São Paolo, Brazil isn’t much to look at from afar. It’s a city of bland, dated high rises that sprout as far as the eye can see. And among the concrete jungle and chaos reside more than 20 million people, making it the largest city on the continent, and, depending on your sources, the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
Outshined by its picturesque neighbor Rio de Janeiro, tourists don’t tend to champ at the bit to visit São Paolo. For that matter, I wasn’t planning to visit either. However, as I inched my way south along the tropical coast of Brazil, the megapolis on the other side of the mountains began to pique my curiosity.
Brazilians will often give São Paolo a bad rap due to crime, and maybe rightfully so. The city is admittedly rough around the edges. But instead of focusing on the reason’s not to go, I found out there are plenty positive of reasons to pay a visit.
Here are six aspects of São Paolo that I genuinely enjoyed.
1. Liberdade: São Paolo’s Japantown
Fun fact about São Paolo: the city has the highest concentration of people of Japanese descent in the world outside of Japan.
The abolishment of slavery in Brazil in the late 1800’s coupled with the end of feudalism in Japan created the conditions to incentivize Japanese immigration to Brazil. The vast majority came to work in the booming coffee industry in the states of São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro.
As a result, São Paolo has a lively Japantown. The entrance is marked with a traditional torii gate, the streets are lined with Japanese style lanterns, and good sushi abounds.
I thoroughly enjoyed walking around the streets, getting very affordable all-you-can-eat sushi, and visiting the Museum of Japanese Immigration.
2. The weather
While summertime temperatures can still be quite warm in São Paolo, the city’s 2,500+ feet of elevation creates a climate that is surprisingly refreshing when compared to the suffocating humidity of the coast.
The lower humidity was noticeable when I arrived at high noon, making the powerful heat more manageable and allowing me to go walk around outside (something I would not dare do on the coast without extreme sun protection).
I also got one of my best night’s sleep in months in São Paolo. Temperatures pleasantly dipped down into the 60’s (F) in the evening — a welcomed development after many sleepless, sweaty nights on the coast.
3. Sunday morning bike rides
On Sunday mornings, São Paolo shuts down its main boulevard to vehicle traffic, and opens up the road to pedestrians and cyclists.
I snagged one of the shared city bikes and did laps around the mile-long corridor. It was a nice way to experience Avenida Paulista and a great incentive to get the city’s residents outside and be active.
Rio de Janeiro has a similar program in place as well. I think it’s something that US cities should look into adopting.
4. Urban nature at Ibirapuera Park
When you are feeling overwhelmed by city life, you can escape for some fresh air in Ibirapuera Park. Complete with bike lanes, open fields, volleyball courts, and lakes, spending some time at the park is probably a necessity for Paulistas to stay sane and balanced.
As a general note, São Paolo could definitely use more green spaces, but Ibirapuera Park is definitely a great start.
5. The murals of Batman Alley
The entire city of São Paolo is covered in murals and graffiti. Whether on the side of sky scrapers, or hidden in an obscure alley, there is tons of graffiti that add vibrance and color to the monotonous city life.
One of the best mural displays is Beco do Batman (Batman’s Alley), where there is an entire corridor of murals of all styles. I meandered around the alley, enjoying the art and chatting with one of the artists at work.
It’s a little removed from the center of the city, but a short metro ride and a 15 minute walk is well worth the trip.
6. A bird’s eye view from Terraço Italia
For 50 reais, or about USD $10, you can take an elevator to the top of one of the city’s tallest buildings to enjoy the sights from above.
Terraço Italia is a restaurant, but if you are traveling on a budget, like me, you can pay to just go on the observation deck. I rode the elevator up to the 41st floor and emerged in my boardshorts and t-shirt, starkly contrasted against the tuxedo wearing host. I wasn’t there to eat, so I just went outside and enjoyed using my camera to zoom in on all corners of the city.
As a bonus, the restaurant gave me a free pineapple juice. Worth it.
Worth a visit
While I wouldn’t put São Paolo high on the list of global destinations to visit, for those who are traveling in this neck of the woods, it’s definitely worth a pit stop to experience the metropolitan life of the country. The Paulistas live in an entirely different world than their beachfront compatriots, and I think it’s great to see both sides of the coin.
Brazilian’s opinions of São Paolo are quite polarized. Some will make you feel like you are entering a war zone, while others will make it seem like a can’t-miss destination. While I am sure there is a great deal of trouble awaiting those who go looking for it, as with most big cities in the world, common sense and general caution will go a long way.
I can say that I genuinely did enjoy my whirlwind two-day trip in the city, and while I think one visit was enough for now, there are definitely enough reasons for a traveler to stop by.