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What was once a little market town in the cool high plateau has jumped its bounds and sprawled for the hills in all directions. São Paulo is now not only the largest city in Brazil, but it's also the largest in South America and the third or fourth largest in the world. What assembles and drives this vast collection of people is commerce. The city and surrounding municipalities account for an incredible 65% of Brazil's GDP. When Paulistas do take a break from work, they devote much the same energy to leisure. The city has some of the best galleries and museums in the country. It has by far the best cuisine and some of the best nightlife. And despite the seeming chaos, remain for a few days and you'll discover, as Paulistas have, that the city could not be otherwise; somehow São Paulo makes sense.

Architectural Highlights

On the far southern edge of the Jardins, the Museu Casa Brasileira, Av. Brig. Faria Lima 2705 (tel. 011/3032-3727; www.mcb.sp.gov.br; admission R$4; Tues-Sun 10am-6pm), was built in 1945 for one of São Paulo's leading families. Inside the yellow Palladian villa, the museum displays an assortment of haute-bourgeois artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries: jacaranda-wood furniture, porcelain, silver plates, the token oil painting by Portinari. Even better, a new curator has begun hosting changing exhibits and workshops focused primarily on modern Brazilian design.

One of the few remaining relics of old São Paulo, the Pátio do Colégio complex sits a hop and a skip north from Praça da Sé on Rua Boa Vista, on the exact site where the original Jesuit mission was founded in 1554. Though built in 1896, the simple Anchieta Chapel (daily 9am-5pm) is an accurate reproduction of the original. Next door to the chapel, the Museu Padre Anchieta (Tues-Sat 9am-5pm; admission R$5) features a number of maps of São Paulo through the years, plus a large diorama of the original settlement. Better yet, at the back of the complex there's the green and quiet Café do Páteo.

Located at the birthplace of Brazilian independence -- it was here that D. Pedro I in 1822 declared Brazil's independence from Portugal -- the Museu do Paulista do Ipiranga, Praça da Independencia s/n, Ipiranga (tel. 011/2065-8000; www.mp.usp.br; admission R$4; Tues-Sun 9am-5pm), is a classic European palace with a Versailles-like garden out front and a "wilder" botanical garden out back. Inside are some gems of Brazilian art, photo exhibits showing 19th-century São Paulo as it developed, period furniture, and household objects.

São Paulo's Ellis Island, otherwise known as Memorial do Imigrante, Rua Visconde de Parnaiba 1316 (tel. 011/6692-1866; www.memorialdoimigrante.org.br; admission R$4; Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; Metrô: Estação Bresser), saw about three million immigrants pass through during the 19th and 20th centuries on their way to a new life in Brazil. For today's visitors, the admission hall, office, hospital, and dormitories are shown in their original condition. On Sundays and holidays, a historic train takes visitors on a short ride around the museum area.

The 30-story Edifíçio Martinelli, at Av. São João 33, was the city's first skyscraper, inaugurated in 1929. Stylistically it's an interesting mixture -- Italian palazzo with a mansard roof -- and it remains an important landmark.

More daring and more interesting from an architectural perspective is Oscar Niemeyer's Copan Building, erected in 1951 at the corner of Avenida Ipiranga and Avenida Araújo. Its scale, its celebration of raw concrete, and its curvilinear shape were all quite advanced for the time. Photos of its curvy brise-soleil sides show up frequently in São Paulo postcards.

Churches & Temples

A Benedictine monastery has been on this site by the edge of the Anhangabaú Valley since 1600, just a few decades after São Paulo was founded. The current Basilica de São Bento dates to 1910 and is worth a look if you're passing by, though to tell the truth, despite all the marble, wood, and stained glass that went into the construction, the net effect is far from beautiful. Visitors may be most impressed by the German organ with 6,000 pipes. Come for High Mass on Sunday at 10am, and the service is accompanied by Gregorian chants. Open Saturday to Thursday 6am to noon and 2 to 6pm, and Friday from 2 to 6pm. Gregorian chanting is Monday and Friday at 7am, Saturday at 6am, and Sunday at 10am.

São Paulo's Metropolitan Cathedral is a curious structure, a blend of Byzantine and High German Gothic. Construction began in 1911, but wasn't completed until 1954. Its best feature may be the Praça da Sé out front, which is lined with stately imperial palms and occupied during the daylight hours by street preachers, some of them quite good. It's open Monday to Friday 8am to 7pm, Saturday 8am to 5pm, and Sunday 8am to 1pm and 3 to 6pm.

Art & Cultural Exhibit Halls

São Paulo is blessed with a number of beautiful old buildings that have been converted to cultural centers. They play host to a cavalcade of interesting and ever-changing art exhibits. Even better, they're (almost) all free.

On the Avenida Paulista, the pretty mansion Casa das Rosas, Av. Paulista 37 (tel. 011/3285-6986; www.casadasrosas.sp.gov.br; Tues-Sun 10am-6pm), plays host to art exhibits and author readings, while the rose garden -- complete with small cafe -- makes for the perfect escape from the Avenida Paulista. The Casa was built in 1928 by Ramos de Azevedo, the same architect who designed the Teatro Municipal and the Pinacoteca.

In the old downtown or Centro, the former headquarters of the Banco do Brasil, Rua Alvares Penteado 112 (tel. 011/3113-3651), is now a three-floor cultural center, featuring art exhibits, plays, and screenings of experimental films.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.