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published on January 17, 2008

São Paulo Travel Guide: Inside São Paulo

BrazilMax's Bill Hinchberger with São Paulo Mayor Gilberto Kassab
São Paulo - Leisure travelers can be confounded by frenetic sprawl of South America’s largest city. But business people get it immediately. “Entrepreneurial Brazil,” says an international hotel chain executive, “where days are dedicated to work and nights to pleasure.” Adds a top local restaurateur: “I like the opportunities the city offers and that fact that São Paulo is constantly mutating.” The city features world class restaurants, nightlife, shopping and art galleries.

Like the two New Yorks, São Paulo city and state share a name. City natives, called “paulistanos,” like to compare their town to its North American counterpart, calling it the place where things happen in Brazil. Within a century, São Paulo developed from a modest commercial hub of Brazil’s agricultural heartland to an industrial powerhouse and now into the home for company headquarters, including those of Brazil’s robust financial sector and most of the multinationals that operate in the country. The city of São Paulo responds for 18% of Brazil’s GDP.

Its preeminence shines through in many walks of life – including one dear to the hearts of most Brazilians, the country’s national pastime, soccer. Clubs from this metropolis or its port city Santos have won 11 of the last 16 national league championships. When US President George W. Bush visited Brazil in 2007, he went to São Paulo – ignoring altogether capital Brasília and picture postcard Rio de Janeiro. No wonder São Paulo is ranked as the best city in Latin America for doing business by the regional magazine América Economia. As such, it looms as the main destination for business travelers.

More on São Paulo

São Paulo Transportation: Getting There and Getting Around
São Paulo Neighborhoods and Geography
São Paulo Attractions and Itineraries
São Paulo Restaurants
São Paulo Hotel Recommendations
São Paulo Nightlife
São Paulo Shopping
São Paulo Sports, Exercise & Outdoor Activities
Weird São Paulo
São Paulo State: Excursions Beyond the City

São Paulo History

Founded in 1554, São Paulo city remained a simple urban outpost until the 20th century. In 1890, then-federal capital Rio de Janeiro housed 500,000 inhabitants, São Paulo just 60,000.

The coffee trade engendered infrastructure investment, especially in transportation. It encouraged capital accumulation and nascent mechanization, the latter in turn calling for skilled labor. Coffee and São Paulo’s agricultural interior also supplied raw material for many of the often eerie masterpieces painted by Candido Portinari, a son of Italian immigrants and native of the small town (these days population 15,000) of Brodowski, about 337 kilometers north of the state capital, where the Portinari Home Museum (Museu Casa de Portinari) has been built to honor the native son.

Successive waves of immigration began around the turn of the century: German, Italian, Japanese, Arab, Spanish and others. Immigrant energy and innovation are often cited as sources of "paulista" entrepreneurial spirit. Proof of their early travails can be found in picturesque ethnic neighborhoods scattered about the city. The names of some towns in the interior reflect the influence of immigrant communities. Americana was founded by Confederates who fled the southern United States after the Civil War (descendents still celebrate the 4th of July). Holambra was created by Dutch immigrants who left Europe for greener pastures following World War II.

Foreign immigration slowed in the second half of the 20th century, but it was replaced by an influx of Brazilians of all stripes, especially from the poor northeast, in search of jobs in the city’s booming economy. "São Paulo is the biggest state in the northeast," once quipped a former São Paulo governor during an interview with me. Today the population of the municipality stands at 10.2 million and of the metro region at about 17 million. Both figures place São Paulo among the top five urban centers in the world. The city is a patchwork of distinctive neighborhoods, many of which reflect the cultures of the immigrants who settled in them.

The City of São Paulo

In spite of a slew of urban problems, from pollution to traffic to violence, the city of São Paulo has been receiving some good press. In a survey of politeness and courtesy in 36 cities around the globe, published in 2006, Readers Digest placed São Paulo as the fourth best behaved, tied with Berlin and Zagreb. “In São Paulo, even petty criminals were polite,” wrote the editors. “As we bought a pair of cheap sunglasses from a trader at an illegal market on 25 de Março Street, shouts rang out that the police were coming. The merchant gathered up his goods to flee - but not before thanking us for our $2.”

Still many visitors are overwhelmed by the sheer expanse of the city. Thomas Swick, travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, described his arrival in São Paulo, where he was met by a Brazilian friend, this way: “The new world reeled as Lilian drove, surprisingly fast for such a gentle soul. Highways coursed through the middle of the city, which, partly because of this, appeared to have no middle. High-rises didn’t cluster, they spread out in all directions. There seemed no such thing as a vacant lot or empty lane; the infinite rush of buildings created an eternal stream of cars. I got the impression that people pulled into Shell not just for gas but for relief.”

Swick described his introduction to São Paulo as “extremely intimidating.” He added that “Usually I feel automatically at home in cities, but that’s when I’m on foot; this city, like Los Angeles, was virulently opposed to feet. And, unlike Los Angeles, it had no mountains or ocean to serve as reference points. The man-made ones, Congonhas Airport, the Bandeirantes Monument – passed in a grand, inconsequential blur.”

Swick’s initial reaction notwithstanding, São Paulo ranks second among Brazilian cities most visited by foreigners. Nearly 30% of all international visitors to Brazil spend at least some time there.

When to Go

Most people go to São Paulo on business, and they usually time their visits according to the schedules of clients and business associates. Business travelers planning to make cold calls should avoid holidays, such as Carnaval, New Years and Easter. Brazilians get a month of vacation time per year, and many people take that in the summer (January-February). There are no real high and low seasons for leisure travel to São Paulo, but airline prices, for example, are higher during the summer because so many locals leave town.

For a few months every two years, São Paulo rivals New York, Paris and Rome as the capital of the art world. Running from October-December every other year, the São Paulo Biennial features contemporary art from around the globe. Second in longevity among the growing legions of international artistic mega-events (only the granddaddy Venice biennial is older), the “Bienal” ranks up there with the aforementioned Italian affair and Germany’s quadrennial Documenta as one of the world’s most prestigious gatherings.

São Paulo Tips

Security - Take the same precautions in São Paulo as you would in New York, Los Angeles, London or any other global megacity. Only use ATM machines during the day or in well lighted areas and when there are lots of people around. If driving, be especially attentive as you approach and stop at red lights, as car jackings are prevalent. Late at night most locals do rolling stops and run red lights when traffic permits.

Taxis – Taxi cabs are plentiful and cheap. When possible they are best hailed at fixed spots called “pontos de taxi” where drivers park in designated areas.

Traffic and Appointments – If you need to travel any distance, try to schedule appointments for mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Rush hour extends to about 10 a.m. and begins again around 5 p.m. The lunch hour is tricky as parents pick up kids at school (many schools run half days) and executives scamper off to business lunches. Even if you schedule accordingly, the traffic can be daunting. Leave extra time to get to important meetings.

Soccer – Check the sports pages of the local newspapers to see when and where games will be played during your stay. Ask the concierge at your hotel or a business associate to help you get tickets and arrange transportation.

More Information about São Paulo

SPTuris– The municipal tourism bureau

São Paulo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau– Official website

São Paulo in Art and Photos

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