Sleepless in Sao Paulo: Noor Tehini’s Travel Photo Diary

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Renaissance Hotel Sao Paulo Brazil
Photo: Courtesy of Renaissance Hotel

Savoir Flair Managing Editor, Noor Tehini, jetted off to Sao Paulo this month to discover Brazil’s most cosmopolitan city ahead of this summer’s World Cup. From sampling traditional cuisine to dancing the night away in the city’s bohemian district, these pages are packed with photos and tales of her time in Sao Paulo, written from the comfort of the luxurious five-star Renaissance Hotel, as Noor discovers the true meaning of jet lag.

Click through our gallery below and follow Noor’s adventures in Sao Paulo day by day.

Day 1

Noor Tehini Sao Paulo Brazil
Photo: Courtesy of Noor Tehini

I caught my first glimpse of Brazil’s green coast as the plane started its final descent, 15 hours after having left Dubai. The sun was setting alongside us, and the sky was striped with beautiful pinks, oranges, and blues. By the time I left the airport, it was dark outside, and I couldn’t see much through the uber-tinted windows of the hotel limousine – a security measure, perhaps? – other than headlights and the silhouettes of tall buildings. Once inside the hotel – which had the familiar modernity of the Renaissance brand – I was checked in within mere seconds and headed straight for my room’s spacious tub. With large windows overlooking the city and a selection of fragrant soaps to choose from, I forgot my jet lag and enjoyed the disconnection – if only momentarily – from life.

Once refreshed, I headed down to the Sushi Bar in the hotel lobby, which I am told is one of the best sushi restaurants in the city. Seated at the bar, I picked the chefs’ brains about everything from where to go shopping to where not to go at all. In the background, a live band was playing in the buzzing, sleek lobby bar. After dinner, I headed back to my room to catch up on e-mails, half dazed, half awake, and sleepless in Sao Paulo.

Day 2

After a meeting with the hotel’s expert Navigator, Sergio Sampê, who talked me through the different parts of the city, the shopping hotspots, and the best restaurants, as well as how to avoid getting mugged – very helpful, indeed – I set off to explore the hotel’s neighborhood, the incredibly prestigious Jardins area, which, I was told, is as safe as it gets. I wandered up and down the hilly streets towards Oscar Freire, the city’s best shopping address, and spent the next few hours popping in and out of shops. My two favorite discoveries where Olsken, a very cool, avant-garde boutique with a strange focus on salmon-skin accessories, and Track & Field, a sportswear store with some of the coolest workout clothes I’ve ever seen. In between the shops, little art galleries, cafés, and restaurants stood out – each its own incredibly cool little concept. I stopped for lunch at Brasil a Gosto, a recommendation from Sergio. Let me preface this by saying that any intention you may have of making the remotely right food choices while in Brazil will go out the window the second you step out of your hotel – which is ironic considering the fact that every person I passed in this neighborhood looked like they were either going or coming from a gym. The chef of this little restaurant, which is hidden beneath trees on a little side street, had travelled the whole country to bring back recipes from every corner of Brazil. I settled for pastels, a typical Brazilian dish of delicious cheese- and meat-filled fried pastries, which I had heard so much about, and a sort of dried meat risotto with pumpkin and torn kale.

Thankfully, I had a four-hour walking tour planned for that afternoon. I joined the Free Walking Tour for a journey down Paulista Avenue, the city’s main business district and an imposing façade of concrete buildings, built mostly between the 1960s and 1990s. For the next few hours, the guide walked and talked us through the avenue’s main landmarks, which include a number of really interesting structures, such as a pyramid building, a building that curves upwards and towards the street, and a building that transforms into a giant screen at night, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, and Trianon Park, a little tropical forest in the middle of Sao Paulo’s concrete jungle. I learned that all advertising billboards and signs had been banned by the government, that there are 6 million cars in the city’s metropolitan area alone, which explains the legendary traffic jams, that Paulista Avenue was once the number one address of South America’s rich and famous – a few of their mansions still stand, some derelict, some repurposed as financial buildings in between concrete giants – and that Pão de Queijo, or simply cheese bread, is my new favorite thing.

Later that night, and after about four espressos in an attempt to keep my eyes open, I joined Sergio and Marilia, the Renaissance Hotel’s Communications Assistant, in Sao Paulo’s bohemian district, Vila Madalena, which is filled with loud music, pubs spilling onto the streets, and the kind of energy I had come to Brazil looking for. We headed for Vila Seu Justino, where we spent the rest of the night chatting over cocktails, mingling with the locals, and listening to samba music. Before leaving Vila Madalena, Sergio and Marilia took me for a walk down Batman’s Alley – no one quite knows the origin of this name. Every inch of the alley’s winding walls was covered in the most beautiful street-art murals I had ever seen. As I walked around, taking pictures and running my fingers up and down the walls, I couldn’t help but think that this was the perfect end to a great day.

Day 3

After yesterday’s late night, I was incredibly grateful for today’s slow start. I spent the better part of the morning in bed with a jug of hot water and lemon – which, incidentally, is a strange shade of green in Brazil – catching up on news and a mountain of pending work. Only a rumbling stomach was enough to get me up, and I headed straight for the breakfast buffet at the Terraço Jardins on the lobby floor. On the agenda this morning was a signature massage at the hotel’s spa. During a blissful 60-minute treatment, my therapist used Vyvedas passion-fruit oil to massage all my knots away, before covering my body in warm towels soaked in therapeutic passion-fruit tea. Vyvedas is just one of the amazing natural Brazilian brands available at The Spa at Renaissance. After sampling almost every single product available, I settled for a Ylang-Ylang body butter from Granado and Natura hair oil to take back to Dubai. On my way through the lobby, I discovered a fantastic little corner of the hotel with a huge plasma TV, Eames lounge chairs (my favorite), and a selection of coffee table books. After running up to my room to get my book – the Divergent trilogy is my new guilty pleasure – I spent the next hour reading with my feet plopped up on an Ottoman. It was by far the most relaxing morning I’ve had in a while.

Apart from a brief attempt at vegetarianism in high school, I’ve always been a lover of red meat, so I was particularly excited to try a traditional steakhouse while in Brazil. Vento Haragano is one of Sao Paulo’s most famous churrascarias and was absolutely packed by the time I got there around 2 p.m. Armed with what was essentially a map of a cow, charting the different cuts of meat with Portuguese/English translations, I embarked on the mission to try every single cut of meat that the waiters were bringing around to my table one by one. My mission failed, which is probably a good thing, but I still walked out of there feeling like I had eaten my body weight in meat.
I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting some of the shops that had been recommended to me by friends, including Farm in Vila Madalena. By day, the neighborhood was even more beautiful than I thought, with graffiti everywhere, old VW Beetles and hippy vans parked on the streets, and a man playing a guitar on the pavement. In the sustainable concept store, layed out on three open floors, there were plants hanging from the walls, hammocks on the balconies, and an incredible selection of boho-chic, floral-printed looks, which will now have pride of place in my wardrobe. I also stopped by the Havaianas store – a must in Brazil, I was told – and emerged with way too many pairs of flip-flops, including some customized ones.

After a mandatory visit to the gym in my new gear from Track and Field, I returned to the Terraço Jardins for dinner. There, Chef Thomaz Leão prepared an incredible five-course tasting menu that used traditional Brazilian ingredients in contemporary cuisine. This included a spicy tomato salsa with Catupiry (a Brazilian cream cheese) served in a martini glass, grilled mango with smoked pirarucu (a giant Amazonian fish), and chocolate served five different ways. The Latinos say that a full belly is the key to a happy heart and, tonight at least, I fully agree.

Day 4

If yesterday stood out as the most relaxing day of my trip, then today was definitely the most exhausting. With jet lag getting the best of me once again, I was up bright and way too early. After a few hours of work, a delicious bowl of Açaí in bed, and a quick stop at the gym, I made my way to the Old Downtown area of Sao Paulo for another Free Walking Tour. Starting at República Square, the historical three-hour long tour took us past Sao Paulo’s three tallest buildings, including Italia Building, the city’s first skyscraper, Martinelli Building, and Oscar Niemeyer’s Copan Building, which is so big it has its own zip code. We walked through Sao Paulo’s ‘Wall Street’, in which many banks have set up their headquarters, and visited the beautiful Sé Cathedral. Old Downtown was an amazing area, full of people, street markets, buskers and dancers, and skateboarders practicing their tricks wherever they could. But I also saw a sadder side to the city today, with homeless people sleeping on the steps of the Cathedral and around Praça da Sé, barefoot children searching through bins, and men covered in dirt protesting against this summer’s World Cup – the forgotten people of the city, as our tour guide called them.

After nearly four and half hours on my feet, I’d worked up quite an appetite. Following our guide’s recommendation, my new friend José and I headed to the Mercado Municipal on the hunt for Sao Paulo’s famous Mortadella Sandwich. In the indoor food market, multi-colored stalls stretched as far as the eye could see, and the smells were as stimulating as the sights. Unable to help ourselves, we stopped at almost every stand on our way, sampling everything from Lebanese shanklish cheese and delicious olives to pinha, a green fruit also known as sugar apple. On the mezzanine floor of the market, restaurants advertised their version of the city’s most popular dishes, including the Mortadella Sandwich and cheese-filled pastels. We headed to Mortadella Brasil, the more famous of the establishments, where the queue was frighteningly long but, as we later discovered, oh so worth it. We left the Mercado Municipal barely able to breathe – having stopped a few more times at some of the cheese stalls on the way out – and I headed back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes before it was time to head out again.

I joined Sergio at one of his friends’ establishments on Rua Bela Cintra, just a short walk away from the hotel. NOH Bar e Restaurant specializes in molecular cocktails, using very scientific methods, equipment, and words to treat the ingredients. The result was delicious. The three of us spent the rest of the night chatting away, sampling as many of the drinks on offer as we could, comparing notes on the city, sharing travel tips, and discussing Japan – where they are both originally from. I learned that night that Sao Paulo has the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan. I also learned that all it takes to fight jet lag is a sharing plate of comida di buteco (bar food) and some great company.

Day 5

Bar Lounge Renaissance Hotel Sao Paulo Brazil
Photo: Courtesy of Renaissance Hotel

My fifth and final day in Sao Paulo was short, but sweet. After grabbing some take-away tea from the Club Lounge, I made my way to the Sunday market in Liberdade, the Japanese district. I absolutely love markets, and spent the next few hours going from stall to stall. There were stalls selling mochi (rather motti, in Sao Paulo) and red-bean pancakes, stalls selling handicrafts that ranged from origami ornaments to wood-carved statues, and stalls selling every kind of Hello Kitty merchandise a Japanese schoolgirl could dream of. Away from the market, labyrinth-like arcades were filled with more kawaii merchandise, collectible action-hero figures, and amazing stationery. It was an impulse buyer’s dream.

After a quick stop at Terraco Jardins to sample the hotel’s Sunday brunch menu, it was time to pack my bags – not an easy fit considering all the shopping I had done over the past few days – and bid farewell to this wonderful hotel and incredible city. Until next time, adeus Sampa!

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