I had a work trip to São Paulo in October. It was a quite productive trip, but it was a very odd one, as well.
São Paulo is a working city. It's the economic capital of the country, and it's an expensive place to live and work. Office space downtown costs about the same as it does in downtown San Francisco, apparently, and a decent apartment in a good area will easily top $2,500. Food costs no less than it does in the US. It's really difficult to spend less than $10-12 on even a fast food meal. If you want something good, you'll be looking at $30-plus, easy. Cabs are expensive as well: a trip from the airport to downtown is $100 easy. And traffic… dear god, I hadn't seen traffic that bad since the last time I was in India. One restaurant owner I talked to said that his commute takes him at least two and a half hours each way, and he doesn't exactly travel during rush hour. Hour-plus car trips were very common.
What's there to do in Sao Paulo, other than work? Um… shop? They have an awful lot of malls, with really high end shopping. Other than that, there's some really good restaurants and bars and clubs. But that's it.
My impression isn't just an outsider's perspective: that's the impression I received from every single Paulista I talked to. In fact, several locals, when asked what's there to do in Sao Paulo, said, "Go to Rio." Culturally, the city seems poor. Museums are few, public parks can't be found, and monuments are rare. Public spaces and public art, in general, just don't exist. Even the architecture, aside from the absurdly beautiful Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, consists mainly of nondescript modern, glass-clad high rises. Nothing special.
Sao Paulo also seems to be a very dangerous city. One of my colleagues was trying to do some work in the cab. The driver noticed his laptop out, and started to yell at him to put it away. Apparently, it's very common for thieves to drive up to cars, see a laptop, and point a gun at the passenger to get him to hand it over. I heard similar stories from others, as well. Virtually every apartment building and house that I saw had barbed wire over high fences, and every single mall had armed guards at the entrance.
If Rio is the heart and soul of the country, then Sao Paulo seems to be the more … the intestines. People don't really want to be there: they're just there because they have to be and because they're getting something out of the city.
The city has some bright spots. For one, the people are good very good looking. Sao Paulo attracts people from all over Brazil to work in her skyscrapers, making it a melting pot city in a melting pot country (Brazil has huge Native American, African, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, German, and Spanish communities). So, it makes sense that it'd be a pretty city. Second, the food there is great. Sao Paulo has great examples of just about every kind of cuisine you could want; the sushi there is top notch, owing to the Japanese influence, and the Italian food is fantastic. Third, the city is home to Corinthians. Paulistas may not be particularly proud of their city, but they are proud of their local football club, and Corinthians is a good club to be proud of. I was able to go to a game (against Flamenco) because a colleague who was in Brazil at the same time had connections. It was a great cultural experience, and an amazing counterpoint to the rest of the prideless vibe I had received from the city thus far.
That prideless vibe is what sticks with me, looking back on my trip. People don't really want to be there; they just want to earn a living and get out. Mix that with the siege mentality that a high crime rate creates, and you get a city that its residents don't really care about, and it shows.