The city of São Paulo, Brazil1 was founded in 1554. In its first 200 years nothing really exciting happened there. However, after several economic booms, starting in the 1750s, the city has grown to become the economic centre of Latin America. The economic growth began with coffee production and textiles around 1850; industrial manufacturing became significant in 1900 and, with the production of automobiles in the 1950s, São Paulo has become one of the most important cities in the world. Still, it is not a famous city, nor is there anything to attract casual tourists.
São Paulo was founded as São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga by Jesuit priests José de Anchieta and Manuel de Nóbrega, who both became famous for this momentous act. The name means 'Saint Paul of the fields of Piratininga' (Piratininga is the Tupi/Guarani name for the region). The last part of the name was dropped for obvious reasons... no one wants to live in a place with such a horribly long name. The Jesuits were known as 'religious fanatic combat priests'; so it's no great surprise that there were more reasons behind the foundation of the mission than the plain pacifistic catechesis of the Indians. The mission of São Paulo was built as an outpost, a starting point for settlers and priests to colonize and Christianize the interior of the continent.
At the time the mission was founded, little was known about the interior of the continent. A vast sub-tropical forest and the relatively inaccessible plateau (some 10km inland from the shore) hindered extensive expeditions in the early days of the colonization, fomenting tales about the riches of the continent. The mission of São Paulo was erected right after the ascent of the plateau, just 70km up-country on the banks of the river Tietê. This is a very strategic position, since the river extends some 600km into the continent.
For a Long Time Nothing Happened
In 1681, São Paulo became the seat of the regional government and by 1711, it was constituted a municipality by the King of Portugal, the big-wig reigning over the colony. Due to its strategic location, São Paulo became the centre of several successive economic boosts, featuring coffee, textiles, manufacturing, and automobiles in turn.
The manufacturing boom in the 1900s, combined with domestic difficulties in Europe, inspired a large number of immigrants to come to Brazil, and especially to São Paulo.
Today, São Paulo is the business, financial and industrial centre of Brazil, accounting for 30-40% of the gross domestic product of the country. It is the largest city in South America and with a population in excess of 17 million people, São Paulo is one of the largest cities in the world.
The Paulistas, as the people of São Paulo are known, are very proud of their city; and they cultivate a certain elegant arrogance dating back to the time when the coffee Barons were the local hot shots. The melding of the Brazilian culture (a mix between Portuguese and African) with other cultures (mainly Italian and Japanese, who emigrated around 1900) results in a unique cultural flavour.
The industrial boom in the 1950s was responsible for the insufferable smog in the winter, and for the skyscrapers, which grabbed the headlines in 1974 when the Joelma Building was burned down, killing nearly 200 people2. Yet, the boom made the city very rich, offering high-level cultural events, museums and libraries.
There is also the sad side of the story. Many got rich in São Paulo, but many more were not so fortunate. São Paulo has always had a disproportionate number of people living in poverty. After the 1950s boom, internal migration to the city caused the slums to increase in size. During the years that Brazil suffered under a military dictatorship (1965 - 1984), money became concentrated in an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. This trend continued into the mid-1990s, and has not improved since. Along with the pollution and the increasing poverty and violence, the beautiful aspects of the city are rapidly deteriorating.
Other people often refer to the Paulistas as megalomaniac, arrogant, snooty, neurotic, workaholic snobs, who can't play football or dance a samba. People from São Paulo say it's the others who are just envious.
Underrated São Paulo
São Paulo is a huge industrial, business, banking, and insurance city. It has no geographical peculiarities; it is a dirty, loud, violent and congested city. People live in São Paulo because it is close to their jobs. Wealthy people live in satellite towns in well-protected villas, and fly in with their private helicopters. São Paulo is also known for the highest helicopter traffic in the world. The Paulistas will not stay in São Paulo on vacation unless they have a good reason. Why then would a tourist come to this city? People who come to São Paulo for business will not buy souvenirs (even if they can find any) and will not talk about it at home. São Paulo is a huge, rich, beautifully ugly, neurotic city, not worth talking about too much.
Stuck in São Paulo
The following information is directed mainly to tourists, who haven't followed the advice above and have decided to go to São Paulo anyway.
First of all, relax. Normally people arrive in one of the two airports, which are relatively safe. If someone happens to arrive in São Paulo by parachute, and lands in one of the slums, it's probably appropriate to start panicking. Tourist information booths are helpful. Remember that São Paulo is a business city, and that the administration wants all the executives to find their way around the city safely. São Paulo is not really a tourist-friendly city. The best thing to do is to hang out with people who already know the city.
Dangerous Things to Do in São Paulo
- Walk about in the city centre looking like a tourist
- Unaccompanied walkabouts in general
- Exposing expensive personal items, such as Rolex watches, jewellery, nice tennis shoes, a well-filled wallet
- Moving around after 10pm
- Using the public transportation system dressed like a tourist
Enjoy this city very cautiously.
- Excellent pizza - thanks to the Italian community
- The sad tone of its Samba (uniquely melancholy, an inheritance from the Portuguese)
- The best university in Brazil, Universidade de São Paulo (USP)
- Beautiful architecture
- Parks, such as Ibirapuera, Praça da Sé and Praça da República
- Theatres and museums, such as Teatro Municipal, Pinacoteca do Estado, and Museu de Arte do Estado de São Paulo (MASP)