São Paulo is home to 20 million fiercely proud paulistanos (as residents are known), all of whom will happily tell you at length to you how they’d never live elsewhere. Spend time with them and the reasons will soon unfold. Maybe they will introduce you to the city’s innumerable art-house cinemas and experimental theaters. If they’re gourmands, they’ll focus on the smart bistros and gourmet restaurants that make the city a world-renowned foodie haven. If they’re scenesters, follow them on a raucous tour of underground bars and the 24/7 clubbing scene. Whatever pleasures you might covet, Sampa (the city’s affectionate nickname) probably has them in spades.
Copan was designed by late modernist master Oscar Niemeyer. The building, with its serpentine facade and narrow brises soleil (permanent sunshades), is Sampa’s most symbolic structure. You can visit its snaking, sloping ground-floor shopping arcade anytime; its spectacular rooftop opens only on weekdays at 10:30am or 3:30pm, however. The 15-minute visit is no frills – there’s barely a railing! – and feels wonderfully unrushed. Checkin at Bloco F (space limited – arrive at least 30 minutes in advance).
Note that the leftist architect designed the building to bring together all classes by including sprawling apartments for the rich as well as tiny studios for the working poor – a real rarity in class-conscious São Paulo. There are over 1150 apartments in total, making it Brazil’s largest residential building.
This covered market is a belle epoque confection of stained glass and a series of vast domes. Inside, a fabulous urban market specializes in all things edible. It’s also a great place to sample a couple of classic Sampa delights: mortadella (Italian sausage) sandwiches at Bar do Mané or Hocca Bar, and pasteis (fried, stuffed pastries).
Wandering the various stalls here, sampling as you go and taking in the sights and sounds of everyday Paulistano moving and shaking, is one of Sampa’s great joys.
Museu de Arte de São Paulo
Sampa’s pride, this museum possesses Latin America’s most comprehensive collection of Western art. Hovering above a concrete plaza that turns into an antiques fair on Sunday (and acts as a protest gathering point almost always!), the museum, designed by architect Lina Bo Bardi and completed in 1968, is considered a classic of modernism by many and an abomination by a vocal few.
The collection, though, is unimpeachable, and ranges from Goya to El Greco to Manet. The impressionist collection is particularly noteworthy. There are also a few great Brazilian paintings, including three fine works by Cândido Portinari. The permanent collection is housed in glass panels wedged in concrete bases, an original Bo Bardi design that was taken away in 1996 but returned in 2015. Regrettably, the museum seems rather neglected by its guardians, with public areas looking shabby in places. More shocking was the theft in 2007 of paintings by Portinari and Picasso, which revealed that a museum with a billion-dollar collection lacked motion detectors or cameras with infrared capabilities. Fortunately, the two paintings were eventually recovered.
Mosteiro São Bento
Among the city’s oldest and most important churches, São Bento dates to 1598, though its neo-Gothic facade dates only to the early 20th century. Step inside the church to view its impressive stained glass. Mass (7am weekdays, 6am on Saturday and 10am Sunday) includes Gregorian chanting.
There’s a legendary, culturally rich brunch of monk and top chef delicacies – including prosecco! – on the second and last Sunday of each month; booking required well in advance (R$220 per person; reservations at email@example.com). The in-house bakery (7am to 6pm Monday to Friday; items R$7 to R$35) is also a real treat, with highly sought after breads, cakes, pastries, biscuits and jams made by the monks from centuries-old recipes.
For one of Sampa’s best panoramas, head to the top of this 161m-high skyscraper, Brazil’s version of the Empire State Building – completed in 1939 and most famously known as the Banespa (Banco do Estado de São Paulo) building. Book tickets online in advance.
The observation deck on the top floor offers spectacular views of the city and renovations have added cafes, a 21st floor skate park and exhibitions – highlights include a panorama of São Paulo’s skyline made up of junk by Vik Muniz and a three-minute historical film screened in a mirrored cinema room.