Consider adding the ever-growing city of Sao Paulo to your Brazil vacation.
It’s the biggest city in the Americas, dwarfing New York, and even Mexico City by over 3 million people. It boasts one of the most innovative culinary scenes in South America. Its appetite for art, from old masters to underground street murals, is insatiable, and there are those who claim its nightlife to be the best anywhere in the world.
Heady praise. So why do so many Brazil tours skip Sao Paulo?
Part of it has to do with popular ideas about “Brazil” in general. To most North Americans, a Brazil vacation package means caipirinhas on Copacabana or Ipanema beach, samba dancing into the night, or a cruise into the Amazon rainforest. Those in the know might head to Iguassu Falls for an awesome encounter with nature, or to African-tinged Salvador for an authentic taste of old Brazil. Sao Paulo is not particularly known for any of these things. This unabashedly modern city has grown exponentially since the 1960s, embodying the modern Brazil and powering much of the country’s economy within its seemingly endless sprawl of grey, concrete high-rises. Located well outside its limits, the city’s beaches don’t hold a candle to Rio, Fortaleza, and Recife in the north, or to Florianopolis in the south, but Brazil tours may not be snubbing the country’s great urban behemoth much longer.
Culture vultures, foodies, and urban explorers who give Sao Paulo a chance might just come away with a new favourite city, and for those wanting a typical taste of today’s Brazil, there’s no better destination. Still, Sao Paulo’s size is undeniable. You can do the highlights in a day, but allow a good three days to really get a sense of what it’s all about. For the purposes of this article, I’ve divided the city into its most popular neighbourhoods to be visited on your Brazil vacation.
There’s no missing Paulista Avenue. Dividing historic Bela Vista and moneyed Jardim Paulista, this is the nerve centre for all that is modern Sao Paulo. It’s also a very safe neighbourhood, at least by Brazilian standards, dotted with shopping malls, theatres, restaurants, bars, and the looming Museum of Art of Sao Paulo, one of the biggest and best art museums in Latin America. Add in plentiful subway stops along the avenue, and you have one of the best areas for visitors to stay in Sao Paulo on their Brazil vacation. Sure, you’ll see a lot of chain stores and eateries, but you’re also in the middle of Sao Paulo’s thriving restaurant and bar scene, which is particularly apparent along Augusta Street. Dine at one of the innumerable restaurants here, or browse the food trucks of Calcadao Urbanoide, a pedestrian corridor of deliciousness from around the world, which runs between Augusta and Frei Caneca, one of two main hubs for Sao Paulo’s sizeable LGBT community. Fun fact? Paulista Avenue holds the world’s largest Pride parade, often luring two million people each year.
Luz Station and Surrounds
This area can be just a little confronting, particularly on the southern side of historic Luz Station. The Santa Ifigenia area to the south sees a tragically high number of homeless people. Still, Luz is safe to visit during the day if you keep your wits about you, and it contains some of Sao Paulo’s undisputed highlights. Start at Luz Station, historically the centre of Sao Paulo’s once thriving coffee trade. The building also houses the Museum of the Portuguese Language, which is worth a wander for culture vultures. Cross into Parque Jardim da Luz, a public park full of photogenic sculptures backing onto Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo. Free on Saturdays, this popular art museum can be covered in an hour or two, and showcases an extensive painting and sculpture collection alongside mind-bending contemporary guest exhibits.
In a city as big and sprawling as Sao Paulo, you’re going to want a burst of fresh air, and there’s no better place to get it than Parque Ibirapuera. Rent a bike to cover this massive green space quickly, or just stroll its many trails, ducking into some of Sao Paulo’s most engaging museums, including the Museu Afro Brasil, the Professor Aristoteles Orsini Planetarium, and the Museu de Arte Moderna de Sao Paulo. Don’t forget the Ibrapuera Auditorium, designed by legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer. If you’re approaching from Paulista Avenue, be sure to stop for photos at the Monument to the Bandeiras. On the surface, this gigantic monument honours the 17th Century settlers of Brazil, but look closer. You’ll see the artist, Victor Brecheret, snuck in several details throwing a harsh light on the mistreatment and exploitation of Brazil’s native peoples, and criticizing the country’s history of slavery. Finally, when planning your stay in Sao Paolo on your Brazil vacation, know that Parque Ibrapuera is huge, so give it at least half a day.
Pinheiros and Vila Madalena
If you’re looking for that world famous Sao Paulo nightlife, on your Brazil vacation, Pinheiros is the neighbourhood to find it. Once one of Sao Paulo’s poorer neighbourhoods, gentrification has well and truly taken hold. Chic bars and restaurants, small galleries, and clubs playing genuine Latin American music (as opposed to imports) dot the whole area, so ask a local contact or your hotel concierge for good leads. Just to the north, you’ll find more tasty bar and restaurant innovations in Vila Madelena. This is a part of Sao Paulo with a safe, neighbourhood feel that, provided you don’t mind hills, rewards aimless wandering. One sight you shouldn’t miss is Batman Alley. What it has to do with Batman, exactly, I’m not sure. But it does show off some of the most spectacular street art in Sao Paulo, or anywhere in the world.
Liberdade and Sé
Brazil is home to the world’s largest Japanese population outside Japan. The Liberdade neighbourhood is its cultural heart, particularly around Galvao Bueno Street, which stretches south from Liberdade station. The Liberdade Handicraft Fair is a great place to pick up a unique souvenir, but the neighbourhood itself is the main attraction, good for just aimless browsing, or lunch, or perhaps even getting your likeness drawn, Anime style. A short walk north on Liberdade Avenue will bring you to the looming Sao Paulo Cathedral. While the building only dates back to 1913, there has been a church here since 1591, when native inhabitants first founded a temple. Directly opposite, you’ll find the site where Sao Paulo itself was founded, marked with a small marble monument.
Centro and Republica
Centro (simply “downtown” in Portuguese) is another area that offers a slightly skewed view of Sao Paulo. Brazil’s social challenges are sadly quite evident here, and the area should be avoided at night. That is, unless you’re particularly interested in the nightlife of Vieira de Carvalho. During the day, there are definitely some sights you should see. Catch an eyeful of the magnificent Theatro Municipal, ideally from Praca Ramos de Azevedo, from which you can see the whole theatre at once, admiring its intricate architecture and trimmings. For a bird’s eye view of Sao Paulo, zip to the restaurant and bar at the top of Edificio Italia, sipping a cocktail and letting your jaw drop at the seeming endlessness of it all. If you’re feeling peckish, graze your way through the Mercado Municipal, and don’t forget to look up at the incredible stained-glass windows and architecture. Want to see a completely different side of Sao Paulo? For a taste of its alternative culture, stop in at Galeria do Rock, a shopping arcade packed with three levels of music stores, alternative fashion, pop culture collectables, tattoo artists, salons, and more. The mall attracts free-thinking, hard-rocking Paulistas of all ages and backgrounds, so the people watching alone can be worth it.
Health and Safety in Sao Paulo
If you believe the stereotypes, it’s tempting to think a big city in Brazil is automatically dangerous. Certainly, there are some extra precautions you should take while exploring on your Brazil vacation. The numbers however show a bright future for Sao Paulo. The crime rate has declined year on year since 2000, and was less than half the national average in 2011. Likewise, air quality has steadily increased during that time. Still, all the usual caveats for independent travel in Brazil apply. Keep bags strapped across your body, rather than simply carrying them on your shoulder, and keep them on your lap or safely between your feet while seated. Leave flashy jewelry or other “wealth signifiers” at home. You won’t need them and they will only get you the wrong sort of attention. Sao Paulo’s bus and subway system is extensive and safe, but after the subway stops around midnight, take cabs, or Uber, which is cheap and very reliable in Brazil. One other local trick that can seem odd at first to foreigners is eye contact. It is perfectly normal for Brazilians to make eye contact with strangers approaching them on the street. This isn’t a hostile gesture, but it is done mostly for safety reasons. It’s just considered part of being aware of your surroundings, so don’t be afraid to do it, and don’t be offended if it happens to you.