Overview

Sao Paulo—or Sampa, as residents call it—is one of the largest cities in the world, sprawling like a land-guzzling monster. It's full of high-rises, and the streets are an endless bustle of sidewalk traders, shoppers and sharp-suited business folk. Traffic jams in Sao Paulo are ubiquitous.

Sao Paulo's residents, or Paulistanos, work hard—the city is one of Latin America's most important industrial and economic centers—but they play hard, too. At night, the city throbs with laughter and music. There are top-notch restaurants and a wealth of cinemas and theaters, not to mention world-class nightclubs and DJs. And whatever else they do, residents of Sao Paulo are united in their appreciation of futebol. It's the sport in town.

Geography

The sheer size of Sao Paulo can make navigating the city a daunting prospect for the first-time visitor. Apart from the Catedral Metropolitana—the geographical center of the city—in the old center, there are few landmarks, and the overall impression is a never-ending jumble of homes and high-rises. The center is just about the only place in the city where older architecture has been preserved, and like much of downtown in general, is now zoned for pedestrians, so your only choice is to explore it on foot.

A major street, Rua Augusta leads out of downtown to the southwest, passing through an up-and-coming area of hipster hangouts and new apartment buildings before reaching Avenida Paulista, an important financial and commercial center. Crossing Paulista, Rua Augusta descends through the attractive, upper-class residential area of Jardins (Gardens)—home to plush hotels and restaurants, designer boutiques and a vibrant nightlife—to another significant commercial area on Avenida Faria Lima. This marks the beginning of the popular residential district of Pinheiros and Vila Madalena, while at the southern end of Avenida Faria Lima lie the business districts of Itaim Bibi, Vila Olimpia and Berrini.

History

Sao Paulo was founded as a mission in 1554 by Jesuit priests Jose de Anchieta and Manuel da Nobrega, but religion was quickly overshadowed by the activities of the bandeirantes (those who follow the banner). Both revered and reviled, these tough pioneers pushed the Portuguese frontier ever deeper into the interior. At the same time, they enslaved indigenous people to work on farms built on the rich agricultural land surrounding the city and in other parts of Brazil.

The city's first economic boom came in the 1870s, when landowners amassed incredible wealth by cultivating coffee. With the city soon turning to manufacturing as its economic base, as well as the development of the nearby coastal town of Santos into Brazil's most important port, Sao Paulo became an industrial and commercial center.

Beginning in the 1950s, Brazil's rural poor began flocking to the city, encouraged by the prospect of finding work in Sao Paulo's booming construction industry. But many of the working poor ended up in the city's sprawling favelas, or slums. These are home to millions, while the city's elite travel from posh mansions to work in bulletproof luxury cars and even private helicopters (of which Sao Paulo has one of the largest urban fleets in the world).

Mayor Fernando Haddad faces an uphill battle to address the key problems of poverty, security, pollution, water shortages and traffic. A network of bicycle lanes and an expansion of the bus lanes have improved mobility to some degree, while the future of a high-speed train running between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro has yet to be decided upon. Former mayor Gilberto Kassab's controversial Cidade Limpa, or "Clean City," decision to ban all visual advertising in the city is gradually being circumvented, with ads appearing on bus shelters and digital display clocks.

Sightseeing

Although at first glance Sao Paulo might seem like a chaotic, modern, polluted megalopolis, there's actually plenty to see. The theme parks—Hopi Hari, in particular—are great fun, the city's zoo is one of the best in the world, and there are several pleasant parks.

Arts are also big in Sao Paulo: Some fine public galleries hold excellent collections with works by Brazilian and international artists. Make time to see the Museu de Arte Sao Paulo (known as MASP) and the Museu de Arte Contemporanea. Almost all of Brazil's leading private galleries are based in Sao Paulo, where you'll find world-class contemporary Brazilian art.

Get a taste of the Paulistano lifestyle in the vibrant nightlife of the Itaim, Moema, Vila Madalena, Pinheiros and Jardins neighborhoods. Visit the stores and restaurants in the Japanese district of Liberdade, and the Italian ones in Bixiga.

You should also plan to take a stroll downtown, particularly in the historic center. It is one of the only areas in Sao Paulo with buildings that date from the 19th century, and it's where you'll find the most interesting architecture in the city. Of note are the Catedral Metropolitana in Praca da Se, the Teatro Municipal (modeled after the Paris opera house Palais Garnier) in Praca Ramos de Azevedo, the Copan building (designed by the late Oscar Niemeyer), and the Banespa Building with its panoramic rooftop viewing area, open to the public mid-week. Centro is also undergoing something of a cultural transformation, with a handful of edgy art spaces and bars popping up over the past few years.

Plan to spend some time in Brazil's former business epicenter on Avenida Paulista, which still buzzes at lunchtime and after work, although most major company headquarters have since moved to the region around Avenida Faria Lima. Highlights along Avenida Paulista include the Casa das Rosas cultural center, the Itau cultural center, the elegant Conjunto Nacional (Latin America's first shopping center) and the Trianon—a surprisingly tranquil park and a remnant of the ancient Atlantic forest that once covered the entire region.

Nightlife

From laid-back jazz clubs to full-on techno mayhem, Sao Paulo has it all. It's one of the few cities that can truly live up to the "24-hour-city" label. No one even thinks about going out much before midnight, and many bars and clubs will keep serving until the last customer finally throws in the towel and crawls home to bed long after sunrise.

Although the "hottest club" crown seems to pass to a different place each year, the bohemian vibe of Vila Madalena district makes it one of the liveliest neighborhoods to kick off a night out. Young crowds spill out of the bars onto the sidewalk, and live music provides the soundtrack. The adjacent Pinheiros neighborhood draws a slightly older clientele, but boasts just as many options for eating and drinking. For more sophisticated but equally eclectic nightlife, you could head to the ritzier Jardins district behind Avenida Paulista, which is also home to a lively gay scene. Farther south, the Vila Olimpia and Itaim Bibi districts are home to a growing number of bars and dance clubs.

Instead of charging an entrance fee, many bars and clubs use a consumacao system in which you have a card with a preset minimum tab that you pay at the end of the night. Be aware that even if you have just a mineral water, you could still get a hefty bill. Some places also charge an "artistic" cover, which is an additional fee of R$10-$50 that, in principle, pays for the cost of the band. Ask before entering if you have doubts.

Especially during Carnaval and other holidays, many dance clubs use a multitiered pricing system based on the time you arrive, the day of the week, the type of programming, your gender and whether you're considered a house VIP. If you're thinking about attending one of these clubs, unless you are young and insanely good-looking, be forewarned: There is no bargaining. To save yourself the very real possibility of being turned away at the entrance, always add your name to the list ahead of time. Almost all of the bigger clubs now allow you to do this online.

Dining

Sao Paulo prides itself on the quality and variety of its cuisine, because dining out is a favorite pastime among Paulistanos. Restaurants cater to every taste and craving, but above all else, meat is king.

Some ethnic neighborhoods such as Liberdade (Japanese), Bixiga (Italian) and Brooklin (German) have earned reputations for certain cuisines, but today just about anything can be had anywhere in town. Jardins still provides sophisticated dining courtesy of some of the city's best chefs. Vila Madalena, a bustling nightlife district with a bohemian atmosphere, caters to the young and trendy with more alternative tastes.

At lunch in Sao Paulo, workers and businesspeople often go to a quilo restaurant, where diners pay according to the weight of their plate. Choose from an ample buffet of hot and cold dishes. Usually just more than R$3 per 100 grams (about one-fourth of a pound), it's probably the least expensive lunch option. Look for the quilo signs that are plentiful throughout the city. Even when you go to a conventional restaurant in Brazil, you'll often be served gigantic portions that are enough for at least two. Half servings are often available but you might not find it listed on the menu; don't be afraid to ask for a meia porcao.

If you love meat, you must experience a churrascaria, or barbecue house. Choose an all-you-can-eat rodizio-style restaurant; you pay one price and get to help yourself to the cold salad buffet while waiters circle around the restaurant offering dozens of succulent cuts of beef, still on the spit, and other grilled meats.

Meal times are generally 7-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-3 pm for lunch and 7-11 pm for dinner. Dining hours in Sao Paulo vary, so always check first. Lunch may begin as early as 10:30 am or as late as 2 pm; dinner may start as early as 5:30 or as late as 10 pm. If you schedule an early dinner, you may find many restaurants closed or—at best—depressingly empty. Some restaurants continue serving food well into the early morning hours for the late-night crowd.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than R$40; $$ = R$40-$80; $$$ = R$80-$120; $$$$ = more than R$120.

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