Unique cuisine, diverse people, and a mesmerizing art scene, São Paulo is a concrete jungle wonderland like no other.
However, finding useful and reliable information about visiting São Paulo is unfortunately not as easy as tourist hotspots like Paris or Rome. This Brazilian city is often an underrated vacation spot that definitely deserves more attention.
As a Brazilian myself, born and raised in the megacity of São Paulo, I’ve got lots of tips that will help you to familiarize yourself for a future visit to the city. I’ll give you some essential yet practical advice so that when you travel to Brazil, you’ll know how to get around town, what to expect, and other cultural nuances. You know, the sort of things that you wish you known before getting on the plane.
10 Things You Should Know Before Visiting São Paulo
São Paulo is a massive city
Big? No, massive. São Paulo is the largest city in the southern hemisphere. You will realize that with your own eyes as you explore the city, but if you want to understand the dimension of it, take in São Paulo from above in one of its tallest buildings.
For the perfect viewing spot, head up to the lookout (or cafe if you prefer) at Farol Santander Building. You’ll see towers and more towers as far as the eye can see. That’s São Paulo – I told you, it’s gigantic.
Visiting a city as large as São Paulo has its pros and cons. The pro are there are tons of things to do and see, but the downside is many attractions are far away from the center. In most cases, you might need to take the bus and/or subway.
Getting Around/ Public Transportation: As far as public transportation is concerned, the metro is the most reliable of them all. But if you’re trying to get somewhere during peak hours, avoid the bus and subway altogether. This is because subways and busses get jam-packed and you might even miss your stop.
There are lots of things to do in São Paulo, but being stuck in traffic isn’t one that I would recommend. Avoid that!
Uber is also quite affordable in São Paulo. A late morning ride from Guarulhos International Airport to the Paulista Avenue region cost me about $13 on the ride-sharing app. Sweet.
Locals Have Unspoken Punctuality Rules
Got invited to a party that starts at 10 PM? Show up around 11.30 PM. Trust me on this. Most Paulistas – a person natural of São Paulo-, have an unspoken rule to arrive later at a party, so they are not the first one there. By arriving an hour and a half late, you will likely arrive at the same time as most of the other guests.
The same happens with public transportation. Some bus lines are supposed to come every 10 minutes, but it can take much longer. A bad traffic-jam is the one to blame here though.
The bottom line is many appointments begin later than planned, and most people don’t even bat an eye at tardiness.
However, don’t confuse this unspoken rule with formal appointments. Business meetings and formal occasions – usually – happen on time.
You Might Want to Learn Some Portuguese
Only around 5% of the Brazilian population speaks English. This information might come as a bummer, for tourists who were hoping to use their native language during their trip. Another lesser known fact is that the official language is Portuguese and not Spanish as some might guess.
My best tip is to try to learn a few sentences in Portuguese before visiting São Paulo, and if needed try some Spanish; it’s similar to Portuguese.
Also, many cities in Brazil are not adequately prepared for tourism yet, and that’s the reason why getting some tips from a local helps a ton. Most street signs, magazines, and menus, just to name a few, are all in Portuguese.
Here are some basic phrases in Portuguese that you can learn before your trip to São Paulo:
- Good morning/afternoon/evening – Bom dia / boa tarde / boa noite
- Hi, how are you? – Olá, tudo bem?
- I’m fine, and you? – Eu estou bem, e você?
- Thank you – Obrigada (women) / obrigado (men)
- You’re welcome – De nada
- Bye – Tchau
- See you later – Até mais tarde
- Please – Por favor
- Sorry – Desculpa
- How do I get to Paulista Avenue? – Como eu chego na Avenida Paulista?
- How much does it cost? – Quanto custa?
- Can I have the check, please? – A conta, por favor
- A coffee, please – Um café, por favor
- I don’t speak Portuguese – Eu não falo português
- Do you speak English? – Você fala inglês?
- Where is the toilet? – Onde fica o banheiro?
Make a note of these on your phone for easy reference in the moment. I would also recommend that you download the Google Translate app in case you get stuck.
Brazilians are Touchy-Feely
It’s not a secret the warm temperatures also translates to the people – most Brazilians are very friendly.
While in some cultures this might sound weird, in Brazil, people talk to everybody as if they were close friends. You just have to start the conversation to find a very curious and interested guy/gal about why you are in São Paulo and how you like it so far. If they speak English, of course.
But even if they don’t, they will try to talk with you. I have seen it first-hand – Brazilians trying to communicate in any way they could (using hand gestures, or even using some Spanish) just to help a tourist.
We’re often so friendly to the point of being a bit touchy-feely for some, so don’t get weirded out when people give you a cheek-kiss (men and women) or sometimes even a hug. But don’t worry, if that’s too much physical contact for you, just say it. No hard feelings.
Tip from a local: Brazilians are super hospitable, but drivers don’t wait for pedestrians even on the zebra pedestrian crossings. Remember to look both ways!
The Art Scene Will Surprise You
São Paulo is known for being a cultural melting pot filled with an incredible, poppin’ art scene. The city breathes diversity, and artworks of multiple styles are spread throughout this concrete jungle.
From abstract to street art, São Paulo has something for all tastes. Head over to Batman Alley to see excellent and colorful graffiti on the walls. Know that the paintings here are temporary, which means they remain well-preserved and bright until new artists come here to re-paint with new drawings.
If you’re more into other types of art, check out one of these museums and galleries on your visit to São Paulo:
- Visit if you like: Abstract art. Colors. Weird sculptures. Brazilian and international contemporary art.
- Address: 88 Coropés Street
- Opening hours: Tue-Sun, 11 am-8 pm
- Admission: Usually free, but tickets are required for some exhibitions. Check their agenda
MASP (São Paulo Museum of Art)
- Visit if you like: Paintings from medieval times and beyond to modern artists. Worldwide artists.
- Address: 1578 Paulista Ave
- Opening hours: Tuesday, 10 am-8 pm. Wed-Sun, 10 am-6 pm.
- Admission: R$40, but free on Tuesdays.
- Visit if you like: Afro history and art. Brazilian and West African history.
- Address: Pedro Alvares Cabral Ave. Next to gate #10 at Ibirapuera Park.
- Opening hours: Tue-Sun, 10 am-6 pm.
- Admission: R$6, but free on Saturdays.
Bank of Brazil Cultural Center – CCBB
- Visit if you like: (This early 20th-century building is an artwork itself.) Most diverse kinds of exhibitions about Brazil and the world. Teather. Music. Cinema.
- Address: 112 Álvares Penteado Street, Center
- Opening hours: Wed-Mon, 9 am-9 pm.
- Admission: Free admission to exhibitions, and a small amount for the other events.
São Paulo Breathes Diversity
Italian community. Japanese neighborhood. West African influence. Lebanese cuisine. São Paulo is a uniquely diverse metropolis, accounting for about 111 ethnic groups. Myself included. I’m an Italian, Portuguese, and Brazilian Indian descendant. A beautiful mix, but I’m far from being the only one.
So much diversity also reflects people’s features. Brazil is made of all races. Literally. And in the country’s largest city is where you can see and experience this the best.
Everyone can be Brazilian. If you don’t wear those clothes which scream “I’m a tourist,” such as khaki shorts and a camera hanging on your neck, there is no reason people would think you’re a foreigner. It’s pretty easy to blend in, which means you’re not always an obvious target for scammers.
That’s why a simple, beautiful dress or jeans and a basic t-shirt will do. Nothing fancy is necessary, at least not for sightseeing.
Don’t Freak Out About Safety
Forget the news. I have lived abroad long enough to know that only different versions of the same story are told about Brazil: it’s a violent country, dangerous for women, and full of corrupt politicians. Shootings in America anybody? What about corruption? Crime can happen in any country.
One sided news stories create stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they’re false, but that they’re incomplete. Most news about violence you have heard about in São Paulo didn’t happen in the tourist areas.
Moreover, to simply say Brazil is a dangerous place, besides scaring away tourists, it also flattens the country’s history and ignores countless aspects of our culture and the beautiful things that happen every single day.
I won’t go any further because that’s not the point of this article, but the takeaway is to take the same precautions in São Paulo as you would visiting anywhere else.
Here are some São Paulo safety tips:
- Avoid sightseeing with a camera hanging on your neck. It’s not in our culture to do that.
- Avoid wearing flashy jewellery.
- Watch out for pickpockets.
- Use common sense. Would you get into the car of a person you’ve just met? I wouldn’t. Not in Brazil, not in Japan.
- Avoid bragging your expensive watch or phone.
- Never accept someone else’s drink. I’ve never seen someone being drugged like that in Brazil, but I’ve heard about it. I’ve also seen it first-hand in the Netherlands, and my friend was lucky she locked herself up in the toilet when she began to feel dizzy.
Use Local Cash or Credit Cards
Forget about American dollars. There is not a single place in Brazil that will accept US currency. Although the exchange rate isn’t in our favor since bad political decisions were made, reais is all we have. Reais. (Singular form: real – Symbol: R$)
Many establishments and shops accept credit cards, so that’s a viable option in case conversion won’t cost you much, and you’re collecting air miles.
If you plan to take public transportation, have some cash with you, but no large bills, though, as they can’t give you change. Consider purchasing a travel card for the day if you plan on going sightseeing, and know you’ll need to travel around the city.
Average daily costs in São Paulo:
- Accommodation – R$130
- Food – R$60
- Drinks – R$15
- Entertainment – R$20
- Local transportation – R$30
São Paulo’s Weather Isn’t Perfect
Drizzle land – That’s São Paulo’s nickname. Cute, to say the least, but unfortunately, completely honest.
Now and then, it drizzles from April through October in São Paulo, but that won’t be enough to ruin your vacation. Hopefully.
From November through March, temperatures rise (a lot) for summer, and showers are frequent at the end of the afternoon. Traffic jam gets to a whole new level after those showers, so plan your schedule accordingly.
While the summer (Dec-Mar) brings quite high temperatures, it also brings more mosquitoes. In fact, they’re there all year long, but these annoying little things pop-up in the summer like cookie consent on websites nowadays. Be sure to pack a repellent with picaridin to avoid bites.
The maximum average temperature in the summer is around 25°C (78°F), while in the winter, it is about 19°C (66°F).
São Paulo is a Foodie City
São Paulo is a foodie city. Brazilian food is as diverse as its people, and so much diversity can be clearly seen in the cuisines and dishes you’ll find throughout São Paulo. From Thai restaurants paired with Brazilian northeast flavors to Indian and Italian ones with the same concept.
There are venues for all tastes, but if you’re looking for real Brazilian food, check out Rota do Acarajé, Graça Mineira, and my favorite ones for coxinha – Brazilian street food -, Veloso Bar. You’ll love them all.
Tip from a local: We usually tip 10% for good service. It may or may not be included in the total price. Check the bill before paying it.
Enjoy your trip to São Paulo!
About The Author: Bruna
Bruna is founder and writer of I Heart Brazil. She was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, and traveled extensively throughout the country. She studied Economy in college and Brazilian Culture at home. Bruna is an entrepreneur, digital nomad, co-founder, and writer at three other websites. Follow her adventures on Instagram and join her Facebook group about Brazil travel tips.