Initial Impressions of São Paulo, Brazil

Published January 28, 2020

Hello you guys, and welcome to Caffeinated Excursions! If you’re here, I want to thank you for checking out my very first post of 2020! There are some exciting changes that are coming to the blog this year, which I’ll be explaining below. And as you can see, this post is my first to feature a country I’ve been dying to visit for years now: Brazil!

If you’ve followed along in 2019, then you know I started last year in Mexico, spent a few months traveling throughout the Spanish-speaking part of Latin America, then hopped over to Vietnam, where I was an ESL teacher from March to December.

The back side of Catedral Metropolitana de São Paulo
Catedral Metropolitana de São Paulo from the front

After spending the holidays at home in Seattle, I flew to São Paulo, where I’ve been for the past two weeks. I’m planning on staying here for the first half of 2020, and after that I’m hoping to move to Miami. More on that as the year progresses!

Avenida Paulista, the heart of São Paulo's business district

But enough about me. If you clicked on this post, you’re here to learn about São Paulo, one of the biggest cities in the world and arguably the financial capital of Latin America. Since I’ve only been here two weeks, I’m in no way an expert on the city. However, I’ve had the chance to form some initial impressions (most of which have been quite positive). To skip to any section that interests you, click or tap the corresponding link below!

  1. Defining Features of the City
  2. Food!
  3. Money and Prices
  4. Portuguese
  5. Safety
  6. Weather
  7. Neighborhoods

Initial Impressions

1. Defining Features of the City

The first and most obvious thing about São Paulo is its size. With a greater metropolitan population of about 20 million people, São Paulo is by far the largest city in all of South America.

Despite being one of the biggest cities in the world, São Paulo doesn’t have an ultra modern vibe. In fact, construction projects and supertall towers seem to be absent from the city center, at least compared to other megacities. I’d say this gives the city a somewhat dated look, but in more residential areas, things have a little bit more charm.

The other defining feature of the city is the abundance of street art. I don’t think I’ve seen another city that has as much art on every city block as São Paulo. Granted, a lot of it is graffiti, but most of it is still really well done. There are very few concrete surfaces in the city that aren’t covered in some form of interesting imagery.

2. Food!

A truly surprising aspect of coming to Brazil was discovering what the local food was like. I expected the cuisine to be at least sort of similar to Mexican, but found that Brazilian food (at least in São Paulo) resembles a lot of American classics! Burgers, deli sandwiches, and salads are common choices. Take a look at the first meal I got at a local restaurant here, pictured below.

A typical dish involves meat, rice, beans, fries, and a salad. You can get that combo at pretty much any restaurant. If it sounds a bit boring or bland, I hear where you’re coming from. After having it multiple times from different restaurants, I’ve got to admit that it’s surprisingly good and extremely filling. I haven’t really been tempted to snack while in Brazil since the meals are so heavy! 

I also enjoy the pastries that are served for breakfast here. While croissants are more or less the same as they would be elsewhere in the world, the uniquely local option is called a coxinha. Shaped like a raindrop, this fried pastry usually contains shredded chicken, although not always. Restaurants make them each morning, so I like them for breakfast when they’re fresh, but they’re served throughout the day and make a great quick bite.

Coxinhas shown on the bottom shelf next to some empanadas and other pastries.

The final thing that stands out to me about São Paulo’s food scene is the abundance of Japanese and Italian restaurants. This is no coincidence, as the city is home to huge Japanese and Italian immigrant communities. If you need a break from rice and beans, these two options are never hard to find.

3. Money and Prices

The Brazilian currency is the real (pronounced ‘hey-ow’ or when plural, reais, pronounced ‘hey-ice’). As of January 2020, one USD is worth about 4.2 BRL. As a sort of random side note, the actual physical paper bills don’t appear to be laminated at all, so you’ll come across some really beat up banknotes that are barely hanging together. Just be careful not to wad them up in a pocket or they could rip!

Credit and debit cards are accepted almost everywhere in São Paulo, and I’ve seen locals use them for the smallest of purchases without any complaints from merchants. I haven’t had a problem using cards or ATMs so far. Unlike in many countries, there’s no need to carry around a large sum of cash because of how prevalent cards are here.

While prices are lower than what you’d pay in the US, they’re not fantastically low like what you could find in Vietnam. In fact, I’d say prices are more in line with Western Europe than developing countries in Asia. I can’t speak for the rest of Brazil yet, but I’d guess that prices in São Paulo are the highest I’ve seen in South America.

4. Portuguese

I highly recommend a crash course in Portuguese before visiting Brazil, even if it’s only an hour or two of greetings and numbers. That’s because a lot of people in São Paulo don’t speak any English, and the vast majority of signage is not bilingual. This applies to restaurants as well; learning a handful of food-related words could go a long way.

5. Safety

Let’s just be honest: Brazil is often considered unsafe, especially for foreign travelers. But how have things been on the ground since I arrived? Well, I haven’t had any incidents personally nor witnessed anything suspicious or criminal. I think as in the vast majority of countries, the biggest risk is petty crime and pickpockets, so always remain vigilant with valuables like a phone or wallet.

I will say that poverty is very visible in São Paulo, for example in the form of homelessness or begging even in the wealthier parts of the city. This could make some visitors uncomfortable or nervous about crime, but I haven’t witnessed anything even reminiscent of an altercation. If in doubt, stay in populated areas. For traveling at night, Uber is a great alternative to walking, especially because it’s so much cheaper than what you’d pay in the US.

6. Weather

January is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so I can’t speak to what winter in São Paulo is like yet. With that said, sunny days have been hot, but not unbearably so. The sun is especially bright, so you will get burned if you’re not careful. In general, humidity seems to be low. Cloudy and rainy days have been significantly cooler, and it’s probably not a bad idea to bring a light jacket if you’re visiting in summer. When it rains, it rains hard, so an umbrella might come in handy.

7. Neighborhoods

A city as big as São Paulo is bound to have a bunch of distinct neighborhoods. And each one I’ve visited so far does indeed have its own unique atmosphere and vibe. Checking out different parts of the city is a must, especially for anyone visiting for more than a few days.

Introducing São Paulo 360: A New Series Featuring the City's Neighborhoods

With that in mind, I’m excited to announce a new series which will be the main focus of Caffeinated Excursions for the next six months: São Paulo 360! I’ll be choosing particular neighborhoods that are well-suited for tourists in terms of safety and unique attractions. After exploring the streets, restaurants, bars, and parks in a particular area, I’ll publish a new post and share what I find! You guys can expect a new São Paulo 360 post at least once every two weeks. To check out the project’s archive, click here.

Vila Madalena, a particularly artsy neighborhood that will be covered in São Paulo 360

By the time it’s done, this series will be a comprehensive, niche resource for anyone visiting the city. Not only that, but it’ll be a great excuse for me to explore as much of the metro area as I can. I won’t be spending nearly as much on airfare this year as I did in 2019, and this will also mean a much smaller carbon footprint. For my first post, I’ll be writing about the neighborhood I’m staying in: Bela Vista! Be sure to check it out here!

In Conclusion...

I think it’s safe to say that within the world of travel blogging, Brazil is still a relatively untapped market. Of those who visit, most seem to limit themselves to Rio. That’s definitely a shame, because São Paulo has so much to offer! I think it deserves a higher status as a world-class destination, and in the coming months, I hope to inspire other travelers to come check out this incredibly city.

Although I’m not going to fly around Brazil as much as I did in Mexico or Vietnam, I would like to take at least one or two domestic trips, maybe to destinations like Brasília or Belém. If you’ve been to São Paulo and have any suggestions or tips, leave a comment below! Keep an eye out for my next post, which will be the first in my São Paulo 360 series! Thanks for reading!

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This post was published on Jan 28, 2020

This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. Kailyn

    I can’t wait to hear about all the different neighborhoods! I also just always assumed Rio was the biggest city in Brazil, guess you learn something new everyday!

  2. Emily

    Rio is the more popular city, but I enjoyed reading about Sao Paulo! I especially liked reading about the different foods there. I never would expect the cuisine to have some american influence and even some Italian and Japanese. Adding this city to my Brazil travel list!

  3. Well it certainly looks like a very vibrant city! Brazil couldn’t be higher on the list of places that I’d love to explore, to be honest! Thanks!

  4. Shreya Saha

    Thanks for the lovely blog, You have nicely described your total journey from Mexico to São Paulo biggest cities in the world and financial capital of Latin America. In your blog, you have done an awesome pic for the lovely place. São Paulo the city is abundant of street art. You have nicely described about the food but all the foods are full of non-vegetarian option. But if you have any idea about the offer Vegan options?

    1. I believe I have seen a few vegan restaurants, but unfortunately Brazilian food is quite heavy on the meat. As a city of twenty million people, though, there have got to be some vegan and vegetarian options dispersed among the Brazilian steakhouses. I will definitely keep an eye out for some and try them if I find anything!

  5. Jamie Italiane

    Brazil hadn’t been on my radar due to safety concerns. Glad to hear about your experience. Interesting to know about the Italian and Japanese immigrants. Any chance you have found out what drew these groups here?

    1. I’m not sure, but I think that most immigrants arrived a few generations ago. I rarely if ever hear Japanese or Italian on the city streets. There are definitely some resources out there, like this article. I definitely need to take an hour or two to read up on it!

  6. Jan Klíma

    Brazil – so colourful world… Looks tempting! Thank you for that! But I’m not sure if it’s safe there … 🙂

  7. Samantha Karen

    Looks so beautiful through and through. Its quite interesting actually, it looks a little like Europe (the Cathedral especially) while the city looks North American. Such an interesing mix!

  8. hollyrobertstravel

    Awesome information! I’ve been wanting some information on Sao Paulo! Great job!

  9. backpackandsnorkel

    I love the street art. Sao Paulo is on my list. How many days do you recommend to stay there during a 2 week Brazil trip?

  10. Ann Kelson

    Sao Paul looks like such a fun city! Love the architecture, street art, and the food looks delicious.

  11. Wide Open World

    Food is always one of my favourite parts of traveling, thanks for sharing. The art is beautiful. I can’t wait to visit this part of the world one day!

  12. Smita

    ooh we missed out on Sao Paulo during our trip to Brazil a couple years ago – we were based in Rio and then headed to the Iguazu Falls from there. Sao Paulo does look like a great place – your pictures are great, especially of the food!

  13. Carol Colborn

    Would you believe Sao Paulo is where we have our only timeshare in Brazil? Now I know why it isn’t Rio. Sao Paolo is the largest city in South America at 20 million! Would love to discover more than the Cathedral and the street art.

  14. Rodes On The Road

    I agree that the street arts are so pretty! Green Mochilla travel blogs is an expert of South America if you are thinking of looking for more tips to see in Brazil. Thanks for sharing and glad you enjoy your visit there in Brazil. Keep safe and happy travels!

  15. Danik

    I am going to ask as my knowledge on Sao Paulo is very poor and never been to Brazil before, but apart from street art and good food there is there any actually sights to see? I cant name any on the top of my head. However what I saw and read in your post, it looks like I shouldn’t miss Saio Paulo. Once I do get there, I take it there is many options to get to Iguazu Falls from here or with tour companies? Be interested to know as I am hoping to be Brazil in early 2021.

    1. That’s a really good question, Danik. I would say that Sao Paulo doesn’t have such grand and world-famous attractions as Rio does, which is probably why it’s less visited. With that said, it’s definitely a unique city that I’ve really enjoyed so far. I’m not sure about tour companies offering packages to Iguazu Falls, but I think it’s far enough away that you’d want to fly. There’s a whole city there (on the Brazilian side), so I’m not sure if you need to book a tour. If I make it out there, I’ll definitely write about it!

  16. josypheen

    What a fantastic way for you to start the year Kevin!

    I can’t wait to hear more about Brazil and Sao Paulo’s neighborhoods. Thanks for bringing us all along for your journey.

  17. ansh997x

    Sao Paolo looks like a typical hippie town from Asia. It is amazing to see how backpackers leave their footprints at certain places. I would love to visit Brazil someday.

  18. Alex

    Not bad! Sao Paulo in a nutshell, all the basics that a traveler needs to know, if they go there for the first time. Not sure I will make it there though… not on top of my list.

  19. Sarah Carpenter

    Wow Sao Paulo looks like such a great city. I love the street art! It seems like it has a cool vibe and I love to see what the local food is like in a city too. It looks like a city I would like to explore!

  20. This is great. I will begin my backpacking trip across South America in upcoming weeks. Bookmarking it for future reference.

  21. aniajames

    nice to learn new stuff about Sao Paulo, when we were in south America, we gave it a miss – beside going to the airport. Maybe we will visit next time. Waiting forward to future update about Sao Paulo

  22. Annick

    Are you working while you’re in São Paulo? I like your plan for the first half of 2020 – you’ll get much more out of a country with slow travel. I don’t think I realized that it’s the largest city in South America. So your plan to feature a different neighborhood every couple of weeks is brilliant. I lived in Rio, Belem, Bahia, and Aracaju when I was younger, so I really look forward to reading about your excursions. The people of Brazil are warm and gracious hosts, so I’m glad to see you addressing all the details like money, language, and safety, so that visitors feel more willing to explore this beautiful country and São Paulo in particular.

    1. That is so cool, Annick!! I have loved my time here so far and would love to see more of the country beyond SP. There is a lot of apprehension even among very avid travelers, which is understandable, but I do hope to give a more informed picture of how the safety situation is for visitors. I am teaching English here and am learning as much from my students as (I hope) they are from me!

  23. Hello! This is a trip that definitely impressed me! Your photos are gorgeous! This is a wonderful place. Sao Paulo definitely on my bucket list! Thanks for sharing!

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