São Paulo city

Rio is a beauty. But São Paulo – São Paulo is a city.

– Marlene Dietrich

Nicknamed “Sampa” – the title of a well-known Caetano Veloso song about the city, in which he admits that, “When I arrived here I didn’t understand the hard concrete poetry of your streets and the discreet casual beauty of your girls” – São Paulo does not have an immediately appealing aesthetic. It’s a place most people come for business; residents of the city, paulistanos, boast frequently of their work ethic, supposedly superior to what dominates the rest of Brazil, and speak contemptuously of the idleness of cariocas (in reply, cariocas joke sourly that paulistanos are simply incapable of enjoying anything – sex in particular).

Increasingly, though, visitors are also coming to São Paulo to play. Often described, not inaccurately, as “the New York of the tropics”, the city lays claim to having surpassed Rio as Brazil’s cultural centre, with a lively and varied programme of exhibitions and shows; its food is often excellent, in part thanks to immigrants from so many areas of the world and a new wave of imaginative cooks; its wide range of stores make it Latin America’s best place to shop; and its vibrant nightlife has put it firmly on the international clubbing map. With over 70 museums, 120 theatres, 50 parks, dozens of cinemas – and not forgetting 15,000 bars – you certainly have no excuse for being bored in São Paulo.

Immigration and São Paulo

São Paulo is a city built on immigrants; largely due to new arrivals, São Paulo’s population grew a hundred-fold in 75 years to make it the country’s second-largest city by 1950. Besides sheer numbers, the mass influx of people had a tremendous impact on the character of the city, breaking up the existing social stratification and removing economic and political power from the traditional elite groups at a much earlier stage than in other Brazilian cities.

Although there had been attempts at introducing Prussian share-croppers in the 1840s, mass immigration didn’t begin until the late 1870s. Initially, conditions were appalling upon arrival; many immigrants succumbed to malaria or yellow fever while waiting in Santos to be transferred inland, where they were to work on the coffee plantations. In response to criticisms, the government opened the Hospedaria dos Imigrantes in 1887, a hostel in the eastern suburb of Brás, now converted to a museum (see São Bento).

Immigration to São Paulo is most closely associated with the Italians, who constituted 46 percent of all arrivals between 1887 and 1930. In general, soon after arriving in Brazil they would be transported to a plantation, but most slipped away within a year to seek employment in the city or to continue on south to Argentina. The rapidly expanding factories in the districts of Brás, Moóca and Belém, east of the city centre, were desperately short of labour, and well into the twentieth century the population of these bairros was largely Italian. But it is Bela Vista (or, in popular parlance, Bixiga ) where the Italian influence has been most enduring, as catalogued in the Museu Memória do Bixiga. Originally home to freed slaves, Bela Vista had by the early 1900s established itself as São Paulo’s “Little Italy”. As immigration from Italy began to slow in the late 1890s, arrivals from other countries increased. From 1901 to 1930 Spaniards (especially Galicians) made up 22 percent, and Portuguese 23 percent, of immigrants, but their language allowed them to assimilate very quickly. Only Tatuapé developed into a largely Portuguese bairro.

The first 830 Japanese immigrants arrived in 1908 in Santos, from where they were sent on to the coffee plantations. By the mid-1950s a quarter of a million Japanese had emigrated to Brazil, most of them settling in São Paulo state. Unlike other nationalities, the rate of return migration among them has always been small: many chose to remain in agriculture, often as market gardeners, at the end of their contract. The city’s large Japanese community is centred on Liberdade, a bairro just south of the Praça da Sé and home to the excellent Museu da Imigração Japonesa.

São Paulo’s Arab community is also substantial. Arabs started arriving in the early twentieth century from Syria and Lebanon and, because they originally travelled on Turkish passports, are still commonly referred to as turcos. Typically starting out as itinerant traders, the community was soon associated with small shops, and many Arabs become extremely successful in business. Numerous boutiques in the city’s wealthy bairros are Arab-owned, but it’s in the streets around Rua 25 de Março, north of Praça da Sé, that the community is concentrated.

The Jewish community has prospered in São Paulo, too. Mainly of East European origin, many of the city’s Jews started out as roaming pedlars before settling in Bom Retiro, a bairro near Luz train station. As they became richer, they moved to the suburbs to the south of the city, in particular to Higienópolis, but some of the businesses in the streets around Rua Correia de Melo are still Jewish-owned and there’s a synagogue in the area. As the Jews moved out, Greeks started moving in during the 1960s, followed in larger numbers by Koreans. The area has long been known as a centre of the rag trade and in the Korean-owned sweatshops the latest immigrant arrivals – Bolivians and Chinese – are employed, often illegally and amid appalling work conditions.

The São Paulo Bienal

The São Paulo Bienal (w www.bienalsaopaulo.globo.com) has been held in the Parque do Ibirapuera every two years since 1951. It’s widely considered to be the most important exhibition of contemporary visual art in Latin America and is only rivalled in the world by the similar event held in Venice. Each country sponsors work by its most influential contemporary artists, while a select few artists (living or dead) are also chosen by the Bienal’s curators. At best, the Bienal can be an exhilarating venue to see important retrospectives and experience a wealth of innovative art, but at worst it can be little more than an embarrassing – or amusing – showing of fourth-rate global art. The Bienal is now held in October and November in even-numbered years.

Around São Paulo

What only a few years ago were clearly identifiable small towns or villages are today part of Greater São Paulo. Despite the traffic, however, escaping from the city centre is surprisingly easy, and there are even some points on the coast that can make for good excursions (see Santos).


For most of its history, communications from São Paulo to the outside world were slow and difficult. In 1856 the British-owned São Paulo Railway Company was awarded the concession to operate a rail line between Santos and Jundaí, 70km north of São Paulo city, in what was then a developing coffee-growing region. The 139-kilometre line was completed in 1867, remaining under British control until 1947. Overcoming the near-vertical incline of the Serra do Mar that separates the interior of the state from the coast, the line was an engineering miracle and is gradually being restored.

Paranapiacaba, 40km southeast of São Paulo and the last station before the rack railway plunges down the coastal escarpment, was the administrative and engineering centre for the rail line and at one time home to four thousand workers, many of them British. Neatly laid out in the 1890s in a grid pattern, the village has remained largely unchanged over the years. All that remains of the original train station is the clock tower, said to be a replica of London’s Big Ben, but the workers’ cottages, locomotive sheds (which house old British-built carriages and steam engines) and funicular cable station are in an excellent state of preservation; some are even open to the public. On a hilltop overlooking the village you’ll find the wooden Victorian-style Castelinho; once the residence of the chief engineer, today the building houses the Centro Preservação da História de Paranapiacaba, which displays old maps and photographs of the rail line’s early years.

You don’t have to be a railway buff to appreciate Paranapiacaba, however. The village is set amidst one of the best preserved areas of Mata Atlântica in the country and most visitors use it as a starting place for fairly serious hikes into the thickly forested Parque Estadual da Serra do Mar, notable for its amazing orchids and bromeliads. Employing a guide is strongly advised as trails are unmarked, often very narrow and generally hard going, and poisonous snakes are common. There’s an office of the association of licensed guides as you enter the settlement from the station; expect to pay around R$60 for a day and bring food, drink and sturdy footwear. The weather in this region is particularly unreliable but, as a general rule, if it’s cloudy in São Paulo you can count on there being rain in Paranapiacaba.

Getting to Paranapiacaba is easy. Take a train from São Paulo’s Luz station to Rio Grande da Serra (every 15min; 45min; R$2.50), where, if you’re lucky, there’ll be a connecting service continuing the two stops to Paranapiacaba. If there’s no train, take a bus from outside the station (R$2.40), or a taxi (about R$15). Most visitors return to São Paulo the same day, but guides can point you towards villagers who charge around R$25 per person for simple bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Avoiding trouble in São Paulo

Assaults and robberies are favourite topics of conversation amongst paulistanos, with the city’s crime statistics consistently higher than those of Rio. Nevertheless, by using a little common sense you’re unlikely to encounter problems. With such a mixture of people in São Paulo, you’re far less likely to be assumed to be a foreigner than in most parts of Brazil, and therefore won’t make such an obvious target for pickpockets and other petty thieves.

At night, pay particular attention around the central red-light district of Luz, location of the city’s main train stations and – though not as bad – around Praça da República. Also take care late at night in Bixiga (also known as Bela Vista), or if you venture into Praça Roosevelt. Always carry at least some money in an immediately accessible place so that, if you are accosted by a mugger, you can quickly hand something over before he starts getting angry or panicky. If in any doubt at all about visiting an area you don’t know, don’t hesitate to take a taxi.


Although São Paulo’s Carnaval is not as spectacular or glamorous as its carioca sister, neither is it low-key. São Paulo has its own enthusiastically supported samba schools, which spend all year preparing for the festival and collectively form the union of paulistano samba schools, UESP (t 11/3171-3713, w www.uesp.com.br). As in Rio, the samba competition takes the form of a massive parade, held in the Oscar Niemeyer–designed sambódromo, a 530m-long stadium that can accommodate around 26,000 and is part of the huge Parque Anhembi leisure complex, near the Tietê bus terminal north of the city centre. Ticket prices are cheaper than their Rio counterparts, starting at around R$15 for a bench seat up in the gods – where you’ll get a flavour of the event but won’t see very much – and rising to around R$1000 for a seat in a VIP box. In general, the closer you are to the ground, the better the view and the more you pay. Many local travel agents sell tickets (see Around São Paulo); alternatively, try Ticketmaster (w www.ticketmaster.com.br) or the city tourist office in Anhembi (t 11/6226-0400). In the weeks leading up to Carnaval, you can sometimes attend rehearsals at the city’s samba schools – one of the best to visit is Rosas de Ouro in Barra Funda (t 11/3931-4555).

Accommodation in Sao Paulo City

Finding somewhere to stay in São Paulo is rarely a problem and, as there are several areas where hotels are concentrated, you should get settled in quickly. The prices of hotels vary enormously throughout the year, with hefty discounts offered during the quieter summer months of January and February. Weekend discounts of up to fifty percent are often given, especially at the better hotels that otherwise cater largely to business executives. If making an online reservation directly with the hotel, compare the rates on the Portuguese- and the English-language versions of the website – the former often are substantially lower.

The best hotels are found in the affluent southwest of the city and, though expensive, their rooms cost less than comparative spots in Rio. With some exceptions, budget and mid-priced places are located around downtown, in parts of the city where visitors, especially women, may feel distinctly uncomfortable walking alone at night. The dangers, however, are often more imaginary than real and, by simply being alert and taking taxis late at night, you should have no problems.


Lots of inexpensive and mid-priced hotels are in the traditional centre of São Paulo, around Praça da República and Avenida São Luís. Budget around R$25 for a taxi each way to the restaurants and bars of Vila Madalena and surrounding neighbourhoods.


São Paulo’s traditionally Japanese bairro, Liberdade, has a few low- and mid-priced hotels worth considering if you’re on a budget – not least because the area is one of the safest parts of central São Paulo. Although the majority of people staying here are visiting Asian businessmen, other guests are made to feel just as welcome.

Rua Augusta and around

This area offers old-fashioned five-star comfort, as well as some more affordable options, especially on Rua Augusta. The hotels here are convenient for the city centre, the international banks of Avenida Paulista and the fashionable Jardins. While the area is quite safe, walking along Rua Augusta late at night can be unpleasant, as you’re likely to be accosted by men touting on behalf of sleazy nightclubs.


The south side of Avenida Paulista marks the beginnings of Jardins, a wealthy residential neighbourhood that houses some of the city’s most fashionable (and expensive) shops and restaurants. It makes an excellent base as it’s relatively safe by day and night, and with some excellent accommodation options.

Itaim Bibi and Pinheiros

The stretch along Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima that links Itaim Bibi with Pinheiros is a rapidly expanding business district. While the number of hotels here is increasing, they’re mostly bland (but well-equipped) franchises of international chains. At night these areas offer plenty of street life, thanks to the many excellent restaurants and clubs, and walking around feels quite secure. They are also within easy reach of the bars and clubs of Vila Madalena.

Eating in Sao Paulo City

Eating out is a major pastime for wealthier paulistanos, who take great pride in the vast number of restaurants in the city. By Latin American standards, the variety of options is certainly impressive, with chefs becoming increasingly creative with traditional Brazilian dishes, as well as adapting European and Asian ones to suit Brazilian tastes and make use of local ingredients.

Sao Paulo City bars and late night entertainment

Whether you’re after “high culture”, a thumping club or just a bar to hang out in, you won’t encounter much of a problem in São Paulo. The city has four main centres for nightlife: Bela Vista, with mixed crowds and live music; Vila Madalena and adjoining Pinheiros, which host the lion’s share of trendy bars, including some with a slightly bohemian feel; Jardins, offering both quieter, upmarket bars, popular with an older crowd, and gay bars; and Itaim Bibi and Vila Olímpia, together best known for their flashy baladas (clubs). For the trendy bars and clubs, be aware that Wednesday and Thursday nights are as popular, and in many ways considered more hip, than weekend nights, particularly in the summer when those who have the means tend to escape the city.

Places come and go in São Paulo continually, so on-the-spot advice is vital. Some suggestions are detailed below, but for the full picture of what’s going on, consult the weekly Veja magazine, the daily Folha de São Paulo newspaper (especially its Friday supplement) and the website w www.guiasp.com; additionally, the funky w www.obaoba.com.br has all the essential club listings. Many places have their own websites featuring their upcoming programmes; where these exist, they are mentioned in the listing.

São Paulo has a large gay population but, with some exceptions, clubs and bars tend to be mixed rather than specifically gay, with the scene mainly in the Jardins area. Since 1997, the city has hosted a Carnaval-style annual Gay Pride parade on a Sunday in May or June, along Avenida Paulista. The first parade attracted just two thousand participants but organizers now claim well over three million revellers, making it by far the largest event of its kind in the world. For dates and other information, see w www.paradasp.org.br.

Shopping in Sao Paulo City

São Paulo’s shopping possibilities are as varied as the city’s restaurants. In the wealthy southwestern Jardins suburb, shops are far more impressive than those in just about any other South American city, and the quality way above par. For visitors, there are no obvious souvenirs of São Paulo, as such, but the city is a good place to find the things Brazil generally does well – from cachaça and samba records to bikinis and flip-flops. Even if you’re not intent on a spree, the shopping centres and stores are worth a tour to experience the opulent surroundings, while at the other end of the spectrum the fine selection of markets provides exposure to both local colour and good food.

The main shopping streets in the centre of the city are near Praça da República, especially the roads running off Avenida Ipiranga: Rua Barão de Itapetinga, Rua 24 de Maio, and Rua do Arouche. South of the Mercado Municipal, Rua 25 de Março is another busy street, lined with hawkers selling everything from pirated CDs to Carnaval costumes. Most of the stores downtown are of the cheap’n’cheerful variety – they sell clothes, but you’ll rarely find the latest fashions.

South of Avenida Paulista is where the money is – and where all the best stores are. You’ll find lots of boutiques selling clothes and accessories from Brazilian, European and US designers, especially in the streets running parallel to and crossing Rua Augusta (most notably Rua Oscar Freire, Alameda Lorena, Rua Haddock Lobo, Rua Bela Cintra and Rua Dr Melo Alves). Although expensive, prices often compare well to Europe and the US. São Paulo’s shopping malls are hugely popular amongst the city’s middle-class as places to escape to and feel utterly insulated from their less-fortunate fellow citizens. Each centre tries to outdo the other, with mirrored walls and ostentatious fountains – you won’t feel closer to North America than this during your stay in Brazil. Shopping centres are usually open Monday to Saturday 10am to 10pm, and Sunday after lunch to around 7pm.

North of Praça da Sé

The coffee boom that led to the dismantling of São Paulo’s colonial buildings provided little in terms of lasting replacements. In the city’s first industrial suburbs, towering brick chimneys are still to be seen, but generally the areas are now dominated by small workshops and low-income housing, and even in the city centre there are very few buildings of note, most of the area being given over to unremarkable shops and offices.

Mercado Municipal

About 1km to the northeast of São Bento, at Rua da Cantareira 306, you’ll find the Mercado Municipal, an imposing, vaguely German neo-Gothic hall, completed in 1933. Apart from the phenomenal display of Brazilian and imported fruit, vegetables, cheese and other produce, the market is most noted for its enormous stained-glass windows depicting scenes of cattle raising, market gardening and coffee and banana plantations. Traditionally, Brazilians eat pastel de bacalhau – a salt fish and potato pie – here. If that doesn’t sound very appetizing, then head up to the mezzanine, where a range of patio restaurants make up a food court that is considerably more colourful and authentic than the kind you find in shopping malls.

Memorial do Imigrante

East of the Mercado Municipal, the run-down neighbourhood of Brás would have little to offer if it wasn’t for the superb Memorial do Imigrante at Rua Visconde de Paraíba 1316. The hostel buildings house an immigration research centre, a basic café and one of the best museums in São Paulo.

The museum has a permanent collection of period furniture, documents and photographs, and regularly mounts temporary exhibits relating to individual immigrant nationalities. The main building itself is the most interesting feature of the complex, however, with vast dormitories and its own rail siding and platform that were used for unloading immigrants and their baggage. Near the entrance, a separate building contained the rooms where new arrivals met their prospective employers; the government provided interpreters to help the immigrants make sense of work contracts. Designed to hold four thousand people, the hostel housed as many as ten thousand at times, with immigrants being treated little better than cattle. In its early years, the place was a virtual prison. The exit ticket was securing a contract of employment and control of potential plantation-workers was considered necessary, since few people actually wanted to work in the fields and there was a large labour leakage to the city of São Paulo itself. The last immigrants were processed here in 1978.

Although the museum is only a five-minute walk from Brás metrô station, it is next door to a hostel for homeless men and you may feel uncomfortable walking in the area. As taxis are rarely available outside the metrô station, try to reassure yourself any dangers are more imagined than real. On weekends and holidays you have more interesting transport options: either a wonderful nineteenth-century train that connects the complex with Brás and Moóca stations or a tram that runs between the front entrance and Bresser metrô station (both R$5).

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 26.04.2021

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍