Scratching the surface of São Paulo

With a population of 11+ million in the city and almost 20 million in its metropolitan region, to say São Paulo is big would be an understatement.  In fact, São Paulo is the largest city in Brazil, the largest city in the southern hemisphere and America, and the world’s sixth largest city by population. We spent four days in São Paulo and barely scratched the surface of this vast city.

Our hostel, Telestar was located in the Vila Mariana neighbourhood, and was well situated within a few minute walk to the metro, which was our primary means of transportation as we explored various parts of the city.  This hostel catered to a younger crowd of primarily solo, male travellers, many of whom were working in the city. Like every hostel, there were things we liked and things we didn’t like. I found the level of cleanliness to be seriously lacking, we didn’t have wifi in our room, and the general atmosphere was more of a frat house than a commercial hostel. The best part of our stay was the food. Breakfasts included freshly squeezed orange juice, delicious brewed coffee, fresh fruit, and a choice of ham omelette or melted cheese and ham sandwich.  Dinner was provided by the resident chef who prepared delicious meals each night that represented typical Brazilian cuisine.

Posing with the chef at our hostel.

The second largest park of the city and probably the most popular, Ibirapuera Park was within walking distance from our hostel. Reminiscent of Central Park in New York City in terms of its location in the middle of a city, its size and its beauty, we visited the park twice – the first time for a touristy run (run, take pictures, walk, take more pictures, visit the art gallery, run a little more, etc.), and the second time for a real run.

A large main roadway (closed to traffic) provided a perfect running track as it passed around two man-made lakes that were home to black and white swans along with a variety of other birds.  A choreographed water fountain entertained us for almost an hour, reminding us of the water fountain in front of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The park features several pavilions, museums and galleries; we visited the Afro-Brazil Museum which honored Brazil’s rich African heritage. Both times, we visited the park mid-morning in the middle of the week and it was full of people engaged in all forms of physical fitness: walking, running, cycling and exercising in the many exercise stations located throughout the park.  Paulistanos, as residents of São Paulo are known, take exercising seriously!

Choreographed water fountain.

Exercise station in the park.

Video:  Dancing waters

We discovered Parque Trianon while walking along Paulista Avenue, which was in the heart of the downtown financial district. This small park was a  tropical oasis in the middle of the city, offering a lovely escape from the traffic, noise and pollution.  In fact, while walking through this jungle-like park, one could easily forget that you were in the middle of a city since even the buildings were obscured by the thick vegetation.

Architecture along Paulista Avenue.

The Liberdade neighborhood is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan and we spent one day wandering through this area and the neighbouring Centro district.  It was here that I decided to do a little bit of shopping in preparation for our cruise and trip to Italy. And it was here that I faced head on the challenge of not knowing a single word of the local language, Portuguese.   How to ask for another size, or a different color?  The majority of the boutiques were staffed with zealous assistants who made it their mission to help you.  As I entered a boutique, I would be greeted by one of the sales staff who would ask me, I assume, if she could help me find something.  I immediately said I spoke no Portuguese, only English.  Nobody spoke English.  Undeterred, the assistant would stay by my side, making suggestions even though I didn’t understand what she was saying, holding any clothes that I wanted to try on.  Somehow I managed with a creative use of sign language and facial expressions to find the things I was looking for: a pair of high heels, dress pants and a dressy top. It was exhausting!

Centro district in Sao Paulo.

Metropolitan Cathedral

View of the plaza from the cathedral steps.

Shopping in downtown Sao Paulo.

As we walked around the city, we wondered why there were no billboards or advertisements anywhere to be seen.  Apparently, the city passed a Clean City Law in 2007 which resulted in the removal of about 15,000 billboards, 1,600 signs and 1,300 towering metal panels. This law even extends to the air space above São Paulo.  The goal of this law was to remove “visual pollution”, which resulted in exposing both the beauty and ugliness of Brazil’s bustling business capital. For the first time in decades, the ornate facades of old downtown buildings have been revealed in all their glory; on the other hand, the slums, or favelas, that line the expressways are no longer hidden behind gaudy billboards.

In spite of its formidable size and reputation as a dangerous city, São Paulo made a favourable impression on us.  The areas we explored were extremely clean, probably the cleanest South American city we have visited, and we always felt very safe.  Police presence is strong throughout the city which has gone a long way towards curbing petty crimes.  The extensive metro system was modern, clean and air conditioned.  Brazilian cuisine was delicious; no matter where we ate, we always had a great meal.  The people were friendly and helpful despite our lack of basic language skills.  All in all, we enjoyed our few days in Sao Paulo, even though we know we barely scratched the surface.

Category: Brazil, South America
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2 Responses
  1. Debbie Harrison says:

    Where’s the photo of you in “a pair of high heels, dress pants and a dressy top” Have a great Atlantic crossing, Europe is going to be quite a change from South America.
    Can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying the blog, wish I’d had the courage to do what you’re doing when I could.

    • christina says:

      Hi Debbie,

      My wardrobe boost has been serving me well so far on the ship – will post some pics when we get to Italy and update the blog. Now I’m really ready for dinner at the captain’s table, but with about 3,500 other passengers vying for a spot, somehow I don’t think I’ll get an invite this time. We’re trying not to compare this ship with Sea Spirit but invariably we catch ourselves doing so constantly. I think Sea Spirit has ruined us and cheap cruising will never be the same again! Regardless, we’re still having lots of fun and enjoying the break from being constantly on the go. We’re leaving South America on a high note – have fallen in love with Brazil and hope to return one day (maybe when we’re enroute to the next Antarctica cruise 🙂