I have met many people on my travels who remain resolutely unimpressed by most sprawling cities. Unless it’s somewhere like New York, London or Rio, people will utter the words “it’s just another city”. “Lots of grey concrete and nothing much else.” However, every city is different…if you’re prepared to accept that it just might be so. I will say that the most important thing to have when entering a city is an open mind.
During my time in Brazil, Sau Paulo came to be a classic example of an overlooked city. People would often lament about the drab exterior of Sau Paulo, advising me that I should perhaps miss it out altogether and head straight to the coast for the nearest beach.
However, I came to love Sau Paulo. It’s a city that is trying to assimilate traditional ideas of gender and propriety with modern concepts of free sexual freedom and materialism, creating a bold and contradictory city.
So here are my tips for enjoying a city like Sau Paulo:
1. Stay in a nice area of the city. When people hate a city it’s very often because they’ve stayed somewhere where they don’t feel safe. In Sau Paulo I stayed in Villa de Madelina – an upscale neighbourhood filled with trendy furniture shops and arty people – and saw a more modern and diverse Sau Paulo.
2. Get some local information and meet local people…don’t just rely on your Lonely Planet or the internet. Ask your hostel or, better yet, log onto the website Couchsurfing and find someone local you can meet up with. Local people can show you the hidden bars, restaurants and beauty spots. We were lucky in Sau Paulo as the hostel owner gave us a full introduction to the city and even showed us key spots on the map and offered safety advice.
3. Think about what you enjoy. Too many people listen to other people’s opinions about a place or only focus on the tourist hotspots and miss the things they individually might actually like. Cooking classes and dance classes are usually readily available in all cities, for example.
4. Walk though the city centre without a map. Just enjoy it and observe the things around you…if you’re too busy running around with your head in a map, desperately navigating streets, you’ll miss out on the individual quirks and nooks that make a city.
5. Remember that cities are about the people. The sheer diversity of people in Sau Paulo brings a wealth of culture, making it endlessly fascinating. Sau Paulo is one of the most liberal places I visited in Brazil, and is filled with promiscuity and modern ideas….the people I have met travelling who come from Sau Paulo reflect this. Again, Couchsurfing is a great way to get to know the local people.
6. Check out the night life. In the case of Sau Paulo, we went to both a samba club and an electro club…Samba isn’t my thing, but it’s an experience worth having because we have nothing like it in the UK.
8. Try the local beverages in a local bar. Sau Paulo has great bars where you can enjoy the Brazilian culture of sharing a large bottle of beer between friends, sipping the bubbles from small glasses.
9. Take in some art and culture. In Sau Paulo I recommend anyone to visit the cathedral, take a walk through China town and eat sushi at a kilo restaurant, wonder through the flea market and see the graffiti art in Madelina.
10. Go on a free walking tour. The one in Sau Paulo has its own website.
11. Get a view of the city from as high a point as you can. In Sau Paulo you can do this from the lookout tower in the city centre and the view is incredible. There is nothing like seeing the city sprawling out beneath you to make you appreciate its sheer size, population and architecture.