Sao Paulo has to be one of the most underrated and unloved great cities of the world. While just about everyone knows the famous sun-drenched vistas of Rio, most foreigners know nothing about Sampa. Even some Brazilians who aren’t from there, and some who are, don’t like it - it doesn’t have the beaches and beauty that Brazil and especially Rio is known for.
Sao Paolo is grey and ugly, if you have to be honest. It’s not a city to take beautiful postcard photos of. But that doesn’t matter, because beyond the glossy superficiality of a photo, Sao Paulo has an addictive pulse and energy which is every bit Brazilian.
The city of 12 million people which has over 21 million in its metropolitan area is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and in the top 5 or 10 in the world depending on the measure.
They dress a little better, work a little harder, are more multicultural and more outwardly focussed to the world than the rest of Brazil. Whereas Rio is the heart and soul of Brazil, Sao Paulo is its brain.
In Rio, Brazilian culture in its deepest forms abounds - samba, baile funk, surfing, sun, beaches, carnival, feijoada, havaianas and the pursuit of the body-beautiful.
Sao Paulo, the Brazilian financial capital, is a sea of endless buildings, barely any green poking through, certainly no glistening blue water and frequently polluted skies.
But while Rio shines outdoors, Sao Paulo shines indoors. While Rio becomes miserable in the rain, that’s when Sao Paulo can truly entertain.
Where havaianas and swimmers are the clothing symbol of Rio, in Sao Paulo it’s the business suit and cool fashion. In fact, many Paulistanos look down their nose at Rio’s love of havaianas.
The metropolis has the largest Japanese and Italian populations outside of those countries. Over 60% per cent of its residents have some Italian ancestry, meaning it has more people with Italian blood than Rome.
It’s also home to Arabic, German and Jewish communities as well as other countries from Asia, Africa and Europe.
On street level this means that the food in Sao Paulo is far better than Rio. It has all the Brazilian cuisine of Rio, but it has so much more from around the world too.
I had beautiful authentic Asian and Arabic food there which I had craved in Rio. And these weren’t expensive restaurants, just common ones like you get in the suburbs of Sydney.
Underground, it has an incredible metro system which will speed you around its neighbourhoods as well as the Tube in London does. During peak hour, it’s packed like Tokyo.
And looking upwards at it’s infinite buildings, there are so many that some have been allowed to fall entirely into the hands of squatters and drug addicts, looking like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie.
One stands tall and decrepit, covered in graffiti and broken windows, next to a pristine church. People walk by it and life goes on like it's nothing.
Despite such contrasts, the Paulistanos I spoke with said Sao Paulo is also a city less divided between rich and poor than Rio. According to them it has favelas and poor areas, but without the geographic and urban boundaries separating them from society like in Rio.
People there apparently feel safer too. Paulistanos asked me inquisitively how secure I felt living in Rio, most being of the opinion that it is more dangerous.
Carrying your phone in Sao Paulo and using it in public doesn’t come with the same weight of worry as Rio where the usual advice for tourists is to watch yourself using them outdoors, or to just leave them home.
If you’re into electronic music, or any music not from Brazil, then its clubs and concerts where promoters bring in big global names are some of the best in the country, pumping late into the night.
And speaking about parties, the university-organised Carnival bloco party I went to last week was one of the best I've been to in my life.
Thousands dressed up following trucks playing music through the city's streets, people dancing, shaking their asses, guys kissing girls, girls kissing girls and guys kissing guys at every turn. Many were just random and would part ways as quickly as they locked lips.
The truth is I love both cities, and most smart people from either city should too.
Their differences, and being just an hour plane trip or a six hour drive apart, mean they can each easily enjoy the best of both worlds. Paulistanos can come to Rio for a little sun and nature, and Cariocas can come to Sao Paulo for a little worldly culture.
For living my heart is in Rio, but every time I visit Sao Paulo I love it. For other foreigners it offers the perfect slice of life which Rio doesn’t, it just depends on your taste.
I would say to anyone visiting Brazil that Sao Paulo is a must. But be warned, it is huge and potentially overwhelming if a little planning and effort aren’t made. Get a good guide, or if you’re lucky like me to have friends there, get them to show you around.
In Rio everything a tourist needs to see and do is easily found together. In Sao Paulo you need to look a little harder, but it’s there waiting for you and when you find it you won’t be disappointed.