But just 100 miles from Rio lies a larger—but far less familiar—city. São Paulo is best known as a business destination, a place sometimes called the New York City of South America because of its bustling pace and importance in the corporate world.
Whether you experience São Paulo as a jumping off point for exploring other regions of Brazil or on business, you’ll find the city has plenty of ways to turn your getaway into an excursion to remember. Massive city parks, over 35,000 restaurants, and unbeatable shopping make this a destination for big city lovers.
You may remember the much-televised Brazil Open tennis match that featured "ball boys" from the city's shelter system! Those dogs were trained and sheltered by ONG ABEAC (Associação Bem-Estar Animal Amigos da Célia).
São Paulo stretches like a futuristic city in every direction, spanning over 3,000 square miles. With that size comes sizeable traffic. The city’s roadways are packed during rush hours that last more than just an hour or two.
We quickly found that the best way to maneuver the city is with an experienced driver (hotels don’t recommend even thinking about renting a car). Even with a professional driver, we were advised to plan our travel after 10am to minimize time in traffic. Another good option is the metro, a modern, underground subway linking some (but not yet all) areas of the city.
Like many destinations, new growth in the city has taken place on the outskirts, with historic attractions located in the heart of the city. One stop that looks historic, but actually isn’t, was our first stop: the Basílica de São Paulo. With its Gothic interior and Renaissance exterior, this cathedral just looks old—construction actually was completed in the 1920s. It’s well worth a visit to see the massive church and its 6000-pipe organ.
From the basilica, we walked through the Old Town. Like any other big city in the world, Sao Paulo has its share of crime problems, especially in the old downtown or central district. Here, be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for anyone bumping into you, creating a commotion, or getting a little too close.
If you look around and see a downtown building that looks just a little familiar, it might be the Edifício Banespa, a highrise modeled after the Empire State Building. You can hop two elevators (and a couple of flights of spiral stairs) up the 36-floor building for a good view of the city. The open-air rooftop is a favorite with photographers looking for city panoramics. For a more romantic – but more expensive—panoramic view, check out the bar and restaurant at the downtown Edificio Italia. Perched on the 41st floor, you can opt for a meal or just afternoon tea or a cocktail.
São Paulo is also home to many excellent museums, most notably the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Stroll the galleries of this fine art museum for a look at works by Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, Picasso, and many others. And for a big city park experience, don’t miss the Parque Ibirapuera. This urban park is the city’s largest; you can rent bikes by the hour to tour its shady lanes. The park is a relaxing break from the city and also home to several museums including the Modern Art Museum featuring Brazilian artists.
As South America’s largest city, São Paulo’s stores are a magnet for shoppers from across the continent as well as for Paulistanos. The city is home to massive malls, upscale shopping a la Rodeo Drive, urban markets, and nearby handicrafts villages.
The finest stopping area is Rua Oscar Freire, located in the Paulista area of the city. Here you’ll find the biggest of the big names: Versace, Gucci, Tiffany, you name it. (Don’t forget: seasons in Brazil are opposite our own so you’ll see a completely different season’s worth of clothes on display.) Stroll this chic district for shopping – or just window shopping – then take a break at Oscar Freire Figueiras Restaurant to dine beneath the giant fig tree.
Foodies can’t miss Central Market, a clean, well-organized market featuring fruits and spices from across South America. Plan to have lunch upstairs overlooking the market; specialties include mortadella sandwiches.
The Japanese community Liderdade (pronounced lib-er-da-je) is also a favorite with shoppers and includes many stores with handicrafts from throughout Brazil, many with a Japanese flair such as bonsai trees made from local stones. Gemstones are a great buy, both in terms of selection and of price. Look for topaz, citrine, aquamarine, amethyst, tourmaline, and quartz in every shape and size, both mounted and unmounted. You’ll find mounted pieces in sterling silver and 18kt gold.
Our favorite shopping stop was the community of Embu, located about 45 minutes from the city. Perfect for a day trip or just an afternoon getaway, this charming community is filled with handicrafts, including handmade furniture and wood carvings. If you’re in the market for unique, handmade furniture, you can negotiate directly at the factory. Embu makes an excellent stop when you’re ready to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city for a while.
Getting There: International arrivals come in Aeroporto Cumbica, about 45 minutes from the central part of the city. The airport is modern and easy to navigate. We arrived in São Paulo aboard TAM Brazilian Airlines. nTo visit São Paulo, Americans will need a visa. Visas are obtained through your nearest Brazil consulate.
Language: The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. Many (but not all) people in the tourism industry speak English. If you know some Spanish, you'll find it helpful. Many Portuguese words are similar to Spanish although the pronunciation is much different. Some paulistanos speak Spanish as well.
Currency: The official currency is the real (pronounced re-all). We suggest using an ATM machine at the airport to withdraw currency directly from your bank account, saving exchange fees. You'll find that major credit cards are accepted in almost all stores.