What to expect….living in Sao Paulo

As our tour is coming to an end, we are constantly being asked whether we are ready to “go home” (and just where exactly would that be again?) and leave this enormous South American megacity behind… the short answer is ‘yes’ – we are ready. Ready for a change in scenery (as in away from pollution and never-ending traffic battles) and ready for something new (as in a new assignment for John, new places to discover for us).

That is not to say we did not like it here. We did. After all, we are coming back with a new family member who was born here and has turned our life completely upside down. And, we made fantastic new friends who we will certainly miss. Fortunately while geographic distances remain unchanged, the world is getting smaller thanks to social networking sites and the blogosphere that makes staying in touch over the years and distances manageable (unless you have children like ours who literally freeze when skyping with grand-parents and suddenly turn on their mute button [that I never manage to find when I need it!] only to return to full energy and speaking/screaming levels the minute a grown-up hits the little red “end” button…). And, come on – we got to live and experience Brazilian culture, food, weather, and sports (including futebol mania during the World Cup) – and, travel around a beautiful country for 2 years!

Part of the excitement of Foreign Service life is living abroad (duh!) and a huge amount of time is typically spent researching potential posts before bidding on them (a task I currently still enjoy although I hear that it gets pretty old very quickly). I love to spend (waste?) time reading these “post reports” from locations across the globe (check out this site) so in line with some of their categories, here’s our 2 cents on Sao Paulo as a place to live. And let’s just remember that these are my views and my views alone


All you need to do is watch this video of a plane landing in Congonhas airport (the smaller airport located in the city not to be confused with Guarulhos which is the international airport on the outskirts) to realize that Sao Paulo is indeed an urban concrete jungle. It is overwhelming to say the least and after two years of living here, I honestly cannot say I know the city as it is just too enormous to travel around or get to know (case in point taxi drivers here tend to know their way around one or two neighborhoods aside from main attractions but completely rely on their GPS for all other destinations). Speaking of which, if you come here, bring a GPS…you will need it. Pretty much every day. Trust me.


Traffic is bad. Let me say this again – traffic is bad. It is no surprise that Sao Paulo holds fourth place (world wide) for worst traffic. And no, you don’t get used to it – in fact, you get more irritated with it when it consistently takes you multiple hours (yes, plural…hours) to go a few miles (7.5km/4.7 miles have taken me 2 hours on more than one occasion…. and yes, that includes taking side streets to avoid congested main streets and no, walking is not an alternative option as is riding a bike). Traffic is just bad….and completely ‘nightmarish’ when it rains…


Climate is comfortable throughout the year – think 70s/80s F on average even in the winter (a little secret – I actually prefer the winters here since the weather is nice enough to spend time outside at parks, playgrounds etc without the rain…). Summer (remember – reverse seasons here!) can get sticky and hot (90s F) and it generally rains every afternoon (bring an umbrella or two) from about 4pm onwards (you can almost set your clock by it!). Of course as I write this, we are in the midst of summer and it has been raining on and off pretty much every day – all day long – for the past week….and it’s not even hot….go figure. By the way, when I say ‘rain’ – it usually doesn’t just rain; no, it pours – literally – as in streets are flooded and power goes out. Be prepared….bring a flashlight or two while you’re remembering to pack those umbrellas.


Simply put…pot holes plus rain => SUV. You will thank me later.


Please have them when you arrive – in Portuguese that is. Seriously, you will have a difficult time getting around without Portuguese. Of course I say this after having made many German friends initially upon arrival (turns out there’s a huge German expat group here, who knew?) and I ended up improving my rusty German in the first few months (to the amusement of John who was convinced I spoke more German the first few months here than in the past 10 years….probably true). Jokes aside though – you will need to speak at least some basic level of Portuguese if you want to get around.


I won’t lie. It’s expensive here – pretty darn expensive. So much that our COLA (cost of living assistance) continues to be among the highest world-wide. People have been warning us that Vienna will be expensive – that might be true, but it still won’t compare to how much things cost here. Imported products are taxed incredibly high (think about paying about 5 times for the same thing in the US) and yes that includes pretty much everything that is foreign and imported (like toys, clothes, liquor, cars, car parts etc). Groceries are a bit higher but if you are careful and pay attention (and don’t insist on your imported US-brand cereal!), you can comfortably shop as you would in major US cities. Restaurants and eating out though…. that’s where they get you! What we miss the most here is having reasonably prized restaurants that serve good food with good service – what we have are many overpriced restaurants without the matching food quality and/or service….it’s kind of frustrating… [of course you can get fantastic quality and service but, honestly, we would never be able to rationalize spending that much money on a dinner…]


Medical care here is – hands-down – fantastic. If you can afford it, that is. Private physicians are fantastic and freely give you their cell phone numbers and emails for emergencies (comes in handy if you have kids like ours who tend to get sick only on the weekends or after hours) and yes, the doctors themselves actually pick up the phone when you call. Juliana was born here (I don’t know of any expat woman who chose to have her baby back home while living here) and comparing her birth to Luca’s (in Canada), I highly recommend having babies here. Speaking of which, turns out there is something in the water here as plenty of our friends have gotten pregnant after arriving here….just saying!


If you come here with kids, check out the International Newcomers Club and the American Society as they offer tons of activities and sport events. On the weekends, the Brazilian thing to do is hang out at the Shopping Malls (like Iguatemi, Shopping Morumbi, Shopping Cidade Jardins, Shopping Market Place, Shopping Ibirapuera) – you probably won’t be able to afford much at those places but you will be surrounded by pretty much every Paulista resident on a rainy weekend (good luck finding parking!). There are also a few fun parks to check out if it doesn’t rain– Ibirapuera Park is kind of like Central Park as in big green space in the middle of urban sprawl that is popular with runners, futebol players (which green space isn’t here?), and kids of all ages. A few other fun parks are Severo Gomes and Parque do Cordeiro in Santo Amaro.


Embu das Artes – a cute walk-able small artsy town that has weekend markets. You can get anything from patio furniture, arts & crafts, plants, and local food items – come early to beat the crowds (about 40 minutes drive).

Sao Roque – the “wine” region outside of Sao Paulo (note the quotation marks please) – follow the wine route and stop at the local wineries to sample some wine, grape juice, and champagne and take in nature. About 45 minutes drive.

Campos do Jordao – the “Switzerland” of Brazil. A cute mountain area about a 3 hours drive where you can take in nature and lots of good German/Swiss food and beer! Remember our trip here?

Beaches – ah, where to start? The north coast (“litoral Norte”) is about 1.5 hours from Sao Paulo (theoretically, traffic can make it a nightmare since you won’t be alone on the road especially on Sunday afternoons when you and everyone else is heading back to the city). Check out this map. Notable beaches include Sao Lourenco, Bertioga, the island of Ilhabela (watch out for terrible mosquitos), Toque Toque Pequeno and Grande…but you really can’t go wrong with any of the beaches; I mean we are talking about beaches…in Brazil! A bit further up the coast, Paraty and of course Rio de Janeiro are beautiful get-away options as well!


Ouro Preto – beautiful and well worth a visit although it is indeed incredibly hilly so be prepared to get a work-out – read about your trip here. About 8 hours driving from Sao Paulo – a bit more if you manage to mess up the GPS directions (I am pointing my finger at me here).

Brasilia – before the Paulista came along, we thought a 12-hour road trip through Brazil sounded like a fun idea….fun it was but also LOOOONNNGGG when traveling with an 18-month old. If you’re into architecture and urban planning, this city is for you.

Florianapolis/Blumenau – heading South, this is a beautiful island (think beaches, seafood, nature…) and the entire State of Santa Catarina has a European feel to it (speak “green” and “clean”). Perhaps not surprisingly then that the city of Blumenau is also the home of the “largest Oktoberfest in Brazil.” We visited…yes, with a child in tow.

Way back when in a life we barely remember, when we had no kids and had not even thought about the Foreign Service (me that is….John was already trying to talk me into it), we spent a month traveling around Brazil and were fortunate to explore some other wonderful places like Fernando de Noronha, Salvador, Itacare, and Lencois (in Chapada Diamantina, Bahia) that are not to be missed when coming here. Of course there are many more fun and amazing destinations within Brazil that we, unfortunately, did not have a chance to get to know (yet at least!)…but there’s only so much we can do in a limited time and on a limited budget (traveling around Brazil is not for the frugal kind).

And there you have it – our limited experience of Brazil in 2 years… what will our future adventures hold? Your guess is as good as mine! All I know now, at this moment, is that I better return to my ever-increasing list of things to do and pack before the movers come our way. I know, we still have a little bit of time but it’s not too early for me to start getting nervous…. And yes, we will still have some time to take in more of Sao Paulo and Brazil life so stay tuned…


2 thoughts on “What to expect….living in Sao Paulo

  1. Sao Paulo is on our current bid list, and though I'm Brazilian, I don't much about it (us folks from Rio don't really like mingling with the Paulistas…). Right now we're dealing with horrible traffic daily in Manila, so I can't even imagine being worse than this! But Manila didn't even make the list you linked to, yikes! But yep, you never get used to it, and it gets more and more on your nerves as time goes by.Sao Paulo is still a high for us (I'd get to be close to family after years away — score!), and a quick flight to Rio, but glad we put Brasilia and Recife higher though… I need a break from the traffic.

  2. This is a fantastic post. Back in January, you stopped by my blog and sent me the link to it. I'm ashamed to say I only just got around to reading it. Really wonderful and helpful. My family and I will be in São Paolo in August 2012. Hope you're still there. But if not, best wishes in your new assignment.

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