São Paulo: Brazil’s biggest, most crowded and hard to know city. The megalopolis of twelve million inhabitants offers some of the world’s greatest restaurants, bars, night clubbing, art and clothing buying, among a wide range of activities.
It is easy to find tourists being familiar with the Art Musem of São Paulo at Paulista avenue (the MASP, a creation of Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi) and the Musem of Modern Art (MAM, inside the Ibirapuera park). But São Paulo also guards a few genuine gems in the old, previously ruined downtown area, most exactly around the Estação da Luz (meaning ‘station of the light’, not ‘light station’) and Estação Julio Prestes, in the old Bom Retiro/Campos Elíseos region.
Visualizar Estação da Luz and around em um mapa maior
Around fifteen years ago it was very difficult to recommend the Luz region, in the middle of São Paulo’s old center, to any tourist visiting the city. Your aunt that came from the countryside for a holiday? Maybe she could go see an exhibition at the Pinacoteca – and that was it. I should know: I lived in the São Paulo suburbs as a teenager and everyday boarded the metropolitan trains leaving from and arriving at Estação da Luz. My normal regular walking would be from the station to Praça da República, walking in the direction of Paulista through Ipiranga and Casper Libero avenues.
I was there again a few weeks ago. The zombie-hobos, prostitutes working for a bus fare and kids dying of crack are still there. The general feeling is far from what I imagine as a Belgium-level urban safeness. Still, the area has been way more degraded in the past. Since São Paulo’s former mayor, Marta Suplicy, moved the Mayor office downtown in the early 2000s, the old center is experiencing a revival of sorts. The Luz metrô (subway, tube) station got a major renovation a few years ago, and the old Luz station was fully reconstructed, with part of the building holding the Museu da Lingua Portuguesa (Museum of Portuguese Language). Also, the Jardim da Luz (Garden of the Light) was cleaned up, serving as new home to the Municipal Secretary of Green and Environment. I wouldn’t go far as saying that walking the area is safe and sound, but one can bring the kids to the museums and old streets on a Saturday afternoon.
Today, the station, founded in 1901, is the core of a cultural road map that includes the impressive Sala São Paulo and the strong dictatorship memorial at Estação Pinacoteca. The museums, specially the original Pinacoteca, right in front of the station and sided by the Jardim, are often crowded during weekends – you’d do better walking the area on a ‘dia útil’ (Brazilian for week day). Better still: start at Luz morning time, head to Bom Retiro to grab something to eat around lunch time, and walk to Julio Prestes. I prepared a lost of five places of interest, you can check bellow.
1. Museu da Lingua Portuguesa (Museum of Portuguese Language)
Opened for public in 2005, this beautiful tribute to the Brazilian version of Portuguese occupies has three floors and occupies part of Estação da Luz. First floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions, second floor has a timeline of the Portuguese language and samples of the various influences the Brazilian version suffered through times – Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, African. Top floor has a theatre. On Tuesdays the museum stays open until 22h and admission is free of charge.
2. Pinacoteca do Estado
Place of the first mega-exhibitions in São Paulo, such as the Auguste Rodin retrospective in 2011, Pinacoteca is the oldest museum of the city. It is also one of São Paulo’s most impacting and pretty buildings, creation of architect Ramos de Azevedo and inaugurated in 1905. Admission os free of charge on Saturdays – surely the most crowded day for a visit. The same foundation owns the Estação Pinacoteca, close to Julio Prestes station. Inaugurated in 1914, served as intelligence central office during Brazil’s dictatorship period, giving the space a sinister feel. That’s the reason why it was chosen as the place for the Memorial da Resistência (Resistance Museum), one of the less pleasant but most informative spaces in the city.
3. Estação Julio Prestes and Sala São Paulo
Built, in 1938 as the main link of the Sorocabana Rail Line, the rail system that crossed São Paulo’s countryside, these grand building is nowadays occupied by São Paulo’s Symphonic Orchestra (OSESP) and São Paulo’s Secretary of Culture. In 1997 it became the Julio Prestes Cultural Complex. I believe that every paulistano, by heart or birth, needs do see the OSESP playing inside Sala São Paulo at least once. It is easy and more accessible than one might imagine, with open rehearsal and budget fares. Check the schedule.
4. Jardim da Luz
I’m never sure if it is because of the high trees and the reflexes of old buildings or just the happiness of observing this space recovered – for me, Jardim da Luz is one of the most gorgeous areas of São Paulo. Inside the park, that homes part of the Pinacoteca and the Green and Environment Secretary, are modern sculptures, a cave made of rocks for the kids to play, a lake shaped as a Maltese cross, a bandstand, a fountain, a peculiar open air gym, lots of birds. The park is never empty, and on any given day you’ll find people resting on the seats, kids walking dogs, old ladies heading for the Bom Retiro shops and women of, well, doubtful vocation – as paulistano as it gets.
5. Museu de Arte Sacra (Museum of Sacred Arts)
Standing aside of the heavy traffic and street vendors of Tiradentes avenue, the Museum is not exactly popular. But is sure worth the walk: it guards an impressive fixed exhibition of religious relics in the same spot of the chapel that baptized the Luz region back in 1603 (meaning: almost pre-historical in terms of Brazilian timing).
Bom Retiro is a well served neighborhood of São Paulo when it comes to ‘ethnic eclecticism’. A cheap and popular shopping spot during weekdays, the streets are full with Peruvians, Koreans, Arabs and Jews as well as Brazilians from all parts. That means you’ll find delicious snacks and lunch options, like the mandatory burekas of Casa Búlgara, the tasty empanaditas at Café da Colômbia and delicious dishes at the only Greek restaurant in São Paulo, the Acropoles – often crowded, but worth every minute of the waiting. Falafels at Malka and very fine gourmet-mom lunch and dinner at the Bistrot da Sarah are popular as well. If you walk to Rio Branco avenue and Aurora street you’ll also find hidden gems: the cheap peruvian restaurants Riconcito Peruano and Tradiciones Peruanas. They are all listed on the small map above. Enjoy!