Having lived, worked, and vacationed in Brazil for many years, it’s kind of shocking that I hadn’t really explored its largest city. São Paulo was always just a layover on the way to the gorgeous beaches of the northeast or the sexy city of Rio. But with an itinerary carefully crafted by my colleagues at the São Paulo Convention and Visitors Bureau, I was in for a surprise.
Walking into my hotel, I was immediately struck by the unique design of the lobby and quickly understood how it earned its name. Hotel Unique is the architectural gem by Ruy Ohtake, one of Brazil’s architect legends. Drawing inspiration from Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and of course, his mother, famed Brazilian artist, Tomie Ohtake, Ruy’s lunar shaped luxury hotel is a sight to behold.
Sitting down to check-in, I noticed the Conde Nast 2016 awards for “Best South American Hotel” and Hotel Unique’s enviable position at #8 on the list of “Top 50 Hotels in the World”. Sipping on a glass of welcome champagne, I was curious to learn how this hotel had earned its accolades.
Eager to rest, I drew a bath in my suite, all the while intrigued by the edgy design. The contrast of curves and corners set against a backdrop of soothing white decor had me entranced.
But why the awards? There are many hotels that boast cutting-edge design and invest in their interiors, but what makes Hotel Unique stand out is their service. Every one of my requests, odd as they were, was met with a warm smile that made me feel like I was at an old friend’s home. Read any of the TripAdvisor reviews, and it’s no wonder Hotel Unique is ranked as their top São Paulo recommendation. And it’s also worth mentioning that I was greeted with a glass of champagne wherever I went – it was as if they had a secret champagne nymph following me around the hotel!
In a city as large as São Paulo, it’s sometimes hard to uncover hidden gems. But with the help of my expert guide, Flazia Liz Di Paolo, every corner beckons with glittering finds. Two of her unique fashion recs: Japonique Boutique and Léia Sgro Jewelry.
Japonique is trendy, but tastefully curated. I picked up a pair of Melissa shoes for a client, browsed through chic room decor, but my favorite discovery was the COMAS clothing line. Lucky enough to meet with the director of COMAS, she shared some of their eco-friendly design philosophy with me. “It’s upcycling. We take men’s shirts and rework them into wearable designs for women.” Emphasis on wearable. Luckily I bought my sustainable, yet stylish items early in my trip and wore them all over Brazil(see below!), since they hardly wrinkle, and looked great with wedges, tennis shoes, and the ubiquitous Havaianas.
Flavia Liz’s other hidden gem? The handmade jewelry of Léia Sgro. Walking into Léia’s studio, there’s a definite shift in your energy. Calming and centering, her delicate pieces float on branches hung throughout her gallery, coaxing you to take a second look. My favorites – a pendant and earring set made from the skeleton leaves in her garden.
Léia’s talents don’t end with jewelry making. She is also one of only three people outside of Japan trained and skilled at the art of Chabako. Léia explained that a chabako is a box once used to store kimonos, as well as tea implements, made popular in the Sen no Rikyu era for use in outdoor tea ceremonies. With her special touch, they make the perfect addition to any room.
As Léia showed me some of her upcoming pieces, which will be shown in Rome in 2018, she talked about how her designs are inspired by her travels and nature, “especially the forms I see in nature”, she smiled. With her degree from Tokyo’s Hiko Mizuno College of Jewelry and international stints in London, Vienna, Boston, Madrid, and Rome, Léia has plenty of inspiration to infuse her modern designs.
As we drove to our next stop, Flavia Liz shared some of the history of Japanese culture here in São Paulo. “With a large influx of Japanese immigrants in the early 1900’s, São Paulo is now home to over 1.5 million people of Japanese descent. And its influence is seen in the art, gastronomy, design, and culture throughout this huge metropolis.”
A near perfect example of this influence is the Instituto Tomie Ohtake. Mother to famed architects, Ruy and Ricardo, Tomie Ohtake was part of that Japanese immigration wave and reinvented herself as an artist at age 40. The embodiment of the phrase, “it’s never too late to be what you might have been”, Tomie went on to hold over 120 solo exhibitions in Brazil, and around the world in Milan, Miami, Tokyo, New York, and Havana.
Her institute hosts debates, research, and of course exhibitions that promote an understanding of national and international contemporary art, architecture, and design. Luckily, I was able to see the shocking and socially engaging exhibit of Yoko Ono, The Sky Is Still Blue, You Know. Known for her provocative and political art, Yoko’s works held true to her artistic signature of engaging with the spectators and seducing us to participate in the exhibit.
As I walked through the exhibit, some of it was joyful and fun, like writing my wishes on the large tree in foyer, while others like the video of Yoko’s infamous and iconic 1964 Carnegie Hall performance, which allowed spectators to snip strips of her clothing, had me puzzled and pondering present-day power struggles.
But that is what great art is supposed to do, and it’s no wonder that Instituto Tomie Ohtake has staged shows of Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and Josef Albers, all previously unheard of in Brazil. Tomie’s eponymous design landmark is definitely a must-see while in São Paulo.
Next stop? A dining adventure at Ícone GastroRock in the Vila Madalena neighborhood of São Paulo. Two tips for a visit to Ícone GastroRock: make reservations and come open-minded. With a tasting menu that changes weekly, you’ll want to book your seat at the table well in advance where you can watch the mastery of Chefs Roberto Satoru and Alexandre Ortigoso up close.
The brainchild of Chef Roberto and Chef Alexandre, Ícone GastroRock’s menu fuses the ever-present Japanese influence into artfully prepared plates – all ready for that perfect Instagram shot! Roberto was a gastronomy pioneer here in São Paulo, opening one of the first temakerias and launching a food trend across the city, while Alexandre brings his own gastronomy chops with a strong background in all things ale and spirits.
I’m glad that I came hungry! My first dish was a colorful array of vegetables placed atop a hummus made with red lentils, but it soon disappeared and was promptly followed by the most sumptuous seared scallop set atop a bed of seaweed salad – OMG! Next on the list – a beautiful arranged tuna tartare with Asian pear, quail egg, and a delicate ponzu sauce. My favorite(and not pictured because I gobbled it down!) was a braised lamb paired with the most divine burrata I have ever tasted. I forgot how strong the Italian influence was in Brazilian cuisine until I tasted this dish – perfection!
Back in the comforts of Hotel Unique, I marveled at the contemporary design by João Armentano and sunk into one of the chairs off the lobby’s extensive library, adjacent to their secret indoor pool. Intrigued by the vast collection, I was debating whether to stay here and get lost in a book, or head up to the rooftop marvel that is Skye Restaurant & Bar.
“I can read on the plane”, I thought, and with that I headed up to the panoramic views of São Paulo that awaited at the top of Hotel Unique. After my bartender tested my Portuguese, he crafted a cocktail that was the perfect accompaniment to this sweeping view. Quickly perusing the menu, I decided to have lunch here the following day so that I could enjoy the creations of award-winning Chef Emmanuel Bassoleil, consistently ranked among the world’s best. Sipping on my drink, I was already looking forward to my next stay at one of the world’s best hotels, right here in São Paulo.
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