São Paulo is a monster. Enormous, intimidating and, at first glance at least, no great beauty. It's a difficult city for the traveler to master and one that may not seem worth the sweat. Even the most partisan paulistano – resident of São Paulo city – will rail about the smog, the traffic, the crumbling sidewalks and the gaping divide between poor and rich.
But in the same breath they’ll tell you they’d never live anywhere else. Let them guide you to their favorite haunts and the reason for this will begin to unfold. Maybe they will introduce you to the city’s innumerable art-house cinemas and experimental theaters. If they’re gourmands, you’ll focus on the smart bistros and gourmet restaurants that make the city a world-renowned foodie haven. If they’re scenesters, double up on espresso before embarking on a tour of raucous underground bars and the 24/7 clubbing scene. Whatever pleasures you might covet, Sampa – as the city is known – probably has them in spades.
This fertile cultural life is supported by Brazil’s biggest and best-educated middle class and further enriched by literally hundreds of distinct ethnic groups – including the largest community of people of Japanese descent outside Japan, the largest population of Italian descendants outside Italy and a significant Arab community fueled mostly by Lebanese and Syrian immigration. There are one million people of German stock and, as well, sizable Chinese, Armenian, Lithuanian, Greek, Syrian, Korean, Polish and Hungarian communities. Sao Paulo also has the largest openly gay community in Latin America. Brazil's melting pot is quite hot indeed.
An estimated 20 million people live in greater São Paulo, making it the third-largest metropolis on earth. The numbers are dizzying: first-rate museums and cultural centers (150), world-class restaurants (12,500, covering 52 types of cuisine), experimental theaters and cinemas (420). Sampa’s nightclubs and bars are among the best on the continent (15,000 bars make for one hell of a pub crawl) and its restaurants are among the best in the world. Its relentless, round-the-clock pulse – a close cousin of London’s or New York’s – can prove taxing even for the fiercest hipster. Then again, it may just deliver the charge you need to discover one of the world’s great cities.