SÃO PAULO, Sept 24 — It’s morning in São Paulo. Which, given how Brazilians are naturals at the late-to-bed and late-to-rise routine, could well mean it’s barely an hour till noon. But if one is about to embark on an all-day walkabout of the city, as we are about to, then it’s “when in Rome, do as Romans do.”
(More appropriately: When in São Paulo, do as the Paulistanos do.)
There is always a feira or morning market whichever neighbourhood you happen to find yourself in, however late you might rise. Beyond fresh produce, there are all sorts of local delicacies such as colourful treats made from goiabada (guava jam) and coconut cream.
Some stalls even sell branquinho (“little white one” in Portuguese), a Brazilian festive candy that’s a saccharine concoction of condensed milk and grated desiccated coconut, dusted with caster sugar and topped with a single clove.
Tempting but for us, it’s a little too early for something so sweet. Fortunately, there’s always a padaria (bakery) or two next to the feiras for weary market-goers to refuel on juice, pastries and, of course, honest-to-goodness Brazilian coffee.
(Brazilians are rightly proud of their brews, being the largest producers of coffee in the world.) We follow the example of locals and just enjoy a simple cup of café com leite (milk coffee).
A less touristy feira known only to Paulistanos is the Kantuta Sunday Market in the Caninde neighbourhood. Many of the stallholders are Bolivian, so there’s the bonus of experiencing two cultures in one place with Andean handicrafts, embroidery and spices to discover.
We wander the streets of the old Caninde district. Walls are covered with artistic murals. Houses have a peacock display of doors painted in bold colours. Workers go about their day, pedalling cycle rickshaws to ferry goods. Old men read newspapers while getting an old-fashioned shoe shine.
Soon we find ourselves in the heart of the city — the Catedral da Sé de São Paulo (São Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral) — where the crowds are equal parts devotees and those enjoying the merriment of the Praça da Sé (“Cathedral Square”).
The cathedral is in the Neo-Gothic style, albeit with a Renaissance-styled dome inspired by the dome of the Cathedral of Florence. Its construction, begun in 1913, lasted four decades and required over 800 tons of marble, making the building a suitably magnificent landmark for the centre of São Paulo.
While the Statue of St Paul is a popular meeting point here, we are drawn to a bronze-hued hexagonal structure in front of the cathedral. We’re curious about the curious onlookers pointing to various points on its surface.
Apparently this is the Marco Zero (or “Zero Milestone”), the central point of reference for São Paulo, from which all streets, highways and even telephone lines are marked. We are truly at the heart of the city!
Feeling peckish — we only had coffee for breakfast, after all — we look for the nearest lanchonete (literally “lunch counter” in Portuguese). It doesn’t take long; there’s one around every street corner in São Paulo.
These Brazilian snack bars sell sandwiches, pastéis (deep-fried pastry pockets with various fillings) and soft drinks. The one we find is too crowded though; no one really queues in lanchonetes so it can be quite chaotic unless squeezing amongst locals and shouting is your idea of a good time.
Fortunately there’s also a pasteleria, a street stall that specialises in pastéis close by. So many different fillings to choose from: pastel de palmito (palm hearts), pastel de pizza (tomato, basil and mozzarella), pastel de frango com catupiry (chicken and cream cheese) and more. We decide on a savoury pastel de carne (minced beef) and a cheesy pastel de queijo, all washed down with sugarcane juice.
Time for more people watching. We amble over to Rua Oscar Freire — named after Oscar Freire de Carvalho, a physician who helped set up the city’s first morgue — where local celebrities stroll along a verdant, tree-lined street.
Plenty of cafés to stop for a coffee but be warned that everything is pricier here compared to the rest of the city.
Art, however, doesn’t have to cost a penny. While São Paulo has its fair share of museums and art galleries like other metropolises of its size, perhaps the most art-forward showcase is run by a shoe store. Ah, but not just any shoe store but Brazilian success story Melissa Shoes, revered by devotees for its colourful “jelly” shoes made from PVC plastic.
Galería Melissa São Paulo along Rua Oscar Freire marries a flagship retail store with an avant-garde design space where the building’s façade metamorphoses with the season — not unlike a fashion collection.
From an Amazonian rainforest created by Paris-based artist Kleber Matheus to whimsical drawings by British illustrator Julie Verhoeven, the only limit is the imagination. Even Lego toy blocks have been used to create a truly funky plastic world!
As we continue walking through the beautiful streets of the Jardim Paulista neighbourhood, we find ourselves at the entrance of Ibirapuera Park, where the stately Monument to the Bandeiras (O Monumento às Bandeiras) stands.
Designed by the Italian-Brazilian sculptor Victor Brecheret, the monument commemorates the 17th-century bandeiras who led expeditions to settle the interior of Brazil. We can’t help but imagine ancient tribes deep in the Amazon and how much has changed in the centuries since.
Evening approaches. In the Japanese enclave of Liberdade — Brazil has the highest number of Japanese living outside of Japan, most of whom reside in São Paulo – the red-and-white oriental street lamps will soon light up.
Till sundown though, we have time to peruse the Japanese food and wares sold at Feira da Liberdade (“Liberdade Market”) from griddle-fried yakisoba to pots of bonsai. The Japanese Brazilian vendors speak impeccable Portuguese rather than Japanese, offering us a peek of the marvellous way cultures can integrate and adapt.
We are famished and ready for dinner. (No respectable Paulistano would consider having their evening meal before 8pm, by the way, in case you’re considering an early dinner reservation.)
Nothing quite like dropping by a churrascaria (“steakhouse”) for rotisserie-style meats on skewers. We dine at Churrascaria Estância where servers bring different cuts of grilled meats to our table, slicing whatever we desire onto our plates. We definitely need all the calories after a full day of walking around São Paulo!
Kantuta Sunday Market
Rua Pedro Vincente, Caninde, São Paulo, Brazil
Open Sun only, 11am-7pm
São Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral
Praça da Sé, São Paulo, Brazil
Galería Melissa São Paulo
827 Rua Oscar Freire, São Paulo, Brazil
Open Mon—Fri 10am—7pm; Sat 10am—5pm; Sun closed
Monument to the Bandeiras
Praça Armando de Sales Oliveira, Parque Ibirapuera, São Paulo, Brazil
Praça da Liberdade, Liberdade, São Paulo, Brazil
Open Sat & Sun 9am-5pm
Av. Vereador Jose Diniz 3271, Campo Belo, São Paulo, Brazil
Open Mon-Fri 11am-11pm; Sat 11am-11:30pm; Sun 11am-10pm