If you’ve been to South America, you’ve not doubt been advised to avoid São Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital and largest city. The city is extremely dangerous, most will warn, and isn’t very beautiful either, situated more than an hour inland from Brazil’s famous Atlantic coastline. Even the staunchest detractors will admit that São Paulo is culturally rich, but what I found interesting what that the most militant among the city’s critics usually hadn’t been there.
Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, has long been romanticized in popular culture, whether by 1962′s “Girl from Ipanema” or most recently, when Cristo Redentor was selected as one of the world’s “New 7 Wonders.” Not all allusions to Rio have been positive, as anyone who’s seen “City of God” (which takes place in Rio’s favela slums) will tell you. But what traveler can resist a city that’s wedged between lush jungle and crystal-clear ocean?
Just as I (mostly) avoided superlatives during previous “City Wars” that took place in China and Spain, I won’t attempt to say definitively whether Rio or São Paulo is better. Indeed, comparing Rio and São Paulo is like trying to choose between two vastly different types of fruit, each with a different flavor, texture and color, so I’ll strive instead to provide enough objective detail to let you decide on your own.
Rio and São Paulo Cityscape
São Paulo is without a doubt the “bigger” of the two cities I’m discussing in this article. In fact, it’s the largest city proper in the southern hemisphere, with more than 11 million inhabitants. My first impression of São Paulo’s bigness was the cloud of smog I could see rising over it as my bus sped toward the city center more than three hours prior to arrival at the city’s Tietê terminal.
Thankfully, the smog isn’t as apparent once you’re actually in the city as it is from far away. Instead, you’re overwhelmed by the thicket of highrises that seem to extend in almost every direction, a cacaphony of skyscraping metal you can best view from the top of the BANESPA building (Brazil’s tallest) in São Paulo’s commercial center. Heights not for you? Take a stroll down the cosmopolitan Avenida Paulista, which is lined on both sides by tall buildings.
If São Paulo is Brazil’s answer to New York, then Rio is its Miami. Indeed, descending out of the Brazilian jungle toward the Atlantic, you are immediately confronted with an oft-seen view of Rio’s Copacabana and Leblon districts sandwiched between large, coast-hugging mountains like the iconic Pão do Açucar (better known in English as “Sugarloaf”). If you stick to the shoreline — as well you should; it’s beautiful — it’s unlikely that your impression of Rio will amount to much more than South Beach on steroids.
Thankfully, my local friend Felipe was nice enough to take me to Rio’s own city center. While not as intimidating in expanse or height as São Paulo, Rio’s “downtown” is nonetheless, well, a city, complete with tall buildings, people on their way to and from work and little sign of the beautiful beaches that have made Rio famous worldwide. You do however get a nice view of Niterói, a port city just over Guanabara Bay from Rio.
Things to Do in Rio and São Paulo
Rio’s list of things to do is not surprisingly dominated by its beaches. Whether your taste is more for crowded Copacabana, almost-as-crowded Ipanema or bougey, placid (by which I mean boring) Leblon, you could occupy literally months of your time just checking out different stretches of the city’s expansive coastline.
Of course, Rio’s not all beaches, although a lot of the most obvious things to do are just as world famous as its turquoise waters. First among these is probably Corcovado, the mountain topped by the famous Cristo Redento statue, and from whose precipice you get an amazing view of the entire city, albeit a bit of a cliché one.
If you’ve got about a few hours and a whole lot of stamina, I recommend walking all the way up to the top of the mountain from its base, an exhilarating jungle trek that takes about two hours each way — but saves you around R$36, which is good to know if you’re budget conscious. Walking also allows you to peer into some of the city’s favelas (without, you’ll be happy to know, going into them) and the charming Santa Teresa neighborhood, my friend Felipe’s favorite in Rio.
Or, if you’re really lost for ideas, you could just have sex with a local person in one of Brazil’s famous sex motels. Then again, you can also do that in São Paulo.
Once you’re finished getting down — or if you’re not into that, just scratch that previous paragraph — take the São Paulo metro to Sé station and make your way to the city’s Mercado Municipal, the city market to end all city markets and home of the famous Pastel Bacalhau cod pastry. You’ll pass the aforementioned BANESPA building on your way and I suggest you take a trip to the top. It’s free, after all.
If you’re staying near Avenida Paulista — and you properly are — a stroll up and down the street will take you a day in and of itself, especially if you’re really paying attention to detail. See that red, stilted building about halfway up on the north side? That’s the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, or “MASP” for short, one of the cities literally dozens of cultural institutions. For even more ideas on what to do in São Paulo, check out this article where I praise the city to high heaven.
Infrastructure and Getting Around in Rio and São Paulo
In case you hadn’t gathered from the previous few paragraphs, both Rio and São Paulo have underground metro systems, with São Paulo’s being far and away the more extensive of the two. The Rio metro, in fact, has just two lines, plus a bus extension that mainly carts tourists from the western reaches of Ipanema and Leblon to the Ipanema terminus of Line 1.
Don’t think for a second, however, that you’ll have trouble getting around in Rio because of this. Indeed, part of what’s so great about Rio’s coastal location is that you can take your time and actually enjoy the long stroll to wherever you need to be.
Not that this isn’t possible in São Paulo, but you’ll probably be so nervous from all the robbery-at-gunpoint robbers you’ll hear before arriving — I never saw these substantiated, obviously — to care. Thankfully, the São Paulo metro serves just about every point in the city, so you won’t have to.
As is the case in most of the rest of South America, the easiest way to get into and out of both Rio and São Paulo is by long-distance buses, which can take you just about anywhere you need to go in Brazil and from southern cities like São Paulo and Florianópolis to Iguazú Falls and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
As for the airport, both Rio and São Paulo are served by two, with one handling more of the international flying (Galeão in Rio; Guarulhos in São Paulo) and the other ( in Rio Santos Dumont; in São Paulo Congonhas) handling domestic flying. All of these airports are pretty far outside their respective centers and are likewise pretty dumpy. I remember that while waiting for my flight back to the U.S. at Galeão in April, our gate didn’t even have a loudspeaker — the agent literally had to yell!
Rio and São Paulo Weather And Landscape
São Paulo, they say, is a city where you typically get all four seasons in one day. Indeed, it was sunny and about 25°C when I arrived at Tietê bus station. By the time I arrived at Consolação metro station to meet my friend Valmir, it was drizzling but still balmy — and by the time we got back from our delightful feijoada lunch just hours later, we were freezing and soaked.
Needless to say, São Paulo is not a place to go if you’re averted to cold and/or rain, although you’ll be fine by night if you can soak up enough of the sunshine and warmth that usually dominates the city during the day. I wouldn’t have personally been so bothered by it, had most of the rest of my South America trip to that point not been dominated by lukewarm temperatures and perpetual dampness.
As far as landscape, it’s difficult to see much of what surrounded São Paulo, because of all the buildings. I do remember from my aforementioned bus ride, however, that it was extremely green, relatively flat and not really what you’d except to surround a massive city on all sides.
Rio, not surprisingly, is almost always warm, something that owes to its location close to the equator. It does rain a fair amount there, particularly in the city’s “winter” season. Still, I’ve rarely checked its weather (I have Rio listed on my iPhone so this happens frequently) to find a temperature lower than about 21°C.
Indeed, there are fewer more pleasant times in my life I can recall then basking on Ipanema Beach just after noon without a cloud in the sky, sipping on a caipirinha and becoming browner than I’ve ever been. Man, I could use that kind of warmth and sunshine right about now!
…And The Winner Is
Man, this one is hard! On one hand, São Paulo definitely wins in the “underdog” category: As had been the case with previous winners Beijing and Madrid, I wasn’t made to expect much from people who’d visited (or in the case of São Paulo, not visited) before me.
That being said, Rio is worth a visit if only for the beaches, the sun and the surf. I say that Rio is Miami’s bigger cousin, but really there’s no comparison; Not in a million years could Miami compare to Rio.
I guess what I’m saying is that you have to visit both? I know that’s a cop out, but I could never appreciate either city as much as I do without having visited the other as well.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.