A large sprawling city can present numerous challenges to sensibilities. São Paulo is no exception. Although the first impression might be that of a grey concrete jungle, soon it becomes apparent that the city has a great number of pockets of beauty. The population and environment of São Paulo is diverse, and districts within it range from extremely luxurious areas to hovels housing the poor and destitute, located usually in suburbia far from the so-called "expanded center".
São Paulo, together with Rio de Janeiro, is the spot where most visitors from abroad land in Brazil. While a complete experience of the city would take a few weeks (since the lifestyle of Paulistanos and every-day routine in the city are huge attractions in themselves), it's possible to visit all major sites within three days.
Staying a little longer than that is always a nice idea. As the financial and cultural center of the country, the city is a sea of possibilities.
Native American Chief Tibiriçá and the Jesuit priests José de Anchieta and Manuel de Nóbrega founded the village of São Paulo de Piratininga on 25 January 1554—Feast of the Conversion of Paul the Apostle. Along with their entourage, the priests established a mission named Colégio de São Paulo de Piratininga aimed at converting the Tupi-Guarani native Brazilians to the Catholic religion. São Paulo's first church was constructed in 1616, and it was located where today is the Páteo do Colégio (metrô: Sé or São Bento station).
São Paulo officially became a city in 1711. In the 19th century, it experienced a flourishing economic prosperity, brought about chiefly through coffee exports, which were shipped abroad from the port of neighbouring city Santos. After 1881, waves of immigrants from Italy, Japan, and other European and Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria and Lebanon immigrated to São Paulo State due to the coffee production boom. Enslavement of Africans was coming to an end, due to British pressure, as the British Empire wished to introduce its machinery and industrialized products to Brazil. The government was also concerned with the fact that the population of black people was greater than that of whites, and, in an effort to "bleach the race," gave incentives to European nationals of countries such as Italy, Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland, Portugal, and Spain to immigrate. Thus, after Emancipation, with the influx of European labor and failure on the part of the racist system to include African-Brazilians, black people became increasing unemployed and discriminated against. By the beginning of the 20th century, the coffee cycle had already plummeted due to, among other factors, a sharp decline in international coffee prices and competition from other nations. The local entrepreneurs then started investing in the industrial development of São Paulo, attracting new contingents of overseas immigrants to the city. Many of those entrepreneurs had Italian, Portuguese, German, and Syro-Lebanese Christian descent such as the Matarazzo, Diniz, and Maluf.
However, due to competition with many other Brazilian cities, which sometimes offer tax advantages for companies to build manufacturing plants in situ, São Paulo's main economic activities have gradually left its industrial profile in favour of the services industry over the late 20th century. The city is nowadays home to a large number of local and international banking offices, law firms, multinational companies, advertising firms and consumer services.
Many major international and Brazilian companies have offices in São Paulo, and the Bovespa stock exchange index (Ibovespa) is considered one of the most important Latin American market indices abroad. After merging with the BM&F (Futures Markets Exchange), Bovespa (São Paulo Stock Exchange) has become the third largest exchange in the world (Folha de S. Paulo newspaper 2008).
Don't be surprised at the diversity of Paulistanos. For example, São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. It is not uncommon to see businesses and churches being conducted by Chinese and Korean-Brazilians in Liberdade, which was originally an Italian district, then Japanese and currently is heavily populated by Koreans and Chinese. The city's Italian influence is also very strong, with about 6 million people in the metropolitan area having Italian background. The large Arab and Jewish communities are also well represented in all levels of society, from art to real estate businesses, and notably in politics.
The citizens of São Paulo have a reputation as hard-working and industrious or shallow money-grubbers. It is common to hear that the people in São Paulo work while the rest of Brazil relaxes; even though many say this, it is plainly wrong. It is a fact, nonetheless, that the city of São Paulo alone actually contributes with 15 percent of the country's gross national product (45 percent if the entire São Paulo state is taken into account).
But when Paulistanos are not working, they are clubbing. The city nightlife is as intense as it gets, which makes going to a club a total must-do. Everything is possible in a city that doesn't dare to blink.
São Paulo's basic spot for orientation should be Avenida Paulista. From there, it's pretty easy to reach every single spot in town, be it by bus or underground transport. It is located between the neighborhoods of Bela Vista and Jardim Paulista. Av. Paulista is also within walking distance to Centro and Ibirapuera Park, which makes it the perfect place to start a walking tour.
However, keep in mind that central São Paulo actually comprises a very large area, and travelling from one spot to another may require that you take a cab or public transport. To find out the general direction where you are, see the street signs, as it is colour-coded:
All other areas have blue street plates, and a bottom stripe on the following colours:
To find the direction of Downtown (most precisely Praça da Sé), just follow the direction of decreasing street numbers. That doesn't work, however, in the Santo Amaro subprefecture (South Central), neither in the Far South region; in these areas, decreasing numbers lead to Largo 13 de Maio.
Although traditionally a working and not a tourist city, its inhabitants, if more educated, probably speak better English (and perhaps Spanish, Italian or French) than anywhere else in Brazil. English is generally spoken at main hotels and tourist-related businesses, although a menu in English is a rare find. Several Portuguese language schools teach English as a second language. Locals are often friendly, and will try to help visitors, but language difficulties can offer a barrier. It's a good idea to print out some key phrases.
Be careful when plugging in electronic devices, as voltages vary between 110V and 220V across cities in Brazil, always 60Hz. In the city of São Paulo the voltage is usually 127V. Other cities in the state of São Paulo may use 220V plugs (such as Jundiaí and São José dos Campos). It is always prudent to ask before you plug an electronic device outside the city of São Paulo.
Many electric outlets will accept both the U.S. / Canada type plugs and the parallel twin round pins used in many countries in Europe (low current "europlug"). It is helpful to carry a world-travel adapter in any case, since other countries in South America vary in electrical plug formats and shapes. Some outlets for computers have the USA two flat pins and one round ground pin.
The new domestic plug standard for Brazil is the IEC 60906-1, which has 3 pins. This standard has been introduced a few years back and uses a pin diameter of 4mm for the 10A plug and 4.8mm for the 20A plug. New buildings are already using this standard socket for domestic and commercial use, whereas some older buildings may still have the U.S. type sockets.
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