As the undisputed art hub of South America, São Paulo is often compared with New York City. Thanks to some far-sighted curators and a new generation of collectors, Brazil's most populous city has spawned some remarkable galleries and around a dozen dynamic, well-endowed museums.

The city can also lay claim to the second oldest Biennale after Venice, an event that, in 1953, famously included Picasso's Guernica. The 30th Bienal de São Paulo kicks off in September; with Venezuelan Latin-American expert Luis Pérez-Oramas at the helm, it promises to be one of the best.

This year the highlights include the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosário, an 'outsider' artist who spent 50 years confined to psychiatric hospital in Rio. 'Bishop' assembled more than 800 pieces from anything he could lay his hands on. He sold nothing, giving away a few to his favorite nurse. Around 40 of his extraordinary works are on loan to London's Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the Cultural Olympiad. With or without the Bienal itself, the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, the sleek white Bienal building, is a must-see centerpiece on an extraordinary scale and constitutes one of three art spaces the 104-year-old architect Oscar Niemeyer designed in the city's sprawling Parque de Ibirapuera. The third floor houses MAC (Museu de Arte Contemporânea) and includes enviable examples of Picasso, Max Ernst, Léger and Kandinsky. The more contemporary works of the Brazilian constructivists and concretists are gradually being relocated from the campus of São Paulo University – which owns the collection – to the renovated 'Agriculture Pavilion', another classic Niemeyer creation on the other side of the flyover. Attached to the Bienal building is Niemeyer's Museum of Modern Art, a low-rise pavilion with a collection of Brazilian modernism that, frustratingly, is rarely on display. Still, MAM's cutting-edge shows trumpet the vitality in Brazilian contemporary art and it's only a short stroll from there to the red and white 'Auditorium', Niemeyer's curvilinear gem of a theater.

A number of the city's collections occupy buildings of seminal importance. Dominating central Paulista Avenue is Lina Bo Bardi's Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), whose 'brutalist' exterior of two stark concrete lateral beams belies an elegant and surprisingly rich collection of European Old Masters within. Both Bosch's Temptation of St Anthony and Mantegna's St Jeronimo share space with masterpieces by Ingres, Chardin and Degas. But MASP's pre-eminence has been its ability to attract sponsors for grand exhibitions of work never before seen in South America. October's huge Caravaggio show serves as an example.

Admirers of Bo Bardi's work should head for SESC in Pompéia. This converted complex of former metal packaging factories from the 1930s, dominated by an arresting central tower, is not only considered her masterpiece, but is now a stimulating center for a plethora of cultural and social activity including, intermittently, art exhibitions.

Even the oldest art museum in São Paulo, the Pinacoteca, has been made to update its image. Under the directorship of Marcelo Araújo, it has been stripped down to its bricks and rearranged around skylit courtyards. This is where you'll find the entire spectrum of Brazilian art, from the early colonial period to the great Brazilian modernists of the 1930s to 1960s such as José Antonio da Silva and Emiliano Di Cavalcanti.

The Instituto Tomie Ohtake, named after the nonagenarian Brazilian-Japanese painter Tomie Ohtake and beautifully designed by her son, Ruy, mounts large exhibitions, ranging from collective indigenous Brazilian work to Jasper Johns.

The Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano, in the fashionable Morumbi suburb, is also a must-see for Brazilian history buffs. In a 1950 house amidst pines and eucalyptuses, it's an eclectic mix of botanical documents, old maps, paintings and sculptures set around some spectacular 17th-century furniture. The Americanos' foundation is a private venture, as is the collection established by Itaú, Brazil's most powerful bank and current sponsor of the Bienal. In the heart of the Pompéia district, it includes examples of Tarsila do Amaral, the 'Brazilian Diego Rivera' whose leftist inclinations led her towards an appreciation of indigenous Brazilian culture.

Not all of São Paulo's private museums have fared as well. Edmar Ferreira, former Bienal president and entrepreneur behind the Brasil 500 show, fell foul of Dilma Rousseff's corruption-busting government. His vast collection is being distributed around the state museums – great for São Paulo, not so great for Ferreira's out-of-pocket former investors.

For contemporary Brazilian art, visit Vila Madalena and Pinheiros in zona norte, which has the best of São Paulo's 80 or so galleries. Raquel Arnaud Gallery on Rue Fidalga is perhaps the city's best and the place for top Brazilian artists such as sculptor Sergio Camargo and Silvia Mecozzi as well big South and Central American names. In contrast, Ateliê Fidalga, opened in 2000 by artists Sandra Cinto and Albano Afonso, nurtures up-and-coming artists, presenting their work to a wider public through discussion groups and lectures.

Robert Turnbull writes for Condé Nast Traveler and Wall Street Journal

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