Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Sao Paulo
Situated grandly atop downtown São Paulo’s Vale do Anhangabaú like a concrete wedding cake, the century-old Theatro Municipal still shines as an example of the city’s place at the vanguard of art in Latin America. Opened in 1911, the ornate showplace—styled in the tradition of the great European opera houses—has welcomed Maria Callas, Isadora Duncan, Duke Ellington, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Ellington to its stage. A recent multimillion-dollar renovation has restored the grandeur of the structure, which serves as the official home of the São Paulo Municipal Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo City Ballet, among other artistic organizations.
With a design inspired directly by Milan’s Teatroalla Scala, the theater was erected during the height of São Paulo’s wealth and influence as the center of Brazil’s coffee industry, though the location of the structure is called Morro do Chá—Tea Hill.
Sao Paulo’s version of NYC’s Central Park, leafy Ibirapuera Park was opened on the 400th anniversary of the city, in 1954, and it’s known as much for its museums and music hall as it is for its jogging and cycling paths by the lake.
The park buildings were designed by the modernist Oscar Niemeyer, known for designing Brasília’s public buildings. Covering 2 square km, Ibirapuera is the largest park in central Sao Paulo and the second largest in the city. Designed by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, there are 13 playing courts and playgrounds on the lawn. Come on a Sunday morning to enjoy a free outdoor concert in the Praça da Paz. Another nice Sunday touch is the Bosque de Leitura — a free outdoor lending library where you can borrow books and magazines (many of which are in English) to read in the park for the day.
Lording over the heart of the city, the immense Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption—abbreviated to Catedral da Sé in reference to its status as the seat of the local Roman Catholic archbishop—almost seems out of place with its mid-century Modernist neighbors. In fact, the current neo-Gothic structure is the third incarnation of the cathedral, the first church having been established in 1589. Designed by German architect Maximilian Hehl in 1912, construction on the current church began the following year, only coming to full completion in 1967, a full 50 years after Hehl himself died and 13 years after the cathedral was inaugurated for São Paulo’s 400th anniversary in 1954. One of the largest neo-Gothic structures in the world and certainly the largest in Brazil, the cathedral’s massive dimensions include a length of 364 feet, a 98-foot dome, and a height of 301 feet from ground level to the tip of the twin spires.
This historic church is built on the exact spot where the famed city of Sao Paulo was founded. Constructed in 1554, Pateo do Collegio Chuch once served as a home, school and church for Jesuit priests. Today, the original structure includes a museum, café, library in addition to an operational church. Visitors can explore the church’s seven halls that showcase sacred artifacts, indigenous art and a model of the city in its earliest state. Travelers should be sure to check out the famed Peace Bell—known by locals as Sino da Paz—which serves as a reminder of the need for peace, justice and empathy in Sao Paulo and across the world.
One of the most expensive strips of real estate in Latin America, Avenida Paulista is São Paulo’s most iconic thoroughfare. What started out as a residential street lined with the ornate neoclassical mansions of 19th-century coffee barons has, in a little over a century, turned into an urban canyon of glass and steel and a modern hub of business, culture and entertainment.
Anchored on one end by busy Shopping Paulista mall and on the other by multi-use architectural standout Conjunto Nacional—vaguely reminiscent of the famed congress building in Brasília—, Avenida Paulista serves as the address for many of the city’s most important cultural institutions, including the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), lush Parque Trianon and the Casa das Rosas arts center (located in one of the last mansions remaining on the street).
In Sao Paulo’s downtown, the Monastery of Sao Bento is known for its Gregorian chanting, exceptional bakery, and beautiful frescoes.
To catch the medieval chants of the monks, head to the 10am Sunday mass — get there early for a good seat. If you come for Sunday service, you’ll also get to hear the 6,000 pipe organ being played. For cake, jams, cookies, and breads prepared and blessed by the monks, look for the bakery to the left of the main hall. It’s a little more expensive than regular bakeries, but the quality is excellent and there’s a wide range of baked goods to choose from. Try the pão de mel — honey bread filled with jam and dipped in chocolate.
Surrounded by skyscrapers today, the Monastery of Sao Bento was built from 1910-1922, and it stands in the place of the original 17th-century chapel. Home to 40 cloistered monks, the monastery was chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for his stay during his first official visit to Brazil in 2007.
An enduring symbol of São Paulo’s 20th century race to modernity, the Edifício Altino Arantes—more commonly known as the Banespa Tower or Banespão—remains one of the most notable landmarks on the city’s exhaustive skyline. Originally built as the headquarters of the State Bank of São Paulo (Banespa) and named for one of the bank’s first presidents, the tower rose over an eight-year period, crowning the city as its tallest building in 1947, a title held for the next 18 years. At completion, the 528-foot tower also held the title of tallest reinforced concrete structure and tallest building outside of the United States. Inspired by New York City’s Empire State Building, the tower exhibits Art Deco styling both inside and out.
Home to the world’s largest Japanese population outside Japan, the Sao Paulo district of Liberdade is a densely-populated neighborhood that’s a popular spot for locals and tourists looking to get a taste of Japanese culture and cuisine in Brazil.
Liberdade was settled in the early to mid-20th century by Japanese immigrants brought to Brazil to work in the coffee plantations around Sao Paulo. Since 1970, many people of other Asian ethnicities, especially Chinese and Koreans, have also moved into the area.
Marked by the nine-meter tall red Torii (Japanese Shinto arch) on Rua Galvão Bueno, and lined with Japanese-style street lamps, Liberdade offers a similar feel to other little Tokyo’s around the globe. It’s a particular draw to young Paulistano manga and anime enthusiasts, who are often seen dressed up as cosplay characters almost any day of the week, but especially on weekends.
São Paulo's most exclusive destination, the Jardins District, is really a combination of the neighborhoods Jardim Paulista, Jardim América, Jardim Europa, Jardim Paulistano, as well as parts of Cerqueira César that extend southwest of Avenida Paulista — the city's main avenue of skyscraper offices.
Aptly for a district where the name translates to “gardens,” Jardins is famous for its green space, with many of its huge stucco villas and modern glass mansions surrounded by lawns and pools.
Jardins is home to hundreds of ritzy bars and restaurants, including D.O.M — named the world’s 7th best restaurant by Michelin. Rua Augusta, in particular, is lined with luxury hotels and restaurants, and where Augusta meets Rua Oscar Freire you'll find the flagship stores of designers including Dior, Cavalli, and Marc Jacobs.
Three kilometers east of downtown São Paulo, the Pacaembu Stadium is a traditional Brazilian soccer stadium that opened in 1940. With a capacity of almost 40,000, Pacaembu was long home to one of the country's top clubs — The Corinthians, who have now moved to a new stadium 25 km east of Pacaembu, which was built for the 2014 World Cup.
Since 1961, the stadium’s official name has been Estádio Municipal Paulo Machado de Carvalho, after the founder of Brazilian TV network Rede Record, but the name never got caught and it'll always be known as Pacaembu. All of Sao Paulo’s big teams have played here, and it's now famous for being home of the national soccer museum, Museu do Futebol. Covering 6,900 square meters below the bleachers, at the Football Museum you'll learn the history of Brazilian football through videos, interactive exhibits, and over 1,400 photos.
More Things to Do in Sao Paulo
Standing 130 meters tall in the heart of São Paulo, the Martinelli Building was the city’s first skyscraper. Built in 1929 with 12 floors to begin with, the remaining 18 floors you see today were completed by 1935.
A beautiful building that would look right at home in Chicago, the Martinelli Building was built by Italian immigrant-turned-business tycoon Giuseppe Martinelli, who arrived in Brazil in 1889. To prove to a skeptical public that the skyscraper was actually safe, he and his family actually lived in the top four floors until the Great Depression forced Martinelli to part with the building and let it come under control of the Italian government, who then sold it to the state of Brazil.
Said to host one of the finest art collections in the Southern Hemisphere, Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) is where to go in Brazil if you want to get your fill of Boschs and Bellinis, Van Goghs and Gauguins. There are over 8,000 works in total, and, unusually, the rooms housing the permanent collection are arranged by theme rather than in chronological order. As you make your way round the large museum, you'll see dozens of Degas sculptures and works by some of Spain’s most famous painters including Picasso and Velazquez. Representing the Latin American front, familiar names donning the walls include Diego Rivera, Candido Portinari, Torres Garcia, and Anita Malfatti. Built in 1968 and designed by the modernist architect Lina Bo, MASP is a flash of red and grey in the heart of Paulista Avenue — Sao Paulo's main boulevard of gleaming skyscrapers and banking headquarters, and the museum is almost as famous for the iconic concrete and glass building it sits in as it is its art.
Shaded from the intense tropical sunshine in leafy Parque da Luz—incidentally, Park of Light—the Pinacoteca do Estado is just as much a work of art as the works housed within. Opened in 1897 by prolific Brazilian architect Ramos de Azevedo as São Paulo’s first art school, Liceu de Artes e Ofícios, the handsome neoclassical museum underwent a major overhaul in 1997, when the painted stucco exterior was stripped off to expose the gorgeous brick underneath.
Inside, classic and contemporary paintings, sculptures, and photographs by Brazilian masters such as Ana Maria Pacheco and Di Cavalcanti adorn the colonnaded passageways of the museum, and admission to the Pinacoteca itself includes entry to the nearby annex Estação Pinacoteca, featuring temporary exhibitions in a political prison operated during Brazil’s military dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985.
Standing 168 meters tall, São Paulo’s Italian Building (Edifício Itália) is the second-tallest structure in the city after Mirante do Vale. Built between 1956 and 1965, it’s famous for its 360-degree-views which you can see for yourself on a trip up to the Terraço Itália restaurant and piano bar, or even further to the 41st floor rooftop viewing terrace. With the city spread out 500 feet below, and soft jazz playing in the Noble Room piano bar, this is most definitely the spot for celebrating a special occasion.
The rest of the floors are given over to offices, and there's a theater and gallery on the ground floor. Another interesting spot in the building is the Circolo Italiano — a nonprofit that preserves the traditions of Sao Paulo’s Italians. The surrounding downtown area isn’t all that safe at night, so if you’re having dinner here it's a good idea to ask the staff to call you a cab to take you back to your accommodation.
Based in the São Paulo neighborhood Vila Madalena, Sunset Square is known for its stunning view of the city’s downtown core. Called Praça do Por do Sol in Portuguese, the official name of is actually Praça Cel. Custódio Fernandes Pinheiros, though you won’t catch the locals saying that.
Surrounded by streets filled with nightclubs, restaurants, and street art, Vila Madalena is known for its nightlife and as a center for Sao Paulo bohemian art and culture, and Sunset Square is the epicenter of that counter culture. Come on weekends to join the locals who sit, picnic, read, walk, and play music here.
It’s possible to visit any time of night or day, but it’s best to visit Sunset Square just before sunset. With a name like Sunset Square, it’s no surprise that at sundown, up to 2,000 people congregate on the lawn to watch the sun sink behind Sao Paolo’s towering skyscrapers.
Located inside Estádio Municipal Paulo Machado de Carvalho (a soccer stadium located in the Pacaembu neighborhood of Sao Paulo), the Museum du Futebol (Football Museum) is a 6,900-square-meter museum dedicated to the history and importance of soccer in Brazilian culture.
The museum is located underneath the bleachers, and was constructed over 13 months and inaugurated in 2009. Valued at USD $12 million, the Museum du Futebol has 16 rooms of permanent exhibits, as well as several temporary exhibitions. Permanent exhibitions give visitors an opportunity to see the history and importance of soccer in Brazilian culture, download their own “goal” moments, and view the soccer pitch. Much of the Museum’s content is multimedia, and written content is provided in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Audio guides are also available in these languages.
With its striking crescent shape, Sao Paulo’s iconic Hotel Unique has been said to look like many things — a copper half-moon, the hull of a ship...but locals just call it “the watermelon.” Designed by the Brazilian-Japanese architect Ruy Ohtake and renovated in late 2012, the luxury 95-room hotel has won numerous design awards. Critic Paul Goldberger even hailed the building as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Based in Jardim Paulista near Sao Paulo’s version of Central Park, Ibirapuera, inside Hotel Unique it’s all high ceilings and quirky touches like the huge blue cushion that is the lobby’s sitting area.
The hotel even has a water slide for grown-ups, and there's a crimson rooftop pool next to the Skye rooftop bar and restaurant: here you can sip a caipirinha or a wasabi martini, dine on French-Brazilian fusion food, and look out across Sao Paulo from one of the most fashionable spots in the city.
A rectangular eye at the center of the urban hurricane that is São Paulo, Praça da República might have seen better days, but the plaza still holds on to its importance as a focal point for cultural life in the city. Built in 1889 to commemorate a new era in the city’s expansion and development, Praça da República served as the primary location for concerts, political protests, and other large gatherings. Perched within the otherwise tree-shaded plaza is the former Caetano de Campos School, now site of the São Paulo State Department of Education, a handsome structure of yellow brick that—at over 120 years old—contrasts greatly with the mid-20th century glass and steel towers fronting the park. Just across AvenidaIpiranga from the plaza is one of the city’s oldest Modernist residential buildings, the Edifício Esther, inaugurated in 1938, and overlooking the park from the southwest corner is the nearly 500-foot-tall EdifícioItália, São Paulo’s second-tallest building.
Developed in the late 1970s as an off-price alternative to the sky-high rents along Avenida Paulista, Avenida Berrini (pronounced be-HEE-nee) has given its name to a district of modern high-rise office and residential towers which host the headquarters or regional offices of several multinational corporations. Part of the neighborhood of Brooklin—yes, you read right—Berrini also houses a growing number of shopping and entertainment areas, including American-style malls Shopping Morumbi and Shopping Market Place, as well as the D&D Decoration and Design Center.
Fronting the Pinheiros River, local outposts of several international hotel chains, including the Hyatt and the Hilton, are located in the area, and the recently opened Octávio Frías de Oliveira Bridge looms large against a backdrop of glass and concrete skyscrapers lined up like dominoes.
Standing 1,418 meters high, the mountain of Pedra Grande is famous for its views across São Paulo. It also forms the centerpiece of the world’s largest native urban forest—Cantareira State Park (Parque Estadual da Cantareira).
In the north of the city, Pedra Grande (which translates to “Big Rock”) is a playground for hang gliding, paragliding, climbing, camping, hiking, motocross, BMX, and ATVing. Due to high quartz levels, it’s also a hotspot for dowsers and crystal healing enthusiasts.
Visitors can walk to the top of the Pedra Grande via one of several short trails between 1.5 and 3 kilometers. This is a popular way to spot some of Brazil’s exotic wildlife including harpy eagles, red-tailed Amazon, black-fronted piping guan, and the ubiquitous howler monkey. And the longest trail runs 9.5 km, which is an old paved road with benches to rest at along the way.
Covering nearly 20,000 acres and rising out of northern São Paulo, Cantareira State Park (Parque Estadual da Cantareira) is one of the world’s largest patches of tropical rainforest that's within a city. A popular spot for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city on the weekend, visit Cantareira early on a Saturday morning to leave the crowds behind, then take your pick between the park trails which vary in length from 300 meters to 10 kilometers.
Split into four quarters — Pedra Grande, Águas Claras, Engordador, and Cabuçu — the Engordador section is best known for its waterfalls where you can go swimming. As you wind through the forest trails, look out for howler monkeys, Brazilian hawks, and endangered tropical plants like imbuya phoebe, black cinnamon, and canela-sassafrás.
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