Dispatch, Sao Paulo: A short stay, too short

It is said that the central part of Sao Paulo boasts more helipads than bus stops.

Indeed, even during a time where the country is gripped by a financial recession, South America’s largest city will likely strike an American visitor as nothing less than the closest thing the continent has to New York City.

Given a 48-hour window that in hindsight was woefully insufficient, our group experienced a Cliff’s Notes version that was equal parts culture and commerce. Some of the city’s 450-year history was covered via tour of Old Downtown, where early-history structures such as the stunning Sao Paulo Cathedral, a hodgepodge of 19th century buildings and gorgeous art deco structures such as the Banco di Sao Paulo building can easily be explored by stone-covered walk streets.

Meanwhile, some of the city’s rich architectural history can be distilled in Ibirapeura Park, which showcases some of the modernist work of Brazilian architectural patron saint Oscar Niemeyer (the triangular Ibirapeura is particularly rakish).

Snapping us to modern-day attention was a drive down the Park Avenue-like Paulista Avenue and a visit to the high-end boutiques of Rua Oscar Freire in the city’s Jardins district. That area of town featured the flagship restaurant of the Barbacoa chain of Brazilian barbecue eateries, which served us with decadent amounts of meat (the flank steak was particularly good) as well as Bem Casado, the traditional sponge cake and dulce de leche Brazilian dessert that’s often served at weddings. It was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.

And anyone familiar with the adaptive reuse projects taking place in many U.S. cities will surely appreciate Sao Paulo’s Júlio Prestes Cultural Center, which was redeveloped out of a 1930s-era train station and includes the Sala Sao Paulo concert hall, complete with ceiling panels that move vertically in order to maximize sound quality.

The most enjoyable part may have been our visits to the city’s Vila Madalena district, which is known for its bohemian vibe. Our daytime visit meant a walk down Batman Alley and its stunningly intricate graffiti art, some of which was being finished off by local artists before our eyes. Later that night, that meant hanging out in Bar Samba, which was equal parts festive and laid back. Imagine a classic U.S. roadhouse with a killer live Samba band, and you’ll start to approach the experience.

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Lodging-wise, our tour of hotels revealed an inventory appropriate for a visitor contingent that trends about 70% business and 30% leisure (making Sao Paulo a great weekend complement to Rio de Janeiro an hour’s flight away, as room rates drop during the weekends, when they peak in Rio).

Our stay was hosted by the 220-room Tivoli Sao Paulo-Mofarrej, which boasts a 7,500-square-foot Presidential Suite whose recent occupants included Mick Jagger. The suite has a modern, tasteful and practical room layout.

A few blocks away, the 83-room L’Hotel Porto Bay put a more feminine spin on the urban hotel motif, while its Trebbiano Ristorante did the formal Italian lunch just as it should be done.

The 444-room Renaissance Sao Paulo and the 195-room InterContinental Sao Paulo appeared to keep the properties current with updates that belied their two-decade history, with the Renaissance’s hotel’s upper-floor rooms strongly harkening a Manhattan feel.

The 60-room Fasano Hotel and 56-room Emiliano both go the lifestyle/boutique route with funkier design touches. Funkiest, however, was the watermelon-shaped Hotel Unique, whose slanted-wall rooms ensured the hotel stayed true to its name while its rooftop pool and bar area afforded gorgeous views of Sao Paulo’s endless skyline.

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