At first glimpse, São Paulo appears to be little more than a bustling financial center. Dig deeper and you will find this city of 20 million people is so much more than that. Between the skyscrapers and the suits lies a city full of life and exploding with culture. From hole-in-the-wall bars to swanky rooftop restaurants, fascinating art galleries to a soccer museum, São Paulo has something for everyone. This concrete jungle sparks memories of New York, and yet this buzzing metropolis is so often overlooked by those passing through Brazil. This ultimate city guide is here to show you why this irrepressible mega-city should be on your travel bucket list, and to help you make the most of São Paulo during your time here.
When to visit São Paulo depends on what you want to get out of your time there. The summer months (December-February) can get pretty hot, with highs sometimes reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but generally hovering between 82-86 degrees Fahrenheit. São Paulo’s summer months are also the city’s rainiest, although you’ll soon learn that rain showers often last no longer than 15 minutes before the sun comes back out – so the trick is to always carry an umbrella. Winter in São Paulo (June-September) usually brings more comfortable temperatures that range from 63-77 degrees Fahrenheit, and tends to be significantly drier than the summer months. This makes the winter months the high season in São Paulo. If you want to avoid the crowds as well as the high temperatures, we recommend visiting from March to May, as these months also see little rain and temperatures are still comfortable at around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Brazil’s currency is the Brazilian real (BRL), and the exchange rate is R$5.61 per 1 USD. Generally, in bars and restaurants in São Paulo, a 10 percent service charge is added to the bill, meaning your tip’s already included. It’s generally optional to pay it, although it’s frowned upon to not do so unless you’ve had poor service. One exception to the 10 percent rule is lanchonetes, cheap diner-style restaurants where there’s generally no service charge – leaving it up to you whether or not to tip. In hotels, I would advise tipping the bellhop around 10 reais for helping with your luggage, and tipping housekeeping around five reais per day. It’s not common to tip taxi drivers, although it is helpful to round up fares to the nearest real to save having to count out change. Tour guides tend to suggest an optional tip at the end of a tour, and, depending on the length of the tour, 15-30 reais would generally be appreciated.
Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, but as São Paulo is such a large and modern city, it’s not uncommon to find English speakers in bars, restaurants, and shops in the more touristy areas, and most tour guides will have some English-speaking ability. However, an attempt at using some basic Portuguese will never go amiss, so make sure to have a translation app handy. Also, here are some basic phrases to help set you off on the right track:
São Paulo is enormous, so it can seem a little confusing to work out how to get around it at first. Luckily, it has a well-established transport system, the most efficient of which is the Metro and CPTM (overground train) network. The Metro is open Sunday-Friday from 4:40 AM until midnight, and Saturdays from 4:40 AM until 1:00 AM. A single ticket costs four reais and can be bought at any station across the city. A single ticket also allows you to change between subway lines and CPTM lines at no extra charge (with very few exceptions) in order to reach your destination. It’s advisable to watch your belongings on both systems, and to try and avoid using them during peak rush hour times (7:00 AM-8:30 AM and 5:30 PM-7:30 PM).
There’s also an extensive bus network, with the cost of a bus ticket being around four reais. Buses, however, have to deal with the city’s maddening traffic, so are often irregular and unreliable. During rainy times, long lines for the buses, as well as for the Metro and CPTM, lead to overcrowding and delays. If you’re staying in São Paulo for a longer period, it could be worth buying a Bilhete Único, a rechargeable travel card available from the main stations, as this saves time buying tickets and also allows you to get several buses, trains, and subways within a period of a few hours for no extra cost.
To travel in a quieter and more comfortable manner, opt for Uber or 99. Both are apps from which you can call a cab to your location. 99 is often cheaper than Uber, so it’s worth doing a price comparison between the two before booking. However, as with São Paulo’s buses, Ubers and 99s face the problem of traffic, so your journey can end up taking far longer than you expected. It’s important to leave more than enough time to get to your destination if choosing this transportation option.
If you want to fit some exercise into your day-to-day life, bikes are available for rental, with pick-up and drop-off points spread throughout the city. São Paulo is becoming more bike-friendly, and several bike lanes have opened in recent years. However, it’s critical to watch out for the heavy traffic flow to stay safe while cycling. On Sundays, Avenida Paulista, one of the main roads in the city, is closed off to cars to enable cyclists and pedestrians to roam freely along the road. Stalls and musical acts also line the street each Sunday.
Brazil is often painted as an incredibly dangerous country, but it can be perfectly safe, as long as you act sensibly and responsibly. In São Paulo, pickpocketing is not uncommon, especially on the Metro, so you should always keep an eye on your belongings, particularly in crowded places. Don’t wear flashy jewelry and, if you’ve got a backpack, wear it in front of you while on public transportation.
The touristy areas of São Paulo are, on the whole, safe for you to wander around by yourself or in a group in daylight, but it’s always sensible to remain alert. At night, try and stay in groups and catch Ubers or 99s if you're traveling longer distances, and stay away from unknown areas, particularly areas that aren’t popular with tourists. It’s in the Brazilian nature to be friendly and helpful, so don’t be afraid to approach people for help or strike up a conversation with someone you meet in a bar or on a tour.