Reportagem New York Times “In Rio and São Paulo, Go North”

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It is a startlingly pleasant anomaly in the normally intimidating 11-million-person megacity of São Paulo. On a quaint square across from a tiny 112-year-old church, a bar called Frangó ( offers worn wooden tables in cozy nooks, an astonishing 500-label beer list and a celebrated version of the popular Brazilian chicken croquettes called coxinhas.

Seth Kugel for The New York Times

Clockwise from top left: in São Paulo, looking across trees to the skyline from Serra da Cantareira Park; “Workers’ Samba” at Renascença Clube in Rio de Janeiro; a scene on Ilha de Paquetá in Rio; and the “tapioca dice” at Mocotó in São Paulo.

Yet when my pal Oliver texted a friend to join us, the response was curt and dismissive: “I generally don’t frequent those parts of the city.”

“Those parts” means the Zona Norte, or North Zone, roughly the regions of São Paulo north of the filthy Tietê River generally ignored by tourists and wealthier residents who haunt restaurants and bars in the tonier south and west. But, in my opinion, the distaste is mainly an issue of misperception: the north, “southerners” feel, is not interesting enough (untrue), too far (easy enough to get to by a combination of subway and bus or short cab ride), too dangerous (not if you take basic precautions, and southern zones are far from immune).

There’s a parallel geography at work in Brazil’s second biggest city, Rio de Janeiro, where the Zona Norte is largely ignored in favor of Zona Sul, home to the Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods, with their famous beaches and luxurious hotels. (Once-downtrodden downtowns in both cities are also being revived, drawing more tourists.)

Yet in my traveling calculus, any place with millions of residents must have something worth doing. What’s more, in two cities, where the prices in more upscale neighborhoods typically leave visitors shellshocked, options are more affordable. So on a recent trip through Brazil, I set out to the north — and found plenty of good food, cultural charm, great views and, yes, even beaches.

Rio de Janeiro

Denizens of Rio’s Zona Sul cannot entirely ignore the north: they’d never attend a soccer game at Maracanã, the stadium that will host the 2014 World Cup final next year, or watch the city’s samba schools put on their exuberant parades in the Sambadrome.

But the Zona Norte has much more to offer. Those same samba schools hold weekly “rehearsals” — festive dance parties featuring the schools’ bands — and many of the most famous, like Mangueira, are in poor neighborhoods in the north. Even more elaborate fun can be found on a 24-hour clock on weekends at the arena-sized São Cristóvão fair (, with foods and live music from Brazil’s distinct northeastern region.

Even on a Monday, when I arrived in town, the parties don’t stop. I waited in line at the Renascença Clube (, a traditionally black social club, for its weekly “Workers’ Samba,” which began as an informal gathering of musicians on their day off. The group still sits around a table, playing guitars, singing, drumming out the beat on tamborims and surdos, surrounded by hundreds of Brazilians who pay a bargain 10 reais (about $4.60, at 2.18 reais to the dollar) to crowd into a sprawling outdoor space.

There is plenty of dancing, but the crowd seems happy to spend the time talking, singing, drinking and eating (the fare tends toward heavy but affordable heaping plates of classics like linguiça sausage covered in onions, 15 reais). I found the crowd friendly and diverse (I met both street cleaners and a professor of geography).

Beaches in the north could not be more different from Ipanema. Before visiting the club, I had spent most of the day on the Ilha de Paquetá, an island in Guanabara Bay easily accessible by a 45-minute, 4.50-reais ferry from downtown. (Although Paquetá is officially administered by the downtown Zona Central, it is actually the northernmost point in the city.)

And while Ipanema’s streets are lined with fancy high-rises, boutiques and restaurants, Paqueta’s dirt roads, which are car-free (horse-drawn carriages cart visitors around town), feature 19th-century homes, stores that rent banged-up bicycles (5 reais an hour) and diners that offer up simple pleasures like fried fish or grilled ham and cheese.

The crowds, too, are different. On the ferry to Paquetá, I sat in front of a nun who worked as a nurse at a hospital recently visited by the pope (“I kissed him twice,” she told me excitedly). I later spotted her on the beach; nuns are not frequently spotted amid the toned bodies of Ipanema. Neither are battered swan boats, rentable for 20 reais per half-hour. The backdrop, however — mountains in the distance, mesmerizing rock formations just offshore — is the same.

São Paulo

This vast, sprawling city is a sea of high-rises that can seem never-ending. But on clear days, a mountain range called the Serra da Cantareira appears far to the north. It is one of the scattered remaining parts of the Atlantic Forest, the partly tropical biome that once covered vast swaths of coastal Brazil. And part of it is within the Zona Norte.

The primary attraction (9 reais to enter) is the area around Pedra Grande, or Big Rock. At its namesake attraction, a two-mile hike up a rutted road from the entrance, you hop up onto the expansive sloping surface to take in the view. The forest spreads out below and then, suddenly, breaks into a mind-boggling infinity of urban towers that stretches almost to the horizon. Or take one of the narrower trails closer to the Pedra Grande entrance and the city disappears entirely, leaving you amid great fig trees draped with vines and monkeys calling from above.

More civilized is Mocotó (, a top-rated São Paulo restaurant that is rare for both its affordability and its ability to attract southerners to the North Zone. Rodrigo Oliveira, the chef who took over his father’s traditional neighborhood restaurant and updated it to great acclaim, now tours the world. But despite endless offers from investors, he stubbornly refuses to leave Vila Medeiros, the working-class Zona Norte neighborhood where he grew up. And so the moneyed class comes to him, as a sort of a daring urban adventure.

Prices have gone up a bit as buzz has grown, but skip the most expensive dishes (though not the caipirinha cocktail of the day, 12.90 reais) and a meal can be had for about 50 reais. Mr. Oliveira’s version of escondidinho, shredded dried beef hidden under a layer of puréed manioc root au gratin, is flawless. And virtually no one skips the “tapioca dice,” cubes of tapioca with coalho cheese fried and served with sweet-sour chile sauce.

Earlier this year, Mr. Oliveira opened up Esquina Mocotó, a pricier, fancier restaurant next door. Would he ever consider expanding farther south? “Mocotó is 40 years old,” he said. “We just opened Esquina Mocotó next door. Maybe in another 40 years we’ll open one in the South Zone. Maybe.”