Bela Vista (Bixiga): The Little Italy Of São Paulo
First and foremost, I want to say welcome to the inaugural post of São Paulo 360, a mini blog series that will feature various neighborhoods in this amazing Brazilian city! There’s no better place to start than the area I happen to be residing in right now: Bela Vista (Bixiga). It’s a beautiful part of town with a distinctly bohemian vibe. Before jumping into everything that Bela Vista has to offer, I want to answer one question you might have…
Why São Paulo 360?
I’ll be based here for six months, and I’ve noticed a distinct lack of coverage of São Paulo by many popular travel blogs. To fill the void, this series will serve as a comprehensive guide for visitors to the city. I also want to convince all serious travelers that São Paulo is worthy of a space on your bucket list! Not only is it the biggest city in South America, but it’s also much safer than you might think. If you want to learn some more general info, check out my initial impressions post that I wrote after being here for two weeks!
Where is Bela Vista?
Let’s first define the two areas that have been mentioned so far. Bela Vista is a large district which is bordered by the famous Avenida Paulista to the south, the Avenida 23 de Maio and Corredor Norte-Sul highway to the east, the district of Sé to the north, and the neighborhood of Consolação to the west. A map of Bela Vista is shown below.
Bixiga (pronounced ‘bih-she-guh’ and located here) is the town center of Bela Vista. It’s a neighborhood that spans a few streets in the northern half of the district. In my opinion, Bixiga is defined by two things: a ton of delicious Italian restaurants and an abundance of beautiful street art. These two attractions will be the main focus of this post. At the end, I’ll mention some other points of interest.
What makes Bela Vista unique?
Along the southern edge of Bela Vista is Avenida Paulista, the most famous and significant street in all of São Paulo. I’ll probably cover Avenida Paulista and its most important cross streets in a future post dedicated specifically to them since they’re more or less the center of the city. Suffice it to know that this part of Bela Vista is filled with skyscrapers, shopping malls, and a lot of traffic (except when it becomes a walking street on Sunday afternoons).
Bixiga is about a fifteen minute walk northeast of Avenida Paulista. It’s got a much more cozy vibe with colorful buildings, street art, and a dozens of Italian restaurants, as mentioned above. There are few if any skyscrapers in the area, and while it may look a little run down, it’s generally safe (although you should always exercise normal safety precautions in Brazil). Let’s first explore a few of the restaurants that can be found in Bixiga.
São Paulo is home to a very sizeable Italian population, and many of these people settled in Bixiga. While you may not necessarily hear Italian spoken on the streets today, the most obvious sign of Bixiga’s history is its huge number of family-owned Italian restaurants. I’ve only been to a handful so far, but they’ve all been really good and are worth a try if you’re in the area. Here are some of my favorites.
Cantina Mamma Celeste
The first Italian restaurant I tried in Bixiga was Cantina Mamma Celeste, which is located here. (As an aside, if you’re wondering why all the restaurants pictured below are empty, I think I just went for an early dinner whenever I was hungry enough to get Italian food! Most restaurants in Brazil actually close during the afternoon and may not open until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., which makes me think that Brazilians tend to eat a later dinner.) Upon entering, I first noticed the colorful decor as well as the checkerboard tablecloths.
I ordered a spaghetti puttanesca which was salty (due to the ingredients) but quite good. I also ordered a taça de vinho (glass of wine). If you choose to do the same, be prepared to answer the question, “Seco ou suave?” which basically means “dry or smooth?” Most menus don’t actually offer different bottles by the glass, so I think these restaurants typically have a ‘dry’ house red wine and a ‘smooth’ one. I personally recommend the ‘seco’ (dry). The ‘suave’ is a bit too sweet for my taste.
Cantina Gran Roma
The other phrase to know if you try one of these places is “couvert.” It basically refers to a small platter of appetizers that usually includes bread, olives, tapenade, and pickled vegetables. It typically costs around 10 BRL per person, and your waiter will likely ask if you want it as soon as you sit down. You can see what was included as part of the couvert on the small plates pictured below.
I also tried a spaghetti alla puttanesca at Cantina Gran Roma. I think it was slightly better at Mamma Celeste, but the dish was still satisfying here too. (If you’re wondering what puttanesca means, feel free to read more about it here).
The baked cheese lasagna I ordered at Lazzarella was delicious, and I couldn’t turn down their couvert before the meal. If you’re going to try any Italian food in Bixiga, be sure to arrive hungry! Portions are guaranteed to be big no matter where you go.
You might be wondering why I got pasta at all of the restaurants and never pizza. The answer is that I think these high-end restaurants (50 to 100 BRL is fairly expensive for a meal in Brazil) tend to specialize in authentic pasta dishes. I did try pizza from a more casual restaurant in Bixiga, but it was nothing special enough to write about here. If I find good, authentic pizza, I’ll definitely update this post!
In addition to great Italian cuisine, the other major attraction in Bixiga is the impressive collection of art proudly displayed on its streets. There is such a variety of styles that go so far beyond vandalism or graffiti. A lot of it is very personal and emotional work.
You’ll notice that practically every surface in Bixiga is treated as a canvas. Sometimes, art on the outside of multiple-story buildings will leave you wondering how the artist possibly even got up there to paint. Every time I go for a walk, I find a new mural or painting in an unexpected place.
It’s worth mentioning that street art exists almost everywhere in São Paulo. However, some neighborhoods have more than others, and Bixiga is definitely one where it’s a defining feature. Another area that’s famous for its art is Vila Madalena, which I’ll write about in a future post.
Other Highlights of Bixiga
Bixiga and Bela Vista have more than just Italian food and street art. Here are a few other things you can find in the vicinity.
The Area's Most Photogenic Church
Bixiga’s most noteworthy church, Paróquia Nossa Senhora Achiropita, is located right in the center of the neighborhood. It’s not necessarily the most gorgeous building you’ve ever seen, but it’s nice enough to snap a pic or two.
My Favorite Cafe
Unfortunately, São Paulo doesn’t seem to have a ton of cafes. Coffee can be ordered at almost any restaurant, but I miss the cafe culture of a place like Vietnam, where there are truly too many to choose from. Luckily, a good coffee shop is located in the center of Bixiga called Nano Cafés Especiais.
It’s definitely small, but I’ve never seen it packed to capacity. I recommend their vanilla iced coffee, which is infinitely better than anything you could ever get at Starbucks.
A Nice Bakery
Right down the street from Nano Cafés Especiais is a bakery called Padaria Camões. In addition to a large selection of baked goods, they also have a sit-down area where you can order a full meal.
My Favorite Brazilian Restaurant in Bela Vista
To be honest, traditional Brazilian restaurants can start to feel the same after a while. They all seem to have very similar designs, similar prices, and similar atmospheres. That’s why a good one will really stand out! My favorite so far is Café Bistro Feijão de Corda, located here (a little walk away from Bixiga but still in Bela Vista). It’s got all the standard dishes you’d find on any restaurant menu in the city. But every time I’ve been, it’s been just a little better than your average lanchonete.
A Word About Safety
I know most readers are probably wondering about safety in the area. Let me try to address it here. Parts of Bela Vista and Bixiga look rough around the edges. It’s not a gentrified part of town. Homeless people do live here, although that can be said of most of São Paulo.
Here’s my advice. Keep track of your belongings closely. Don’t wear anything too flashy, especially expensive jewelry or watches. The biggest risk by far is pickpocketing. Violent crime is highly unlikely because there are always a lot of people around no matter where you go. If in doubt, explore the city on foot during the daytime and take an Uber if you need to travel at night. With that said, Bixiga is certainly not a favela and I’ve never had any safety issues here (or anywhere in the city, actually).
As a final note, I’ll say that all the attractions mentioned in this post are located around the intersection of Rua Treze de Maio and Rua Conselheiro Carrão, which is busy both during the day and in the evening. There’s not much for visitors to see north of Viaduto Júlio de Mesquita Filho, the highway bordering Bixiga to the north. If you have any specific questions, leave a comment below and I’ll try to help out!
What's up next for São Paulo 360?
If you liked this post and are curious about other parts of São Paulo, then keep an eye out for my next post in the series! No promises yet, but I think I’ll be writing about Liberdade, the largest Japanese community in the world outside Japan. If there’s a neighborhood you’d like me to cover as a part of São Paulo 360, let me know! I’m definitely open to suggestions!