Rio vs São Paulo

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?).

São Paulo from the air

An aerial view of São Paulo at sunset. It may not have the mountains and beaches of Rio, but it is impressive nonetheless. This awesome photo was taken by Lorena Cardoso Simões (@lorenacsimoes) – thanks Lorena!


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.

Rua Oscar Freire, São Paulo

Expensive cars, expensive shops, rich people – Rua Oscar Freire reflects the wealth of some São Paulo residents. I guess this area is fun if you have vast quantities of money. Personally, none of this really applies to me, so after a short while I wanted to go somewhere more normal. Source


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.

Beco do Batman, São Paulo

Beco do Batman – street art paradise.


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!

Mercado Municipal de São Paulo

Mercado Municipal, one of the food highlights of my first trip to São Paulo.


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).

international subways

Rio’s subway is seriously underdeveloped. Click here to see the Metro map of São Paulo.


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.


Pedra da Gávea, Rio

São Paulo has plenty of hills, but none of them look like this. Pedra da Gávea, one of Rio’s many breathtaking mountains.


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.

Ipanema Leblon beaches

Did I mention Rio’s wonderful beaches?


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?


14 replies
  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    Oohhh I’m sooo glad you wrote this post!

    Of course I can’t comment really, but now I know I got a real unbiased view on both places. I hope to do the same soon!

    Yay, I’m excited!

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Ha ha, I’m not sure if I can claim to be truly unbiased Alex, but I did try to be fair!

      And you’ve got a lot to be excited about – both these cities (and all the other good things in Brazil) are waiting for you 🙂

  2. Ray
    Ray says:


    What a great post! You keep out doing yourself, time and time again! Great job!
    I love it, and think you are absolutely right, your first impressions are very accurate with the impressions of someone who was born and raised in Sao Paulo.
    By the way, M, from Born Again Brazilian blog and I just had a Mortadela sandwich for breakfast a couple of weeks ago sitting on one of those very same tables on your “Mercadao” picture! 😉
    Just for the record, I am from Sao Paulo, and I will stop and give directions every single time I am asked, and always do so with a big smile on my face… 🙂



    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Heh heh, thanks Ray! I knew this post could get me into trouble if I wasn’t fair and balanced – so far I haven’t been lynched so I think I got away with it! 🙂

      On my first visit to São Paulo I was basically left on my own to roam the city for 5 days (Mrs EatRio was at a conference all week) so it was a great chance to wander around a see a few sites. I bought a guide book and the first thing that caught my eye was the Mercado Municipal (you know me – always thinking about food!). I went and had monster pastel de bacalhau – yum! Only problem was that I didn’t have any room left for those mortadella sandwiches – just one more reason to go back!

  3. Gil
    Gil says:

    Hello, Tom. Usually, foreigners go to Sao Paulo for a quick business stay or for a lightning visit due its proximity to Rio de Janeiro, so it’s refreshing to hear your opinion that differs from those usual ones based on mere assumptions, impressions and a lot of guesses.

    I must say that I rarely hear a foreigner talking about Sao Paulo the way it REALLY is like you did and sure you should take it as a compliment. They say Sao Paulo is ugly while Rio de Janeiro has a stunning natural beauty (the superficial obviousness always getting in the way, huh?). Sao Paulo is nothing but a concrete jungle with nothing to offer other than parking lot kind of traffic jams and every possible shade of gray imaginable while Rio de Janeiro has lots of nice beaches, green and beautiful women and so on.

    It only recently started to change thought. With the Brazilian economy rising, Sao Paulo found itself sharing the limelight with Rio de Janeiro for obvious reasons. Than they started to talk about Sao Paulo’s fine dining, nightlife, museums, entertainment, etc. The term “the best Brazilian hidden secret” or “the Blade Runner of the Tropics” started to be used in reference to Sao Paulo. Definitely Sao Paulo is not for everyone, much less for the average tourist.

    Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, has an obvious natural beauty and it’s all there at your face. Sao Paulo is a whole different animal, it has to be explored, discovered, conquered for what it takes a good deal of curiosity, sense of adventure and, above all, TIME. Rio de Janeiro is an outdoors city by excellence (at least the Zona Sul is), but the opposite is true to Sao Paulo which is in itself an overwhelming infinitude of environments for every conceivable taste and budget, and that’s exactly what makes Sao Paulo so fascinating.

    Right, Paulistanos are said to be “cold” by other Brazilians, specially those living above the Tropic of Capricorn, but in comparison to Londoners or New Yorkers, for example, Paulistanos are quite friendly. A lot of Brazilians say “Curitibanos” (people from Curitiba, PR) are “cold” – even Paulistanos say it. In addition to that, it’s said that it’s hard for outsiders to make friends in that southern Brazilian city, which is not true for Sao Paulo at all.

    In spite of Rio’s proximity to Sao Paulo, Cariocas are more like “cousins” to Paulistanos than brothers. That’s why it’s so wrong for foreigners to generalize when they talk about Brazil. They say: “Oh, in BRAZIL is like this or like that”, which is so wrong because they don’t even consider or ignore the different cultural idiosyncrasies of Brazil. Rio is not Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo is not Rio, although, of course, both share some “Brazilianess” like being rice and beans lovers, their taste for soap operas and their passion for soccer. I think Paulistanos have much more in common with “Portoalegrenses (people from the southern city of Porto Alegre, RS), “Curitibanos” and even “Belo-horizontinos” (people from the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte, MG) than with Cariocas and/or any other “tropical” Brazilian city.

    Paulistanos may be jealous of Rio’s natural beauty, but it’s said that Cariocas are jealous of Sao Paulo’s Progressiveness and Liberalism that has made the city of Sao Paulo and the rest of the state the most powerful political entity of the Brazilian Federation. Yeah, Sao Paulo is a hard one to chew, but once you get to like it, it turns out to be addictive, trust me on that!


    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hey Gil! Wow, thanks for the excellent comment – I will take it as a very big compliment (you did tell me to after all! 😉 ).

      I recognise a lot of the things you’ve said here – I definitely agree with your comment about Paulistanas being much less cold than New Yorkers and Londoners. I really wonder what you guys must think when you visit those cities!

      You’re definitely right about making friends in São Paulo too – my friends moved there just 6 months ago and they already have a big gang of friends – it’s really impressive. I also noticed there seems to be a culture of organisation in SP – little things, like the fact that there is a system to let people off the metro before the new people try to get on. Here in Rio everyone just pushes onto the train when there are people still trying to get out. To my mind this is crazy, but everyone does it!

      I guess it’s natural for people to compare places and argue about which is best. Personally I could very happily live in São Paulo – it really does feel more sophisticated and fashionable (maybe a little too fashionable for nerdy me!). But I’m still a sucker for nature and sunshine, so Rio keeps me smiling! 🙂

    • Ben
      Ben says:

      Excellent way of putting things Gil! I will be visiting Belo Horizonte, Sao Paulo, and Curitiba this upcoming May as I thought you made an interesting correlation between those places & Porto Alegre as I prefer the mix of Brazilian culture in more of a cosmopolitan setting opposed to more of an easygoing beach city.

  4. Andrew Francis
    Andrew Francis says:

    “… 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.”

    Tom, I really like that bit you wrote. I don’t know Rio well enough to know if it also has that same feeling or not but I definitely agree that Sao Paulo does.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Thanks Andrew. I have to say that Rio doesn’t give me that feeling. The longer I’ve stayed here, the smaller it feels. People are always bumping into each (i.e. coincidental meetings) other here. Even I bump into people I know and I hardly know anyone! 😉

      London, New York and São Paulo are too big for that. In 10 years in London, I probably had just 3 or 4 instances of seeing someone by chance.

  5. Sydney de Bruyn
    Sydney de Bruyn says:

    I am from Cape Town RSA & Namibia. I was on my 1st trip to Brasil on church business in 2003. I visited approx 5 churches in SPaulo with congregations of 3000-5000 respectively. Amazingly, only about 4 people attempted to communicate with me in broken English. I spoke very little or no Portuguese at the time. Yet in 2007 when i returned to Brasil having a basic understanding of the language, i was called apon to be a speaker in a church in a small city 150km away. When i went to Rio, almost every young person wanted to communicate with me in English, regardless of the many grammatical mistakes they were making. This helped & comforted me greatly for the rejection i had felt 4years earlier. A cool experience was going to Restaurante Porção in central Rio on my way to Corcovado. People in Rio are like people in Cape Town. Friendly, helpful and smiling and bubbly. SP is like Johannesburg or New York. However most commercial capitals are like that. Lessons I leaned: Every city in the world has it’s own unique identity & culture. When u enter a foreign city, don’t act like your’e God’s blessing to mankind. When you enter new territory, it is your responsibility to learn the lingo not the host. You are on their turf. We believe Cape Town is the place where God resides, but not many have seen Him in the last 300years or so…The whole exercise of comparing is subjective. But Brasil remains the great love of my life & my spiritual country.NB GOI & MG is quite beautiful too. (Cape Town)

  6. Sthephani
    Sthephani says:

    As a journalist, I see lots of friends going to live in São Paulo (like Lorena as you know, of course). So I use to say that São Paulo is like death: eventually it comes. lol

    Before a paulista(no) gets angry, I am just kidding, ok?

    Actually, I like São Paulo very much – maybe just not enough to choose to live there (but would go if I had to, no doudt). It is an amazing city to spend some days and enjoy its NYC vibe (lots of cultural activities, museums, restaurants, clubs, etc).

    But I can’t actually say a lot more than that because, so far, I have just spent up to 5 days in São Paulo. In january, I’ll “live” there for 3 weeks there so let’s see how it goes. Of course the experience will be a lot different from Rio, but it maybe similar to my current city, Buenos Aires. A ver…

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Ah Buenos Aires – another city I enjoyed very much when I visited. I really like São Paulo too. My one doubt is whether I would eventually find that it would exhaust me in the same way that London did. I look forward to hearing how those 3 weeks go 🙂


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