo wasn’t a particularly tourist friendly destination, but I figured it would be like other less visited cities I’d traveled to and that there’d still be some tourist friendly things to do. I knew it would be a different experience though when I received multiple warnings about crime. I also was told to get a yellow fever vaccine, apply for a via ahead of time through a somewhat questionable looking Brazil government website, and to be aware of the traffic. These all turned out to be fair warnings, but other than the traffic which did mean a 20 mile drive to the airport took 2.5 hours, none were nearly as problematic as I expected. The city might not be incredibly modern and there are certainly dangerous areas, but I never felt unsafe at least in the downtown.
I stayed at the Estanplaza Faria Lima hotel, right across the street from the large mall and my office building. The hotel is a bit dated and you won’t find things like a pool, though the rooms are clean, the air conditioning works well – key for such a hot and humid area – and the wifi is fast. The location can’t be beat for getting around the new neighborhood. Not only is it walking distance to many of the office buildings, there are also a ton of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops nearby.
The JK Iguatemi Mall isn’t just for shopping. Brazil has some great fashion and the mall contains not only popular global brands, but a few local Brazilian ones too. There are upscale luxury brands and tons of active wear stores too. Inside there are also plenty of coffee shops from a Starbucks with an incredible outdoor balcony with a great view of the city to a few local chains with some amazing pastries. There are also tons of restaurants inside like the excellent Mediterranean spot, Almanara where you can get some well spiced food quickly. There are several upscale spots for a nice sit down meal as well as a far more casual food court.
I scouted out several of Sao Paulo’s excellent third wave coffee spots around town too. On a corner not far from the hotel, I discovered Rua Coffee. Top notch espresso comes from a small shack with tons of brew options and a nice little set of seats right on the street. A cold brew while taking in the heat on the street is how I found myself getting acquainted with the city. Not too far away is a similarly great spot, the coffee truck Black ‘n Load Coffee. There’s some strong brew coming from this truck.
For a larger breakfast, Sao Paulo is famous for its bakeries. At Padoca, one of the famous ones, there is a seemingly endless selection of baked goods running the gamut from rolls to croissants. For any breakfast taste, there’s something to find here. Even the coffee is pretty good. There’s also a nice little front patio to get some fresh air if visiting from somewhere where it’s not as warm and sunny.
For lunch, the most popular type of food in Sao Paulo is the buffet. These are like a normal buffet, but instead there are numerous salads, fruit, vegetables, and an absolute ton of grilled and smoked fish and meat. Oddly, sushi is extremely popular in Sao Paulo too, so it’s also often on the buffet line. The meat is so incredibly good, I often found myself grabbing enough to go over the weight limit to pay by weight and ended up paying for unlimited returns. It was worth it. Pittaya is one such buffet in the area with a massive selection and a second floor with a shaded patio overlooking the street. It took me some time to figure out how to get food and where to pay due to the lack of English I experienced in most of the city, but once I did it ended in an enjoyable meal in the fresh air.
Another buffet, Espaco Hibisco feels a bit more upscale and modern, but the food is just as traditional and excellent. The selection of grilled meat is unparalleled. I couldn’t pass up the fried fish like cod and tuna sushi rolls as well. Another traditional dish involves rice and beans with the grilled steak, a perfect meal to get power for a long day exploring the city.
Since sushi is so popular in the city, apparently Sao Paulo has a massive Japanese population, I also checked out Temakaria e Cia, a highly recommended all you can eat sushi restaurant with a big following. Unfortunately I got confused by the menu and ended up ordering random sushi and a massive ceviche bowl, but on the positive side what I did get was truly excellent. The ceviche had a ton of different types of flavorful fish in a combination of fresh flavors. It’s easy to see why people get excited to chow down on endless sushi there.
For another non-traditional meal, but a food I was assured was excellent in Sao Paulo, pizza, I checked out Eataly, the Brazilian outpost of the grocery store and food hall I knew from New York. Similar to the New York one, it’s a place you can find a bottle of Italian wine, some salami, and numerous pizza spots. I enjoyed a massive pizza with some spicy salami topping it and enjoyed some classy rose as well. Classy in that it came from a bottle, not a box.
No food is as seemingly traditional, or at least as marketed as traditional in Brazil as Rodizio. Rodizio amounts to endless grilled meat, brought to your table via skewers and huge carving knives. While it’s possible to also load up on an extensive salad bar, the steaks, sausages, chicken, and sliced beef are where it’s at. While the largest exports of Brazil may be coffee and aircraft parts – thanks student program for teaching me that – the most famous one is probably Fogo de Chao, the chain that brought Rodizio around the world. At the location in Sao Paulo, I found not only endless meat, but delicious grilled cheese balls – actual balls of cheese that are thrown on the same grill as the meat for a nice gooey char and even some candied bacon that was out of this world. I even tried the chicken hearts, fairly salty and pump, but I mostly saved room for the Argentinian style chorizo steak, my favorite cut they brought around.
A visit to Sao Paulo isn’t complete without some live music, preferably samba, and of course some drinks. While I didn’t have many Caipirinhas, the most famous of Brazilian cocktails, I did explore the craft beer scene and found a surprising number of small breweries that were featured across the city. While breweries and gastropubs aren’t all that popular, the beer is found in restaurants and lounges. My favorite spot, one I discovered after wandering past huge crowds two nights in a row, was Tatu Bola. Even all my coworkers knew about it. I discovered live music and an energetic atmosphere inside and some truly massive bottles of beer kept chilled tableside in a wine bucket. I enjoyed the local brew with some spicy music.
Heading straight to the source, I found Kabana, a burger bar and craft brew haven right on a busy street. The outside patio was great for watching people head out after work, though even at 7pm I was alone at the bar – Brazilians head out late. I enjoyed a pretty top notch burger with awesome bacon – Brazil has an incredible livestock industry. Even the beer was pretty excellent, providing a few options of beer from the namesake brewery itself and a couple of microbrews from across the country. I thought their session IPA was just about perfect for a warm night. The staff was even super friendly when they realized I didn’t speak Portuguese and liked beer, drawing and gesturing wildly to explain all of the various types of beer they have.
For an even bigger selection, I went to Rock Fella, another gastropub – I think I found the only ones that exist in the city – that has a massive craft beer tap list and shockingly affordable prices. Many of the mainstays of American craft beer bars were there like Stone and Brooklyn, but there were several Brazilian brews to try too. Considering how hard it can be to find craft beer, the selection was a welcome surprise. The staff was also very cool, showing me “the best” table in the place, right next to the big open garage door – so Brooklyn hipster – and suggesting several beers to me.
Sao Paulo wasn’t one of the easiest places to visit as a tourist. The culture shock was real, especially due to a lack of spoken English outside of the hotels and not much of a tourist infrastructure. However, I still found plenty to do and some incredible food and drink even in just the small part of the massive city I visited. While the crime, health, and traffic shouldn’t be underestimated, I found it to be directly on-par with any other major city and never felt threatened or unsafe as long as I was smart. The people were warm and friendly even when we couldn’t communicate, and I found common friendship in food, coffee, and of course beer – the universal language. I’m certainly glad I was able to make it “back” to Brazil after my visit as a kid to the embassy.