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Sights along São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista

While Paris has the Champs-Élysées and New York boasts Fifth Avenue, São Paulo wouldn’t be São Paulo without Avenida Paulista. In comparison to these other two famous main drags, Avenida Paulista is more varied, vital, messy, and raw. In fact, the first time you lay eyes upon a Paulista (as residents refer to it), you’ll be in for somewhat of a shock. The multilane thoroughfare resembles a freeway, and the roughly hewn skyscrapers that line it really do resemble a concrete jungle. It’s hard to imagine that a little over a century ago, this 2.8-kilometer (1.7-mile) mega-avenida was a mere country road. In the late 1800s, it was widened into a European-style grand avenue by coffee barons and industrial magnates who chose to live on it in sumptuous mansions that were built in wildly diverging architectural styles. Shortly after, Avenida Paulista was the first of São Paulo’s streets to be paved (with asphalt imported from Germany). It was also the first to go completely vertical in the 1940s, as São Paulo’s industrial economy grew at rates of up to 60 percent a year. By the 1970s, the avenue had been widened to keep up with escalating traffic, and almost all of its beautiful mansions had been replaced by skyscrapers (one of the very few survivors is now a McDonald’s) housing banks and multinationals.

In recent years, corporate headquarters have moved south to the spanking new bairros of Brooklin and Berrini. However, Avenida Paulista still remains the city’s symbol and vibrant nerve center: a place where commerce and culture thrive (Avenida Paulista concentrates numerous cultural centers and largescreen cinemas) amid urban hustle and bustle. Strolling along its wide black-and-white mosaic sidewalks may not be the most relaxing experience in the world, but nowhere else in the city comes close to capturing and condensing the city’s energy and adrenaline. This is especially the case whenever the city is in the throes of a major protest or celebration (particularly political or sports victories); inevitably, traffic comes to a standstill and a Paulista explodes into partying mode.

Conjunto Nacional

The elegant Conjunto Nacional (Av. Paulista 2073, Cerqueira César, tel. 11/3179-0000, 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Sat., 2–8 p.m. Sun.) was Latin America’s first shopping center. Inaugurated in 1956, by the 1960s it had become Sampa’s most glamorous address. Those who lived in the coveted modernist apartments were treated to stunning views (the skyscrapers were yet to come) and could camp out at the swanky Restaurante Fasano, where the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Nat King Cole entertained other international luminaries such as Ginger Rogers, David Niven, and Fidel Castro. After falling into decay and suffering damage from a fire in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that a restored Conjunto recaptured some of its former glory. Today, it is a great place to have a cafezinho, take in a movie, or browse through the fantastic range of books at the Livraria Cultura.

Parque Trianon

Back in the day when Avenida Paulista was the domain of the coffee aristocracy, Parque Trianon (Rua Peixoto Gomide 949, Cerqueira César, tel. 11/3289-2160, 6 a.m.–6 p.m. daily), less grandly known as Parque Tenente Siqueira Campos, was the place to go strolling. Originally designed in 1892 by French landscaper Paul Villon, the park received a more tropical makeover in 1968 by Roberto Burle Marx, who played up the exuberant textures and colors of the native Atlantic forest. Today, this small but surprisingly lush oasis, punctuated with benches, sculptures, and fountains, provides a welcome contrast to the congested avenue. By day, the park attracts a colorful mixture of visitors, including bookworms and lunching tycoons. Its more jungly depths are legendary as a gay cruising area.

Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP)

Paulistanos are justifiably proud of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (Av. Paulista 1578, tel. 11/3251-5644, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Thurs., R$15, free Tues.), considered one of Latin America’s finest art museums. The top floor boasts Brazil’s most important collection of European art, including multiple works by Flemish, Italian Renaissance, and French impressionist painters along with some wonderful Degas sculptures in bronze. Foreign visitors, however, might be more captivated by artists who are less known outside of Brazil—paintings by leading Brazilian modernists as well as works by foreign artists and adventurers. Among the most interesting of these were Jean-Baptiste Debret, a French artist and engraver who specialized in vivid portraits of African slaves and Indians in early-19th-century Rio, and Frans Post, a Dutch baroque painter whose Edenic renderings of Brazil inspired tapestries made by the famed French Gobelins factory.

Unfortunately, of the 7,000 works in MASP’s collection, only around 500 are ever on display at a given time. In compensation, the temporary exhibitions are often of international caliber. As striking as the art on display is the MASP itself. The inspired creation of the vanguard architect Lina Bo Bardi (who was born in Italy and naturalized in Brazil), the building consists of a giant box suspended above the ground by four spindly bright red pillars. The effect is quite impressive, and it’s hardly surprising that since its completion in 1968, MASP has become one of São Paulo’s most beloved and recognizable landmarks.

Casa das Rosas

Near the end of Avenida Paulista, the Casa das Rosas (Av. Paulista 37, tel. 11/3285-6986, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat.–Sun., free) is one of the few remaining mansions that once lined the avenue. Designed by leading architect Ramos de Azevedo in the 1920s, the casa takes its name from a delightful rose garden, modeled after the one at the Palace of Versailles. Full of handsome wooden furnishings and stained-glass windows, the house itself is devoted to poetry—aside from frequent readings and events, the library boasts over 30,000 volumes of verse.