Before I came to South America, my cousin warned me that São Paulo was easily missable because it was ‘just a big city, really’.
To be fair to his assessment, I could have been abducted in my sleep, transported to a bed in an identical hostel in the middle of London’s business district, and I’d have walked out the front door the following morning without noticing anything different.
Indeed, the city has a reputation among travellers as a concrete jungle that isn’t worth the trouble, and getting lost among the clusters of high rise buildings made it hard not to feel as insignificant as the seal on a new carton of milk.
The problem with São Paulo is that it is so big and so busy that it’s impossible to know where to start. Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, but it’s not immediately obvious exactly what São Paulo has.
In fact, it’s the first time on this trip where I haven’t had the pretty photos to masquerade any mediocre writing.
Unlike Rio, there is nothing uniquely Brazilian about the city. There are no sandy beaches, little natural beauty, and more people wearing suits than shorts.
Instead, São Paulo is home to all the things you would associate with a ‘big city’. Walking down Avenida Paulista is a lot like strolling along Fifth Avenue, Ibirpuera Park does its best impression of Hyde Park, and they even appear to have stolen the Washington Monument from DC.
Beco do Batman is a cool alley of street art and Museu del Fútbol is a must for any football fanatic. However, like a lot of great cities the one thing that makes São Paulo stand out is the multiplicity of cultures that dwell there.
The reason that the city doesn’t necessarily ‘feel’ Brazilian is because it isn’t just natives that live there. While walking around in Rio felt a bit like being judged for not taking your shoes off in someone else’s house, people hardly bat an eyelid in São Paulo where there is a rich history of culture from all over the world.
Indeed, the city is a true cosmopolitan melting pot, home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, and it has been a hub for Italian immigrants since the Renaissance.
One of the upsides of this is, of course, the food. I was lucky enough to meet a couple living in São Paulo who knew some of the best places to eat, and André and Mariana introduced me to some incredible middle eastern food along with authentic Italian pizzas which made me ashamed to have ever ordered a Dominos (well, almost).
So, while São Paulo may not have the Insta-worthy photo opportunities or landmarks to rival other cities, its cultural charisma dictates that there is always a certain buzz about the city that infectiously charges up its visitors.
Whether it’s from the hipster fashion trends, bustling coffee shops, or 24/7 underground clubbing scene, there’s always something within São Paulo’s streets to whet the appetite – even if you can’t send it on a postcard.
Next stop, the beaches of Florianopolis. Until then.