Should you visit Sao Paulo, Brazil?

It took us two days upon landing in Sao Paulo to figure out what language was spoken there.

We knew it was Portuguese but after being greeted by a chorus of “hola” and “ciao” and even a ‘bonjour’ by an enthusiastic Uber driver, we didn’t know whether we should be saying ‘gracias’, ‘obrigada’ or even, ‘merci beaucoup.’

But this only exemplifies the bustling cultural hub that is Sao Paulo, a youthful city on the south-west coast of Brazil.

Often overlooked by tourists and travellers alike, this bustling metropolis tends to sit in Rio de Janeiro’s shadow which is situated only a six hour commute north.

While Sao Paulo may not offer the beaches, the tourist attractions and stunning vista of Rio, it is certainly not without its charms. In fact, I would wager that it gives a much more authentic insight into what it is like to live in a Brazilian city.

Having developed as an industrial and administrative centre in the twentieth century, in the last few decades Sao Paulo has also emerged as a cultural and artistic hub.

Unfortunately, we had not heard amazing things about this city from other travellers so we did not have high expectations. But of course, our expectations were heftily exceeded and we ended up spending extra day in this great city (at the expense of running straight to the beach, if that gives you an idea of how much we liked it).

Sao Paulo’s streets are lined with blooming tropical trees which highlight small, quirky shops and restaurants charmingly dotted with street art, murals, fairy lights and window shutters. These avenues are nestled under looming skyscrapers that simultaneously create a sense of cosiness while reminding you of the vastness of this city (one of the largest in all of Latin America).

It is a modern and youthful place jam-packed with restaurants and bars that spill out onto the street offering everything from vegan food to Korean to Brazil’s version of Spanish tapas. People sit outside trendy bars sipping on cheap local beers and enjoying the subtle breeze which always seems on-hand to negate the heat of summer.

Sao Paulo does not have a huge abundance of tourist attractions but this adds to the city’s charm because instead of rushing out to see everything, you tend to get caught up in the laidback atmosphere.

Despite all this, I must admit that Sao Paulo is not exactly a tourist-friendly destination. All the people we have met have been lovely but you will be lucky to find a person in each place you visit who can understand English (or any language outside of Portuguese).

We visited three museums, two of which had very little options for English speakers with all exhibitions being in the native language. This says a lot about the city’s cultural interest and you can feel that as you wander throughout but it is not always the most reassuring for a foreigner.

Sao Paulo’s version of ‘Central Park,’ as put by a local, is a vast patch of green situated in the city’s large centre and is worth a visit. I always think there is something beautiful about a stunning piece of nature preserved within an endless maze of concrete.

Ibirapuera Park offers many murals and statues that offer insight into the city’s history and also boasts many museums (as I said be wary of language barriers here).

Paulista Avenue Sao Paulo

Paulista Avenue, Sao Paulo

Other places worth a visit is Avenue Paulista, the main street, on which shops, stalls, trendy bars and restaurants fester (especially if you wander off into the smaller side streets).

You can also avail of two free walking tours, these run every second day and give insight into the development two of the city’s main areas: old downtown (historic), Paulista Avenue and Vila Madelena.

But if you only have time to do one thing in Sao Paulo, it must be a visit the area of Vila Madelena. This is where you can find the best of the city’s infamous street art with the super-cool ‘Beco de Batman’ (Batman Alley) showcasing some spectacular pieces.

Beco de Batman Sao Paulo batman alley street art

Beco de Batman, Sao Paulo

Surrounding this area are more youthful bars, some cheaper than others, that play host to locals enjoying a drink on the street and swaying easily to live music. Definitely mosey on down here on a weekend afternoon and stay until evening to capture the lazy, sun-drenched buzz of it.

Top tips:

  • Roam a off the beaten track: While we don’t advise wandering too far, definitely explore other options to find the best value. We were paying $30 RL (€ 7.50 ) for a cocktail when less than a five minute walk away we could get 2 litres of beer for $9 RL (€ 2.25)
  • Walk: If you are staying near Paulista Avenue, I would recommend the walk from here downhill all the way to Ibirapuera Park. It takes about an hour but the gorgeous tree-lined streets in this area and the quirky shops will be more than enough to pass the time.
  • Forget a taxi: Uber is super cheap here, way cheaper than a taxi and as cheap as taking the metro.
  • Top museum pick: If you intend to do one museum, do the MASP which is Sao Paulo’s main art museum. It is a beautiful building, easy to get to, invites fascinating exhibitions and the language barrier is certainly less than in other museums.

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