São Paulo is home to 20 million fiercely proud paulistanos (as residents are known), all of whom will happily tell you at length to you how they'd never live elsewhere. Spend time with them and the reasons will soon unfold. Maybe they will introduce you to the city’s innumerable art-house cinemas and experimental theaters. If they’re gourmands, they’ll focus on the smart bistros and gourmet restaurants that make the city a world-renowned foodie haven. If they’re scenesters, follow them on a raucous tour of underground bars and the 24/7 clubbing scene. Whatever pleasures you might covet, Sampa (the city's affectionate nickname) probably has them.
Of course, it's also enormous and a bit intimidating, but it's Brazil's city of dreams.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout São Paulo.
Historic BuildingEdifício Copan
Copan was designed by late modernist master Oscar Niemeyer. The building, with its serpentine facade and narrow brises soleil (permanent sunshades), is Sampa's most symbolic structure. You can visit its snaking, sloping ground-floor shopping arcade anytime; its spectacular rooftop opens only on weekdays at 10:30am or 3:30pm, however. The 15-minute visit is no frills – there's barely a railing! – and feels wonderfully unrushed. Checkin at Bloco F (space limited – arrive at least 30 minutes in advance).
This covered market is a belle epoque confection of stained glass and a series of vast domes. Inside, a fabulous urban market specializes in all things edible. It’s also a great place to sample a couple of classic Sampa delights: mortadella (Italian sausage) sandwiches at Bar do Mané or Hocca Bar, and pasteis (fried, stuffed pastries).
MuseumMuseu de Arte de São Paulo
Sampa’s pride, this museum possesses Latin America’s most comprehensive collection of Western art. Hovering above a concrete plaza that turns into an antiques fair on Sunday (and acts as a protest gathering point almost always!), the museum, designed by architect Lina Bo Bardi and completed in 1968, is considered a classic of modernism by many and an abomination by a vocal few.
ChurchMosteiro São Bento
Among the city’s oldest and most important churches, São Bento dates to 1598, though its neo-Gothic facade dates only to the early 20th century. Step inside the church to view its impressive stained glass. Mass (7am weekdays, 6am on Saturday and 10am Sunday) includes Gregorian chanting.
MuseumMuseu do Futebol
Tucked under the bleachers of colorfully art deco Pacaembu Stadium, this fantastic museum is devoted to Brazil’s greatest passion – football (soccer). Its multimedia displays over two floors manage to evoke the thrill of watching a championship game, even for nonfans.
Cultural CentreJapan House
You can't miss the stunning facade of this Av Paulista newcomer. Its sliding vertical plank entrance sits in stark contrast to the surrounding concrete and steel, under the nose of a massive mural by local street-artist Kobra, depicting architect Oscar Niemeyer – who would no doubt approve – on the building behind. A Japanese government initiative, this contemporary art, gastronomy and technology cultural center houses stunning temporary exhibitions, a cafe and a top-end sushi restaurant by acclaimed chef Jun Sakamoto.
São Paulo's most expansive green space and a much-loved urban oasis for Paulistanos, Parque Ibirapuera is a leafy 2 sq-km park in Vila Mariana. In addition to being an obvious focal point for recreation, fitness and picnics, it's also a thriving cultural hub that's home to several worthwhile museums and architecturally significant buildings. The park also hosts São Paulo's world class arts fair, Bienal de São Paulo. To get to the park, take the metro to Vila Mariana station and then bus 775-A ‘Jardim Aldagiza.’
For one of Sampa’s best panoramas, head to the top of this 161m-high skyscraper, Brazil’s version of the Empire State Building – completed in 1939 and most famously known as the Banespa (Banco do Estado de São Paulo) building. Book tickets online in advance.
This elegant neoclassical museum, formerly known as Pinacoteca do Estado but modernly rebranded 'Pina_Luz' ( with the underline!) in 2017, houses an excellent collection of Brazilian – and especially Paulista – art from the 19th century to the present. Works include big names such as Portinari and Di Cavalcanti, and it has an excellent permanent collection of modernist Brazilian art. There is a lovely cafe that faces adjacent Parque da Luz.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in São Paulo.