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What it's like to visit São Paulo now

São Paulo's international airport has seen roughly 15 million arrivals and departures in the last nine months. Picture: Pexels.

São Paulo's international airport has seen roughly 15 million arrivals and departures in the last nine months. Picture: Pexels.

Published Nov 15, 2021


By Caroline Aragaki and Andre Romani Pinto

For more than a year, Sundays on Paulista Avenue in São Paulo had been eerily quiet.

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Now, in the back half of 2021, this detail of life in Brazil's most populous city has come back in full force.

Since July, when many pandemic restrictions lifted, the Avenue has once again been a showcase of São Paulo's diversity, with locals heading to Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), the city's art museum, stopping at the nearly 100-year-old Caffè Ristoro for ricotta tortes, and strolling the palm-filled Trianon Park to watch birds and people.

The rebirth reflects a comeback for a megacity that was hit particularly hard by Covid-19.

Tourism is kicking back into gear. São Paulo's international airport has seen roughly 15 million arrivals and departures in the last nine months, a jump of 85.7% year-over-year but still 38.5% below pre-Covid levels.

For those visiting from abroad, all that's required is proof of a negative PCR test taken with 72 hours of travel and a signed health declaration form. And despite double-digit inflation, the weakened Brazilian real means there is value to be found for those who come.

Here's what to expect if you're thinking about visiting South America's largest city:

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The dining scene

Restrictions on restaurants-which limited party sizes and indoor seating-lifted on August 17, returning the dining scene to near-normalcy. Included are traditional churrascarias, where roving servers slice skewered cuts of meat tableside and other dishes are procured from a lavish, self-serve salad bar.

The emblem of Brazilian culinary culture may be decidedly Covid-unfriendly, but all of its components remain stubbornly unchanged.

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Outdoor setups are hard to find in this concrete and glass jungle, but a project called "Ocupa Rua" (Taking the Streets) has helped some restaurants claim parking spots downtown for extra table space.

Other places make due with occasionally using the streets in front of their venues; on Saturday evenings, Sede261, a hole-in-the-wall wine bar with just 12 seats, spills out onto a brick road in the hip neighbourhood of Pinheiros, chilling bottles of wine in a bathtub filled with ice and serving them with oysters and meals prepared by guest chefs.

Among the newcomers is Caos Brasilis, opened in September 2021 by chef Bruno Hoffmann, who came to prominence on Brazil's version of Top Chef.

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Alongside sous chef Danillo Coelho, a Mocotó alum, Hoffmann upscales traditional dishes and pairs them exclusively with Brazilian wines-think Paulista couscous with a coconut and cashew emulsion, tortellini stuffed with smoked Brazilian cheese, and cakes made with cassava or cachaça ice cream.

There's also Kazuo, across the street from the Iguatemi Shopping mall in Jardins, whose hypermodern exterior of neon-blue lattice belies the pan-Asian traditions that inspire chef Kazuo Harada's omakase meals.

Culture makes a comeback

With no remaining restrictions, navigating the next phase of the pandemic in São Paulo is a game of choose-your-own-adventure.

São Paulo may be best known for its density-of buildings, people, cars-but the city has many parks that tend to go overlooked by first-timers. The most famous, Parque Ibirapuera, occupies 1.6 million square meters.

Like New York's Central Park, it's centrally located, with the skyline peeking out from behind a wide, green expanse. Go for a picnic, to watch local soccer fans practice their own fancy footwork, or to visit the Museu Afro Brasil, which focuses on artists of the African diaspora. Lesser-known parks include Cantareira, with its forested trails, or Jaragua, whose main path takes you on a two-hour hike to the highest point in the city.

São Paulo's municipal market, the so-called Mercadão, peddles endless varieties of indigenous tropical fruits and famous mortadella sandwiches, piled with nearly a full pound of meat, peppers, and lots of cheese.

Another option is the Museum of the Portuguese Language, which reopened in July after a six-year closure following a fire. Its reimagined, high-tech galleries enliven dense topics like etymology, letting foreigners get a better understanding of the rhythmic local tongue.

If you want to pretend the pandemic never happened

As of November 1, all restrictions on events and large gatherings have been lifted, allowing concert venues and nightclubs to reopen.

How to get around

The subway system in São Paulo is simple and comprehensive if you're staying in the main downtown areas, but the trains get crowded at rush hour and some people still insist on wearing masks under their noses, as in many other cities.

Buses, meanwhile, can be downright impossible for visitors to navigate. Brazilians are helpful with offering directions-language barriers and all-but that only partially makes up for bus maps being so hard to find and even harder to decipher.

Getting an Uber isn't much easier. After locals complained on social media that Brazilian drivers were commonly rejecting rides, the company fired 1 600 contractors across the country, leading to a shortage.

Many remaining drivers have been vocal about high gasoline costs-prices are up 39% year over year-and are trying to negotiate better terms with ride-sharing apps. For now, it means service reductions and instability.

Covid etiquette

São Paulo has not dismissed the mandatory use of masks-even if President Bolsonaro himself rarely uses one. Not everyone follows the rules, but the law says masks must be worn in public at all times, and you can, on rare occasions, be fined for violating policy. If you forget, it's more likely that you'll be politely reminded to mask up by waiters and security guards in restaurants or shopping malls.

Vaccine passports are only needed to attend gatherings with more than 500 people-nobody asks for them in restaurants or bars, though staff usually take your temperature at the door.

Caroline Aragaki and Andre Romani are reporters based in Bloomberg's São Paulo bureau.

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