When you think about large cities, places like New York, or London will often come to mind. However, these are not the most populated cities in the World (though they nearly are in their respective continents).
When planning my trip to Brazil, a lot of people warned me away from Sao Paulo. ‘It is a bit of a beast’ they said. ‘Full of skyscrapers and not much else.’
However, this made me intrigued to visit the place even more. I often have the frame of mind that when someone tells me not to do something, I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. It is the stubborn and determined attitude that I inherited from my mum.
As I flew over the city, the previous afternoon. I realised that Sao Paulo did indeed look like a beast; a concrete jungle, and that exploring it, or even a fraction of it, would be a bit of a challenge. However, I was willing to give it a go.
I had two days in the city, as a short stop over to the Iguazu Falls, so I wanted to cram in as much as possible in the short time that I had. The hostel I was staying at recommended the Sao Paulo Free Walking Tour, which occurs daily, and takes in various sights in the city, depending on what day you do the tour.
Where can you join the free walking tour?
If you are doing the old downtown tour, which occurs on Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Saturday’s, then the meeting point is at República Square, which is quite central, and easy to reach on the metro.
Tours run for the rest of the week. Check the link above for details of how you can see the business and shopping district of Paulista Avenue, or the vibrant and trendy Vila Madalena.
Walking old Downtown in 3h 30 minutes
I knew Sao Paulo was massive, but when I heard the tour would last over 3 hours, and with the temperatures peaking at 35°C (95°F) I felt like it could be more of a challenge than I first thought, especially when I only had 1.5 litres of water, no sunscreen and no hat to keep me from the sun (classic abbi – always prepared for life!)
There were well over 60 of us attending the tour, so we were broken up into two groups. We met our tour leader Denyse, who was a Sao Paulo native, and was very passionate and enthusiastic throughout the tour.
We started off at República Square, and were given a brief history of Brazil and Sao Paulo, this was after having to avoid an exuberant drunk man, who was raving in Portuguese and trying to help out in leading the tour.
What do you see in the Old Downtown walking tour?
We started off by staring up at some incredibly tall buildings – though perhaps not as tall as ones that I witnessed in New York City.
The first building we were introduced to was the Edifício Itália (or the Italia Building), a skyscraper best known for its restaruant on the 41st floor, and observation deck. Built in the 1960s, this building is the 3rd tallest in Brazil, and 2nd tallest in Sao Paulo itself. On certain days and times, you are able to access the observation deck for free, if you want to have a peek over the rest of the concrete jungle.
We were then briefly stopped at the Church Of Consolacao, prior to walking toward the Municipal Library (or the Biblioteca Mário de Andrade), which is an incredible building filled with bright flowers and lots of greenery; a building that would make anyone read.
The library was founded in the 1920s, and is the largest public library in the city, holding the largest collection of books on the history and heritage of Brazil – a great place to escape the heat, and have a peek at the books (ok if you can read Portuguese I guess)
We then spent time walking through the city, to get to our next few sights. Along the way we came across some quirky street art, and witnessed a bit of local life.
The Municipal Theatre (or Theatro Municipal) was one of the next buildings we came across. It was a stunning building, and the sun reflected off the glass windows at the top. Stopping there for 5 minutes, I sat on the steps, and took some shade – admiring it, and the local life unfolding around me.
The Municipal Theatre in Sao Paulo is quite an important building, having been the location of the week of modern art in the 1920s. It revolutionised arts in Brazil.
The building is now home to the Municipal Symphonic Orchestra, and if you’d like to have a peek inside the building (it is meant to be stunning), you can do for free, and they offer free tours on Tuesday – Fridays at 11am and 5pm, or on Saturdays at noon.
We walked further down the road toward the Anhangabaú Valley – a lovely little urban oasis, which if you didn’t quite look up at all the buildings, you wouldn’t think you were in a city at all.
During the day, you will see a number of office workers sitting here, or young kids on their skateboards.
The City Hall was next on our list. A square shaped, but tall building sits on the side of the road, opposite the Praça Ramos de Azevedo, and has the luxury of having one of the largest rooftop gardens in the city (perks of working for the government eh!)
We continued walking through the city, towards one of the most visited places in Old Downtown – The Se Cathedral.
This incredible church took a total of 54 years to be completed, and is the largest cathedral in all of Sao Paulo. Its Neo-Gothic design is considered to be the 4th largest in the World.
You can have a look inside for free (but can donate some money, if you choose to).
The cathedral is still used day to day, and many locals go there for blessings, and to light candles, so if you are visiting ; don’t be disrespectful by talking loud, or getting in the way of those here for their faith. Take off hats, and sit down and observe the beautiful building.
After the Cathedral, we were headed toward break time, which I was well ready for (always thinking of my stomach).
We headed to the oldest bakery in Sao Paulo, known as the Padaria Santa Tereza bakery. It was medium sized, but not quite as packed out as I imagined it to be.
We were all issued with an electronic card, and could go around and help ourselves, or order food. What we ordered would be charged to the card, and we paid at the end.
None of the staff spoke any english, so at times I had to guess what I was ordering. Until I queued up and spoke to the guide, who then ordered for me.
What to order at the Padaria Santa Tereza Bakery
What the locals come here for is one thing (mainly) – the Coxinhas =, which is a popular in Brazil in general, and consists of chopped or shredded meat (usually chicken) covered in dough, battered then fried. It is pear shaped, and can sometimes contain a whole piece of meat, so you’ll get the chicken bone sticking out at the end.
To me – it resembled a scotch egg a little, but was quite dough like, and hard to eat it all. These snacks are not only sold at this bakery, you will see them sold throughout Brazil, in cafes, and on street carts, but they are said to be the best ones in this little bake in Sao Paulo. I did not eat any more of them, so cannot vouch for this.
After being fed and water, and shaded for a little while, we continued the leg of the tour, were we wandered off to the Jesuit Church and school known as the Pátio do Colégio (translated, this means School Yard).
The building is beautifully white, and it has a large yard area in front, with plenty of space – now taken up but a lot of youngsters on their skateboards.
We continued walking round the downtown area, and came to the Chá Bridge, which overlooked a main and vibrant shopping street.
Our tour ended after we were shown the 1st and 2nd tallest buildings in Sao Paulo (The Italia Building was the 3rd, at the beginning of the tour).
The Banespa Building is the 2nd tallest building at 161m
This building is home to the State Bank of Sao Paulo. You were previously able to take a tour of the building and get a view from the top, but this is sadly no longer happening.
The tallest building in Sao Paulo, in my mind, was a little bit of a let down, so much so that I actually didn’t take a picture of it. However, this may have been due to being so close to it.
Looks a little more impressive from the other side of the Chá Bridge right? The building is known as the Mirante do Vale Building and is an 170m office block.
Ending the tour
So although the tour is called the Free Sao Paulo Walking tour, you can still, but are not obliged to tip the tour guides for their time, and information given. Most people give about R $25, which is less than £5, which is well worth it for half a day of guided sightseeing.