With more than 21 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area, São Paulo is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. As soon as I arrived, I was mind-blown by the size of the city and the seemingly infinite amount of high-rise buildings which stretched as far as the eye can see.
Although most travelers visiting Brazil decide to skip São Paulo, there are lots of cool attractions and fun activities to do in this vibrant skyscraper-packed city, and the lack of tourists just makes it 100 times better! In this article, I’m sharing the best things to do in São Paulo, or Sampa, as the locals call it.
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São Paulo is mainly known as a financial hub and the epicenter of Brazil’s economy, but it’s also a real melting pot of cultures. As the city is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan and a significant number of people of European, Arab, African and Jewish descent, the cultural diversity manifests itself in São Paulo’s food, fashion, art and architecture. The city is also famous for its gastronomy and sometimes dubbed the foodie heaven of South America due to its ethnically diverse culinary scene and world-class restaurants such as D.O.M, Maní and Mocotó.
What is the best time to visit São Paulo?
Although the weather in São Paulo is quite pleasant all year round, I’d say that the best time to visit the city is spring (September to November) when the temperatures are between 16-27 degrees Celsius and the days are sunny. However, if you’d like to experience the annual carnival-related activities, visit the city in February or March.
How many days to spend in São Paulo?
The highlights of São Paulo can be visited within a few days, but if you really want to get a feel for the place and not just skim the surface, I recommend staying for four to five days. I spent four full days in the city but could easily have used a day or two more to explore the various neighborhoods. It’s worth noting though that I wasn’t doing sightseeing the entire time as I was spending time with my boyfriend’s family who lives in São Paulo.
Check out my travel video where you can get a glimpse of our favorite places in São Paulo – my first travel video ever!
Best things to do in São Paulo
1. Stroll along Paulista Avenue (Avenida Paulista)
Paulista Avenue is the financial center of the city. Go there on a Sunday since that’s when the bustling skyscraper-lined avenue is closed for cars and taken over by runners, skaters, cyclists and pedestrians.
There’s just so much happening on Paulista Avenue that you can easily spend several hours on that street. For instance, you can participate in an outdoor Zumba class or watch the dozens of street performers ranging from pop bands and dancers to magicians and clowns.
If you visit São Paulo in the summertime (December to February), you’ll see many baterias (percussion bands) practicing for the annual carnival. The street is also full of interesting shops, restaurants, cultural centers and museums such as São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), Itaú Cultural, Centro Cultural FIESP, SESC Avenida Paulista, and the Japan House.
We decided to pop into Itaú Cultural, a non-profit cultural institute, to check out the permanent Brasiliana exhibition which is a collection of paintings, maps and documents depicting the colonial history of Brazil. There is no entrance fee so you can save your money for an extra caipirinha later during the night!
Right next to Itaú Cultural, is the SESC Avenida Paulista building which has a free rooftop observation deck overlooking the avenue and offering a great spot for taking photos. Don’t miss this place if you’re visiting Paulista Avenue and keep in mind that the building is closed on Mondays.
With so many exciting places to visit (and most of them free!), going to Paulista Avenue is really one of the best things to do in São Paulo.
There are also plenty of great bars and restaurants on Paulista Avenue and the surrounding streets, especially Rua Augusta. We visited the Balaio IMS restaurant that was created by one of Brazil’s top chefs Rodrigo Oliveira and takes a modern twist on Brazilian cuisine. We tried four different dishes which were all amazing and had some tastes and textures that were totally new to me as a non-Brazilian! If you’re looking to try out some high quality food made of Brazilian ingredients, I highly recommend this place.
The dishes you see in the photos are:
- ‘dadinhos de tapioca’ – fried cubes of tapioca and cheese, crispy and golden on the outside and chewy on the inside
- ‘angu de fubá caipira’ – creamy polenta with vegetables and canastra cheese
- ‘coração de boi na brasa’ – a beef heart with pumpkin puree and salted granola
- ‘torta de goiaba’ – a guava pie with guava sorbet and pink pepper
A few blocks’ walk from Paulista Avenue is the Rua Oscar Freire, a cozy street with many cafes, restaurants and high-end stores, perfect for people-watching and window-shopping. If you’re in need of some caffeine, head to Santo Grão, a sleek cafeteria with a relaxed atmosphere, good service, and a wide selection of different types of coffee.
P.S. If navigating a city of this size sounds a bit overwhelming to you, it might be a good idea to join a guided tour. Here are some cool options to consider:
2. Relax at Ibirapuera Park (Parque Ibirapuera)
This park is probably my favourite spot in the city. It’s a soothing green oasis in the concrete jungle of São Paulo and offers the perfect retreat from the hectic city. Often compared to Central Park in New York, Ibirapuera Park is a great place for a stroll, a bike ride, a picnic, or an outdoor workout. On top of that, it also contains the Planetarium, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Afro Brazil Museum.
As the park is huge, 158 hectares to be precise, we decided to rent bikes to cruise around the vast green spaces. You definitely won’t get bored in Ibirapuera Park. During our one-hour bike ride we saw huge rubber trees, bamboo alleys, and black swans gliding on the lakes, admired some colorful murals and the unique architecture of the buildings in the park, watched people practicing yoga, tai chi and other sports in the open air, and as I am OBSESSED with dogs, I couldn’t look past all the professional dog-walkers with dozens of cute puppies! The park is open every day from 5am until midnight.
Just next to Ibirapuera Park is the Museum of Contemporary Art of University of São Paulo (MAC USP) with 7 floors full of exhibitions including works of Picasso. Once again, all free of charge!
On the top floor of the building, there’s a huge rooftop terrace and restaurant Vista offering spectacular 360-degree views over the skyline of São Paulo. For better visibility, go there on a clear sunny day. The restaurant seemed like an amazing place for dinner or drinks with its stylish interior and sublime views over the city. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it wasn’t open yet so we had to settle with a cafeteria a few floors down. I highly recommend you check out this museum and its rooftop. It’s great value for no money. 🙂
3. Admire São Paulo street art at Beco do Batman (Batman Alley)
In the Vila Madalena neighborhood, there’s a winding pedestrian street called Beco do Batman or Batman Alley. If you’re even slightly into street art, this is a place you’re gonna love as the walls of the entire alley are covered with magnificent bright-colored murals, likely the best street art in São Paulo.
The history of the street dates back to the 1980s when the first drawing was made on the walls. As you might have guessed, it was a drawing of Batman. Soon after, more images were painted on the walls by local art students that eventually turned the street into an open-air gallery of urban art. Go have a look at these instagrammable masterpieces in daylight to be able to see all the vibrant colors!
Once you’ve got your dose of street art, take a stroll on the hilly streets of Vila Madalena. The neighborhood has a very different vibe from the rest of São Paulo. It is bohemian, artsy and alternative with artisanal shops, yoga studios, art galleries, and many hip bars and restaurants.
Due to time constraints, we explored Vila Madalena on a Monday afternoon which meant that the streets were very quiet and 90% of the bars and restaurants were closed. On the rest of the days however, the area is packed with trendy Paulistanos (residents of São Paulo) enjoying the nightlife of Vila Madalena. So I’ve been told.
If you’re looking for some drinks or snacks in Vila Madalena, I recommend checking out the Carioca-style (Rio de Janeiro style) bar called Pirajá. The fruity caipirinhas and the Brazilian finger food that they serve are just incredible.
4. Visit the Municipal Market of São Paulo (Mercadão)
Located in the historic center of the city, the Municipal Market of São Paulo, also known as Mercadão, is a total food heaven. The place is packed with stalls selling poultry, seafood, cheese, spices, nuts, and a mind-blowing selection of tropical fruits which you’ve probably never seen before and can sample for free.
Tasting all the amazing exotic fruits like cupuaçu, graviola, caja, seriguela, guava and acerola was by far my favorite activity in the market. Be aware of the ridiculous prices though. For 1kg of assorted fruits, we paid 79 Reais (13 Euros)! Mercadão is quite a touristy place and this is also reflected in the price level.
Besides the fruits, the market is known for the Mortadella sandwich containing a crazy amount of sausage and occasionally referred to as ‘heart attack on a bun’. I decided to skip the opportunity to try this greasy pyramid of meat but a lot of people claim it tastes really good.
5. Wander around the Liberdade district
For a taste of Asia, head to Liberdade aka the Japantown of São Paulo which is the home of the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. As soon as you pass through the traditional Torii gate and see the red lanterns lining the streets, you’ll feel like you’ve been teleported to Japan.
The neighborhood is rather small but full of Chinese, Korean and Japanese shops and authentic Asian restaurants. If you’re looking to eat sushi or ramen, this is the place to do it!
Every weekend there’s a fair in Liberdade with lots of stands selling oriental street food, handicrafts and souvenirs.
These were my top things to do in São Paulo if you only have a few days. I hope this article gave you some inspiration for planning your trip to this cosmopolitan city!
In case you have already visited São Paulo – did I miss any cool spots? I’d love to check them out next time I visit “Sampa”. 🙂
You might also be interested in my other posts about Brazil:
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