São Paulo, Brazil’s financial and political center, is one of the most populous cities in the world with a rich food culture to match its diverse population. Historic monuments, sprawling parks, and fascinating museums punctuate the city, but it’s been dubbed ‘ugly’ in the past and allegedly lacking in tourist appeal, so is São Paulo worth visiting?
Most visitors to Brazil will pass through São Paulo at some point on their intrepid adventures. With its huge international airport, the city is a popular entry point into the country, but it often remains just that for travelers with places like Rio de Janeiro and Iguazu Falls taking precedence. However, give the city a few days and you’ll soon learn that São Paulo is much more than a transport hub and concrete jungle.
From the energetic nightlife to the football culture, the green spaces to the eclectic architecture, there are plenty of reasons to visit São Paulo and our guide looks at just a few. Let’s get into it.
The Cosmopolitan Buzz
When it comes to your Brazil itinerary, and in particular, the sprawling cities, there’s a high chance that Rio will be higher up on your list than São Paulo, and we can’t blame you. With its dramatic setting, incredible scenery, heady nightlife, and bustling beaches, the appeal is undeniable. However, São Paulo is Brazil’s biggest metropolis and it’s actually the most cosmopolitan city in South America. If you want a real insight into city life on the continent, the sprawling urban hub with its high rises and energetic buzz is the best place to go.
São Paulo is a city of over 12 million people (21 million if you include the greater metropolitan area) and with such a great mix of people from all over the world, there isn’t one distinct culture of the city but dozens, giving it such diverse appeal. This trickles down into the food scene and the nightlife, two other great reasons to visit that we’ll get onto later.
São Paulo is non-stop and you’ll find hustle and bustle wherever you go. It’s also the cultural, economic, and political heart piece of Brazil with monumental historical significance. Visiting Brazil and seeing Rio is a must, but you won’t fully grasp Brazilian culture unless you expand your horizons into somewhere like São Paulo.
You can’t talk about São Paulo’s attractions without mentioning the museums. They’re a mandatory stop for any visitor, and as Brazil’s richest city, there’s such a varied collection that you’re sure to find something for every taste.
Between the Pinacoteca do Estado and the São Paulo Museum of Art, you’ll find such a wide selection of influential Brazilian works that São Paulo easily tops anywhere else in the country when it comes to its art. There’s also a range of wonderful history museums for discovering Brazil’s heritage. The Museo Afro Brasil in Ibirapuero takes a deeper look into the contemporary history of Brazil’s black community. There’s also the football museum at Pacaembu stadium for soccer fans.
São Paulo is home to a total of 110 museums, making it Latin America’s highest-ranking city when it comes to cultural offerings.
Some other unmissable spots include the Museum of Ipiranga, which opened in 1895 on the site where Brazil declared independence in 1822. Here you’ll find more than 450,000 artifacts and artworks related to Brazil’s imperial era. There’s also the Museum of the Portuguese Language, a rare center located in the very old Estaço da Luz train station. It was the first language museum to open in the world and it plays host to some fascinating interactive exhibits.
The Restaurant Scene
With its multicultural population, it should come as no surprise that São Paulo is a destination for foodies. Around 70 percent of the country’s Michelin stars have been awarded to São Paulo’s restaurants, but you’ll also find some of the best local delicacies at the many street stalls, food festivals, and hole-in-the-wall gems around the city.
Paulistano cuisine is the traditional food of São Paulo, but you’ll find food from all over the world as well as other Brazilian cuisines like Mineiro from Minas Gerais, and Nordestino from the northeast. São Paulo is a place to savor it all—and then some.
Head to Tordesilhas in Jardins for a taste of Amazonia, or Mocotó in Vila Medeiros if it’s the flavors of semi-arid Sertão in the northeast that you’re after. If you want to savor São Paulo’s own regional delights, head to Mercado Municipal, a sprawling 12,600 square meter market in the historic Centro. Here you can grab local produce as souvenirs, as well as hot plates and street food. Pick up a mortadella sandwich for lunch and wash it down with a sugary Caipirinha.
And if you want to try local Paulistina cuisine through the refined tastes of Michelin chefs, head to Tuju, the two-time Michelin star branded restaurant in the trendy Vila Madalena neighborhood. With an urban garden and open ‘kitchen theater’ Tuju brings new meaning to farm-to-table dining. Tuju isn’t a spot for shoestring travelers, but if your budget can stretch, the contemporary gourmet cuisine and elegant ambiance are worth the inflated prices.
The Football Culture
Often dubbed ‘o País do Futebol’, meaning ‘the country of football’ in Portuguese, soccer is the most important sport in Brazil and Brazil has won the World Cup five times—more than any other team. The success and skill of Brazilian players certainly help bring the fans, but football is so much more than that to most Brazilians. It’s part of their collective cultural identity and has united people for decades.
São Paulo is the base for three big clubs, the Corinthians, Palmeiras, and São Paulo. In fact, the only big Brazilian football team to not be based in São Paulo is Flamengo de Rio de Janeiro.
If you visit São Paulo during any international tournament, the locals’ love for football will have you in awe. It’s hard to get tickets to big matches and they can be very expensive, but the ambiance is equally incredible in the streets, and even more so when Brazil wins. Football makes São Paulo come alive with a carnival-like atmosphere.
If you do want to see a game, consider a friendly between local teams that take place most weeks from May to December. Cícero Pompeu de Toledo Stadium is the home of São Paulo Football Club. It’s not the biggest stadium in Brazil but it puts on a host of events, as well as football matches. You can buy tickets online or from the stadium if it’s a smaller match.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that this sprawling urban hub knows how to have a good time. Rio might have Lapa, but São Paulo is the unofficial nightlife capital of Brazil and every night of the week you’ll find an impressive lineup of events for partygoers, night owls, and the culturally inclined.
São Paulo dances to the beat of its own drum and you’ll find different music styles, cultural scenes, settings, and crowds wherever you go. There are the rooftop hotel bars if you want classy cocktails and sweeping views to the sounds of soft Samba or there are the street parades accompanied by full brass bands playing Eurodance until 3 in the morning.
Take a walk down Bourbon Street for blues and traditional jazz bars with delicious appetizers. Or get involved in a Samba lesson for a little insight into Brazil’s African culture and most important dance style. With concert halls and event spaces, you’ll also find a full roster of music performances, cinema screenings, exhibitions, and comedy shows to check out.
Partaking in a pub crawl is one of the best ways to experience São Paulo’s pumping nightlife. Whether it’s Reggaeton or Berlin techno that you’re into, there are plenty of nightclubs to finish up in that will satisfy every taste. Sao Paolo is a city that never sleeps, and if you’re an avid partygoer, you won’t be disappointed.
You might have heard that São Paulo is somewhat of a concrete jungle; an ‘ugly city’, with little to offer in the way of architectural beauty but its soaring high rises. But this is far from the truth.
It must be said that there is a lot of concrete and plenty of towering residential blocks, but the historic center, once crumbling and unloved, has been revitalized in recent decades to make way for a walkable and charming district with plenty of pretty architecture.
Neo-Gothic churches and colonial buildings in baroque style line the boulevards here. Sites like Mosteiro De Sa Bento, Pateo do Collegio, and Praça das Artes are all housed in protected historic buildings which are among the oldest in São Paulo. Still, it’s not all about the old. São Paulo’s architecture, much like the city itself, is all about juxtapositions and the modern buildings are equally enchanting.
Built by Brazil’s most famous modernists like Lina Bo Bardi and Oscar Niemeyer, as well as living legends like Ruy Ohtake, it is São Paulo’s contemporary structures that make the city a highlight of Latin America when it comes to architectural tourism.
Check out the undulating exterior of Edificio Copan, one of Brazil’s largest buildings, and don’t miss the glass box that is São Paulo’s Museum of Art on Paulista Avenue. Oca do Ibirapuera is another art museum but the building is an installation in and of itself. Designed by Niemeyer, the exhibition space is shaped like an indigenous hut, rising as a concrete mound from the gardens in which it is set.
If you’re a design lover, you might want to plan your trip around one of the major artistic affairs that take place in the city like SP-Arte which runs every April in the Oscar Niemeyer Bienal Pavilion, or Design Weekend which returns in August.
Another highlight of São Paulo and one that you can’t go without visiting in the city is Ibirapuera, Brazil’s answer to Central Park. It’s been voted as one of the world’s best urban parks, and with over 150 hectares of lush gardens, lakes, museums, and monuments, right in the heart of bustling São Paulo, Ibirapuera is a welcome dose of tranquility in a world of chaos.
You can certainly escape the rush of the city here, enjoying a picnic, stroll, run, or cycle, but it also fills up on sunny weekends and the atmosphere can be equally as lively as it is anywhere else in São Paulo. Expect food vendors, buskers, and dance groups on Saturdays and Sundays.
Jardins is also one of São Paulo’s most lusted neighborhoods and it is characterized by its leafy boulevards that show that the city is so much more than concrete mayhem. This district is also known for its boutique stores, cultural hotspots, and upscale restaurants from the likes of stylish sushi bars to the Michelin-star bistros around Rua Oscar Freire.
Jardins is the greenest and most exclusive neighborhood in São Paulo. A stroll through its delightful avenues, shaded by eucalyptus trees and Liana vines, that are better suited to the rainforests of Iguazu, shouldn’t go amiss.
The Street Art
One thing you might notice about São Paulo is its absence of billboards. The Clean City Act of 2007 saw the ban of large-scale outdoor advertisements, but this has only paved the way for São Paulo’s street art scene to thrive and the city is somewhat of an open-air galley today.
From the massive murals curated by local graffiti icon, Eduardo Kobra, to the small-scale street-level artworks along Batman Alley and Vila Madalena, art is at the heart of São Paulo and you don’t have to look hard to find it. Graffiti artists and muralists were once hounded by local authorities and branded vandals here, but now street art is championed, funded, and often encouraged all over the city.
On top of the colorful panels and supersized murals, often overlooked is the art of pichação, which you should also keep a keen eye out for in the city. The local graffiti style involves Paulista alphabet tags, which can look similar to Celtic runes, plastered in hard-to-reach locations. Although some see these tags as pure defacement, they’re a testament to the aspiring street artists of São Paulo and the daring heights they’ll go to to get their names out there.
The city might not be directly on the ocean, without the likes of infamous Copacabana and Ipanema to its name, but the state has over 600 km of pristine coastline and if you’re looking for serene beaches, São Paulo shouldn’t be forgotten.
Swimming, surfing, or simply sunbathing in the glorious sunshine, São Paulo’s beaches have it all and they’re much more underrated than Rio’s bustling city sands. It’s around an hour and a half drive down to the coast, and you could easily visit for a day a city like Gauruja with its own bustling urban beach. Or for somewhere more lowkey, check out Asturias, just around the bay from Guaruja where natural beauty and scenic views take precedence over tourist amenities.
São Paulo’s coast is dotted with beach houses owned by some of the city’s residents and Brazilians from further inland who frequent the Atlantic shores for weekend breaks. If you want to get the most out of your holiday in São Paulo, consider splitting your time between the city and the beach to experience a different side of Brazil.
Is São Paulo safe?
Every major city experiences its fair share of crime and São Paulo is no different. That said, it might be the most populous, but it’s also the safest city in Brazil with lower crime rates than Rio de Janeiro. There’s no reason to feel insecure in the city as long as you follow basic safety precautions.
When is the best time to visit São Paulo?
The best times to visit São Paulo is in the spring and fall shoulder seasons, from March to May, and October to November, when the temperatures aren’t unbearable high and the city sees little rainfall. The exciting event’s roster is also in full spring at this time of year, but there’s always something to do in the city no matter when you go.
How many days do you need in São Paulo?
São Paulo is a big city with lots to get around and it shouldn’t be sacrificed for somewhere like Rio de Janeiro. We recommend visiting both cosmopolitan hubs and spending at least three days exploring São Paulo, with a few more nights added on if you want to see the coast. In three days you should be able to visit a handful of the museums, enjoy the nightlife, savor the local cuisine, and unwind in the upscale neighborhoods.