My first encounter with Sao Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere, was in 2007, when I was in college. At the time I was participating in the Semester at Sea program (without Tawny), and our massive ship had docked in Salvador for a week. Despite the fact that Sao Paulo was almost a full 24 hours south by car, I had to experience it for myself. And I’m glad I did.
Every road in Brazil pours like a tributary into Sao Paulo; in a sense, it is like the Amazon river of cities. And the city is old and new, all at once. Skyscrapers and high-end hotels site side-by-side; there are both paved roads and cobblestone streets. As you draw close to Sao Paulo you can feel the energy pulsating. I’m certain that this summer, during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the city will be more electric than ever before.
I only had one day in Sao Paulo but I wanted to make the most of it. The size of the city is overwhelming. Skyscrapers spear the belly of the sky in every direction and each street begins to look like the others. A friend of mine recommended picking one or two neighborhoods to start with and spending the whole day there. Sao Paulo is conveniently separated into districts that lend themselves to different tastes, not unlike the boroughs of Manhattan. For me, the day comprised exploring the Centro, the Liberdade, and the packed Parque Ibirapuera districts
Viewfinder Tip: The best way to explore Sao Paulo is the metro. A ticket costs a little less than a dollar for a ride and it is both safe and clean. The city buses can be a target for pickpockets and are often very crowded.
History on display in the Centro
The Centro section is the foundation of Sao Paulo, the city’s old town. The buildings are almost exclusively charming mansions and old government structures that conjure images of Portuguese conquest and colonial fashion. The streets are a tangled ball of (concrete) yarn that turn into themselves over and over again. The district has scores of museums; most of which were spectacular. Everywhere you look, the country seems to be clutching the past in one hand and forming the future in the other. One of my favorite museums was the Casa de Rosas, an old mansion (designed in French style) with interesting exhibits and magnificent gardens. I also appreciated the Jewish Cultural Center, which told the history of the Jewish people in Brazil.
Another exciting part of the Centro district for me was the Mercado Municipal. Here, beneath a massive roof studded with stained glass, you can find blocks of stalls with every type of Brazilian food you can imagine. Cured meats, fresh fruits, and acai products roll of the shelves. Also, if you like ginger ale, you’ll love Guarana, the Brazilian natural soda.
The Liberdade district is Sao Paulo’s Chinatown. While the neighborhood has dozens of sushi and dim sum restaurants, it also has a distinctly Brazilian feeling, as the thick beat of Samba music usually drifts out of these eateries. Bright LED signs and waving cat statues boast both Portuguese and Chinese characters. The Liberdade has some of the best shopping for budget travelers, too. It’s no secret that Brazil has famous leather products and if you’re looking for something well made but not as expensive as the designer alleys in the Centro, this is your stop.
Walk in the Parque
Parque Ibirapuera is Sao Paulo’s take on New York’s Central Park. No, it’s not as large as the Big Apple’s big park. But it is a great place to soak up the sun amid a sea of skyscrapers. Try to explore the park on a weekday if you want some alone time (translation: it gets REALLY crowded on weekends, so be warned). I managed to take in the park during a relatively quiet period and it was absolutely serene.
Wandering the streets of Sao Paulo can be exhausting. They are extensive and confusing. They’re also eclectic; as you walk, you’ll see everything from people doing capoeira (a form of Brazilian martial art, manifested in dance) to Gucci-clad executives. If you are visiting for the first time I’d recommend a tour to get your bearings. However, if you insist on taking the plunge alone, do as I did—start small. In a city of 17 billion people, this is the best way to spend a day and fall in love.
What is your strategy for exploring big cities?