Most foreigners have an image of Brazil which includes the beaches of Rio, thick forest of the Amazon, or the Carnivals of Salvador. But Brazil´s 3.3. million mi² makes it nearly the size of the United States and big enough to fit most of Europe inside of it. It´s only logical that an array of different landscapes are spread across this vast country.
When I came down in 2009, I ended up in the mammoth metropolis which is São Paulo City. Stretching over 580 mi² and with a population of over 12 million, it is one of Brazil´s and Latin America´s most important cities. It may not have the street parties of Salvador, the endless beaches of Rio, or the exotic wildlife of the Amazon, but São Paulo has a lot to offer. It´s also my favorite place I´ve been in, thus far, in this enormous country.
Below are ten reasons to love São Paulo (plus an added nugget). However, I am sure you can come up with more, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Cultural Center of Brazil
Brazil has a lot of unique locations that are filled with their own distinct types of music, food, talking, and drink, but São Paulo is the city which reunites them all. Surely there is nothing like actually visiting Minas for its cheeses, Salvador for its Samba, or heading to Rio Grande do Sul for their churrasco; however, there are so many migrants in São Paulo from all those places, and more, that one can get a slice of the entire country´s culture in nearly every neighborhood.
São Paulo also has more than 70 theaters that hold 100 people or more, major sports arenas, a plethora of museums (all free to enter on Tuesdays), and innumerable venues for music concerts and festivals. It is impossible to go a day of the week without finding something going on in this city, even if it´s an erotic poetry reading in one of its more bohemian neighborhoods.
There are other cities in Brazil which can boast about their cultural prowess but don´t sleep on São Paulo as being one of the powerhouses in the country when it comes to getting one´s culture on.
Economic Center of Brazil
Although the city offers cultural events which range from free to very expensive, one must have some money to go and enjoy the sights. Luckily, São Paulo happens to be the richest city in the nation with a lot of jobs to go around. For the foreigner who either wants a traditional job or works with English as a teacher or consultant, it is a gold mine.
Of the multinationals which do business in Brazil, 63% are headquartered in São Paulo and 44% of the registered national companies have their base in the city also. In short, São Paulo is the place to be to make money – and there is a lot of it to be made.
Though the cost of living can range from high to medium, depending on where you choose to live, it´s a safe bet that if you know how to network and have a clear vision of where you want to be economically, you´ll do pretty well for yourself in São Paulo.
World Class Parks and Reserves
Ibirapuera Park was chosen by The Guardian as one of the top parks in the world. This is a well-deserved honor for the sprawling 546-acre park, but it is only one of the many beautiful green areas spread across the great city of São Paulo.
In total there are 113 parks in São Paulo (2017 figures) maintained by either the city or the state government. São Paulo simply excels when it puts its mind to constructing beautiful green recreational areas as mini oases inside the concrete mayhem. A lot of the larger parks also hold food and national and international music festivals on the weekends.
Besides the parks, almost 1/3 of the city is covered in Atlantic Forest, which gives a sharp contrast to the endless sea of buildings in much of the city´s central region. Some of those areas are designated as reserves for hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities. The Cantareira Park, alone, on the north side of São Paulo, takes up around 19,500 acres of land.
You can read about my favorite park, Agua Branca, by clicking here. This particular park is very quaint and almost feels as if someone took a piece of the quiet interior and planted it in the middle of the city. You may also want to take a hike up to the top of Jaraguá Peak and see the entire city from above. You can read about that here.
Mix of People
America owns the moniker “The Great Melting Pot” but Brazil could easily borrow it. This is a country of immigrants from all over the world and São Paulo is where many of the progeny of those immigrants reside.
The different mix of people one sees from neighborhood to neighborhood and even from block to block never ceases to amaze me. And with each shifting landscape comes the cultural differences from food, architecture, music, and festivals.
As I mentioned earlier, the capital also has migrants from around the country, primarily the northeast. The great rush to the city began in the early 20th century but really boomed in the 1930s and later in the 60s and 70s. Because of these large waves of migration, which at times reached the hundreds of thousands per year, São Paulo is a city where you can literally get a taste and feel for the rest of Brazil.
Finally, São Paulo boasts a pretty varied crowd when it comes to lifestyle, music, likes, and dislikes. The contrasts are many and often time jarring. For example, the annual Gay Pride Parade, which is the biggest in the world, takes place on the same day as the March for Jesus, which is one of the largest faith gatherings in the world, and both boast attendance numbers in the millions.
If one takes a walk down Avenida Paulista (São Paulo´s main strip) and some of its side streets, it is not uncommon to see rockers and funkeiros (fans of Brazilian-style funk music), business people and hippies, skaters and nerds, all rubbing shoulders with one another. If you want variety, this is the place to find it.
We talked about the mix of people. Their greatest contribution to the city, in my eyes, is their ability to transform each neighborhood into its own mini-city. It´s possible for two people to live in separate (yet not extremely distant) neighborhoods in São Paulo and feel as if they are in different cities.
São Paulo has old traditional Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods, like Belenzinho or Bixiga, but it also has modern multi-national skyscraped wonders like Berrini and Avenida Paulista. There are Japanese and Korean areas. There are also places like Largo 13 that make you feel like you just took a trip to Bahia or Ceara in the north. And of course, downtown is its own special blend of old-world architecture and new world style.
I, for one, live in a part of São Paulo which feels like the suburbs of New Jersey at times. Houses, little parks, and squares are sprinkled throughout my neighborhood. I am only about 30 minutes from the main business hubs with their modern buildings and endless traffic, but I feel like I actually live outside of the city. There are even horses near my house.
São Paulo really thrives on its diversity and neighborhood pride is strong. Discovering the different styles from rich to poor, to very Brazilian to cosmopolitan, and from traditional to progressive is one of the reasons to visit the city and stick around for a while.
Brazil is not the safest country in the world, but thankfully a lot of the very serious crime is not located in São Paulo. In fact, the capital is not in the top 50 out of the most dangerous cities in the state of São Paulo and is not in the top 100 out of the entire country. This is not to say that crime can´t and doesn´t happen here, but it is very predictable and is more localized than in other places in Brazil.
Homicides have also been on a steady drop in São Paulo, so chances are that even in an armed robbery, most bandits will just want your stuff and then run off. Pretty much, if you don´t act like someone who has never walked around in any large city around the world, chances are that you will be fine in São Paulo.
Nearly everyone I know that has visited the city has had a great time without incident. Bars stay open until the wee hours and revelers can be seen walking home at dawn without a care in the world. Be smart and you shouldn´t have a constant worry or threat of crime riding your shoulder.
For those who do want some safety tips, read an article I wrote on staying safe in São Paulo by clicking here.
Brazil´s culinary options can rightfully be described as pretty bland and boring. Its base is rice, beans, and a piece of meat. One can end up eating that every day of the week if they don´t look hard enough for alternatives, or if they live in areas that are perfectly fine with switching the chicken for a piece of beef and calling that a mixture. Luckily, São Paulo manages to evade that sameness, somewhat.
I believe one of the city´s saving graces, as far as food is concerned, is that Italians make up the bulk of its immigration roots and they brought their cuisine with them. São Paulo is where one can find delicious plates of pasta, Mediterranean salads, and even decent pizza – the latter not being a Brazilian strong suit.
Of course, Italians weren´t the only ones to make São Paulo their home. There are Portuguese and Middle Eastern influences in every bakery and restaurant item you can think of. Sfiha and Kibbeh, for example, are treated like national foods though their origins are Levantine. Codfish is also served in little dumplings or as dinner item almost as readily as any traditional Brazilian dish.
In the last ten years, I have also seen the growth of food choices from places like Mexico, India, Syria, and Thailand. There has been an increase and vegetarian options across the city, as well. Brazilian pallets are evolving and São Paulo is doing a great job to evolve along with them to meet the demand.
Finally, due to the huge migration of people from the rest of the country, Paulistanos have the luxury of eating the best of each region. There are Bahian and Mineiro restaurants all over the city, and Gauchos have made São Paulo a second home for their famous churrasco from the South.
In short, food is a very subjective matter, but I doubt one will go hungry in São Paulo. With restaurant options galore and a weekly feira (food fair) where one can purchase fresh meats and produce, São Paulo truly stands out above the rest when it comes to eating well.
Proximity to Many Cities
São Paulo is not only a metropolis, but it can also be considered part of a megalopolis for its proximity to a number of very large cities. This not only creates an economic and cultural hub but gives one plenty to see and do around a roughly 50-mile radius from the capital. Some of these places include modern-industrial cities like Campinas and São Jose dos Campos in the western interior and the port cities of Santos and Guaruja to the south. If you add in Rio de Janeiro, which is a mere 270 mi to the north, the population of São Paulo´s surrounding area amounts to more than 30 million people – or close to 20% of the entire population of Brazil. Together these regions fuel a lot of what Brazil present to the world.
Although some will choose to live in less populous locations, so as to get away from the madness and mayhem of metropolitan life, São Paulo is a perfect alternative for those who want to have quick access to an assorted number of regions. And remember what I said about neighborhoods in the city, not every place is a sea of skyscrapers. There are quiet little corners in São Paulo which disguise themselves as quaint little suburbs. So, being in the city does not necessarily equate to being part of all its freneticism – only a connection to it.
Free (or very cheap) Stuff To Do
Living in São Paulo can be expensive but to counter that, the city has free events galore. Every night of the week I can go online or in a Facebook group and find live music, poetry readings, athletic events, and even some food fairs. This city is full of free (or very very cheap) options for leisure and entertainment.
One such example of the free-for-all is Avenida Paulista, which closes on Sunday to car traffic and allows pedestrians to wander about. There are live bands and musicians on every corner. These artists replace the usual honking horns and roaring engines with the sweet sound of music, which ranges from hard rock to light bossa nova and even some drag queens and an Elvis impersonator. Pedestrians use this time to wander about as if they were in a mega-sized outdoor picnic.
São Paulo is also home to many SESCs. These are cultural centers which not only have sporting facilities, pools, and gyms but also hold expos and theatrical pieces. If the events at SESC aren´t free, they usually cost very little to attend. If you don´t know about SESC, read my blog post about one of the most famous ones in the city by clicking here.
Another great advantage to the city are the amount of neighborhood cultural centers which hold dance festivals, indie groups, art fairs and a host of other events. One needs simply to look and find.
The best site for being up to date on cultural events in São Paulo is CatracaLivre or Oba Oba. I, however, find that writing keywords on Facebook´s search bar will help you key in on a bit more on lesser-known local events. Happy hunting.
Very Active Expat Community
São Paulo has a super vibrant expat community. There are a bunch of Facebook groups which cater to the needs and questions of this ever-growing group of people. I am an administrator on an expat page of over 3000 people, and we here in São Paulo get out to meet each other a lot to either drink or drink or drink …
In all seriousness, leaving your home country to face a new one is not easy. Having a support community online is helpful, but having a support community on the ground can be even more essential. I wrote a recent blog post about that very subject, which you can read here. The expats I have met in São Paulo have given me real-life experience and advice because they have been in my shoes. I only hope that now I can return the favor.
The city also hosts parties from a variety of expat networks like Internations, The Polyglot Club, MeetUps, Couch Surfing, among others. Chances are that you will be able to find at least one person from your neck of the woods (or other places around the globe) to have fun and network with in the city of São Paulo. And while it´s good to soak in local culture – there´s no place like home.
ONE More Thing – São Paulo has Amazing Street Art!!!
While putting this article together and gathering pictures I have taken over the years, I was reminded of one last special thing I love about São Paulo, the amazing street art. Below are just some of the incredible artwork, which speaks for itself. You can see more on my Instagram page: saopaulotours.
I hope this article has made you understand a bit about the city of São Paulo. It may not have the made-for-postcards facade of other famous places around Brazil, but it is an exciting city with a lot to offer.
I always tell people moving here or passing through that São Paulo requires you to put in some work for it before it reveals its treasures. Once you do, I believe a traveler or a future resident can have a great time working and playing in the city of São Paulo.
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