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Originally a mission station set up in 1554 by Jesuit priests on the banks of the Rio Tiete, the city of São Paulo is today a sprawling megalopolis, and the industrial and commercial powerhouse of Brazil.
The city grew wealthy on coffee cultivation in the mid-19th century thanks to the rich soil of the region, and the plantation owners took up residence in the bustling regional centre. Gradually, the coffee barons diversified their interests and invested some of their wealth in local industry, resulting in a demand for labour and a resultant surge in the city's immigrant population. Today, 12 million proud Paulistanos live in the congested, chaotic and cosmopolitan city centre and its sprawling surrounds.
Lacking in natural attractions, the city's leisure pursuits are mainly cultural and artistic, and there are some impressive public buildings to delight sightseers, as well as some top-notch museums, theatres, bars and some of the best shopping in Brazil. Neighbourhoods such as Bela Vista and Bixiga are highly photogenic, with ornate mansions and impressive skyscrapers.
São Paulo is a fast-paced urban jungle, which dwarfs New York City in size several times over. But a holiday in São Paulo is definitely not for those who come to South America for laid-back beaches and a carnival atmosphere. What it does offer, though, is brilliant shopping, eating and nightlife, and the opportunity to live it up among Brazil's wealthiest inhabitants.
The Parque do Ibirapuera is a large park near the centre of Sao Paulo with many interesting features, including a planetarium, a Japanese pavilion, a gymnasium, the Obelisk of Sao Paulo (a symbol of the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932), and the Cicillo Matarazzo Pavilion, which houses the Museum of Contemporary Art and is typically the venue for large events like the São Paulo Art Biennial and São Paulo Fashion Week. The park is home to many other museums, including the Air Force Museum and Folklore Museum. It also has jogging and walking trails and a picturesque lake. Generally the park is a good spot to explore for those wanting a bit of holiday exercise or some fresh air in the heart of this sprawling city.
The Parque do Ibirapuera is a large and celebrated park near the centre of São Paulo, and is home to a planetarium, a Japanese pavilion, a gymnasium, the Obelisk of São Paulo (a symbol of the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932), and the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, which houses the Museum of Contemporary Art and is typically the venue for large events such as the São Paulo Art Biennial and São Paulo Fashion Week. The park also contains a number of other museums, while also boasting jogging and walking trails and a picturesque lake. Generally the park is a good spot to explore for those wanting a bit of holiday exercise or just some fresh air in the heart of this sprawling city.
This cultural centre and concert venue is located in what was once the Julio Prestes Train Station, an imposing and meticulously restored building. The highlight of the centre is the Sala São Paulo, a concert venue which seats nearly 1,500 people and is home to the renowned São Paulo State Symphonic Orchestra (OSESP). Specifically designed as a venue for symphonic and chamber music, the Sala has world-class acoustics and is the best place for classical music lovers to catch a concert in the city. Other events are also hosted at the cultural centre, including a vast variety of musical concerts, with pop and rock featuring alongside the traditional, classical offerings.
Despite its reputation as a grey urban metropolis, there is plenty for kids to see and do in São Paulo. The city's wide array of museums and cultural centres offer children fun and educational experiences, while the various parks and gardens give them a chance to run around and let off some steam.
São Paulo's museums cover so many themes and areas of interest that there's bound to be one for everyone, like the Science Station in Lapa for instance, which is housed in a formerly abandoned factory, and has children's exhibits dedicated to astronomy, physics, meteorology, maths, geology, geography and more.
The São Paulo Zoo is another great option, giving kids the opportunity to interact with a variety of animals, both native and exotic. Environmentalists can rest easy in the knowledge that many of the animals, including the lions, giraffes, bears and elephants, were rescued from circuses, while the zoo is focused on conservation of indigenous animals such as marmosets, macaws and neotropical cats.
There are a lot of other great parks in São Paulo too, including the acclaimed Ibirapuera Park, which has great family attractions such as a planetarium, gymnasium and Air Force Museum. The Parque Siqueira Campos has a miniature rainforest, while the Praça da República is ideal for family picnics.
Other kids' attractions in São Paulo include several amusement parks perfect for families. The Playcenter in Barra Funda has Brazil's biggest roller coaster, along with other rides and games. It's conveniently located within walking distance from the metro. The city centre is also where you'll find children's attractions dedicated to South American pop culture figures such as television personality Xuxa and comic book character Mônica.
Less central is Hopi Hari, a large amusement park about 45 miles (72km) north of São Paulo. The park has several themed areas focusing on European and local culture, and rides including roller coasters, a haunted house and a Ferris wheel.
On hot days, families should head to Wet'n Wild, about 50 minutes' drive from São Paulo. The popular water park offers water slides, wave pools, a lazy river, and 'Bubble Up' attraction as ways to beat the Brazilian heat.
Cold days are also taken care of if you head 34 miles (54km) out of town to Ski Mountain Park, which offers skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing, a skating rink and more. There's also horseback riding, mountain biking and a playground for the summertime, giving older kids and teens something to do in São Paulo all year long.
Taxis to theme parks outside of town can be expensive, but most have dedicated buses that leave from various points around the city every morning.
The climate of Sao Paulo is a humid subtropical one and may not be as congenial as other Brazilian cities, but it is warm and sunny enough by world standards. The weather remains mild to warm all year round, the lowest average temperatures of around 58°F (14°C) being experienced during July and the summer averages of around 73°F (23°C) being enjoyed during the hottest month of February. Summer is rainy season (October to March), and winter is dry season (April to September). Sao Paulo receives around 56 inches (142cm) of rain a year, mostly during the summer months.
Although São Paulo's carnival is less famous than Rio's, travellers will still be enthralled by its glittering, colourful and riotous festivities. Travellers might even find that the comparative lack of tourists makes the festival seem more authentic, while tickets are also significantly cheaper and easier to come by in São Paulo. The main parades (blocos) make their way down Avenue Paulista, and the samba school competitions that form the backbone of the festival programme are held in the Sambodromo, which accommodates up to 30,000 people. As elsewhere in Brazil, the residents of São Paulo dress up in vibrant costumes to celebrate carnival with lots of street parties and unbridled revelry.
The bumpy Autódromo José Carlos Pace in the Interlagos neighbourhood of São Paulo is not a favourite with the drivers, but it's one of the most thrilling circuits for spectators. The track is 10 miles (16km) from the city centre and is a challenging course, making for an exciting and often unpredictable race. There is always a great atmosphere, with the stands often filled with the yellow, blue and green of the Brazilian colours.
The São Paulo LGBTQ Pride Parade is one of the city's major events and the highlight of a month-long programme that includes parties, street fairs, film festivals, shows and the traditional Gay Day at Hopi Hari Amusement Park. The São Paulo LGBTQ Pride Parade is said to be the biggest of its kind in the world, having grown from 2,000 people in 1997 to include more than a whopping five million people today, who gather on the streets waving rainbow flags in condemnation of homophobia, racism and sexism. As with most Pride parades, many people choose to dress up extravagantly and the parade is accompanied by lots of fringe parties and festivities.
São Paulo's nightlife is a reflection of its cosmopolitan image. Its bars and clubs are spread out around the city, though you'll find clusters in neighbourhoods such as Vila Olímpia, where the clubs are popular with twentysomethings, while Vila Madalena is dotted with restaurants and bars that might appeal more to discerning revellers in their thirties. Because bars and clubs are so dispersed, it may be a good idea to stick to venues in one area, rather than running up large taxi bills getting caught in São Paulo's late-night traffic jams. It's also not advised to walk around the city at night.
Bars in São Paulo have their own system for payment. Instead of or in addition to the entry charge, there will be a drink minimum. You'll get a card that will record all your expenses for the night, and pay everything when you leave. Be careful not to lose this card, as the penalty is steep.
Live music in São Paulo is among the best in Brazil, with styles to suit every taste. The formal Teatro Municipal and the Sala São Paulo, where the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra performs, have good programmes of classical music, theatre and dance, with the former hosting regular Brazilian contemporary dance performances. For a more relaxed evening, head to Bourbon Street, a popular jazz club founded by BB King himself. Villa Country hosts Brazilian country music, while Armazém da Vila plays pagoda, which is a simpler form of samba.
If a night of dancing is preferred, São Paulo has many options for that too. Azucar has a reputation as the best Latin dance spot in the city, with meringue, salsa and mambo playing well into the wee hours. Bar Favela is also a popular option, and includes pop and hip hop music along with Latin dance. Blen Blen Brasil is another local favourite, with a more relaxed and eclectic feel, alternating between DJs and live bands. If you're unsure of your steps, you can go to the Buena Vista Club, which offers dance lessons in traditional Latin club styles such as the gafieira and the zouk.
São Paulo also has a few popular gay clubs such as Hot Hot, Bubu Lounge Disco and The Week. Visitors should be aware of local terms: the words boate or boite, which in Rio mean "nightclub", refer almost exclusively to sex clubs and strip bars in São Paulo.
São Paulo's party scene is a late one, with most Paulistas (locals) not going out until midnight. In fact, there's a saying in the city: 'when the sun comes up, you hardly notice'.
For more detailed info on events, we recommend checking out the Folha de São Paulo website, while Veja magazine also has a good entertainment guide that comes out on Sundays.
Shopping in São Paulo is a big deal, as the city is Brazil's major luxury shopping destination. Visitors will find designer labels and haute couture to rival the best boutiques of New York or London, alongside small outdoor craft markets and everything in between.
If the travel budget allows, there's no better place to look for Brazilian fashion than São Paulo. Neighbourhoods such as Jardins, Rua Augusta or Alameda Lorena have many high-end fashion boutiques carrying local designer labels like Animale, Victor Dzenk, Ellus and Totem.
The city has a few worthwhile outdoor markets too, including the Saturday market Feira do Bixiga, which offers crafts, antiques, clothing and live music; and Feira Moderna, which is set in a flower garden with a relaxed cafe, and carries high-end local goods. The Museu de Arte hosts an antique fair every Sunday, and the predominantly Japanese neighbourhood of Liberdade has its own Saturday market.
There isn't a central shopping district in São Paulo, but stores tend to be clustered in groups: Rua 25 de Março has an abundance of market stalls, while Daslu is a posh department store catering to every whim, from free espresso and a sushi bar to designer labels.
There are also a few shopping malls in São Paulo, including Patio Higienópolis, Morumbi and Iguatemi. These tend toward upscale stores, with fine dining and expensive boutiques next to cinemas and food courts.
Popular souvenirs to buy in São Paulo include religious antiques, soapstone carvings, leather goods and gemstone jewellery carved into shapes like toucans, jaguars and other wild animals.
Shops in São Paulo accept credit cards with few exceptions. Sales tax is 18 percent, and there is no tax refund scheme for departing tourists in Brazil. High-end stores won't bargain but feel free to haggle at markets.
In a huge city such as São Paulo, roads can be extremely congested, with peak traffic between the hours of 6am to 9am and 4pm to 8pm. Driving is not recommended in the city, as parking can be as much of a problem as the traffic. Fortunately, there are hundreds of buses covering the city, though these can be rather crowded and slow during peak hours, and also won't stop unless hailed from the sidewalk.
The subway system is usually the fastest option for getting around in São Paulo. The metro system consists of five colour-coded lines: Line 1 (Blue), Line 2 (Green), Line 3 (Red), Line 4 (Yellow) and Line 5 (Lilac), all of which operate from Sunday to Friday, from 4.40am to midnight, and on Saturdays until 1am.
We recommend tourists invest in a Bilhete Único, which is a smartcard that simplifies payment on São Paulo's buses, subways and trains. Visitors can buy these at underground stations and charge them at convenient locations such as newspaper stands.
Taxis are freely available and we'd advise tourists to make use of them after dark. White cabs can be found at stands near big venues and central areas. Radio taxis are more reputable and favoured by tourists, but are more expensive and must be ordered by phone. There's also the option of ride-sharing apps, such as Uber and Lyft.
São Paulo is large and spread out. You won't be able to walk everywhere, but the various neighbourhoods are easy to negotiate on foot and are usually safe by day.
Beneath São Paulo's urban exterior exterior beats the heart of a vibrant cultural and artistic metropolis. The city's artistic community is large, with many art galleries and museums scattered throughout. Clustered in neighbourhoods like Jardins, Cerqueira César and Bela Vista, visitors will find both local and international talent at the likes of the Luisa Strina Gallery, Arte 57 Escritorio de Arte, Choque Cultural Gallery and the Museu da Tatuagem (Museum of Tattooing). São Paulo also boasts a number of interesting museums, including those dedicated to immigrants, the African Diaspora, the Japanese community, revolutionary heroes, and Brazilian language and literature.
Of course, São Paulo is the home of Brazil's famous and fascinating combination of dance and martial art: capoeira. There are several capoeira schools for tourists wanting to give it a try, including the Salão De Festas or Academia Spah.
The city is also blessed with plenty of green spaces, including the manicured Botanical Gardens, the São Paulo Zoo and the miniature rainforest in the Parque Siqueira Campos. The Praça da República in the city centre is surprisingly green as well, with lagoons, a fountain and a bandstand.
Architecture enthusiasts will marvel at São Paulo's collection of interesting buildings, including whimsical Victorian mansions in Bela Vista, and modern skyscrapers such as the curving Edifício Copan, the colourful Instituto Tomie Ohtake, the Victorian train station Estação da Luz and the Baroque cathedral Igreja de São Francisco de Assis. The Italia and Banespa buildings offer panoramic views of São Paulo from their viewing decks.
Most attractions in São Paulo are easy to get to through a combination of walking and taking the metro. Pickpockets and muggings are common, but visitors are generally safe in well-populated areas during the day. We'd advise that tourists just keep their wits about them and remain vigilant.
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