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São Paulo skyline | Leandro Neumann Ciuffo/Flickr
São Paulo skyline | Leandro Neumann Ciuffo/Flickr

10 Things to Know Before Visiting São Paulo

Picture of Euan Marshall
Updated: 26 May 2017

Tom Jobim, one of the fathers of bossa nova and among the greatest Brazilian composers of all time, famously stated that “Brazil is not for beginners”. São Paulo, is a sprawling metropolis which, on the whole, is not used to seeing many tourists. Therefore, if you don’t come prepared, the city can seem impenetrable and baffling. But with a little effort, a trip to São Paulo can be one of the most rewarding experiences on the planet. Here are our top tips.

Physical contact

Brazilian people tend to be, for the lack of a better term, touchy-feely. Physical contact is common in social situations, even with people meeting for the first time. Men will traditionally greet other men with a handshake, women greet women with a hug, while men and women greet one another with a kiss on the cheek (remember – just one kiss, this isn’t Rio!). When arriving at a social event, it is customary to say hello to each person individually, even when you are in fairly large groups. You are unlikely to offend a Paulistano if you refuse physical contact, but it’s good to be prepared for it.

Speak the lingo

São Paulo is a very cosmopolitan city, with a vast array of different cultures from across Brazil and around the world coexisting in the same metropolis. However, as they are not exactly accustomed to seeing many tourists, there is not a great deal of English spoken in the city. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to learn some basic Brazilian Portuguese, even if it’s just bom dia, tudo bem, por favor and obrigado (good day, how are you, please and thank you).

Don’t rely on the weather forecast

São Paulo’s climate is one of its strengths. It’s tropical, with warm summers, but it’s also temperate, meaning that winters can be pleasantly cool. However, it does rain fairly often and the odd tropical shower or two can catch you off guard. It’s always a good idea to bring a small umbrella, even when it’s 100 degrees outside.

Rain cloud over São Paulo | Gabriel de Andrade Fernandes/Flickr

Public transport

Experiences of public transport in São Paulo can vary wildly. A trip across town on the metro can either be completely trouble-free or an absolute nightmare. The metro system is largely quite good, with fast, clean trains, but the subway network itself is painfully small, especially for Brazil’s biggest city. There are several bus lines, but they can be confusing for tourists. This means several parts of the city are virtually inaccessible for visitors using public transport. So, stick to taxis in these cases. Oh, and if you know what’s good for you, avoid the metro during rush hour.

Keep tabs on your tab

Customs in bars and nightclubs are quite different in São Paulo. You don’t pay for your drinks in rounds, instead, you will almost definitely be given an individual tab for you to pay at the end of the night, called a comanda. Depending on the bar, this will either be a slip of paper or a plastic card which automatically records your orders. Be careful not to lose your comanda, or you may face a hefty fine or a night washing dishes!

Eat like a local

São Paulo is the most expensive city in Brazil for eating out, but restaurant prices are largely affordable for tourists coming from Europe or the USA. An important thing to note is that portion sizes are quite large and often dishes will easily feed two people, even though it doesn’t explicitly say that on the menu. Try asking your waiter if what you’ve ordered is enough for two (dá para duas pessoas?). Furthermore, eating on the street is frowned upon, even for foods like sandwiches or burgers. Find somewhere to sit while you eat, unless you want some funny looks.

Money in Brazil

Brazil’s currency is the Real (R$, plural reais), and there are 100 centavos to one real. Credit and debit cards are popular, and you should have no problem paying for things with your international bank card. Unlike most of South America, you will not be able to pay for things in US dollars.

Be careful what you criticize

Paulistanos have a noticeably love-hate relationship with their own city. You’ll notice the local people complaining about São Paulo often, from the traffic to the weather and everything in between. However, people from São Paulo tend to get slightly defensive when they hear foreigners complaining about their town. So, if you have a critique, keep it to yourself. Or wait for your Paulistano friends to bring it up first, which is also likely.

Quit stalling

Like any big city which works hard, São Paulo always seems to be in a rush. When out and about during the week, be aware when you are walking down the street sightseeing – there may be a furious commuter behind you trying to get past, and he may be saying some inappropriate things about your mother! Also, when using escalators, always keep to the right. There is nothing Paulistanos hate more than someone blocking the escalator.

Not everyone likes soccer

Granted, soccer is huge in Brazil. It is the self-proclaimed Country of Soccer, its national team has won more World Cups than any other and the domestic championship demands wall-to-wall coverage in the media. What’s more, São Paulo is a city which takes its soccer even more seriously than the rest of the nation. However, in a country of almost 200 million people and a city of 20 million, not everyone is a soccer fan, and the fact that they are perceived as such by foreigners can be a bit annoying to Brazilian people. It’s an easier conversation topic than politics or religion, but don’t be surprised if you receive some blank expressions when trying to talk about the Beautiful Game.

Pedestrians in São Paulo | Rede Brasil Atual/Flickr