Being a city of over 10 million people, São Paulo can be daunting to navigate; as a visitor you may feel a little intimidated to venture beyond a few blocks of your hotel. Granted, the city’s traffic jams are infamous and its public transportation network woefully inadequate, but São Paulo has much to offer the adventurous traveler willing to venture off the main tourist track. Sometimes, all you need is a little coaxing (and a little cab fare), and you can experience a side to one of the world’s largest cities that many people, aside from São Paulo’s many residents, rarely get to see.
Often the first thing people do when São Paulo’s crush of urbanity begins to close in on them is look for an escape route. Luckily, just north of São Paulo lies the verdant Serra da Cantareira -- at almost 250 square miles, one of the world’s largest urban forests. It’s also part of Brazil’s original Atlantic coastal woodlands, protected in a state park of the same name. Hiking and bike trails, as well as gently cascading waterfalls and tropical fauna, such as toucans and forest monkeys, attract visitors looking for fresh air, solitude and sweeping views of the city they just left behind.
Brazil’s most prolific architect, Oscar Niemeyer, designed this expansive, modernist monument commemorating unity and cooperation among the nations of Latin America. Despite having a bloody hand (made of concrete) as its centerpiece, the Memorial da América Latina actually has several uplifting and whimsical installations, including an immense, colorful relief map of Latin America underneath the glass floor of the main pavilion. Concerts, workshops and art exhibitions from across Latin America round out the cultural offerings held at the architectural complex.
Hard to imagine now, but São Paulo was still very much a small city at the end of the 19th century. That didn’t stop civic leaders from investing in monuments to the city’s future greatness, such as the Museu Paulista (known locally as the Museu do Ipiranga). Housed in a handsome neoclassical structure, overlooking gardens modeled after those of Versailles, the museum traces the history of São Paulo from the 16th century up until today. Most installations are in Portuguese, but the stories conveyed in the old sepia photographs and artifacts, such as the collection of antique filigreed firearms and a 19th-century sanitation truck, all underscore the city’s growth from frontier town to bustling metropolis.
Despite being located in the heart of downtown São Paulo, this Brazilian outpost of the Angola-based gallery is often overlooked because of its location -- on the second floor of an unassuming little Oscar Niemeyer-designed office building. Hosting an ever-changing lineup of everything from photography and graffiti exhibitions to textile and stencil art installations, the gallery seeks to connect the world of contemporary African art with its Brazilian counterpart, reflecting 5 centuries of trans-Atlantic cultural influence. An even larger exhibition and cultural space in a turn-of-last-century warehouse across the street from the gallery is under construction, to be opened in early 2013.
This vast, open patch of green space set among a forest of apartment and office towers provides much more than just a place for jogging, Frisbee and bike rides. The 180-acre park features an arboretum with myriad species of trees from the region’s original Atlantic Forest, including the achiote, which bears seeds that some Native Americans use traditionally for body painting, as well as an orchidarium featuring colorful orchids from around the globe. The park also hosts numerous, sometimes impromptu, concerts by up-and-coming Brazilian pop musicians and ecologically-focused theatrical presentations -- all free.
Fernando Oliveira, flickr
If you’re fascinated by snakes, especially poisonous tropical ones, the Instituto Butantan will thrill you. This medical research facility has been concocting anti-venoms and vaccines since 1901, leading the field ever since in the study of tropical diseases. Set on a leafy campus with manicured gardens and whitewashed, period buildings, Brazil’s largest serpentarium is on site, with visitors able to touch and caress less-venomous snake varieties such as the false coral snake, while more menacing pythons, vipers and rattlesnakes stay only somewhat comfortingly behind thick glass.
In Brazil, samba schools aren’t actually schools, but community organizations that put together that brilliant annual blowout the country is known for -- Carnival. Nestled smack in the middle of an unassuming residential street in the São Paulo neighborhood of Tucuruvi, the Escola de Samba Acadêmicos do Tucuruvi raises the roof with their open rehearsals several nights a week, every week, from October until Carnival, with the rapid-fire rhythms of Brazilian samba driving the party for a few intense hours.
While they may lack some of the flash and glamour of the more renowned Rio samba schools, São Paulo’s schools take the tradition just as seriously -- and their rehearsals are no less exhilarating for it. Lots of tourists visit city champs Vai-Vai, located near Avenida Paulista, but underdog Tucuruvi always puts on a spectacular show of glitzy costumes and glittery floats during the big Carnival competition, and its out-of-the-way practice space makes for a more authentic samba experience.
São Paulo’s traffic jams are legendary and bus routes can be confusing, with bus drivers speaking very little English. The subway (Metrô) and associated commuter train system (CPTM) are your best bets for getting around town hassle-free. The subway is clean and efficient, but unfortunately covers only a small part of the city. That said, to save a bit of money on cab fare, plot your route on the internet before hitting the streets and take the subway or commuter train to the closest station to your final destination, then take a cab. To avoid the crush of commuters on the road or underground, try to keep your sightseeing limited to the hours between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.