“I am not led, I lead,” declares São Paulo's Latin motto, and given the city's present-day status as Brazil’s capital of commerce, it’s a fair statement.
However, São Paulo was not always such an economic powerhouse. It was founded in 1554 by Jesuit Missionaries and was largely overlooked until it became the 17th-century departure point for the Portuguese colony’s Bandeira (flag) expeditions. Yet it was not until the late 19th century that São Paulo truly flourished. Establishing itself as one of Brazil's main coffee producers, the city began to attract Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and Japanese investment, and by 1895 more than half of the 130,000 residents were immigrants.
This influx of wealth transformed São Paulo from a sleepy mission post into a financial hub with a burgeoning cultural scene. By the 1920s, São Paulo was promoting avant-garde poets and artists such as Mário and Oswald de Andrade, founders of Brazilian modernism.
Today, São Paulo’s metropolitan area has a population of 20 million people and features in the world’s "ten richest cities" list. As a result, São Paulo is as famous for its designer shopping as for its imaginative cuisine and cultural attractions. São Paulo is also a natural springboard to the delights of Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, the beaches of the Paulista Coast, and the Amazon.
São Paulo is a sprawling city with more than 70 museums, 200 theaters, and 50 parks. Add 20 million residents and a bustling business district, and you’ll find there is never a shortage of São Paulo sights or activities.
Start a tour of this diverse city at Praça da Sé, where a stone monument marks the center of the city, and is overlooked by the imposing neo-Gothic Catedral da Sé de São Paulo.
A short distance southwest is Avenida Paulista, the city’s two-kilometer-long commercial center. The Avenida plays host to the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, an attraction that hosts one of Latin America's most important collections of impressionist paintings, featuring artists such as Degas, Renoir, Goya, and Manet. Further works of art can be found at the nearby Casa das Rosas, a private residence turned cultural center.
Other São Paulo highlights include the downtown Teatro Municipal, an ornate Parisian-style opera house built in 1903 and rumored to have near-perfect acoustics. Alternatively, visit the recently renovated Estação Julio Prestes, a Victorian railway station that has been completely restored and adapted for use as a cultural center. Both venues feature a rich program of classical music, dance, opera, and theater.
With an estimated 15,000 clubs and bars, São Paulo is a popular nightlife destination. The city, colloquially known as Sampa, is beset by trends; check with a resident Paulistano for the latest information. São Paulo is famous for samba, but its two main entertainment districts—Rua 13 de Maio and Jardins—are home to nightclubs offering every beat from disco to jazz. The city’s wealthiest residents tend to head for the upmarket establishments in the Vila Madalena, Jardins, and Itaim neighborhoods, while younger Paulistanos flock to Pinheiros and Vila Olímpia.
The city is also renowned for its gastronomic prowess; with 12,000 restaurants featuring more than 40 global cuisines, there really is something to suit all tastes. São Paulo’s Italian community is in central Bela Vista, also known as Bixiga, where you can expect to enjoy some of the finest Italian cuisine outside of the Mediterranean. Those looking for Asian cuisine can visit Liberdade; once the exclusive preserve of the Japanese, the vibrant and colorful district is now also home to many Chinese and Korean descendants.
São Paulo’s coastal location is just a stone’s throw from some of Brazil’s finest beaches. Just an hour’s drive along the Paulista Coast is Guarujá, a small town with dozens of beaches. The most popular spots are the turquoise waters of Pitangueiras and Astúrias and the white sands of Enseada and Casado. But beware: they can get busy.
Soccer fanatics may wish to pay homage to Santos, Brazil’s most important port. However, most travelers overlook the port in favor of visiting Santos FC, the team made famous by the legendary Brazilian soccer player Pele.