To call São Paulo sprawling would be an understatement. With 20 million people living in the greater metropolitan area, making it the most populous city in the Southern Hemisphere, it can be more than a little daunting at first glance. Scratch beneath the surface of this urban jungle, though, and you’ll find that São Paulo is made up of a patchwork of different nationalities – it has the largest community of people of Japanese descent outside Japan, as well sizable Arab, Greek, Polish and Korean communities – each adding its own distinct flavour to this Brazilian melting pot. With a little bit of exploring – it helps to befriend a local if you can – you’ll uncover a wonderful world of art house cinemas, a thriving cultural scene and some of the best gastronomical delights that South America has to offer, all wrapped up into a bustling cosmopolitan package.
Getting around this monster of a city is relatively straightforward, thanks to an easy-to-navigate subway system; just make sure you keep an umbrella in your bag at all times, as São Paulo is prone to the odd shower, particularly in the afternoons.
History and culture vultures will feel right at home in São Paulo. While it is difficult to whittle down the sights to one particular favourite, a historical city tour comes highly recommended. The Igreja de São Francisco de Assis is a fine example of Portuguese baroque, built in the 17th and 18th centuries; Estação Júlio Prestes is a historic train station that doubles up as a cultural arts centre with its own performance space, the 1500-seater Sala São Paulo, while the Museu de Arte Sacra houses an eclectic mix of collections from the 17th century onwards, set in the 18th century Luz Monastery.
As the unofficial home of football, it is fair to say that Brazilians have a fiery passion for the beautiful game. I was lucky enough to be there during last year’s World Cup, when the atmosphere was truly buzzing, but the local derbies between the city’s three main teams (Corinthians, Palmeiras and São Paulo FC) are well worth a watch. Not only do you get to see some of the most flamboyant football being played today; the dancing, chanting crowd is like a spectacle unto itself. For the night owls, a trip to Vila Madalena is a must. This funky bohemian neighbourhood is full of small, dimly-lit bars and clubs, where the celebrations often spill out onto the streets, shutting local traffic down as revellers dance the night away to a driving samba rhythm. If you’re looking to sample a bit of everything São Paulo has to offer, hiring a bike is a great option. There are dedicated bike lanes with five different circuits that take in some of the most popular tourist spots, including Paulista Avenue, the main artery of the city; Estação da Luz, the historic train station and the Japanese neighbourhood of Liberdade.
During my trip, I was genuinely surprised at how few people spoke English, so would wholeheartedly recommend learning a few basic phrases in Portuguese before you arrive. The extra effort will be appreciated and can lead to some spontaneous friendships with knowledgeable locals. Pollution, overcrowding and a vast rift between rich and poor are among the city’s other drawbacks.
Oscar Freire is the most fashionable street in the city and home to many of the world’s leading brands. If you’re a dedicated follower of fashion, be prepared to empty your wallet as you get kitted out with clothes, shoes, accessories and luxury items that reflect the latest trends. If you after something a little more rustic and less material, head over to Praça Benedito Calixto’s Saturday market where you can rifle through second hand stores, listen to live music and taste some typical regional dishes.
São Paulo was once voted the 25th-most expensive city on the planet, but thankfully this doesn’t always apply to the hotels and hostels if you shop around. Budget accommodation can be picked up for around RO10 per night, while RO30 will normally get you a decent amount of luxury. The west side of the city is probably the most vibrant, with accommodation options ranging from the upmarket Grand Hyatt and Hotel Unique right down to the Vila Madalena Hostel.