SÃO PAULO, Brazil — This mega city 270 miles southwest of Rio is the largest in South America and Brazil’s main destination for culture, night life and cosmopolitan gastronomy.
Where you’ll see soccer: The action kicks off at the new Arena Corinthians, where Brazil takes on Croatia on June 12 in the opening match. This temple to soccer in the Itaquera district, a bit outside São Paulo proper, also hosts the semifinals on July 7.
FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, is setting up a giant outdoor screen at Vale do Anhangabaú, a big public square in a beautiful but often sketchy part of downtown, where fans and festivities should be plentiful and rowdy. For a more relaxed spot to watch the games, try one of the bars in the Vila Madalena neighborhood, such as Bar São Cristovão (533 Rua Aspicuelta, 011-55-11-3097-9904). If it’s packed, Vila Madalena, the former center of São Paulo’s bohemian and hippie culture (think Venice Beach, including the new-media arrivals and recent gentrification), will have a dozen lively bars, with street seating, friendly paulistanos and the game on, within sight.
What to do: São Paulo is for working, eating and partying, and it is not in the habit of receiving the typical sunburned tourist. There is no beach or park near the city center, and the megalopolis could not have a less tropical aesthetic. With its off-white skyscrapers and constant flutter of helicopters, SP resembles “Blade Runner” more than Ipanema.
As befits a city that aspires to be the New York of South America, São Paulo can help visitors fill their days with art and intellectual pursuits and their nights with world-class food and parties. The city’s (and country’s) best museum is the Pinacoteca (www.pinacoteca.org.br), downtown near the faded elegance of the Praça da Luz, a public park, and offers some of the world’s best contemporary art alongside a permanent collection of Brazilian works.
Where to eat: São Paulo was built by immigrants from Italy, Japan, Portugal and Lebanon, among others, and the local cuisine is just as varied. For a journey into Japanese culture (“No sushi!” “No sashimi!” is the rule), visit Bueno (835 Alameda Santos, 011-55-11-2386-8035), the creation of former champion sumo wrestler Fernando Kuroda, who returned to his native São Paulo to serve chankonabe, the thick stew that sumo wrestlers use to beef up.
In Liberdade, the traditional Japanese neighborhood, Izakaya Issa (89 Rua Barão de Iguape; 11-3208-8819) serves delicious bar snacks alongside shochu, Japanese distilled liquor, but it’s small. If it’s packed, head to Chopperia da Liberdade (523 Rua da Glória, 011-55-11-3207-8783), a giant karaoke bar-cum-restaurant that explodes into Japanese-, Portuguese- and English-language musical euphoria most nights.
Almanara (70 Rua Basilio de Gama; 011-55-11-3257-7580, almanara.com.br) serves a satisfying Lebanese buffet lunch in beautiful surroundings downtown and in Jardins, a posh neighborhood just off iconic Avenida Paulista. Melanito “Melanie” Biyouha has made a new contribution to the city’s restaurant scene with Biyou’Z Restaurante Afro (19A Alameda Barão Limeira; 011-55-98665-1166, biyouzresto.com.br), serving food from around West Africa in decidedly gritty settings.
True food lovers (with the cash to support the habit) should try to elbow their way into D.O.M. (549 Rua Barão de Capanema; 011-55-11-3081-4599, domrestaurante.com.br), considered one of the world’s best restaurants, to taste what celebrated chef Alex Atala has created with Brazilian Amazonian ingredients.
For drinking, Vila Madalena is a safe bet for foreigners and Brazilians alike; on most nights, younger, more rebellious Brazilians take over the once-gritty Rua Augusta, which is packed with bars of all shapes and sizes from Avenida Paulista to the end of the street downtown. Z Carniceria (934A Rua Augusta; 011-55-11-3231-3705, zcarniceria.com.br) is popular among those who like quality over quantity instead of cheap and plentiful. For a Berlin-style club and dance night, D-Edge (170 Alameda Olga, Perdizes; 011-55-11-3665-9500, d-edge.com.br) is world famous.
The fashion-hipster glitterati, born wealthy and beautiful but working desperately to be cool, party at Bar Secreto (97 Rua Álvaro Anes; 011-55-11-3032-4334, barsecreto.com.br). For a breathtaking view of the city, have a glass of South American red at Terraço Itália (344 Avenida Ipiranga; 011-55-11-2189-2929, www.terracoitalia.com.br).
For someplace in the edgier historic center, try the long-lasting Bar Brahma (677 Avenida São João, 011-55-11-3367-3601, www.barbrahmacentro.com), which is expecting to have live Brazilian music at day’s end after the games.
Where to stay: The classic areas for visitors are along Avenida Paulista in the Bela Vista or Jardins neighborhoods, or in Vila Madalena, although hotels are more scarce here. It seems as if half the city has put a room or apartment on Airbnb during the World Cup, so that could be a good, reasonably priced source even last-minute.
Important to know: The trip from Rio to São Paulo by plane is not much shorter than the trip by bus, and it is more expensive and often less comfortable. Buses leave both cities constantly until 2 a.m., and the executivo and especially the leito categories compete with European trains for comfort. Even if I had an unlimited budget, I would still prefer the six-hour overnight bus to the hassle of airports. Tickets can be booked at buscaonibus.com.br, but it’s often easier to buy at the bus terminal.