São Paulo is a monster, but you might like it!

On the bus ride in from Guaralhos International, the busiest airport in South America, towards the centre of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest metropolis, it is only natural to arrive at a far from favourable first impression of São Paulo. The buildings are mostly bland and grey giving an almost depressing feel to the heartbeat of one of the world’s most colourful countries. While the feeling that this is Rio de Janeiro’s ugly big bully of a brother never quite goes away, the more time you spend in the city and the more little gems you discover, you may well be won over as there are so many things to do in São Paulo!

The Best of the City – Things to do in São Paulo

São Paulo Cultural Highlights

Sao Paulo culture

Culture is a fairly vague term but São Paulo is widely regarded as the cultural capital of Brazil. First a few numbers for you. The metropolitan region of São Paulo is home to over 20 million people who are served by around 25,000 restaurants, 15,000 bars and 90 museums. It’s a vast place but even if you lived there for many years, you’d never be short of new things to do, places to eat and drink with new joints constantly cropping up as the city continues to evolve.

As well as a great culinary scene and lively nightlife (see below), the city has a number of outstanding museums that provide an in depth look at many aspects of Brazilian society. The most well known is MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo) which has a large collection of art from a variety of the world’s greatest ever artists.

Some others that are worth a visit include the Japanese Immigration Museum and Museu Afro Brasil which provide a unique look at the role Japanese (there is a large Japanese community in São Paulo, mostly in the Liberdade area) and African immigrants have played in shaping this extremely diverse country. The latter can be found the vast Parque Ibirapuera which has plenty of other attractions and monuments as well as being a nice place to hang out for an afternoon.

These options are only just scratching the surface of all the cultural things to do in São Paulo. Joining a free walking tour on your first day may help you get a better overview of the city and narrow down your options when it comes to deciding what to do and where to visit.

Football Fever

Then there is the national obsession that is football. The Museu do Futebol underneath the terraces at the Pacaembu Stadium might well be the best museum of its kind in the world. It offers an entertaining and interactive experience that summarises the history of football in Brazil and documents the highs and lows of past World Cups.

In terms of actually getting to see match, the good news is that there is a relatively short break between seasons in Brazil so for the vast majority of the year there are fixtures on. The fiercely competitive São Paulo State Championship takes place in the first few months of the year preceding the 38 game national Championship which usually concludes in early December.

The main clubs in town are Corinthians, Palmeiras and São Paulo while Santos, the former club of Pele and current star of Brazilian football Neymar, are based just outside the city on the coast but within the State of São Paulo. These are four of the five most successful clubs in Brazil and it is well worth going to a match to sample the intense atmosphere even if you’re not a huge football fan and São Paulo is certainly one of the best cities in the world for watching football.

Alternative São Paulo

Beco do Batman

The city also boasts some intriguing little districts that are worth checking out day or night. The most popular with travellers is Vila Madalena which has a bohemian village feel to it which makes it suddenly quite easy to forget that you are in such a giant metropolis. Numerous budget hostels have sprung up in recent years making this a decent place to base yourself and this area certainly has the closest thing to a backpacker feel in São Paulo. It’s a good idea to think about location carefully when it comes to staying in hostels in the city due to both its size and safety concerns in some areas.

Vila Madalena is also the best place to check out some of São Paulo’s fabulous street art. The wonderfully named Beco do Batman (pictured above) is a collection of streets and alleys literally covered in the stuff in the heart of Vila Madalena.

Even though this is now a popular stop with tourists and visitors to the city, it mostly retains an authentic feel as the city isn’t really a big travel destination that is swarmed by tourism. However if you’re looking for something even more off the beaten track, there are lots of other cool and quirky neighbourhoods to check out including Itaim Bibi, Pinheiros and Bixiga.

Best Nightlife in São Paulo

There are lots of small quirky bars in the popular Vila Madalena district, many with live Samba and other types of music.

However São Paulo’s nightlife extends far and wide and it’s worth putting a bit of time in and doing your research before deciding where to go out. If going to bars and clubbing is a big part of your reasons for going to the city, then you may also want to plan where you will stay around that too because making long journeys across São Paulo, possibly in a slightly inebriated state, in the early hours is not the smartest idea and like most big cities there are some areas that do feel unsafe.

Other areas to consider for nightlife include Rua Augusta which dissects the giant Avenida Paulista and is a safe bet for some decent action and has excellent alternative rock clubs. Nearby Bela Vista also has some good nightlife but it’s worth asking a local or someone at your hostel as nightlife here is fairly changeable and what’s hot now might not be in six months time. Many of the best places have also been hit hard by the pandemic so depending on the time of your visit, you may need to find other things to do in São Paulo at night besides partying hard.

For more of the most unique things to do in São Paulo and some of the best free options, check out this blog post on 30 things to do in São Paulo.

This article on things to do in São Paulo was last updated in January 2022.

São Paulo is a monster, but you might like it!

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