Guide to Sao Paulo: The city that is the 'Melbourne' of Brazil

What follows is what one might call flying by the seat of your pants: journeying to the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo with no accommodation. Over a glass of red the night before, I had jumped on my Airbnb app and requested a gorgeous inner city oasis in the heart of one of the hippest little areas in São Paulo. I tell myself: "have faith in the universe" and just before my flight takes off from Rio, my host Rodrigo responds. "I'd love to host you Jamie, give me a few hours and I will have the house ready for you."

He recommends I wait in a gorgeous little restaurant called Santo Grão (Holy Grain), that will become my local breakfast spot. It's in Cerqueira César, a chic area that would rival Toorak back home. After a delicious tuna salad, ice-cold local beer and crisp glass of Chilean Rose, I stroll across the road to check in.

Brazil – population 205 million – is in the thick of its worst economic downturn in decades with high unemployment and a potentially corrupt President. Yet Sao Paulo feels so sophisticated.  If Rio is the Gold Coast, São Paulo is Melbourne.

STAY

My stunning Airbnb home is split over three levels with ambient lighting and lots of natural stone, raw wood and tanned leather. A fish pond runs through the house with an internal staircase floating above it and a huge glass roof that opens up to the sky, as well as a high walled garden furnished as immaculately as the interiors.

I had chosen this home on the design as well as the proximity to places I wanted to visit; then my stylish host and his architect wife Livia Salem point out even more local places to see. Perfect! We share identical taste. Rodrigo's sister (who spent three years in my place of birth, Manly) tells me my only task is to feed the fish, so I really feel at home. 

Every night I fall asleep to the sound of the water below trickling into the carp pond.

SIGHTSEE

There is design detail oozing out of every hole in the wall on the trendy Rua Oscar Freire, a street 100 metres from my little Airbnb pad. I stop for some excellent manscaping – a quick trim and wet shave from a tattooed barber who looks like a Guess model – at chic men's barber Rei Da Barba.

Ibirapuera Park is Sao Pãulo's green lung: lush gardens filled with art galleries, auditoriums and sculptures. It's alive with hundreds of skateboarders, runners and families soaking up the weekend. The Sculpture Garden by the great Roberto Burle Marx makes nice art but he would be turning in his grave to see the lack of maintenance.

Nearby the sounds of Brazilian drums call me into a clearing next to a university where I find 50 students in a circle playing the best combination of percussion instruments I have ever heard. It's Mother's Day and the students have invited their families to a picnic where they are creating music that has me covered in goosebumps. After an hour of dancing and shooting about 600 photos, the conductor tells me that this is a regular occurrence for students. How is it possible that the entire population is this musically blessed? 

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In the Museu Afro Brazil, an impressive naturalistic installation by Japanese artist Nobuo Mitsunashi, where he has also painstakingly plastered the walls and windows in hundreds of dried black stained roses, is breathtaking.  And in Oscar Niemeyer's auditorium at the Sao Pãulo Museum of Modern Art, there's a rehearsal going on for a performance by a Brazilian Tenor, with tickets for 20 Brazilian Real (about AUD $8). The overpriced antique markets underneath the museum don't thrill me but upstairs I find a powerful exhibition of world class paintings all floating in glass. I've been to the Louvre but am more impressed with this showing: original Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh and a collection of some of Brazil's finest artists from centuries gone by, including Benedito José Tobias, Rubem Valentim and Heitor dos Prazeres.

EAT AND DRINK

Based on the style credentials of my new home, I decide to trust the list my hosts have kindly given me.

Venue one is close to home: Chez Oscar on Rua Oscar Freire, a chic little four-level establishment wedged between a handful of boutiques and restaurants. It serves one of the best beef carpaccios I've ever had beneath a bed of bitter lettuce and a deliciously sharp dressing. 

For nighttime, the restaurants/bars in the hip Villa Madalena area are well-designed in funky themes offering multiple choices of live Brazilian music and amazing cuisine. A must if you come to Sao Pãulo is Boteco São Bento, for the incredible live music. After a few hours here and in the gorgeous little Madeleine Jazz Bar nestled in a lush garden, I venture up the street where maybe 50,000 people are spilling out of vibrant packed bars like one huge street party.

AND… MORE SURPRISES

But my ultimate Sao Paulo tip is to… stroll. Avenue Paulista, the three kilometre main drag of Sao Paulo, is closed to traffic on the weekend, and is packed with people running, riding and just hanging out. There are hundreds of performances along the way, from an armless and legless man singing Coldplay better than Chris Martin through to magicians and Michael Jackson impersonators.

It's here that I stumble into another true Brazilian moment: thousands of people dancing in the street to a live DJ changing partners every few songs. Called "Samba Hockey", it was developed in the 1950s in this city, takes place the first Sunday of every month, and is amazing to watch.

It's a sublime end to a transforming experience.

Jamie Durie was a guest of Airbnb.

TRIP NOTES

STAYING THERE

www.airbnb.com.au has hundreds of Sao Paulo homes on its website nestled in some of the best neighbourhoods, like Cerqueira César. 

EAT AND DRINK

Santo Grão; Rua Oscar Freire, 413 - Jardins, São Paulo; www.santograo.com.br/

Chez Oscar Restaurant; Rua Oscar Freire, 1128 Jardim Paulista, São Paulo SP Brazil; www.chezoscar.com.br

Madeleine Jazz Bar; R. Aspicuelta, 201 - Vila Madalena, São Paulo; www.madeleine.com.br

For more jazz try the Bourbon Street Music Club Rua dos Chanés 127 Moema; www.bourbonstreet.com.br

SIGHTSEEING

Rei Da Barba Men's Barber Shop; Alameda Lorena, 1621 - Jardim Paulista, São Paulo; www.reidabarba.com.br/

Ibirapuera Park ; Av. Pedro Álvares Cabral - Vila Mariana, São Paulo

Museu Afro Brazil; Avenida Pedro Álvares Cabral, Portão 10 - Parque Ibirapuera, São Paulo; www.museuafrobrasil.org.br/

São Paulo Museum of Modern Art; Avenida Pedro Álvares Cabral, Portão 10 - Parque Ibirapuera, São Paulo; http://mam.org.br/en/

Parque Burle Marx;  Av. Dona Helena Pereira De Moraes, São Paulo. SP, 05707, Brazil; www.parqueburlemarx.com.br

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