São Paulo Travel Guide

São Paulo, the country’s most populous state and home to by far its biggest city, is Brazil’s economic powerhouse. Home to nearly half the country’s industrial output, it is also an agricultural sector that produces, among other things, more orange juice than any single nation worldwide. Its eponymous city boasts a dizzying variety of cultural centres and art galleries, and the noise from its vibrant fashion and music scenes is heard around the globe. Although most people come to the state in order to visit the city merely for business, São Paulo has numerous attractions other than the concrete jungle at its heart. The beaches north of the important port of Santos – especially on Ilhabela – rival Rio’s best; those to the south, near Iguape and Cananéia, remain relatively unspoiled. Inland, the state is dominated by agribusiness, with seemingly endless fields of cattle pasture, sugar cane, oranges and soya interspersed with anonymous towns where the agricultural produce is processed; additionally, some impressive fazenda houses remain as legacies of the days when São Paulo’s economy was pretty well synonymous with coffee production. To escape scorching summer temperatures, or for the novelty in tropical Brazil of a winter chill, you can head to Campos do Jordão, one of the country’s highest settlements and a kitsch Alpine-style resort seen through a peculiarly Brazilian lens.

São Paulo state

Away from São Paulo city, the state’s main attraction is its coastline. Santos, Brazil’s leading port, retains many links with the past, and a number of the beaches stretching north and south from the city are stunning, particularly around Ubatuba. The towns and cities of the state’s interior are not so great an attraction – the rolling countryside is largely devoted to vast orange groves and fields of soya and sugar. Fortunately, good-quality roads run through this region, including major routes to the Mato Grosso and Brasília.

The interior

Although there’s not much to hold your interest inland from São Paulo, Santa Bárbara d’Oeste has traces of Confederate history, while more recent Dutch immigrant arrivals have had a far greater impact on nearby Holambra. Further into the interior is coffee country, where it’s possible to visit some old fazenda houses. To escape the summer heat, the resort of Campos do Jordão, northeast of the city, offers some attractive hill scenery and hiking possibilities.

Confederates in São Paulo

In the face of humiliation, military defeat and economic devastation, thousands of former Confederates from the American South resolved to “reconstruct” themselves in often distant parts of the world, forcing a wave of emigration without precedent in the history of the United States. Brazil rapidly established itself as one of the main destinations, offering cheap land, a climate suited to familiar crops, political and economic stability, religious freedom and – more sinisterly – the possibility of continued slave ownership. Just how many Confederates came is unclear; suggested numbers vary between 2000 and 20,000, and they settled all over Brazil, though it was in São Paulo that they had the greatest impact. While Iguape, on the state’s southern stretch of coast, had a large Confederate population, the most concentrated area of settlement was the Santa Bárbara colony, in the area around present-day Santa Bárbara d’Oeste.

The region’s climate and soil were ideally suited to the growing of cotton and the Confederates’ expertise soon made Santa Bárbara d’Oeste one of Brazil’s biggest producers of the crop. As demand for Brazilian cotton gradually declined, many of the immigrants switched to sugar cane, which remains the area’s staple crop, though others, unable to adapt, moved into São Paulo city or returned to the United States. Today as many as 100,000 people claim descent from these Confederate exiles.

Fazenda Pinhal

During the late nineteenth-century coffee boom, the interior of São Paulo state was synonymous with coffee, and the area around São Carlos, now a bustling university city 140km northwest of Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, was particularly productive. Today the farms around the city are largely given over to sugar cane and oranges, and little evidence remains of the area’s coffee-producing past. However, the Fazenda Pinhal, one of the oldest surviving and best-preserved rural estates in the state of São Paulo, is well worth a visit. The casa grande, the main house, was built in 1831 and, typical of the period, modelled after the large, comfortable Portuguese city dwellings of the eighteenth century; it still retains its original furnishings and there are numerous outbuildings, including senzalas, the slave quarters. It’s possible to stay the night in tasteful, country-style rooms on the estate. The fazenda is an easy day-trip from Campinas – and, at a stretch, São Paulo – but you’ll need your own transport. Located off the SP-310 highway, at Km 227 take the exit for Riberão Bonito and then turn immediately onto the much smaller Estrada da Broa. After about 4km you’ll see a sign marking the fazenda’s entrance. It’s essential to call in advance; the entrance charge is R$15, plus R$40 for an excellent two-hour tour – a fixed fee for either a large group or an individual.

The coast

Despite its proximity to the city, most of the 400km of São Paulo’s coast have, until recently, been overlooked by sun and beach fiends in favour of more glamorous Rio. But don’t listen to cariocas who sniff that the state’s beaches aren’t up to par; by European or North American standards, many are pretty fabulous. Nevertheless, foreign visitors are relatively rare, and most services are aimed at Brazilians. To the northeast, following the coast up to the border with Rio state, the area is developing all too rapidly, but this part of the coast still offers great contrasts, ranging from long, wide stretches of sand at the edge of a coastal plain to idyllic-looking coves beneath a mountainous backdrop. Having the use of a car is an advantage for exploring the more isolated, less spoilt, beaches ( for car rental info); however, if it’s a lively beach resort like Guarujá you’re after, public transport can take you there from São Paulo in less than half a day. Southwest of Santos, tourism remains low-key, in part because the roads aren’t as good, but also because the beaches simply aren’t as beautiful.

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written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 26.04.2021

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