Note: I was writing the post below in real time, during my first week of traveling in Sao Paulo. So, although I am posting a year later, the experience and recommendations were very fresh in my mind. (And I so much hope none of these places had to permanently close due to Covid.) I did add a few extra details related to my quarantine experience, since that was responsible for another 5.5 months I lived in Brasil, but seeing as how that experience was mostly limited to living in an apartment, finding out how and where to shop online without a Brasilian credit card, and ordering in food, I haven’t added too much here. For anyone curious about what living abroad during a pandemic was like for me, you can check out my pandemic post.
One Glorious Week Freely Exploring Sao Paulo
After spending five weeks in Rio I was excited to explore more of Brasil. After all, there’s SO MUCH natural beauty: the Amazon rainforest; around 7,500km (nearly 4,700miles) of beaches/coastline; numerous waterfalls and wetlands, etc. And because I felt confident enough in my Portuguese-speaking abilities that I no longer feared travel to, and within, places where people only speak Portuguese, the country was wide open to me. As excited as I was to explore more of the natural beauty in this country, I just felt that I couldn’t leave Brasil without spending at least a little bit of time in Sao Paulo. Plus, it was only a 6-hour bus ride from Rio (I opted for bus over a flight because they have “first class” bus service that is affordable- I paid around $25, tons of space, and I could avoid the extra bag fees for checking a bag on a domestic flight), and because most international flights stop in Sao Paulo, it also made for an easy destination to use as my departure point from the country. I heard mixed reviews of the city before arriving (it’s just another big city; it’s the business capital of the country; it’s full of amazing restaurants and bars; one week is enough), so wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It took less than one full day in the city for me to fall in love!
Sao Paulo is truly a cultural melting pot. It’s home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Like Mexico City, Sao Paulo also closes down a significant portion of its main avenue on Sundays, transforming the avenue into a massive pedestrian walkway/street fair (though while in Mexico City people can mostly be found running and riding bikes, in Sao Paulo it’s more of a walking and gathering space).
There’s a coffee plantation inside the city! And oh my Lord does SP have incredible bars and restaurants! There’s an energy in Sao Paulo that is missing from Rio (probably having to do with any beach city being much more chill), and at the same time, I felt much safer in Sao Paulo than I did in Rio. Granted, this largely had to do with sticking to safe neighborhoods and still being aware of my surroundings, but I felt as comfortable in Sao Paulo as I did in Mexico City- there are beautiful neighborhoods I could explore freely and not worry about taking my cell phone out of my purse to use as I was walking down the street. I also felt completely safe walking around by myself (again: within certain neighborhoods, not unlike Mexico City). I ran around and explored as much as possible in my first week in Sao Paulo, but knew that I just had to return for more time, because one week wasn’t enough to even scratch the surface of all this amazing city has to offer! Little did I know that I would be returning to “live” in Sao Paulo for months, thanks to Coronavirus (however, sadly, quarantine meant being in this marvelous city without the ability to explore all of the places that I added to my list during the first week). It is such a walkable city, with so much beauty to explore. Here are a few shots just from days strolling around the city (nothing particularly special, but they don’t fit well into any of the sections below, so, here ya go!)
But before I get to my Coronavirus experience (and some “lessons” that would probably be helpful for any traveler in Sao Paulo in the future), first some recommendations based on my one “normal” week in the city. Anyone who has read at least a few of my posts knows that I love Airbnb Experiences, and Sao Paulo offers tons to choose from! I opted for a photography experience, since I hadn’t done one of those since my first trip to Rio six months prior. There are so many it was hard to choose, but I ultimately went with one of the cheapest options (because it also had a crazy number of 5-star ratings)… and WOW! Hands down the best value of any experience I’ve done anywhere in the world. If you come to Sao Paulo and don’t sign up for this experience you’re absolutely crazy! (And seriously, it is sooooo underpriced for what you get I strongly recommend bringing cash to tip because I paid $15 for hours of exploring awesome neighborhoods, learning the history of these places, and then something like 80 professionally edited photos… even paying double that amount is still far too cheap, so please tip generously. No, the photographer/host will not ask or even hint at this, I am pleading with you because he deserves it!) The experience started off in the famous Beco do Batman, Vila Madalena, which is perhaps the most artistic part of a city overflowing with incredible street art, and then continuing on Avenida Paulista, including a visit to Parque Trianon, and finally getting great (and free!) skyline views at the Sesc Paulista. Here are just a few (seriously, this is only about 10%) of the incredible photos I have from my adventure that day…
I mentioned the above activity first because I would say it is the one absolutely can’t miss when visiting Sao Paulo as a tourist. In fact, before I go any further, here is the information for the photo shoot: the link to book directly through Airbnb, and/or contact him (or just check out more of his work) through his Instagram @robsonphotography.br
Ok, now that details for that must are provided, let’s backtrack to how I actually kicked off my week in Sao Paulo. I started my visit with a free walking tour (“FWT”) of the downtown area. This group offers FREE* walking tours in several areas of the city, but I would recommend the Old Downtown Tour because this is one part of the city you really shouldn’t be exploring by yourself (and definitely where you don’t want to go walking through at night), but downtown tons of history and architecture that you shouldn’t miss out on when in Sao Paulo. The FWT was in English and was excellent! These are all of the areas we explored during the walking tour, plus a bit of information on stops I made after the tour (that were a close walk, and highly recommended to me by friends in Rio and Sao Paulo):
Now to provide a list of what is always one of my favorite parts of any city I visit: gastronomy!
Restaurants & Bars
This city is loaded with AMAZING places. I couldn’t possibly get to everywhere I wanted to go in a week, but did my best to cover some of the most recommended places. Something I really loved: many of the VERY high end restaurants offer SUPER AFFORDABLE 3-course lunches! It reminded me of restaurant week in DC and LA, where people scramble to make reservations at top restaurants, gladly exchanging the full menu for a more limited one with smaller portions, to sample the food without paying a fortune. Only here it’s part of the daily menu so no scramble (and in my experience, no reservation) required! This is a great way to sample numerous restaurants here without going all out for every meal. The YouTube video linked here shows photos from some of my favorite spots below.
Truth is, there are a TON of safe (ok, please keep in mind you’re still in Brasil so be smart when you’re out and about anywhere) and walkable neighborhoods with their own vibes for tourists to explore. Despite living in Brasil for 7 months, with 5.5 of that in Sao Paulo, thanks to Covid, the city had a totally different energy and feel (apart from the first week I was there). So all I can do is make recommendations based on places I got to know, as well as other recommendations friends (who had or still do, live(d) in Sao Paulo) gave me.
Jardins. This is where I started out and it is still my favorite in terms of safety, walkability, and having everything at your fingertips. This is definitely one of the more high-end and expensive parts of the city.
Vila Mariana. Although this neighborhood doesn’t often get included in top spots recommended for tourists, I 100% recommend this area. Super convenient to a metro and grocery stores, and TONS of cute cafes and restaurants nearby, and plenty safe but not as fancy (ok, or nice) as Jardins. But then again, no area is as nice as Jardins. Vila Mariana is where the Astronaut Cafe and delish Taiwanese restaurant I recommend, above, are located. I only spent a few days here (Airbnb), but if I could have found something better priced for my long term stay, I definitely would have stayed longer.
Vila Madalena. One of the better known neighborhoods and where an abundance of bars are concentrated. Definitely the area to stay in if you’re looking for nightlife (of the more casual, not high-end bar/restaurant type) and/or if you are a sound sleeper. I spent a month in an Airbnb here, but it was during Covid/quarantine, so everything was closed and noise from bars wasn’t an issue. What was an issue: noise from construction. There were more buildings being developed in this part of the city than any others I saw. (Seriously, there were 7 or so large-scale apartment complexes being constructed within a few block radius of my apartment building.) This meant incredibly loud construction noise beginning at 7-8am, 6 days a week. Due to the total lack of double-paned glass in almost all buildings across Brasil, that means you will hear the construction noise starting early. Also, if you’re going to stay in this area and like to walk, be advised STEEP HILLS. Super steep. Sometimes the walk to the grocery store felt a bit like going for a hike in the mountains, haha. Also, if you’re sensitive to heat or cold, try and find a place with direct sun exposure (facing south or west is always best) or one of the few apartments with A/C and heat. I mention that because my apartment in Vila Madalena, which was in a quite nice and new(er) apartment building, did not have any direct sun exposure, so I was cold ALL THE TIME. I usually wore at least 2 layers of clothing, including a winter hoodie I bought there, inside my apartment. By contrast, when I moved to a different neighborhood afterwards, with direct sun exposure (and an outdoor terrace), I spent almost every day in tank tops or hanging out on my terrace in a bikini. I suppose my final verdict on this neighborhood would be: probably great for younger tourists or those on a budget, but for others, maybe just come visit- but don’t spend the night- here. (This is where most of my amazing photos were taken, the art in Beco do Batman is constantly changing and a must see!)
Parque do Morumbi/Vila Andrade. I spent 5 months (almost all of my Brasilian quarantine) in the most wonderful apartment in Parque do Morumbi. This area is full of high rise apartment buildings, most of which are very nice and modern; it is clearly a high-end neighborhood. It’s also very proximate to Vila Andrade, also super safe, walkable, and high(er) end. Both of these neighborhoods- but especially Parque do Morumbi, are super residential. These areas are far enough away from the principal parts of the city that you can sleep like a baby at night. For me, I couldn’t have imagined a better place to spend my quarantine! My wonderful apartment had a private terrace that faced south/west, so I had direct sunlight from midday until night time. It was glorious! (Especially during a time when all public parks and outdoor spaces were closed.) I will note, Paraisopolis, one of the largest favelas in all of Brasil, is adjacent, however, I never had any issues nor felt unsafe- including at night when I would take my foster dog walking, and we often went right up to the favela entrance. The only real downside about this area, for “normal” travel times, is that it is not connected by metro, so it’s not the most convenient if you will be spending all of your days in the city center. That said, if you want a safe and quiet place to rest your head, or if you’re looking for a long term stay, I thought it was a marvelous place to live, and 100% recommend the Airbnb apartment I stayed at; the owner, Liana, is an amazing host and one of my favorite people I’ve met (even though we only “met” via WhatsApp) while traveling the world, and to this day remains a dear friend.
Consolacao/Bela Vista. As a gap filler for a few days I found a super cheap room to rent in an apartment in this area. While I wasn’t quite as comfortable walking at night as I was in other areas, I still felt sufficiently safe. It’s super accessible to the metro and a large shopping center, so while not the prettiest or most charming of all the places I stayed, I think for anyone on a bit of a budget this area is a great compromise (without putting your safety at risk).
Now for places I spent time in and would recommend, but never lived in…
Higienopolis. Next to Jardins, this is one of the more affluent neighborhoods in the city. Historically the (or, one of the principal) Jewish neighborhoods in the city, this is a lovely residential area that also has a sufficient amount of places to explore- and is metro accessible.
Perdizes. For a brief period I was dating a man who lived in this neighborhood, so spent a lot of time walking around this area. It’s very hip and has lots of great restaurants and shops, and is very safe, however, it’s not metro accessible, so not the easiest to get around the city (unless you have a car or don’t mind taking Uber everywhere).
Pinheiros. Itaim Bibi. Brooklin. All three of these neighborhoods were recommended to me by friends (on several “short lists” of neighborhoods they recommended as good places to stay when visiting the city), and after lots of time walking around I can agree that all three are lovely and have lots to offer!
Quarantine/Living in Sao Paulo (when you can’t live like “normal”)
Online Shopping. Brasil does have Amazon/Amazon Prime, however, to even create an account to purchase anything online (your US account will NOT work when you are living abroad) you have to have a credit card issued in Brasil. So unless you’re in Brasil on a non-tourist visa (one that gives you the ability to at least open up a bank account and get a debit card), forget about it. Why a US-based company won’t accept US credit cards for purchases in Brasil is beyond me. (By contrast: in Mexico, you can create an Amazon/Prime account and the only thing you can’t purchase with your US credit card is movies. So, you have access to all included Prime movies and TV shows, but to rent or buy you need a Mexican-issued credit card. But everything else, shopping, etc., totally fine.) I digress… back to Brasil. If you do get ahold of a Brasilian residency # (again, see my Rio blog for more- I was lucky enough to have my Airbnb host/now friend, Isabella, give me hers to use) you can open up an account on Mercado Libre, which is basically the Amazon/EBay of Latin America. They also have guarantees on products, fast shipping, etc. This was a lifesaver for me during quarantine when so much was shut down and I didn’t have the option to leave the apartment to go to a store.
Apart from a small bit of mostly necessity online shopping, my quarantine stay in SP mostly consisted of trying to stay busy by continuing my Portuguese language classes daily (Zoom, of course), and taking care of my foster dog.