São Paulo's main attractions cast a wide net – you'll find the biggest concentration of museums and other points of interest in Centro, and this should be the focus of your visit if you only have a day or two in the city. But there are worthwhile cultural centers, museums and other points of interest around Av Paulista and Parque Ibirapuera as well.
Festivals & Events
São Paulo Bienal
Modeled on the Venice Biennale, the Bienal de São Paulo, founded in 1951, has grown into one of the world’s most important arts events. Many of the participants are working artists who have been nominated by their home country. In addition, a guest curator chooses a theme and invites his or her own favorites. At its best, the Bienal offers the world a chance to view mindbending contemporary art. Certainly it cannot fail to be impressive for its sheer size and diversity.
Vila Madelena is the most traveller-friendly neighborhood for leisure visitors and is home to the majority of hostels (there's also a solid concentration around the residential neighborhoods of Paraíso and Vila Mariana off the southeastern end of Av Paulista). The city's top boutique hotels sit in the leafy, upscale district of Jardins, while many top-end business hotels line Av Paulista, Av Faria Lima, Av das Nações Unidas and Parque Ibirapuera.
São Paulo's only true traveler-like quarter is the bohemian bairro of Vila Madalena, 6km west of Praça da Sé. It boasts a bonafide hip hostel scene in addition to being the city's longstanding cradle of artsy boutiques, cutting-edge galleries and boisterous nightlife.
If you opt for Centro, the areas surrounding Estação da Luz train station and central downtown are rife with cheap hotels but also crime and prostitution – use extreme caution and don't walk around at night. Stick to the safeish immediate area around Praça da República.
Be wary of lower prices luring you to neighborhoods such as Belém, Mooca and Parada Inglesa – they might be cheaper, but you'll be a long haul from the action and wiil be sleeping in the city's two least desirable zones, North and East, which are more prone to crime.
São Paulo’s dining scene is one of the best in the southern hemisphere. Famous fawned-over chefs such as Alex Atala from D.O.M., Helena Rizzo of Maní and Ivan Ralston from Tuju have given contemporary Brazilian cuisine a world stage. Must-eats around town include regional standouts (especially comida Nordestino; Northeastern cuisine) and an incredible bounty of ethnic eats such as Japanese, Middle Eastern (many Syrian refugees have opened restaurants) and Italian.
TheFork (www.thefork.com.br) and Restorando (https://sao-paulo.restorando.com.br) are the most common real-time restaurant reservation services.
For the frugal, there are the ubiquitous lanchonetes – corner bars offering beer to the thirsty and, for the hungry, full meals for between R$15 and $25 (look for chalkboard prato feito offerings).
Drinking & Nightlife
Traditional bar neighborhoods include boteco-filled Vila Madalena (mainstream); along Rua Mario Ferraz in Itaim Bibi (rich, bold and beautiful); and Baixo Augusta, where the GLS scene (Portuguese slang for Gay, Lesbian and Sympathetics) mingles with artsy hipsters in the city's edgiest-nightlife district. Artists, journalists and upper middle-class bohemians have claimed Pinheiros, immediately southeast of Vila Madalena. Current rage: rooftop bars!
Coffee & Cafés
Partying in Sampa isn't cheap: clubbing prices here rival those of New York or Moscow. Nightclubs don’t open until midnight, don’t really get going until after 1am, and keep pumping until 5am or later. Then there are the after-hours places. The hottest districts are Vila Olímpia (flashy, expensive, electronica) and Barra Funda/Baixo Augusta (rock, alternative, down-to-earth). Some clubs offer a choice between a cover charge or a pricier consumação option, recoupable in drinks. Most clubs offer a discount for emailing or calling ahead to be on the list. Keep the card they give you on the way in – bartenders record your drinks on it, then you pay on the way out.
Check out the Portuguese-language Guia da Folha, which has a website (http://guia.folha.uol.com.br) as well as a supplement in the Friday edition of Folha de São Paulo newspaper.
Drinking & Nightlife
São Paulo is home to the world-class theater at Theatro Municipal and classical music at Sala São Paulo; in addition to live samba, which is prevalent across a wide range of bars, botecos and other venues around town. Futebol (football/soccer) is predictably huge, with Corinthians hogging the majority of fans. The city is also home to numerous cultural centers that boast indie and arthouse cinemas.
Virtually every big shopping center has a multiplex, mostly offering standard Hollywood fare. For high art, check out the film series at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil and Instituto Moreira Salles. Most films, especially higher-quality films, are subtitled rather than dubbed, but be sure to check beforehand.
São Paulo's three biggest football teams are Corinthians (www.corinthians.com.br), who play at the Arena Corinthians, 24km east of Centro (a 2014 FIFA World Cup venue); Palmeiras (www.palmeiras.com.br), who play in the modern 43,600-capacity Allianz Parque near Barra Funda; and São Paulo FC (www.saopaulofc.net), who play at the 67,428-capacity Estádio do Morumbi (a 2016 Olympic Games venue).
Due to high Brazilian import taxes, São Paulo can be an extremely expensive city to shop, so the best buys will be found on unique domestic items. The best district is Vila Madelena, home to unique and cutting-edge design, fashion and artsy boutiques; Rua Augusta (edgy/streetwear); and Rua Oscar Freire and surrounding streets in the Jardins district (top-end haute couture).
Because it grew at dizzying speeds and without a master plan, São Paulo has no single grid of streets but rather a hodgepodge of grids in more or less concentric circles that radiate out from the historic center. This, together with a dearth of easily identifiable landmarks, means it’s easy to get hopelessly lost.
Sitting atop a low ridge and lined with skyscrapers, Av Paulista is the city’s main drag, dividing its largely working-class Centro from tonier neighborhoods to the south. At its western end, Av Paulista is crossed by the corridor made up of Av Rebouças and Rua da Consolação, which roughly divides the city’s eastern and western halves.
To the north of Av Paulista lies what is generally called Centro: including Praça da República and around; the traditionally Italian Bela Vista area (also known as Bixiga); Luz, a newly refurbished cultural hub; the traditionally Japanese Liberdade; and the old commercial and historic core around Praça da Sé and its cathedral, including Triângulo and Anhangabaú.
Extending for about 10 blocks south of Paulista is the leafy neighborhood known as Jardins (the neighborhood’s official name is Jardim Paulista), which has the lion’s share of the city’s higher-end restaurants and boutiques. Further south is the leafy, low-rise and exclusively residential area known as Jardim Europa and also the slightly less exclusive Jardim America. Southeast of Jardim Europa is sprawling Parque do Ibirapuera, while to the west lie the upscale neighborhoods of Pinheiros and Vila Madalena. South of Jardim Europa lie the upmarket bastions of Vila Olímpia and Itaim Bibi, both of which are increasingly important business centers.