Initial Impressions of São Paulo, Brazil
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!
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!