São Paulo has tons of spaces spread across the city, including exhibitions, libraries, theaters and cinema, all with free entry. Particular highlights are the newly built Instituto Moreira Salles on Paulista Avenue, with its gorgeous views and superb exhibitions, and Japan House, another new space at the other end of Paulista, promoting Japanese culture in the city.
The São Paulo Museum of Art, commonly known as MASP, is one of the jewels of the city. With an excellent collection of Brazilian and international art, housed inside the intriguing glass and reinforced concrete structure suspended above Paulista Avenue by four pillars, it’s a must-visit for anyone in São Paulo.
For most of the week, entrance to the museum costs R$ 30 (approximately $9.50, with students, teachers and over 60s paying half price), but on Tuesdays, everyone goes for free.
Inside Ibirapuera Park is one of the city’s best museums, which has the added bonus of being free of charge year-round. The Museu Afro Brasil (Afro-Brazilian Museum) tells the story of slavery in Brazil, as well as the crucial role of African populations in forming the cultural identity of the country. With more than 6,000 pieces, including paintings, photographs, sculptures, and documents, among many others, the museum does a superb job of casting light onto an often overlooked part of the construction of Brazilian society.
To the west of São Paulo lies the hilly neighborhood of Vila Madalena, one of the city’s coolest, most artsy regions. Full of charming galleries, tree-lined streets, independent boutiques and pretty cafés, it is a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
One of Vila Madalena’s most fascinating characteristics is in the names of its streets, chosen by anarchist students in the 1960s and ’70s. They chose names such as Rua Harmonia (Harmony), Girassol (Sunflower) and Purpurina (Glitter) to go against the city’s usual custom of naming roads after politicians or army generals.
Another of São Paulo’s best museums is the Pinacoteca do Estado, located in front of the grandiose Luz train station in the city center. The oldest museum in SP, the Pinacoteca also has arguably the best collection of Brazilian art in the world. Entrance throughout the week is incredibly cheap (only R$ 6, roughly $1.80), while the entire museum is free to visit on Saturdays. Combining the Pinacoteca with a wander around the beautiful Luz Station and Praça da Luz makes for an excellent Saturday afternoon.
Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, Praça da Luz, 2, Luz, São Paulo, Brazil, +55 (11) 3324-1000
It may seem like a bit of an oxymoron to suggest a walk around Rua Oscar Freire, the most expensive street in Latin America, as a free activity in São Paulo, but a spot of window-shopping around the countless designer stores and boutiques can make for a fascinating way to spend your afternoon.
São Paulo’s Municipal Market, commonly known as the Mercadão (“Big Market”), always features high on lists of things to do in SP and is a fascinating place that all tourists should visit at least once. Located in the old center of São Paulo, its ground floor is littered with stalls selling fruits, vegetables, spices, cured meats, and other delights.
While buying things at the Mercadão can end up being pretty expensive (unless money is no object, do not buy any fruit at the Mercado Municipal), the secret is to browse the stalls and fill yourself up on free samples of the delicious and extravagant foods on offer. The sellers are always willing to let you try as much as you’d like, with no obligation to buy, so go nuts.
Mercado Municipal, Rua Cantareira 306, Centro, São Paulo, Brazil, +55 (11) 3313 3365
A classic money-saving option in any city is to tag along with a free walking tour. São Paulo’s most popular free walking tour has three different routes, going around the historic center, Paulista Avenue and the previously mentioned neighborhood of Vila Madalena. All tours are in English, and there is no need to book your place, simply turn up at the meeting point.
In the western neighborhood of Barra Funda, an excellent choice for a day out is visiting the Latin America Memorial, a cultural project developed by anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro. The space serves as a monument to the history, culture, and integration of Latin America as a whole, with galleries, a library, an auditorium, and sculptures, with the entire architectural project designed by Brazil’s master architect Oscar Niemeyer.