Sao Paulo, State of Sao Paulo Travel Guide
Sao Paulo Summary
- One of the largest cities on earth and the financial hub of Latin America
- The most culturally diverse city in Brazil (and one of the world's most cosmopolitan)
- Excellent foodie scene, with options from casual cafeterias to fine dining
- The city's every-growing metro system is safe, clean, and efficient
- Iconic Modernist architecture includes the famous Copan building
- Exploding gallery scene in neighborhoods like Vila Madalena and Pinheiros
- Amazing museums hold vast collections of Latin American and international art
- Visible LGBT community plus the world's biggest Pride parade
- Nightlife is legendary and includes mega-clubs, street parties, and in-the-know spots
- Incredible indie and local music scene in addition to big-ticket entertainment
- English is more widely spoken than other Brazilian cities
- One of the safest major cities in Brazil
- Exceptionally mild winters and springs
- Poor planning and explosive growth has led to horrific traffic conditions
- Like Rio and other major Brazilian cities, income inequality is severe and visible
- Weather can sometimes change on a dime
- Street crime is an issue in some parts of town, like the Centro
What It's Like
Tell anyone you're going to Brazil and it's a fair few person that will suggest you spend much time in Sao Paulo. How wrong they are. To be clear: Sao Paulo is large. In fact, not only is it large, it's the largest city in the Americas, and one of the world's biggest as well. All of that growth is relatively new, too, as Brazilians from the nation's north and east flooded in as the city's industries took root in the middle of the 20th century. Plenty of immigrants came here too, with huge waves of migration from Japan and the Middle East. And while the seemingly unplanned urban sprawl here is almost without parallel -- and a veritable forest of high-rises covers almost every inch of land -- this hyper-city is one of the world's most cosmopolitan, diverse, and energetic places.
That being said, this is a city of neighborhoods, meaning that there's not one central zone that's packed quote-unquote must-see spots. To that end, Sao Paulo is a place where it helps to be in the know -- the city's best cultural offerings, foodie joints, bars, and clubs all take a little digging to discover. The most famous parts of town, as far as tourists are concerned, are the neighborhoods that are most central. These include the upmarket zip codes like Itaim Bibi, busy Baixo Augusta, heavily Japanese Liberdade, and the Centro, as well as trendy districts like Vila Madalena, Jardins, and Pinheiros (which are conveniently right next to each other). The city's metro is handy for getting near what you want to see -- it's also efficient, cheap, clean, and safe -- but for a city this size it's still not quite as extensive as is needed. To that end, taxis and ride-hailing apps will be your friend (just be prepared for epic traffic jams at peak times).
Avenida Paulista is the city's most important artery, and its sidewalks are packed with pedestrians of all ages day and night (as well as lots of street food vendors). On Sundays, the avenue is closed to traffic, as families, couples, and friends zip from one end to the other on bikes, stroll in and out of the shops, sip drinks at the pavement cafes, peruse indie vendors, or even partake in dance parties led by drag queens. Streets in either direction lead to all manner of shopping and dining. To the south of Avenida Paulista, you'll find the luxury designer boutiques of Jardim Paulista. To the north, Consolacao has a more bohemian vibe, with indie markets, open-air food stalls, and the main drag of the city's gay bars along Rua Frei Caneca.
The cultural scene runs deep in Sao Paulo, and includes amazing museums, like Pinacoteca, that are scattered throughout the city. Along Avenida Paulista, the Sao Paulo Museum of Art is a must-visit, as is the far smaller Itau Cultural. Elsewhere, you'll find the the Afro-Brazilian Museum and the Sao Paulo Museum of Modern Art in gorgeous Ibirapuera Park (itself worth an afternoon stroll). The Museum of Contemporary Art is to the southeast of the park and is also worth a visit, particularly for its focus on Latin American work. There are independent galleries in Vila Madalena and throughout neighborhoods like Pinheiros and the Centro as well. It's definitely worth stopping into Choque Cultural in Vila Madalena to check out its street-art inspired offerings. The space serves as a community resource center and sells artwork in all price ranges. Of course, nearby you'll find Beco do Batman, the curated street-art mecca where -- if you're lucky -- you may spot a funk video being filmed alongside the vivid murals.
But it's really the confluence of the city's huge sprawl, its often striking architecture, and its people that make Sao Paulo a one-in-a-million destination. Aside from all of the shopping, art, and food that's on offer during the daylight hours, it's after dark that this city really blazes brightest. You'll find masses up people gathering at the traditional open-air cafes under Oscar Niemeyer's famous Copan Building, or fancy locals and tourists sipping cocktails alongside the stunning skyline views from the Italia Building. On the other end of the spectrum, you might cross paths with a full-blown funk throwdown in one of the almost-derelict plazas of the Centro. Then there are the parties: gay or straight or both. These start late and are held everywhere from posh clubs to verge-of-collapse apartment blocks. Lines are definitely not to be underestimated in this massive city, so do yourself a favor and show up early or find a way to get on a list (Facebook is a good place to start).
While Brazil's fortunes on the whole are anything but predictable, Sao Paulo remains a relatively stable place. Crime here, when compared to the other major cities of Brazil, is low, and stacks up similarly to many major cities in the United States. However, you'll still need to exercise some street smarts and do some research before you simply wander your way through Sao Paulo's endless patchwork of neighborhoods.
Where to Stay
Hotels sometimes seem to be cast across Sao Paulo without previous thought -- though that haphazard approach to urban planning accurately sums up this metropolis as a whole. You're just as likely to find hotel near Avenida Paulista as you are in posh Itaim Bibi neighborhood and the scruffy Centro. Just keep in mind that if you aren't near the metro, you'll be relying exclusively on taxis and app-hailed cars to get around. These generally aren't expensive, but traffic is a beast in Sao Paulo. It's also worth noting that this is a city of hills, and in some neighborhoods walking will mean steep climbs home (we're looking at you, Vila Madalena).
With that in mind, if you're here as a tourist, situate yourself in one of the more central neighborhoods. If you fancy yourself on the artsy side of things, Vila Madalena should be your go-to spot. This hilly district is packed with galleries, boutiques, cafes, bars, and restaurants. To its southeast, Pinheiros is essentially on par when it comes bohemian vibes, though it has a bit more urban buzz. Beyond that, Jardins is has a similarly young-and-cool atmosphere. Check out the Hotel Fasano Sao Paulo in that neighborhood for a high-end, style-savvy option.
Travelers wanting to be near the big businesses, malls, and museums that line Avenida Paulista have lots of options, though the well-heeled will want to find their digs in Jardim Paulista. Hotel Unique, between Jardim Paulista and Itaim Bibi is a great luxury option. On the other side of the avenue, Bela Vista and Consolacao are a slightly less uptight option, though Consolacao has pockets that can be a little rougher at night (and you'll be dealing with noise from bars and open-air markets).