Two Brazilian heavyweights go head to head in our latest travel info post! We invite Latin travel experts, Daytours4u, to compare and contrast the Samba city of Rio with multi-faceted megatropolis Sao Paulo…

The battle of the Brazilian cities: São Paulo vs. Rio | Credit: Daytours4u

Let’s face it, if you had to name two Brazilian cities, the first two would be Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. One is the main touristic hub, not just of Brazil, but also of South America. The other is the economic centre of Brazil, and a magnet for business travellers.

When comparing two of Brazil’s most famous and most visited cities, there is a popular cliché that São Paulo is Brazil’s New York and Rio de Janeiro is Los Angeles. There is a degree of truth to this, especially in terms of the rivalry between the Cariocas (people from the city of Rio de Janeiro) and Paulistas (residents of São Paulo).

The stereotype goes that Cariocas are friendly, easy-going, lazy and always late (probably because they’re on the beach), while Paulistas are colder, fast-paced, workaholics and perpetually stressed. A quick look at the size and location of each city certainly explains the stereotype.

But a closer inspection reveals that it is not so straightforward. Rio is also an important business centre, while São Paulo definitely knows how to let its hair down. One thing that is for sure is that they both offer a lot for travellers visiting Brazil.

Let’s see how they compare on a number of aspects so that you can judge more fairly:

The concrete jungle of São Paulo | Credit: Daytours4u
The concrete jungle of São Paulo | Credit: Daytours4u

The Cityscape

When it comes to natural beauty, Rio de Janeiro is the winner, hands down. The iconic morros (granite hills), framing the long stretches of white sandy beaches, and the world’s largest urban forest, make it a truly unique city. The Cariocas (and tourists) really make the most of the outdoors, spending lots of time on the beach, enjoying all kinds of water activities, jogging and cycle paths and hiking up the mountains.

Some of Rio’s top attractions are the natural landmarks themselves, such as Corcovado Mountain, the base for the famous Christ the Redeemer statue, Sugarloaf Mountain, the Tijuca Rainforest, and the famous beaches, from Copacabana, to Ipanema, Leblon and beyond.

The natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro | Credit: Daytours4u
The natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro | Credit: Daytours4u

São Paulo, on the other hand, is a sprawling concrete jungle. It’s the largest city in South America, with 11 million inhabitants (far more if you include the metropolitan area). And it shows — with buildings as far as the eye can see.

The city has interesting architecture, with a mix of influences from European style to modern skyscrapers. A tour through downtown is a must to see some of the city’s notable architectural landmarks. Walk down Avenida Paulista, the main business centre of the city, lined with many restaurants and places of interest. To get a sense of the city, head up Edifício Itália, the second tallest building in São Paulo. From the observation deck, you’ll truly get a sense of the size of this cosmopolitan city.

Culture

When it comes to the culture, Rio de Janeiro is famous worldwide for Carnival, samba schools, bossa nova and Tom Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema.” Of course the cultural scene has a lot more to offer than just that. There are countless museums, including the Museu de Arte Contemporanea Niteroi (The Contemporary Museum of Art in Niteroi), designed by Oscar Niemeyer. The historical centre of downtown Rio also holds enough fascinating history and culture to tempt tourists away from the beach for a while.

Carnival is a big part of Rio’s identity | Credit: Daytours4u
Carnival is a big part of Rio’s identity | Credit: Daytours4u

What São Paulo lacks in natural beauty, it makes up for in its cultural offerings. There are 110 world class museums to keep you busy. The Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) has a vast and impressive collection of European art, and is housed in a building that is a piece of contemporary art itself, designed by Lina Bo Bardi. The Pinacoteca Museum is also worth a visit, with its large collection of Brazilian art. If that’s not your scene, try the informative Museu de Futebol (Soccer Museum) for some insight into Brazilian football fever, or hit the streets, especially around the Vila Madalena neighbourhood, where you’ll find some incredible street art.

MASP is one of São Paulo’s many museums | Credit: Daytours4u
MASP is one of São Paulo’s many museums | Credit: Daytours4u

São Paulo is also a piece of heaven for people who like to shop. Oscar Freire Street is the main strip where you’ll find international and local designers (São Paulo’s Rodeo Drive). Don’t skip the shoe stores — this city is famous for its fantastic shoe designs. Discount hunters should hit Rua 25 de Março – a street in the central zone famous for cheap clothes, jewellery, decor and more. The city is also home to many markets, from antique fairs, to neighbourhood feiras, and mouth-watering food markets, like Mercado Municipal.

Oh and there’s the São Paulo nightlife. In a city this big, there is truly a scene for everybody. São Paulo has diverse and exciting nightlife, and is home to one of the most acclaimed nightclubs in the world, the infamous, D-Edge. The city also hosts Brazil’s biggest music events, including Tomorrowland, Lollapalooza and Sonar. But remember there is a big difference in dress code between here and Rio: Paulistas dress up a lot more than the Cariocas, so come prepared.

You’ll find art and shops wherever you look in São Paulo | Credit: Daytours4u
You’ll find art and shops wherever you look in São Paulo | Credit: Daytours4u

Gastronomy

One of the things that makes São Paulo so interesting and culturally rich is its large immigrant populations, from Italian to Japanese to Thai. This has had a big impact on the gastronomic scene. The heavy Italian influence in Sampa means great pizza, and the large Japanese population (the biggest Japanese diaspora in a city anywhere in the world) equals phenomenal sushi. There is a large range of international cuisine, and prices. While you can still eat for cheap, or head to a trendy food truck, there is also the option of high-end (and high-priced) gourmet spots. A mark of the level of the cuisine you can expect: D.O.M., a restaurant in the city serving contemporary Brazilian / Amazonian food, was ranked the third best restaurant in Latin America in 2014. The proof is in the pudding.

The food scene in Rio is more laidback. You can happily grab some fried bar snacks and a caipirinha to enjoy on the beach, or head straight from the beach to a rodizio (all-you-can-eat). The tropical influence is also evident in the much bigger choice of fruit juice stands (on every corner in Rio), and the abundance of açaí. Cariocas also have a habit of putting mustard and ketchup on their pizza — a sin that a Paulista would never commit.

Enjoy your food and refreshing coconut water on the beach in Rio | Credit: Daytours4u
Enjoy your food and refreshing coconut water on the beach in Rio | Credit: Daytours4u

Vibes

It is clear that the two cities offer a different vibe and pace. In Rio you can join the locals in their relaxed attitude to everything, donning their havaiana flip-flops from the beach to the supermarket to the mall. It’s the place to soak up sun, samba and cocktails. Nothing happens in a rush, making it the perfect holiday spot.

In São Paulo, the city runs at a different, more frenetic pace, much like any big city. It’s a more chic vibe, from the dress code to the establishments. Expect to run around a lot more, exploring the stores, vibrant nightlife and countless cultural options.

Enjoy the outdoor lifestyle in Rio | Credit: Daytours4u
Enjoy the outdoor lifestyle in Rio | Credit: Daytours4u

Which one should you visit? That’s a tough question. If you want to visit some of the most famous tourist attractions in the world and some of the best beaches, then head to Rio. If you want to eat, shop and party, São Paulo is for you. But if you want to truly get a more complete picture of Brazil, include both in your itinerary.

By: Nicole Eberhard, Content Editor for Daytours4u

6 thoughts on “Brazil’s Big Two: Rio vs. São Paulo

  1. It is also important to mention that Brazil is a third world country so be open minded about it and do not come over here expecting first class service – particularly in Rio which is pretty bad – in São Paulo service is good as long as you don’t go to cheap places usually run by immigrants from poor rural areas from other parts of Brazil – both cities are very dirty too – littering seems to be Brazil’s national sport – São Paulo is not as bad as Rio but still disgusting in most areas – well, then there is poverty – I usually tell people who have never been to Brazil that Brazil is not exactly a poor country but it is a country riddled with poverty – as contradictory as it may sound that’s how I see it – both São Paulo and Rio offer you anything (or at least most of) you would find in any big cities around the world however poverty is in your face – Rio is a worse when it comes to this – very blatant and very sad – the gap between social classes in Brazil is insane – violence and street crime is also a huge issue so think twice before spending your hard earned cash on a plane ticket to Brazil – São Paulo is definitely safer and I guess this is mainly because poverty in Rio is bigger than it is in São Paulo – Rio is a coastal city and the beaches are amazing (well, most of them, some are dirty and not exactly great) – Americans usually tell me São Paulo is late1980’s New York – perhaps – there are some good beaches in the State of São Paulo as well but you would either to hop on a coach (bus) or drive for about three to four hours to get to the nicest beaches (there are some other beaches closer to the city of São Paulo but they are not so good)

  2. I live in São Paulo and have a few comments to make.
    1. At the ‘Mercado Municipal’, the highlight is the mortadella sandwich, an absolute must. Another tasty option is to have a ‘pastel’ and ‘caldo de cana’ at any one of the street markets (feiras) in the city. There are feiras in all parts of the city and every day of the week )based on a rota system, each feira operates one day only, except the one near Pacaembu stadium) except Monday. I recommend the chocolate pastel at Renata’s stall at the Friday market on Rua Maria José in Bela Vista (from Congonhas Airport, the 5185 bus goes straight there).
    2. Carnival in São Paulo has improved very much over the years, and now is almost as good as that in Rio. It is held at a purpose-built sambodrome in the Anhembi district. Different from the Rio sambodrome, however, public transport links are poor. The most traditional samba school in São Paulo is Vai-Vai.
    3. There are beaches only one hour and a half by bus away from SP: Santos, São Vicente and Guarujá. Of these, Guarujá is usually the cleanest, but Santos has the best infrastructure. Santos has non-beach attractions, such as the Santos FC Museum, the Coffee Museum and the Tram Ride in the city centre. It is true that the North Coast beaches are three or four hours away, but they have poor transport links to SP (in contrast, buses to Santos leave every 15 minutes).
    4. The trip from SP to Rio is only 6 hours by bus (5 hours by car) so you can easily do both cities. If you are driving (along the Dutra) and need to break the journey, I suggest the city of Lorena. It has historical buildings and impressive mountain scenery. Stay at the Olympia Hotel or the Dom Apart Hotel. Eat at Battagini. After Lorena, you can continue along the Dutra or backtrack to Guaratinguetá, then taking the road down to Paraty and heading to Rio along the coast road.
    5. If you are driving, have time on your hands, and want to see a bit more of the country (while avoiding the Dutra traffic and some tolls in the process):
    BR-381 Fernão Dias as far as Pouso Alegre (MG) – STOP
    BR-459 to Lorena (SP) – OVERNIGHT STAY
    BR-116 to Rio de Janeiro km 50
    BR-465 to Campo Grande, via Seropédica (this is to avoid the Rio traffic and slums in the Baixada Fluminense on arrival)
    From Campo Grande you take Avenida Brasil to downtown. Beware of the slums.
    This trip takes in parts of three states, São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. You can get good chocolates in the Minas section.

  3. Im 18 and thinking on doing my university in Brazil because its cheaper than Florida. Wanna be a dentist. Looking for a good safe area and where I can find a job but I do not want alot of stress ontop of my shoulders too and be able to have a life aswell. Never been to brazil But originally I’m from puerto rico ?? so I kinda compare it to that so far. Real life question where should I go live in brazil?

  4. I am not sure where the information in this article came from but there are two major mistakes there.
    1) For over 400 years Rio was the capital, for that reason the historical sites are an cultural and touristic attraction itself. In fact, most of its touristic routes are designed based on historical sites rather the museums. Mostly for lacking that historical heritage São Paulo has invested so hard in museums.
    2) Nothing was said about the violence or the transports. São Paulo has a first-world public transportation system, while Rio has struggled with its uneficient metros and trains for decades. On the other hand, the favelas in Rio doesn’t necessarily mean the city is more violent. Poverty is everywhere, the difference is that in São Paulo the poorest are pushed to the suburbs while in Rio there occupy the hills. if you are walking is more likely you’ll be robbed in Rio, but if you’re on a cab or uber São Paulo is more dangers for its history of flesh-kidnaps.
    3) Cariocas loath any sort of sauce in their pizza. In fact that has been one of the best sources of jokes about São Paulo and their food manners.
    4) Many fancy restaurants of different backgrounds have had stores in Rio, however is important to remind that the city itself is a postal card. You go to Rio to experience what the city is. Meanwhile, São Paulo doesn’t have that natural touristic charm as being very similar to any super big cosmopolitan city. It’s only natural that they invest in services such as diversity of restorants, otherwise, what is really there to see in São Paulo that can’t be foun in NY or London?

  5. Another of the same opinions written by tourists living 3 to 6 months in Brazil on a tourist visa. No wonder all the same articles describe cariocas as sitting on the beach and sipping caipirinhas (which majority of cariocas dont do).

    Thats the reason many rush to Brazil thinking its a paradise and every year i have to wave goodbye to a tourist thinking they could find a quick job, sit on the beach but quickly find the realities of here.

    Brazil is a great place, but not for the faint of heart as you wont have time to sit on the beach drinking caipirinhas or visiting museums.

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