São Paulo (or Sampa as the locals call it) is a city that’s often underestimated by travellers who think it’s a strictly commercial city; the sensible older sibling to glitzy, glamorous Rio. But South America’s largest city is no square, and this idea is quickly forgotten seconds after they step off the metro for the first time. I mean, once you’ve taken a stroll down São Paulo’s colourful streets, to the soundtrack of live samba with a fresh caipirinha in hand, it’s kind of impossible not to fall in love with this incredible city.
Now, we know Brazil isn’t the cheapest destination in South America, and if you’ve been backpacking around the continent your wallet might be in a state of shock since crossing the border. But fear not – our pick of things to do in São Paulo will make sure you have the most fun and enjoy the city local style, all without breaking the bank. Read on for your itinerary inspiration!
Things to do in São Paulo on a backpacker’s budget:
1. Explore the artistic neighbourhood of Vila Madalena
Vila Madalena is São Paulo’s coolest neighbourhood with a charming, creative vibe. Every building bursts with colour, and you’ll meet local artists selling their work in boutiques and on the street. There’s a boteco (local bar) on every corner, and in the evenings people spill out onto the streets eating and drinking while local bands play. Street parties are a regular occurrence too, and if you’re lucky enough to catch one you’ll get a taste of Brazilian carnival spirit. There are too many cafes, coffee shops and restaurants to choose from, but the heavenly veggie cuisine at Banana Verde is always a winner. Oh, and it’s also where you’ll find O De Casa, Sampa’s best backpacker bar and a fantastically fun hostel with a roof terrace, giant hammock and regular games of cahaca pong!
📌 Closest metro station: Vila Madalena (green line) or Fradique Coutinho (yellow line)
2. Check out the street art at Beco do Batman
Beco do Batman, AKA Batman’s Alley, is a quirky enclave of Vila Madalena that’s completely covered with mind-blowing street art. The trend here started when the first artwork, a picture of Batman, was inked onto a wall, and nowadays there’s barely a brick or floor paving that hasn’t been graffitied in this amazing open-air gallery. Look out for the vendors selling freshly mixed caipirinhas from a cart, because all art is better appreciated with a cocktail in hand – especially when they’re less than £1!
📌 Closest metro station: Sumaré (green line)
3. Get your feast on at Mercado Municipal
Calling all foodies! You can’t miss out on all the wonderful (and cheap) dishes on offer at São Paulo’s municipal market. While you can browse for all kinds of tropical fruit and veg, the real reason to come here is to sink your teeth into the city’s most famous sandwich: the mammoth mortadella. This beast layers half a pound (!!) of mortadella sausage with oozing provolone cheese, Dijon mustard and sourdough bread to create one big hunk of oily deliciousness. Will it give you a heart attack? Possibly. Will it be worth it? Absolutely.
📌 Closest metro station: São Bento (blue line)
💲Admission: Free – just pay for what you eat
4. Visit São Paulo’s Japantown at Liberdade
São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, and when you visit Liberdade you might feel confused about which continent you’re actually in. The entrance to the neighbourhood is marked by a large Shinto arch, the streets are lined with Japanese lantern-style lampposts and iconic cherry blossom trees, and even the traffic lights show green and red torii symbols in place of the usual walking man. There are plenty of traditional izakaya pubs for a casual beer, and of course authentic sushi and ramen shops galore… try Lamen Kazu for the best broth this side of the equator!
📌 Closest metro station: Japão-Liberdade (blue line)
5. Get your culture fix at the Museum of Art São Paulo (MASP)
São Paulo’s MASP is a must-visit for anyone with an artistic bone in their body. It’s one of Brazil’s best museums, housing over 10,000 paintings, photographs and sculptures by revered artists from all over the world, as well as regular film and interactive exhibitions. Even if you don’t like art (we won’t judge you), you should visit just to marvel at the museum’s famous structure, balanced on four red pillars.
📌 Closest metro station: Trianon-MASP (green line)
💲Admission: R$40 (£8) for a standard ticket, R$20 (£4) for students
6. Hang out at Ibirapuera Park
On a sunny day, there’s nowhere better to escape the hustle and bustle of the city than in the sprawling green grass of Ibirapuera Park. It has strong Venice Beach-vibes, with roller skaters, outdoor workout sessions and buskers playing tunes. Bring a book and a crate of local beers for a budget-friendly chilled-out afternoon! There are also several museums within the park, such as the Afro-Brazil museum and the Museum of Modern Art, plus the eye-catching Ibirapuera Auditorium designed by Brazil’s most famous architect Oscar Niemeyer.
📌 Closest metro station: Ana Rosa (blue and green lines) or Vila Mariana (blue line)
7. Take a free walking tour
Taking a free walking tour is the best way to get your bearings in any new city, and São Paulo is no exception. The tour of Old Downtown is the best choice if you want to learn about the city’s history while exploring an area that most travellers don’t see much of. The Paulista Avenue tour takes you down São Paulo’s busiest and longest boulevard, taking in incredible architecture and eclectic street performers as you go. Expect added bonuses like food and drinks tastings thrown in too! There’s also a Vila Madalena walking tour, that’ll teach you the stories behind the neighbourhood’s iconic street art, which leaves daily from O De Casa Hostel Bar.
📌 Closest metro station: Republica (red and yellow lines) for the Downtown walking tour, Consolação (green line) for the Paulista walking tour or Fradique Coutinho (yellow line) for the Vila Madalena tour.
💲 Admission: Free – but the guides depend on tips, so at the end pay what you feel the tour was worth.
8. Eat feijoada
When in São Paulo you must try feijoada, Brazil’s national dish. It’s a flavoursome black bean stew with different types of pork in, like ribs and sausages (or without for veggies). It’s traditionally eaten on Saturdays and brought to your table still bubbling. Baixo Pinheiros Bar is a cool spot in the bohemian Pinheiros neighbourhood that does top-notch feijoada with a fantastic view over the buzzing streets below. You might even see a 500-strong carnival parade dance past while you’re eating lunch… this actually happened to me one Saturday!
9. Go samba dancing
Another Saturday tradition in São Paulo is to leave your inhibitions at home and head to one of the city’s samba bars. Don’t be intimidated, these are no judgement zones – just wear comfy shoes and get ready to have the time of your life. Don’t worry if you’re shy, as most bars have seating areas where you can check out everyone’s moves and wait for the caipirinhas to kick in, or just enjoy the music and atmosphere. The warm and welcoming Bar Camará in Vila Madalena is perfect for beginners, with some casual rooms as well as some that are more intense!
10. Visit a museum that’s all about football
In case you didn’t know, football is kind of a big deal in Brazil. If you want to learn what makes Brazilians so passionate about their national game, head to the Museu do Futebol. This museum documents the history of soccer in Brazilian culture, and has some seriously cool artefacts on display that no football fan should miss out on seeing. It’s located in the mighty Pacaembu Stadium, which is worth looking around afterwards. Why not also check if your visit to São Paulo coincides with a match? The atmosphere is out of this world, and the tickets are way cheaper than you’d think!
📌 Closest metro station: Higienópolis-Mackenzie (yellow line)
💲 Admission: R$15 (£3), or free on Tuesdays!
So there you have our top 10 things to do in São Paulo for backpackers! Check off everything on this list for an amazing adventure that’ll fill up your camera roll without draining your budget.