The best cities in South America
12th July 2021
Bem vindo a São Paulo!
Football mad, coffee fuelled and workaholic, São Paulo is a perennially gridlocked dynamo of a city. This high-rise, high energy metropolis can initially come across as an intimidating supersized urban sprawl, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a treasure trove of experiences that will win you over in no time. São Paulo is one of the most multicultural, multifaceted, vibrant cities in Latin America, with much more going for it than its less-than-stellar reputation suggests.
Not only is it Brazil’s largest metropolis with a population of more than 12 million (rising to 20 million if you include the suburban metropolitan area) but it is also the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s Brazil’s economic hub where two thirds of multinationals have set up shop, and it has been named an ‘alpha global city’ - meaning it is hugely important in terms of global economy and influence. It is mind-bendingly large, and the endless ranks of skyscrapers as far as the eye can see might seem a little daunting. However, on the ground ‘Sampa’ - as the locals have nicknamed it - is a city with a lot to offer, not least the low tourist numbers, which make you feel as if you alone have discovered this gem of a city hidden in plain sight.
Once you have delved into its historic centre, enjoyed its billboard free streets, visited a museum or two and sampled some of its famous restaurants you will be hooked. São Paulo is an easy city to love, with fabulous food, hedonistic nightlife, a dazzling arts scene and an impressive portfolio of cultural institutions such as theatres, galleries and museums. The real beauty of São Paulo is its cosmopolitan population who hail from all corners of the globe, bringing a lively mix of cultures with them and creating significant communities with exciting heritage - there are huge numbers of people of Italian, Japanese, Lebanese, Syrian and African origin in São Paulo.
São Paulo’s size inevitably means it has too many neighbourhoods to mention here, but sticking to the central zone of the city there are still a variety of areas which all have a different flavour, each with its unique attractions and recognisable style.
This is the historic sector of the city, where the streets are lined with grand 19th century buildings and the plazas and boulevards are flanked by impressive monuments, statues and churches. The Cathedral sits alongside the Praça da Sé, a wonderful public space with plenty of greenery and a lovely open feel right in the heart of the city.
This central area comes alive when the sun goes down, offering a tolerant and inclusive nightlife scene where anyone and everyone comes to party. Clubs, bars, cafes, restaurants and even the pavements are all venues for what is one of the most vibrant nightlife settings on the planet. São Paulo’s reputation for great nights out owes a lot to Baixo Augusta.
Just to the south of the historic centre of São Paulo you will find Liberdade, home to the largest Japanese diaspora outside Japan. Unsurprisingly it is also host to dozens of sushi restaurants, Asian supermarkets and many of the city’s Japanese residents. It’s always fun to dip a toe into a culture within a culture, and here is the perfect opportunity to experience something of Japan while in Brazil.
This is another São Paulo neighbourhood founded by past immigration. This area is the heart of the Italian influence in São Paulo, and though many of the descendants of the original incoming Italians who arrived 150 years ago are very much assimilated into the population, this neighbourhood is tribute to their roots, full of pizzerias and wine shops in keeping with traditional Italian style. The streets throng during August weekends when the whole of Bixiga celebrates the Our Lady Achiropita festival.
Funky and fun, Vila Madalena is a hub for the hip and trendy of São Paulo. If you are in search of cafes with a cool vibe, unusual little boutiques and cutting edge art galleries, this is your place. Wander the streets to get a sense of what makes this city so fashion forward, and stop for an outdoor coffee to indulge in a spot of people watching. Don’t miss the Beco do Batman, a street whose walls have been entirely dedicated to astonishing, impressive street art.
Bela Vista is home to the Avenida Paulista, often considered to be the beating heart of São Paulo. This is the point of the city where large scale events are held, such as New Years Eve. Enjoy a stroll along its buzzing length on the Sundays, when it is closed to traffic and Paulistanos come out to meet, chat, wander and shop. The famous Museu de Arte de São Paulo is located on the Avenida Paulista and is one of the city’s must see cultural highlights.
Brazil’s largest city is big on culture. There are galleries, museums and cultural centres dotted throughout the centre and the city’s street culture is also prominent. Many of the city’s most important museums and galleries are easily accessed by the metro system and are mostly clustered in the city centre. Avoid Mondays as your cultural sightseeing day as many of the most important attractions are closed for the day.
For football fans, a visit to the Museu do Futebol, part of the Pacaembu Stadium should be top if the list. Brazilians are generally massively excitable about football, and the museum demonstrates that with a brilliant range of exhibits documenting the story of football in Brazil and beyond.
Housed in a magnificent building with beautiful formal gardens, this museum (commonly known as 'Museu do Ipiranga' to locals) is filled to bursting with historic artwork, furniture and documents. If you want to learn about the history and culture of Brazil, then this is the place to go.
The flagship gallery and museum is situated on the Praça da Luz in an imposing historic building. The collection includes thousands of important pieces by several famous names in the art world of Brazil and beyond. There are usually temporary exhibitions on the lower floors and a permanent exhibition on the top floor.
The MASP is an exciting modern building standing on red concrete legs, leaving the space below free for pedestrians to use. It houses a huge and eclectic collection encompassing all kinds of media including textiles, statuary, paintings and photography. There’s a lot to see arranged in the airy, bright space designed by Lina Bo Bardi.
The Museum of Modern Art is another inspiring space in the heart of the city. It has been open since 1948, making it one of Latin America’s oldest modern art venues. Not only does it hold an eclectic mix of contemporary works but it also has a lovely sculpture garden.
Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil
Once an important bank, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) is housed in an elegant building right in the centre of the historic centre of São Paulo. It offers exhibition spaces, venues for workshops and classes, and hosts regular theatre and concerts.
One of the newest cultural hotspots in town, Japan House is an outpost of the Japanese state, intended to promote Japanese culture in all corners of the world. The contemporary design and intriguing roster of events is a fascinating glimpse into Japan’s heritage.
The ornate and elegant Beaux Arts design of the Municipal Theatre has stood the test of time, and is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the city. Following its 2011 refurbishment it has been returned to its original condition, and continues to be one of the foremost venues for opera and ballet in São Paulo.
Situated in the wonderful Ibirapuera park, the Museu Afro Brasil offers a glimpse into the history of the painful connection between Africa and Brazil - slavery - as well as demonstrating the significance of the African influence on Brazilian culture. The collection is eclectic, diverse and thought provoking.
Shopaholics are in good company in São Paulo - the Paulistanos love to shop. Everything from high end designer fashion to cheap trinkets and artisan handicrafts are available if you have the time to explore.
There are several large malls in the city. JK Iguatemi is Sampa’s newest and glitziest high end mall, a Mecca for luxury seekers and fashionistas.
For the quintessential classy shopping spree on a traditional shopping street, head for the suburb of Jardins, where chic Rua Oscar Freire is home to a string of designer fashion boutiques which are nearly as fun for window shoppers as they are for those who can afford to go in and splurge.
If markets are more your thing, make sure you visit São Paulo at the weekend when there is lots of choice of venues for open air browsing. Saturday is a good day for antiques and art enthusiasts, who should make haste to Benedito Calixto Square, where an antiquity fair makes for a lively start to the weekend. There are often musicians and street food vendors there too if you want to make a day of it.
If you are hankering for a shopping trip with a difference, try the Feira da Liberdade every Saturday and Sunday, a feast of Japanese culture and crafts as well as lots of Asian food stalls; or pop to the Canindé neighbourhood on a Sunday for the Feira Kantuta, a weekly celebration of all things Bolivian. Pick up textiles, food and a flavour of Bolivian culture.
São Paulo is renowned throughout Brazil as a fantastic place to dine. Paulistanos work hard and enjoy eating out in their lively city where quality food is the standard and social events often revolve around a good meal. Plenty of great restaurants dedicate themselves to showcasing the best of Brazilian cuisine, but it is the culinary diversity that makes São Paulo stand out. The mix of cultures and ethnicities really asserts itself in the food scene, so whether you are searching for Middle Eastern mezze or the freshest sushi, you’ll find it here.
Head for the Mercado Municipal to get a sense of Brazil’s abundant and exotic fresh produce. Spot dozens of fruits you have probably never come across before, as well as unknown herbs and lots of different cured meats. There are several types of bacalhau, a ubiquitous Brazilian salt cod, and nearly as many types of manioc and tapioca flours. Once you have finished browsing, pop upstairs to choose a lunch venue from the various options located on the mezzanine level above the market. There is a selection of local dishes on offer and a great view of the dazzling stained glass windows. Famous treats to try include the hearty mortadella sandwich, piled high with meat and a few choice accompaniments such as cheese and spicy peppers; and the pastel de bacalhau, a deep fried salt cod pasty.
There are a mind boggling number of restaurants in São Paulo, and wherever you find yourself there will be access to freshly cooked food, but the highest concentration of good places to eat in the city can be found in the Jardins - Pinheiros - Vila Madalena triangle, along with the Moema neighbourhood. Churrascarias are a favourite Brazilian culinary indulgence involving endless skewers of grilled meats and the odd bit of salad to make you feel better. The waiters will keep bringing meat until you can take no more, so arrive hungry. Another speciality is feijoada, a delicious beef stew with beans which has become a national institution. Traditionally this dish is only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so plan ahead if you want to try it.
This is Sao Paolo’s most important urban park, as significant to the city identity to Paulistanos as Central Park is to New Yorkers. Located in the district of Vila Mariana, Ibirapuera covers around 1.5 square kilometres of shaded gardens, paved jogging and cycling tracks and green space for relaxing. The park is a haven from the bustling streets and highways of the city, though it can get busy on sunny weekends. The three museums (the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Afro-Brazilian Museum and the Museum of Modern Art) located in and around the park make it an even bigger draw, allowing leisure and culture to collide.
Out to the south of the city, the São Paulo Botanical gardens cover 1.6 square kilometres and preserve a tract of Atlantic Forest, and has an attached museum, a specialist orchidarium, ornamental greenhouses and a waterlily pond, as well as various nature trails to guide you through the gardens.
The São Paulo Zoo is located just near to the Botanical Gardens. It to enjoys a forest location like it’s neighbouring garden, and hosts an impressive array of creatures from Brazil and further afield. It plays an important role in re-establishing endangered Brazilian species.
Although São Paulo does not enjoy direct beach access like Rio, it is near enough to the cost to make a day trip feasible. Around 70 kilometres from the city centre you’ll find Santos, where 6 kilometres of beach are backed by a strip of landscaped parkland, perfect for that oceanside stroll. Pitangueiras and Astúrias are another two popular weekend destinations for Paulistanos, so if you visit on a Saturday or Sunday, come prepared for a bustling beach scene.
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