The megacity of São Paulo, Brazil has over 20 million residents, making it the largest in the Western Hemisphere. No matter where I was in the city, I felt surrounded by tall white buildings in every direction. São Paulo gets the tag of being a concrete jungle and that is not too harsh. It’s not the most visually appealing city, barring a few pockets of historic buildings in the city center. Nor does it have the chaotic feel that you’ll find in other large South American cities.
What you will find in São Paulo are fascinating museums, art galleries, and a fantastic international food scene. Due to large waves of immigrants arriving in the city, there are incredible Japanese and Italian restaurants. As is the case in any Brazilian city, the best way to end a night in São Paulo is with a caipirinha at a samba bar.
Is São Paulo Safe?
Statistically, São Paulo is fairly safe and a typical tourist is unlikely to venture off to the more dangerous neighborhoods on the outskirts. The city center has many drug addicts on the streets and seeing drug use is not uncommon. In my experience, a vast majority were in their own world and not bothering those passing by.
As long as you take standard big city precautions, you’ll be fine. Jardim Paulista and Vila Madalena are two of the best neighborhoods to stay in. Both are very clean and safe to walk around during reasonable hours of the night.
How to Get Around
Walking will only get you so far in São Paulo, so you’ll need to use the metro or Uber. The metro is very reliable and on weekdays you’ll wait no more than 2 minutes for a train. From the airport, you can take an Uber (45-60 minutes) or the metro (75 minutes) for 5 reals (R$) to reach the city.
What to Do
Liberdade Weekend Market – São Paulo has a staggering 1.5 million residents of Japanese descent, the most of any city outside of Japan. The Bairro Japonés holds a market every weekend with Japanese arts and crafts and delicious street food.
Museu do Futebol – If you’re not into reading at museums this one’s for you. One floor is full of videos about the best football players and greatest goals in Brazil’s history. The other has highlights from all the World Cups along with historical events that happened during these years.
It’s a fun place to spend 1-2 hours, and they also have a shop with a great collection of retro shirts. The entrance is R$20 and it’s free on Tuesdays.
History Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil – A fascinating museum explaining why so many Japanese immigrated to Brazil, their living conditions, and their treatment during World War II. The entrance is R$16 and it’s only open in the afternoon.
Go to a football match – Brazil is famous for its beautiful style of football and São Paulo has some of the country’s most successful teams. Rain or shine, you’re in for 90 minutes of shirtless Paulistas singing and cursing. For the average match you’ll be able to buy a ticket at the stadium ticket office before kickoff. But for important matches, you may have to buy from a street seller at a markup.
Pinacoteca de São Paulo – A museum displaying modern art, 19th-century landscapes of Brazil, and sculptures. Plus, the architecture of the building is very impressive in its own right. The entrance is R$20 and it’s free on Saturdays.
Immigration Museum of the State of São Paulo – The former processing center for immigrants arriving in São Paulo is now a museum detailing where the immigrants came from and their first experiences in Brazil. The best part for me was the room full of pictures showing immigrant-owned business and places where immigrants still gather to celebrate their heritage, like the Croatian billiards hall. The entrance is R$10 and it’s free on Saturdays.
Mercado Municipal – The two large markets of São Paulo are rather upscale compared to others you’ll find in South America and they don’t have a local feel. The reason to visit is for the famous mortadella sandwiches. Bar do Mané is a popular option. If you’re offered to sample fruit by one of the vendors, ask the price first because it’s not free. I saw 1 kilo of fruit selling for R$160 which is the price of a nice dinner for two in São Paulo.
Free Walking Tour – A great way to learn the history of São Paulo and familiarize yourself with the city center. SP Walking Tours gives a good walking tour and they also offer food tours.
Itau Cultural Center – If you’re strolling down the famous Avenida Paulista, Itau is a nice place to get a break from the heat. There are a few exhibits on the history of European explorers arriving in Brazil and the colonial era. The exhibits have signs in English and the entrance is free.
São Paulo Cathedral – A gothic church in the city center with tours of the crypt available for R$10. Be careful in this area because the adjoining plaza attracts some shady characters.
Monastery of St. Benedict – This church has a beautiful interior and it’s the only church I’ve seen with a bakery inside.
Ibirapuera Park – A well-maintained park that provides a nice break from the endless concrete of São Paulo.
Where to Eat
Bolinha Restaurante – Feijoada is the national dish of Brazil and it’s typically served on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Bolinha is one of the best in São Paulo, and they serve it everyday for R$175 per person.
Another option is the row of restaurants alongside Praça Dom José Gaspar, known as the feijoada corner. You can get a plate for R$25 on Wednesdays and Saturdays for lunch.
Balaio IMS – It’s a bit on the pricier side, but this was the best Brazilian food I had in São Paulo.
São Cristóvão Bar e Restaurante – A great spot for a drink and quick bites in Vila Madalena.
Bacio di Latte – Their gelato is outstanding and you’ll find their shops seemingly everywhere in the city.
Where to Stay
Vila Madalena is where you’ll find most of São Paulo’s hostels. It’s a lively neighborhood full of bars that fill up with both Paulistas and foreigners alike.
Ô do Casa – A party hostel with a lively atmosphere and a staff that is welcoming and knowledgeable about the city. It’s a lot cleaner than nearly any other party hostel I’ve stayed in. Plus, you can still get a good night’s sleep here because the bar closes at 11 pm and the party continues elsewhere.
Madá Hostel – If you’re looking for a more relaxed atmosphere in Vila Madalena, this is a good option. It’s tucked away on a private road and it’s just a short walk from the bars.
How Long to Stay
3-4 days is a good amount of time in São Paulo before heading elsewhere in Brazil. The weekend is the best time to experience São Paulo because you can visit the Liberdade market, have a night out, and head to a football match.
Where to Next
Bookaway is a great resource that allows you to compare the prices of both buses and flights, and secure your seat in advance!
Paraty (6 hours by bus) – A seaside colonial town with island hopping tours, waterfalls, and Brazil’s only fjord.
Rio de Janeiro (7 hours) – One of the world’s most iconic cities known for its magnificent beaches, viewpoints, and samba parties.
Tiradentes (10 hours) – A beautiful colonial town known for its fabulous restaurants.
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