Roughly 20 hours after departing from Copenhagen, we finally landed in São Paulo, exhausted but at the same time excited to meet Fernando’s family and spend the next 4 days in Sampa, as the locals call the city. Since Fernando is originally from São Paulo, I knew that our stay wasn’t going to be an ordinary tourist trip. We had set aside a lot of time to catch up with his friends and family and therefore got to experience the city like the locals.
With more than 21 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area, São Paulo is the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere (and also in the Western Hemisphere according to some sources). It is the wealthiest city in Brazil and a melting pot of cultures, full of vibrant cosmopolitan vibes. The city really is massive and the seemingly infinite amount of high-rise buildings stretches as far as the eye can see. Just look at the photo I took out of a plane window:
São Paulo is known 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. We only scratched the surface of the restaurant scene and didn’t spend much time exploring the high-end cuisine. Instead, we got to eat abundant home-cooked meals made by Fernando’s mother which were so finger-licking good that I repeatedly ended up in a serious food coma and might have put on a kilo with every meal 🙂 . Totally worth it though! I also had a chance to attend a Brazilian churrasco party at Fernando’s friends’ place and see how the locals do barbecue.
Fun fact: São Paulo has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan as a result of a big wave of immigration in the early 20th century.
Another fun fact: São Paulo has one of the largest fleets of helicopters in the world. If you don’t like sitting in traffic jams, you can use an app equivalent to Uber to book yourself a helicopter ride, because why not?
The highlights of São Paulo can be visited within a few days, but if you really want to get a sense of the city and not just skim the surface, I recommend staying for 4-5 days. I spent 4 full days there but could easily have used a day or two more to explore the various neighbourhoods of the city. However, I was also heavily jetlagged during the first day, and as mentioned earlier, used some of the time to meet Fernando’s friends and family. So if these things don’t apply to you, 4 days is probably enough.
Check out the travel video that we made about our favourite places in the city – our first travel video ever!
Below, you’ll find further details about the top attractions in the city which I recommend you visit in case you’re considering a trip to São Paulo.
Paulista Avenue is the economic epicentre of the city. If possible, 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 going on that you can easily spend several hours on that street. For instance, you can participate in an outdoor Zumba class. Or listen to the dozens of street musicians. Or interact with clowns and other entertainers. Or pet about 50 different dogs that are taking a Sunday stroll with their owners. Or watch baterias (percussion bands) practicing for the carnival. Or grab a snack from a street vendor and explore the shopping landscape. Or check out the various museums and cultural centres.
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 $$ 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.
There are also plenty of great bars and restaurants on Paulista Avenue and the surrounding streets, especially Rua Augusta. For a modern twist on Brazilian cuisine, we visited the Balaio IMS restaurant created by one of Brazil’s top chefs Rodrigo Oliveira. We ordered:
- ‘dadinhos de tapioca’ – fried cubes of tapioca and cheese, crispy and golden on the outside and chewy on the inside. Yum!
- ‘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’ – an amazing guava pie with guava sorbet and pink pepper
If you’re looking to get your taste buds tingling and try out some Brazilian ingredients, this place can definitely be recommended.
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.
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 several museums and a music hall.
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 there. During our one-hour bike ride we got to see huge rubber trees, bamboo alleys, and black swans gliding on the lakes, got to admire colorful murals and the unique architecture of the structures in the park, got to see people practicing yoga, tai chi and other sports in the open air, and……. as I am obsessed with dogs, I couldn’t look past the numerous professional dog-walkers with dozens of furry friends jumping around them.
Just next to Ibirapuera park across a pedestrian bridge, 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, aim for 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 🙂 .
Batman Alley & Vila Madalena
In the Vila Madalena neighbourhood, you’ll find a winding pedestrian street called the Batman Alley (Beco do Batman). If you’re even slightly into street art, this is a place you’re gonna love as the walls of the alley showcase magnificent bright-colored murals, likely the best graffiti art in São Paulo.
The history of the street dates back to 1980s when the first drawing was made on the walls. Surprise surprise – it was a drawing of Batman. Soon after, more images were painted on the walls by local art students that turned the street into an open-air gallery of urban art. Go have a look at the incredibly 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 neighbourhood has a very different vibe from the rest of São Paulo. It is bohemian, it is artsy, and it is 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.
We ended our evening in a well-known Carioca-style (i.e. Rio de Janeiro style) bar called Pirajá with a few fruity caipirinhas and some mouth-watering Brazilian bar snacks. The best coxinhas (teardrop-shaped chicken croquettes) I tried during my stay in Brazil were in Pirajá. I’m getting hungry just by writing about them!
A few nights earlier and a few kilometres southeast of Vila Madalena in the Pinheiros neighbourhood, we spontaneously ended up in Raiz bar without any expectations for the night. To our surprise, we got to experience an absolutely amazing acoustic live music gig. The star of the night was Leo Mancini. If you’re going to São Paulo, do yourself a favour and check if Leo is giving any performances while you’re in town. His range of voice, entertaining character and the ability to communicate with the audience gave me the feeling that I’m watching a theater play and stand-up comedy at the same time. Even a power outage in the middle of the show didn’t keep him from rocking the stage.
The Municipal Market or Mercado Municipal de São Paulo located in the historic centre of the city is kind of a food heaven. The place offers a large variety of products – meat, fish, cheese, spices, nuts, and a mind-blowing selection of tropical fruits which you’ve probably never seen before and can sample for free. Be aware of the ludicrous prices though. For 1kg of assorted exotic fruits, we were asked to pay 79 Reais (18 Euros).
Aside from the fruits, the market is known for the famous Mortadella sandwich containing a ridiculous 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.
For a taste of Asia, head to Liberdade aka the Japantown of São Paulo – the home of the largest Japanese colony outside of Japan. After passing through the traditional Torii gate and seeing the red Japanese lanterns lining the streets, you feel that you’ve been teleported to Asia. The neighbourhood is rather small but full of Asian restaurants and small shops selling Chinese and Japanese decorations and groceries. On weekends, there’s a street market offering oriental street food and handicrafts. Even though the area is nice for a little stroll, I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘must visit’ place. If you’re short on time, I suggest you skip it.
Any questions or comments? Let me know in the comments section below 🙂 .
For the ones that have visited São Paulo – did I miss any cool spots? Please share in the comments so I could check them out next time I visit “Sampa”.
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