Thanks to its busy international airport, São Paulo is a popular entry point for visitors to Brazil. And yet, São Paulo sightseeing doesn’t make it onto many Brazil travel bucket lists.
As I booked my flight to the largest city in Brazil, I wondered, what is there to do in São Paulo?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t really want to visit São Paulo. I had low expectations of the city, and I was not particularly excited about starting my explorations of Brazil there. In fact, I was kind of dreading it.
But once I arrived, I was amazed to find a vibrant, cheerful and welcoming city with loads to offer visitors! Don’t make the mistake of jumping on the first bus out of town. There are plenty of São Paulo attractions to keep you entertained for a few days.
Here are some of the top things to do in São Paulo while you’re in the city.
São Paulo is known as the place to see some of the world’s best street art, and nowhere is this more evident than in the bohemian neighborhood of Vila Madalena. The area’s most famous street, and the one where you’ll want to start your explorations, is Batman’s Alley (Beco do Batman).
In this narrow back alleyway, every inch of the walls on both sides of the street (and sometimes even the street itself!) are covered in artwork. It’s an incredible sight and definitely one of the must see places in São Paulo!
Every few months, the murals are covered over and replaced with fresh artwork, so there’s always something new to see. The alley is one of the most popular São Paulo tourist attractions for Brazilian tourists.
It also attracts vendors who set up their stalls in the hopes of selling trinkets to said tourists. This takes away from the atmosphere a bit and can get in the way of photo opportunities, so I recommend arriving early, around 9am, to beat both the crowds and the vendors.
There’s plenty more street art beyond Batman’s Alley, so take the time to wander and explore the area. The nearby staircase known as Escadaria do Patapio is worth a look, as well as Escadaria das Bailarinas a bit further away.
And while you’re in the neighborhood, don’t miss the chance to taste some of Brazil’s best ice cream at Veganeria! This cute little café also makes some yummy savory treats, such as their torta caponata.
If you’re in town on a Sunday, the Paulista Avenue is a São Paulo must see. During the week it’s clogged with traffic, but every Sunday until about 4pm the avenue is closed to cars.
And this is when it gets taken over by cyclists and pedestrians out for a stroll, along with every type of live music act and street performer you can possibly imagine.
From ballet to heavy metal, you will see and hear it all on the Avenida Paulista. It really is one of the top experiences not to miss in São Paulo. If you’re here at lunch time, stop in at Loving Hut or one of the many other vegan-friendly restaurants on Rua Augusta, just off the Avenida near the Consolação metro station.
Even if you can’t time your visit to be there on a Sunday, it’s still worth coming to check out the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), considered to be the city’s best art museum. And that’s saying something, because São Paulo has a LOT of museums! Entry is free on Tuesdays and Thursdays after 5pm.
There are also lots of art galleries, theaters, pubs, bookstores and more on the Avenida and surrounding streets. The area around Consolação is the hub of São Paulo’s gay nightlife, and the Avenida is the scene of the largest gay pride parade in the world! It takes place every year during the Corpus Christi holidays, which are usually in late May or early June.
The SESC, or Serviço Social do Comércio, is a private institution that works to improve the lives of workers in the tourism, commerce and services industries. One way they have gone about this is by renovating an old factory building and turning it into a cultural center, known as the SESC Pompeia.
While the exhibitions, performances and other cultural happenings at the center are primarily intended for São Paulo state workers in the relevant sectors, most of the activities there are open to the general public. It’s worth checking out the program to see what events are planned during your stay.
Ibirapuera Park is a large green space south of the city center that includes many public buildings and monuments within its grounds. For example, here you’ll find the Planetarium, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Afro-Brazil Museum.
Designed by famous Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer and landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx in 1954, Ibirapuera has become the most visited park in South America, and it’s also one of the largest. Admission to the park is free, and it’s open every day from 5am to midnight, although visiting after dark is not recommended.
Museu do Futebol
Soccer is practically a religion in Brazil, and this soccer museum housed inside one of the country’s oldest, most traditional soccer stadiums helps convey to outsiders just how much the sport means to Brazilians.
A brief tour of Pacaembu Stadium is included in the entrance ticket for the museum. The 15 rooms of the museum itself cover Brazilian soccer as well as every World Cup tournament in the history of the sport. A special room is dedicated to Brazil’s disastrous World Cup defeat by Uruguay in 1950 – a collective memory that still haunts Brazilian sports fans to this day.
While the museum is normally open from Tuesday to Sunday, it does close on match days, so check the website beforehand to avoid disappointment. While the exhibits are mostly in Portuguese, there are lots of audiovisual aids that help to recreate the experience of attending a Brazilian soccer match.
The Praça da Sé (Cathedral Square) has always been the heart of the city, and in the middle of the square stands a marker known as “marco zero”. It’s called this because the official distances from São Paulo to all other points in Brazil are measured from this spot.
All street numbers in the city also start from here. So, if you’re trying to find the downtown historical area, just follow the decreasing street numbers. They will eventually lead you to Praça da Sé! You’ll know you’re getting close when the street signs turn from blue to white. There’s an intricate color-coded system to indicate which district of the city you’re in.
Also, while you’re in the square, notice the cathedral-shaped traffic lights as you cross the street. They make a great photo opportunity!
Originally, a much smaller church served as the city’s Cathedral, but it was eventually demolished in 1911 and replaced by the huge Neo-Gothic building that you see there today. This one can hold up to 8,000 worshippers, and it’s a hive of activity. The day I visited, a Christian rap artist was performing on a stage right outside the church.
Ask at the administration desk about visiting the underground crypt, which is almost as large as the Cathedral itself.
Mercado Municipal (Mercadão)
There are dozens of fun markets to visit in São Paulo. But for the full-on market experience, you really need to go to THE BIG ONE.
The mother of all markets is the Municipal Market, or Mercado Municipal in Portuguese. Although really, everyone just calls it the Mercadão, which means “big market”.
It’s a short walk away from the Sé in the downtown area. If you’re coming by public transport, the closest metro station is Luz.
The view of the neo-classical façade alone is worth the trip, especially when it’s lit up at night. But of course, the real reason to come is to explore the market stalls inside. And the interior is just as beautiful as the façade, with large stained-glass windows and a vaulted ceiling.
The lower floor is packed with food stalls selling all different kinds of produce, including exotic fruits you’ve probably never seen before. As a word of warning to vegans and vegetarians, there are stalls selling animal products too, so try to avoid those.
Up on the second-floor mezzanine is where you’ll find all the restaurants and bars where you can stop for a drink or a meal. One option is I Want Burguer, a burger restaurant that offers three different kinds of vegan burgers.
São Bento Monastery
This Benedictine monastery was founded more than 400 years ago, and it has been in continuous operation ever since. There are currently about 45 monks living in the cloisters, some of whom teach at the attached high school and college of philosophy.
The monastery and the adjacent church have undergone several reconstructions, and the current building is about 100 years old. São Bento church is an active place of worship, where you can attend mass and hear the monks’ Gregorian chants reverberate through the nave. The building is blessed with great acoustics!
You can also purchase bread baked by the monks themselves, according to their own secret recipes, at the monastery’s bakery.
Pátio do Colégio
This historic building marks the site where São Paulo was first founded, back in 1554. The city’s origin story begins with a Jesuit mission that was set up here to educate the indigenous Tupi-Guaraní people and convert them to Catholicism.
This mission's church and school buildings were the center of spiritual and educational life in the early settlement. In 1759, the Jesuits were expelled from the Portuguese colonies for political reasons, and over the centuries the mission buildings were completely reconstructed in different architectural styles.
In 1953, the area was finally given back to the Jesuit order, and the school and church were restored to their original appearance. Inside, the school buildings now house a museum dedicated to Father Anchieta, the Jesuit priest who founded the mission.
Even if you skip the museum, it’s worth stepping into the lovely courtyard (free of charge), where you can see remains of the original rammed earth walls. If you’re ready for some refreshments at this point, you’ll also find an inviting café here.
This imposing skyscraper is often called “São Paulo’s Empire State Building”, and it’s easy to see why. The architect, Plínio Botelho, was inspired by the famous New York monument and by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Once the tallest building in South America, it has since been surpassed but still affords fantastic views of São Paulo’s city center and beyond.
The building was originally constructed to be the headquarters of the Bank of the State of São Paulo (Banespa). Nowadays, it has been converted into a cultural center and hosts rotating art exhibits. Bring your passport to gain access to the spectacular views from the observation deck on the 34th floor.
It’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to 8pm and on Sundays until 7pm . The lines can be long and tickets are limited, so book yours in advance on the Farol Santander website. Even if you can’t score a ticket, it’s worth poking your head inside the foyer to see the massive crystal chandelier.
Built in the early 20th century, this São Paulo landmark is one of the city’s most beautiful buildings and was most recently restored in 2011. It’s richly decorated on both the inside and the outside, and the opulent façade is particularly stunning when lit up at night. It’s also quite a contrast to the modern concrete jungle that surrounds it.
One-hour English tours of the interior are available for free at 11am Tuesday to Friday and 12pm on Saturday. Sign up one hour beforehand next to the box office. Alternatively, chop two carrots with one knife by taking in one of the artistic performances that take place here on a regular basis.
That way, you can watch a ballet, opera or other musical performance and see the theater’s beautiful interior at the same time. The cheapest tickets cost as little as 10 reais! For the latest program, see the official website (in Portuguese).
Viaduto Santa Ifigênia
Dating from the turn of the 20th century, this art nouveau pedestrian bridge starts in Largo São Bento, near the metro station, and ends in front of the Church of Santa Ifigênia. It was built entirely in Belgium and then shipped piece by piece to Brazil and erected in the center of São Paulo.
Its yellow wrought-iron railings and multicolored geometrical paving have become one of the most iconic images of the city. In addition to its aesthetic appeal, the bridge also serves a practical purpose. It links the old, historic center with the new, modern center of São Paulo, passing over the Anhangabaú Valley below.
The shops between the bridge and Rua Duque de Caxias have become known as THE place to buy electronic goods at discounted prices.
The Copan Building
The wavy façade of this enormous skyscraper is the brainchild of Oscar Niemeyer. If the name sounds familiar, it's because he's the famous modernist architect who designed the purpose-built federal capital, Brasília. Unlike most skyscrapers in the center, which are generally filled with offices, this one is residential.
In fact, it’s the largest residential building in Latin America, and it houses about 5,000 people. Copan was a symbol of urban modernity in São Paulo in the 1950s and throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. After that, though, it experienced a sharp decline and came to be seen as a high-rise ghetto.
Its fate turned around in 1986, however, when the residents began managing the building themselves. The Copan building is now home to a diverse population from various social strata. It’s possible to visit and enjoy the view from the top at 10:30am and 3:30pm, Monday to Friday.
To get a bird’s eye view of the undulating façade itself, head to the nearby Italy Building (Edifício Itália), the tallest in the city. Drinks are understandably pricey at the panoramic Terraço Itália restaurant on the top floor, and there’s normally a cover charge on top of that. BUT, you can save money by going between 4pm and 5pm on a weekday, when access is free.
Largo do Paiçandu
Once covered by a series of lakes, this area was drained in the 19th century and became known as a place of entertainment. It was filled with cabarets, dance halls, cinemas, theaters and bars.
Nowadays, it continues to attract fans of music, particularly those of the rock genre. Here in Largo do Paiçandu you’ll find a four-story shopping plaza known as the “Galeria do Rock”. It’s filled with record stores as well as shops selling t-shirts and other memorabilia with the logos of popular rock bands.
Also added to the mix are skate shops, tattoo parlors, and even an all vegan store called Arte Vegan! This is a great place to pick up some vegan message wear. And if you need to restock your travel toiletries, they carry cruelty-free toothpaste, deodorant and more.
From the top floor of the gallery, you’ll have a nice view out over the Largo and a historic church surrounded by modern high-rises. Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Homens Pretos was built by the descendants of African slaves, and services are held here each year to celebrate the end of slavery in Brazil.
Not quite as well known as the Galeria do Rock is the nearby Galeria do Reggae. This has been the focal point of Afro-Brazilian culture in São Paulo since the 1960s.
Inside, you’ll find record stores selling reggae music, as well as beauty parlors that specialize in dreadlocks and braids and cosmetic shops that specialize in products made for dark skin tones.
Vegan São Paulo City Tour
I would never have known about most of the places on this list, had I not joined the SPVeg Gourmet walking tour offered by Vegan4You Brasil.
As the largest city in Brazil, São Paulo city is HUGE and can be really intimidating to navigate on your own. I was also quite nervous about personal safety when I first arrived.
While the security situation in downtown São Paulo was much better than I had imagined, I was nevertheless glad to be escorted by locals on my first explorations of the city. The experience of the tour then gave me the confidence to go back on my own later and explore some of these places more in depth.
And of course, while on the tour I got to eat at some amazing vegan restaurants that I never would have found on my own! Check out this post to see all the incredible vegan food in São Paulo.
The English version of the vegan São Paulo tour is led by either Vitor or Babi, both of whom are well-known animal rights activists in Brazil. I had so much fun exploring the city with them, and by the end they felt like old friends!
You are welcome to join the tour regardless of whether you identify as vegan. Get ready to discover the city from a new perspective and enjoy some delicious food!
UPDATE January 2020: SPVeg Gourmet has temporarily stopped running the vegan tours until they can find a new English-speaking guide. Check their website to see if the tours have resumed. Or you can contact them at the following email address: [email protected]
Do you have anything to add to this list of São Paulo things to do? Let me know about it in the comments below!
Many thanks to Vegan4You Brasil for the complimentary walking tour. As always, opinions expressed here are entirely my own.