São Paulo is so big that if you come for a short stay without a game plan, you may find yourself bored and leaving with a bad impression. It is not a place that strikes one as beautiful or even fun at first sight, but it has many hidden (and not so hidden) treasures. So here are a few tips for enjoying one of the largest cities in the world while on your short visit. If you are planning a long stay read this.
1. Study up before you come.
Find some people that already live in São Paulo and pick their brains. There are plenty of expat groups on Facebook (like this one here) filled with people who can help you along. While you may have found a hotel in a nice area, you may discover that after business hours the same area can turn into a ghost town. Knowing the right neighborhoods, bairros in Portuguese, to visit is essential to having a good time in São Paulo. Bairros like Jardins, Bela Vista, Pinheiros, Vila Madalena, Bixiga, Liberdade, all cater to the tourists. They offer the best in music, bars, clubs, restaurants, shopping and entertainment, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.
2. Hire a tour guide.
If you don´t know anyone in the city then no worries – there are many touring agencies in São Paulo like this one here. Options range from graffiti tours, restaurant tours, downtown tours, park tours, and even personalized tours. Taking a tour is the simplest way to get to know the city quickly. São Paulo is a city that requires your participation in order to be appreciated. If you don´t put in some effort, you may go back home underwhelmed.
3. Be vigilant but to a limit.
I have lived in São Paulo since 2009 and have only heard of a few cases of thieves who snatch and run (although downtown SP had a growth in this in the last few years with kids on bikes grabbing cell phones while users were distracted). In comparison, I was only in Rio for one day and it happened to my brother-in-law: a kid ran up with his bike and tried to snatch his necklace from behind. One guess as to why this doesn’t happen much in São Paulo is the logistics of the city: it is very big and crowded, which makes for a difficult escape. Also, Paulistanos, people from São Paulo, are a generally tougher crowd. I have seen my share of thieves run down and beat up. Paulistanos like to flash their bling, and they won´t let much get in the way of that. São Paulo does have its share of armed muggings, though. Assailants usually look for victims who are distracted or away from crowds thus appearing more vulnerable. So it’s always good to be vigilant, but there is no need to leave the house with nothing but the shirt on your back.
4. Find your tribe and enjoy the nightlife.
A common comparison between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is that Rio is a day city while São Paulo is a night city. Sampa, as the city is lovingly called by its citizens, does indeed have some very exciting nightlife that caters to every imaginable taste – and maybe even some unimaginable ones too. There are countless clubs, bars, and dance house scattered through the metropolis. What´s more, one can go from an electronica scene to a hardcore metal scene to a pseudo-hipster scene in the space of a few blocks. For the most part, these different groups get along fine and are pretty accepting of new entrants to their circle. So if you know what tribe fits you, google a joint that caters to that and fling yourself into the nightlife. Make sure to have a few drinks at the local bars (or gas stations) with friends in the traditional esquenta (warm up) before hitting the dance floor, you’ll not only be mixing in with the natives but saving yourself a lot of money (drinks at the club are expensive). Clubs only start packing after 12 or 1 am, so don’t worry about arriving late.
5. Don’t book stays at super expensive hotels.
There is no need to spend all of your cash on a expensive hotel in a more central area of the city when some of the mid-priced places in more residential areas will accommodate you just fine for a few nights. If you are a light traveller, the hostels, also called an albergue in Portuguese, can be a fun option to consider. They have a university feel, with bars and lounges. There is a near guarantee that you will make plenty of new acquaintances with which to explore São Paulo.
6. Watch the clock.
Trains and buses do not run for 24 hours. The subway closes at midnight (1 am on Saturdays), and usually, buses will run for about an hour after the subway closes. Although there have been some 24-hour bus lines implemented, they are far and few between and the buses arrive once every hour. If you go out at night, plan to stay out until the morning or have enough money for a taxi or an Über back home. Depending on where you go, taking a taxi or Über may be much cheaper than paying for parking.
7. Make sure you visit a park.
São Paulo has some beautiful parks. The never ending feel of the city makes it a constant presence looming over you, so taking a weekend stroll is highly recommended. This may take a little planning as far as the logistics to get to each place, but it will be well worth your while. Some parks are so large and full of green that you could even forget that you are in South America’s biggest concrete jungle.
8. Be prepared to walk.
Brazilians are all about spur of the moment, and Paulistanos are no different, so a night out usually means a romp through São Paulo. Do not assume that the place you planned to meet is the place you will stay at all night. Before you reach your final destination you may do some serious bar hopping, chat it up on the streets, stop to eat or drink something from a sidewalk vendor, check out a new food truck park that has recently popped up, listen to a street band play, or even catch a ride to the other side of town to get to that party someone in your group’s just got tipped off to. If you are not a mover, you are going to feel very small in this very big place.
9. Visit a mall.
There is a saying here in Brazil, “the mall is the Paulistano’s beach.” Numerous shopping centres are quite luxurious and offer a great escape from the city noise, most importantly, they have air conditioning. In the better malls, you can find good restaurants, fine shops, various cafes, cinemas and even activities for the kids. Where I come from, the mall was a place where middle-aged women would speed walk on the weekends in sweats or leg warmers. Here in São Paulo, you should dress well because an outing to the shopping, as it’s called, is considered serious business.
10. Visit downtown.
Center City São Paulo is not a place I would recommend for first-timers to go to at night, but during the day it is pretty fabulous. Yes, it’s rough around the edges, but it’s also where you can see the impressive old city style architecture, mix in with a myriad of people from all social classes, and feel the pulse of the heart of the city. The best part about old city is that mostly everything is within walking distance. If you have a big appetite you can go to the famous Municipal Market of São Paulo. If you want to shop, you can be engulfed by the vibrant energy and insane commerce of Rua 25 de Março. If you want to see something completely different, you can head to Liberdade, which is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan in the world. If you simply prefer to wander around, you can watch various street performers on the wide walkways. As always, stay sharp and beware of con-artists and pickpockets. Downtown can be a lot of fun, but it’s fast-paced and you need to be street-wise. If you feel adventurous and want to enjoy the downtown night, you can really have a good time – just prepare to deal with the crazies that come out of their daytime hibernation.
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Next read about tips for those coming to São Paulo for a long stay at this link.