I first became aware of the rivalry between Rio and São Paulo when I saw the film City of God. There’s a scene in which two kids from Rio hitch a lift with a man from São Paulo with the idea of robbing him, but he turns out to be such a nice guy that they can’t bring themselves to do it. After they get out of the car (without robbing him) one says to the other “Normally people from São Paulo are so weird, but he was pretty cool”.
As you’d expect with two major cities in close proximity, each has developed an unflattering stereotypical view of the other. Cariocas (people from Rio) are seen as lazy, perpetually late, superficial people who’d rather spend the day on the beach than do a proper day’s work. Paulistanas (people from São Paulo) are said to be cold, boring and hugely jealous of Rio’s natural beauty. Of course, none of these stereotypes are remotely true (right Brazilians?).
Leaving stereotypes aside for a moment, I thought I’d tell you about my impressions of Brazil’s largest city and how it compares to Rio, my home for the past 2.5 years.
In total I’ve spent just 16 days in São Paulo, so clearly I’m no expert on the place, but in that short time I sensed an atmosphere that I’ve only felt in the really big cities I know like London and New York. São Paulo feels like a proper, international city.
After spending so long in Rio, I was dazzled by the sheer quantity of seriously fancy shops, bars and restaurants in São Paulo. As I walked down Rua Oscar Freire (the 8th most luxurious street in the world apparently) I felt like some country hick (in a way I’ve never felt in Ipanema or Leblon) – the place is dripping with money.
Happily there are plenty of places for those of us who haven’t made it to millionaire status yet. From MASP (Sao Paulo’s excellent art museum) to the graffiti lover’s mecca that is Beco do Batman, from the delicious food at Mercado Municipal to the laid-back cool of Teta Jazz Bar, São Paulo has plenty to offer those of us who don’t drive Porsches.
São Paulo is better than Rio
It’s better because of its scale – you can sense the depth of the place, the limitless choice. While I don’t know every bar and restaurant in Rio, it doesn’t feel like an impossible goal, given enough time. In São Paulo it feels like I would never know every neighbourhood, never mind every bar!
São Paulo is better organised and has higher standards than Rio. While the city’s transport problems are notorious, at least it has a proper metro network (by “proper” I mean more than 2 lines, though it has been pointed out to me that the São Paulo Metro is still woefully small for the size of the city).
In short, if you want to live in a huge, exciting metropolis, São Paulo wins.
Rio is better than São Paulo
Rio has an unrivalled natural beauty – stunning mountains, beautiful beaches and the world’s largest urban forest.
As well as all the natural beauty, one of Rio’s strengths is its people. Cariocas deserve their friendly, easy-going reputation – none of the people that I’ve worked with here seem to know the meaning of the word “stress”. It feels good to be amongst people who work hard but don’t let it take over their lives.
Stop anyone in Rio and ask for directions and they’ll take the time to give you detailed instructions – in São Paulo you are often given a shrug and blank look. In Rio, if there’s standing room only on the bus, the people sitting down will hold your bag for you.
While the service in São Paulo restaurants tends to be more efficient and professional, the service in Rio is warmer and comes with more personality. Rio gets significantly more sunshine than São Paulo and it shows in the disposition of its inhabitants.
The pleasures of a life in Rio (well, my life in Rio at least) are simple – an ice cold beer on the beach, a forest trek to a waterfall, some live music in the evening, a feijoada on the weekend. How could São Paulo compete with that?
The reality of course is that there is no such thing as a definitive winner in this ‘contest’. Both cities have great qualities and some serious drawbacks – the decision of which is better will depend on your priorities and preferences. Having spent 10 years living in the centre of London, I’m content to live permanently in Rio and visit São Paulo occasionally. If I were a few years younger, then maybe I’d prefer it the other way round.
All lot of this is just my opinion and, in the case of São Paulo, it is just first impressions. What do you think? Can you pick a winner?