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It’s no secret that São Paulo – Brazil’s biggest city – gets a bit of a bad rap. Business tourists who make flying visits to SP – getting stuck in traffic jams on the way to the hotel and rarely stepping out of the sanitized, bland bubbles of the city’s financial districts – naturally have few good things to say about São Paulo. However, after spending more time there, getting out of your comfort zone and diving head first into the local food, history and culture, it becomes hard not to fall in love with SP. Here are a few of the things you’ll miss the most after leaving São Paulo.
A rarity among Brazilian (and Latin American) cities, São Paulo is a place which truly belongs to the world. With first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from all over the globe, São Paulo is incredibly diverse and has huge Portuguese, Italian, Bolivian and Japanese communities (São Paulo has the world’s largest Japanese population outside of Japan), among many others. While most cities on the continent have their own well-defined culture and identity, São Paulo is more like dozens of small cities rolled into one – there is something for everyone.
Brazilian food, it should come as no surprise, is outstanding and loved around the world. In São Paulo, being the country’s largest city, you can find the best cuisine the country has to offer, with authentic restaurants from every corner of Brazil, as well as countless international options, from Congolese to Colombian and Lebanese to Lithuanian. The traditional Paulistano food is also pretty incredible, while the locals claim they have the world’s best pizza.
Brazilian Portuguese is among the world’s most wonderful languages to hear and speak. Unlike its European counterpart, which is harsh and almost Slavic in tone, the Portuguese spoken in Brazil is musical, lilting and emotive. While accents vary wildly across the country, and some from the north-east of the country may be even more melodic in their sound, the typical São Paulo accent strikes a perfect balance between musicality and ease of understanding. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Paulista accent is considered the best for foreigners trying to learn Portuguese.
While not as hot as Rio Janeiro to the east, or the coastal paradise of the northern and north-eastern coastlines (where it is summer all year round), São Paulo boasts a temperate, tropical climate, giving it hot summers and cool winters. While pleasant for a short while, the heat elsewhere in Brazil can become uncomfortable and downright dangerous. São Paulo, however, has the right mix of tropical and liveable.
Although it can’t quite compete with cities such as New York City or London in this regard, São Paulo is still one of the world’s most important metropoles and is the beating heart of Latin America. All of the best brands and designers have stores in the city and technological advancements are launched here before anywhere else in the southern hemisphere. If you want to do business anywhere between Buenos Aires and Monterrey, you have to have an office in São Paulo.
As it is such a huge, cosmopolitan city, São Paulo is home to a wealth of alternative cultures which all have their own space and scene. Meanwhile, Paulistanos are known for working long hours throughout the week, meaning that when the weekend finally comes around, they go hard. The combination of these factors creates São Paulo’s unique and incredibly varied nightlife, with wild parties in renowned electronic music clubs, as well as impromptu events in reclaimed spaces around the city. You could go as far as saying São Paulo’s nightlife is unmatched around the world for its diversity and liberation.
São Paulo is not Rio de Janeiro. It has no beach promenades, no Sugarloaf Mountain and no Arpoador. In fact, it is often criticized as being an unsightly concrete jungle, which – while being spot on about the concrete part – is terribly unfair. Though it has an insane number of high-rise buildings, there is a certain beauty to their architecture and the vast sea of enormous buildings dotting the landscape is quite a sight to see. Flying into the city (particularly to Congonhas Airport in the south) is an unforgettable experience. Soaring over the seemingly endless carpet of buildings is one of the only ways to get a grasp of São Paulo’s immense scale, before a stunning descent into the heart of the concrete jungle.
Paulistanos may snigger at this suggestion, as the locals have a noticeably love/hate (swaying more towards “hate”) relationship with São Paulo’s public transport system. The reality is that the city’s transport infrastructure is deficient and does not properly meet the needs of the entire SP population. There are very few subway lines, with only a couple of dozen of stations across the whole megacity. Huge swathes of São Paulo are nowhere near a subway line. However, for what lines and stations there are, the city’s subway system is one of the most pleasant and efficient on the planet. The trains are clean, modern and spacious, while you rarely have to wait more than 3 minutes for one to come along. For tourists, São Paulo’s subway ticks almost all the boxes, hitting most of the city’s tourist spots and having relatively inexpensive tickets.
The padoca – the massive eateries which are somewhere in between a bakery, bodega, deli and bar – is a true São Paulo institution. Every neighborhood has it’s own padoca, often serving as a social hub for the local community. The ultimate one-stop shop, the padoca can meet all of your food and drink needs, be that a tasty breakfast, a place to grab groceries, or somewhere to grab a beer with friends. Paulistanos and visitors to this marvelous city will inevitably end up spending a lot of time in padocas, and trust me, you’ll miss them when they’re not around.
While not strictly associated with São Paulo itself, Brazil’s national spirit can be found everywhere in it’s biggest city. Made from sugar cane juice, when drank neat, cachaça is aromatic and has a certain sweetness, unlike any other spirits available. Aged varieties (known as cachaça ouro) have deep flavors from the type of wood they have been aged in, while unaged cachaça (prata) is much cleaner and sweeter. Some brands of cachaça are exported out of the country, none are of terribly good quality (Leblon, 51) and most are ridiculously overpriced.
Soccer is Brazil’s national sport, with the country’s national team being the most successful in history, winning five World Cup trophies. Across Brazil, soccer (or futebol) reigns supreme as far as sport is concerned. While it is huge all over the country, it is in São Paulo where soccer is taken most seriously. With three huge clubs in the city (Corinthians, Palmeiras and São Paulo FC) and Santos on the coast, each with their own unique stadiums, there is plenty of soccer culture to experience in São Paulo.