Lay of the Land
There’s no sugarcoating it: São Paulo is a confusing concrete beast, mostly due to its explosive growth throughout the 20th Century with little regard for urban planning or even common sense. As a result, you have a greater metropolitan area that’s home 21 million people living in an astonishing 96 “neighborhoods” (many of which are larger than most medium-sized cities elsewhere) and enough skyscrapers to make Manhattan look like a village down by the river. The good news is that São Paulo wants for nothing and there is plenty of charm hidden amid the megalopolis.
All the urban sprawl springs from Praça da Se, the city’s main square, located in the heart of historic downtown (Centro). From there, the city is divided into four zones (North, South, East and West). While nearly all of Sampa’s historic attractions are in Centro, nocturnal wandering wouldn’t be prudent so the majority of visitors stick to a handful of neighborhoods in the West (Zona Oeste) and the South (Zona Sul) for lodging.
The dividing line is Av. Paulista, the beating financial heart of South America, a short but massively important thoroughfare lined with cloud-kissing bank headquarters and corporate head offices that mark the partition between Centro and both Zona Oeste and Zona Sul. To the south/southwest: Jardins, the city’s most upscale neighborhood and home to the majority of its top-end hotels, shopping, bars and restaurants, including Rua Oscar Freire, the Rodeo Drive of Brazil; Itaim-Bibi and Vila Nova Conceicão, two more upscale dining districts, the former a more corporate-oriented financial area, the latter a leafy residential neighborhood; and Parque do Ibirapuera, the city’s massive urban park. To the north, Bela Vista, a more alternative district and edgy nightlife area (along Rua Augusta). And, to the west, the bohemian districts of Vila Madalena and Pinheiros (galleries, outdoor bars and restaurants). Got it? Don’t worry – neither do Paulistanos!