This article are my travel tips and must-do things to do in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Depending on whom you listen to, or where you are reading, Sao Paulo is either the 3rd biggest city on the world, or the 5th based on population. No matter which it is the mere fact that it is right up there near the top was a huge surprise to me. And perhaps it is to you as well. For unlike the others in the top like New York and Tokyo it does not seem to get the sort of publicity that those cities do. This, as I will discuss later, may be due to the fact that Sao Paulo is not really on the global tourists circuit.
I have never thought of Sao Paulo as one of the “mega-cities”, but found that with at least 11 million people in its metropolitan area it is the biggest city in the Southern Hemisphere.
It is, of course, well known for the terrible traffic jams and now knowing that it is one of the biggest cities in the world helps to explain that to me a bit more! The traffic can be quite terrible. It can mean that a simple 8 block journey can take up to an hour and a half as it did for us on this trip one evening in bus going to dinner.
However, in the interim, I had been talking to colleagues from the city who had such a passion that I decided on my next visit I really needed to make more of an effort to see the city that they were all so excited about with new eyes.
Sao Paulo seems to be very much a night time city and is proud of its exciting and varied evening fare. There are at least 12000 restaurants offering over 52 different types of cuisine from all over the world. Part of the reason for this huge diversity is because the size and scale of the city but actually more fundamentally the difference reflects the make-up and history of this buzzing city.
The various waves of development that created Sao Paulo meant that it saw influxes of many different cultures from all corners of the globe. While Brazil’s main language is Portuguese reflecting the most dominant country in developing Brazil, there are actually more people of Italian descent (5 million) than of Portuguese descent (3 million). The city also unexpectedly has the largest number of Japanese outside of Japan, some 1 million people!
The diversity of population really harks back to the late 19th Century when piles upon piles of immigrants arrived from Italy and Japan largely to work on the huge coffee plantations. Once the coffee industry more or less plummeted in the early 20th century people switched to commerce. Today as a result, Sao Paulo is one of the most important financial centres in Latin America and the world. Another fact showing the diversity is that it is the home for more German companies outside of Germany than any other city in the world!
It has also become an important part of the world circuit for not only the Formula 1 Grand Prix but now also the Sao Paulo fashion Week is among the most important in the world for emerging fashions.
The latter fact is not a surprise to me as without a doubt Brazil is really a place to see beautiful and stylish people. I am not sure if the glorious weather all year round is the cause so people are always wearing skimpy summer clothes and so make sure they are well toned and trim as their bodies are always on display, or if it partly genetic. You do see very attractive, toned and the beautiful set all around you in Sao Paulo. Designer fashion labels are, though, is surprisingly expensive and I found that clothes were incredibly costly – I guess due to import duties and exchange rates as well possibly. This is defiantly not a city to stock up on hot new fashions as a traveller!
This is also a city of extremes. Sao Paulo is so affluent that it contains so many heliports and use of helicopters that is ranked among the top 3 cities in the world for this, but it also has a great deal of poverty and a seedier side to it. For example, when you enter the country, and also when you check in to your hotel, there are posters and leaflets about the problems of child sex tourism which the state is trying to tackle.
You also notice as you drive around the residential areas that all apartment blocks and homes have high fences, electric gates and windows are covered with bars. Personal security is an issue in the city. Many of the residential streets also have small security booths where privately hired security guards can sit in and keep watch on the streets.
So with these extremes in mind, what are my tips for travellers to Sao Paulo?
Here are my tips for travellers visiting Sao Paulo in Brazil:
(1) BEST TIME TO VISIT
Sao Paulo has glorious weather, although by Brazilian standards locals would say it is actually a bit cool and gets too much rain! But in reality any time of the year is fine, as the temperature hardly varies across the year and averages between about 21 degrees Celsius in mid winter (July) and up to 28 degrees Celsius in January/ February.
The wettest time of the year is mid-summer which is from November to February. I have visited now in both July (winter) and February (summer) and both were great. Summer is the best time to visit if you can though as most of the festivals take place, and of course Carnival takes place in February. This is quite something though not as famous or as flamboyant as the renowned one in Rio but is great. Prices of hotels do rocket at that time though.
(2) GETTING THERE
Many of the major European and US airlines fly direct to Sao Paulo with regular schedules. In recent years frequency has increased a lot, for example British Airways used to fly there about 3 or 4 times a week and now flies there at least once a day. One limiting factor though seems to be the Brazilian Air Traffic Control who seems to be fairly inflexible and subject to disputes and delays. There are restrictions about how many aircraft can be in Brazilian air space at any one time and this can generate delays.
Getting in and out of Sao Paulo through the main international airport (Guarulhos) can be very long winded and unpleasant. The airport is old fashioned, dated and cannot really cope with the some 33 million passengers that pass through it each year.
It usually takes a good while to get through the rather unwelcoming and abrupt Immigration. Then is then difficult to retrieve your cases as there are so many people bustling around the luggage belts crammed in to the space and then you shuffle through a very slow customs line.
As the USA imposed a visa requirement onto Brazilian visitors after 9/11, they responded by requiring all US passport holders to have a visa.
It such a frustratingly slow process to get through the airport largely it seems to me that they are just not geared up for the volume and don’t seem to be tackling the issue by streamlining it. Getting out is also quite slow and the facilities are not very extensive.
The airport is about 20 miles from the city but that can take anything from 30 minutes on a Sunday morning to a few hours to get there in rush hour – meaning that you need to build in a lot of time to get there. And also have to accept that if you have many hours to kill at the airport that you will not find a lot there to keep you occupied!
The public transport networks of rail, buses and metro are not all that great, though the guidebooks claim that the metro system is good but I did not try that out so you will have to take their word and give it a go. I suspect though that if the public transport system was reliable so many people would not be out in cars and taxis shuffling through the city but zooming around on the metro or trains!
Anyone who knows, my usual tips will include a “do the standard open top bus tour” around the city to familiarize yourself with the place and the history. However, I was unable to find a regular multi-stop scheduled bus trip that runs continuously like most major tourist cities have.
I had searched online before going and found a company that offered tours of the city for half a day (which seemed to be all they felt was needed to get to “do” the city!), but they did not have a regular schedule and it was “on demand” and so I thought I would find one via the hotel concierge. Interestingly they were unable to offer any and suggested an ad-hoc guided tour as the best and again confirmed that a 3 or 4 hour tour (even with traffic) was going to be all that was needed to see things. If there are 3 or more of you this is also the most cost effective option.
(4) CITY VIEWS
It seems that one of the most popular and most recommended to me sight seeing attractions (even the official Sao Paulo city site has this as one of the top things to do) is to go and look at a view of the city, especially at night.
I am not sure if this is because there is not a lot of tourist fare on the city as it is really more of a commercial centre, but it was a very consistent recommendation.
Probably the best place to go and see the city is from the “hotel Unique”. This is a very funky and trendy hotel that was designed by Philippe Stark and looks a bit like a “Noah’s Ark” from the outside shape-wise. Although it is not that many stories high based on its location, the views from the bar at the top are supposed to be among the best in the city. It is also one of the hot places to be seen and to see people and is busy any night of the week.
There are also a number of other places to see the views like the Edificio Italia (skyscraper with observation deck open to the public) and the Banespa Building (which also has an observation deck) – but the Hotel Unique is the best.
(5) IBIRAPUERA PARK
This is a really lovely park, and although it is actually only the 3rd biggest in the city (Parque do Carmo is the biggest), it is the one most worth a visit – especially on the weekend when it is like a magnet for locals eager to get out into the open spaces to enjoy the sun.
This huge park, which is near to some of the large hotels like Sofitel and Ramada, has a number of museums like the Oca and also the Ibirapuera Auditorium designed by the famous designer Oscar Niemeyer. It also has a Planeterium, bike riding circuit and nearby is the lovely monument called Bandeiranies. There is even a Japanese garden in the park.
The best museum to visit if you want to immerse yourself into the history and culture is the Museum Paulista. This museum was built in honour of the creation and development of Brazil and so provides a fascinating spectrum of exhibits on Brazil and the city. I did not allow myself much time and to really appreciate what the museum has to offer make sure you give enough time to explore it.
(7) FOOTBALL (SOCCER)
Brazil is soccer and you cannot really visit and experience Sao Paulo and Brazil without somehow ensuring you get exposed to soccer, ideally attending a game. If in doubt about how important soccer is to a Brazilian all you have to do is mention soccer to your taxi driver or anyone you meet and they will engage happily in lots of chat on the topic. They are not only passionate about their teams, but also about most of the major European clubs as well (where a number of Brazilians play). The main club in Sao Paulo is (unsurprisingly) called Sao Paulo Football Club. But there are around 6 main clubs all around the city with histories all stretching back to around 1910.
(8) GO ALL AROUND THE WORLD
With the huge diversity of population, the city is very rich in different cultures. You can, therefore, see and experience these by visiting the suburbs and areas where each tends to be concentrated. This may be a more interesting tour or addition to any driving tour you book. Some of the most popular areas to visit include Bela Vista (an Italian neighbourhood), Liberdale (Japanese) and areas like 25 De Marco (Arab).
I mentioned earlier how fashion and the like can be very expensive, but despite that shopping is big in Sao Paulo and there are at least 42 huge malls around the city and many are worth visiting even just to admire the design and style of the people strolling through them – limiting yourself to sit at the many coffee or coffee and chocolate cafes.
(10) DAY TRIPS TO THE BEACH OR EVEN TO RIO
Sao Paulo is just 70km from the coast and there is a modern highway system to the port city of Santos or the beach resort of Guaruja. But if you really want a day at the beach or for some exciting sight seeing it is possible to book day trips to Rio and see the famous Mountain, Statute and enjoy the beach and be back in the evening. These trips can be fairly expensive but of you are in Sao Paulo for business it seems a pity not to escape quickly and at least get a feel for the exciting nearby Rio.
(11) HOTELS TO STAY IN
Here are the hotel reviews of where I have stayed while visiting Brazil:
- Grand Hyatt Sao Paulo: a great hotel, but not that central – more for business visitors.
- Sofitel Sao Paulo: another great hotel, and more accessible so better for tourists