Rio de Janeiro vs Sao Paulo

Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo: where should you go?

We’ve done the big Aussie debate of Sydney vs Melbourne. We’ve also done Madrid vs Barcelona. But now we’re onto the next – Brazil’s big two. One is the main tourist hub of South America, the other is the economic centre of Brazil, and a magnet for business travellers.

When comparing the two, it’s often said that Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s Los Angeles and São Paulo is New York. This is true to a degree, with Rio’s laid-back, beach-life scene, and São Paulo’s intense nightlife regions. One thing we know is that they both offer a lot for travellers visiting Brazil.

Let’s see how the two cities compare on different aspects so you can judge more fairly.

Rio de Janeiro vs Sao Paulo


Rio is nicknamed Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvellous City) for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Built next to a golden coastline, the unique combination of nature and urban civilisation is remarkable. Rio’s also home to the largest urban forest that is within the city’s neighbourhood, providing sensational beauty around every corner.

São Paulo on the other hand, is a huge concrete jungle of skyscrapers and heavily trafficked highways. Endless rows of buildings make up the horizon. But what it lacks in natural beauty, it flaunts in outstanding size – head to the Skye Bar to gauge just how big this city is.


Rio’s landmarks are one of the strongest pulling forces that bring tourists to the city. The Corcovado Mountain is one of the best known-peaks in Rio, famous for being home to Christ the Redeemer and offering breathtaking views over the city. Other landmarks include Tijuca forest, the largest urban forest worldwide, and of course the famous Copacabana Beach.

São Paulo has lesser known landmarks but there are plenty of spots to visit that are unique to the city. Ibirapuera Park is a natural refuge with regular art exhibitions, live music and outdoor cinemas. Avenida Paulista is the main strip for business and restaurants that is flanked by large, modernist buildings. Also the Municipal Market of São Paulo has an impressive assortment of restaurants and fresh foods.


Rio has a Japanese and Italian influence with several pizzerias and good sushi restaurants. But the general approach to food is more laid back than in Sao Paulo. Food choices are built around an outdoor lifestyle with quick and healthy options available.

São Paulo also has the influence of Japanese, Italian and Arabic too. This stems from the city attracting immigrants for years, with the diversity blooming into a multicultural metropolis. The metropolitan vibe challenges Brazilian traditions, opening up new suggestions. These include food trucks and pop-up joints which are dotted throughout the city.

Nightlife and parties

Rio is a city of the day with waterfalls, hikes and the beach to enjoy when the weather is out. There are bars all throughout the city, with the main nightlife hosted in Lapa.

The range of nightlife spots in São Paulo is huge, exciting and immensely varied, from electronic music to sauna parties. The night doesn’t kick off until midnight and goes on until the sun comes up. After parties starting at 8am are not unheard of!


Rio is fairly easy to navigate around. It’s got an efficient metro system, a public bike-sharing system and hurtling buses. The neighbourhoods are perfect for getting around on foot. In the city itself, driving can be a frustrating experience even if you know your way around. Traffic and parking problems don’t make for an enjoyable experience.

You can reach many places on the Metro, Sao Paulo’s rapidly expanding subway system. It’s cheap, safe and fast and runs from 4.40am until midnight. The public-transport system in this city is one of the world’s most complex, with more than 15,000 buses and 1333 lines.

The vibe

It’s clear that the two cities offer a different vibe and pace. In Rio you can join the locals in their chilled-out attitude to everything. It’s a place to enjoy the sun, samba and cocktails. It’s the perfect holiday spot.

Much like any big city, São Paulo runs at a more frenetic pace. It has a more chic vibe, from the establishments to the dress code. Expect to run around a lot more, exploring the shops and vibrant nightlife.

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