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I’ve been hemming and hawing about how to introduce my Brazil coverage — how to even begin to sum up six weeks of the most roller-coaster like weeks of travel I’ve ever had! I do promise to get into the deep stuff eventually, but I finally decided to stop procrastinating and start from the beginning, when I was fresh off the plane full of hope and hungry for caipirinhas.

From here forward, I’ll be jumping between my Thailand and Brazil coverage until I wrap up Thailand. Let’s do this!

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One motorbike ride, one ferry, one shuttle, four flights over three different itineraries, and one cab ride. Fifty two and a half hours after I shut the door on the apartment I’d lived in for the past seven months in Thailand for the last time, I arrived in front of a new door: my hostel in São Paulo, Brazil.

It was my longest stretch of uninterrupted transit ever. No fun layovers, no leaving the airports. Just one big blur of boarding passes, security checks and baggage claims. It was worth it for the trip I’d waited a decade for.

Sao Paulo Travel Blog

Though I had six wild weeks in Brazil ahead, in that moment I was only focused on my first stop, the event that had launched this entire adventure: Tomorrowland Brazil.  I had strategically landed a few days before the festival in order to give myself time to recover from my long journey and adjust to a new timezone, and also to get settled and do a bit of last minute supply shopping.

São Paulo is the third or fourth most populated city in the world, depending on what ranking you read. Deciding which of the dozens of neighborhoods to stay in can be daunting, though my decision was made simple when I fell in love with the We Design Hostel, a mansion renovated into a hipster dream.

We Hostel Sao Paulo

We Hostel Sao Paulo

We Hostel Sao Paulo

We Design Hostel is in Vila Mariana, a prosperous upper middle class neighborhood that borders Ibirapuera Park, widely regarded as the Central Park of São Paulo. I can’t think of a more welcoming place to crash land after spending more than two days of your life in transit.

My sweet and simple room had a private balcony that was larger than my first Brooklyn apartment and left me longing for a yoga mat — I’d highly recommend they add some patio furniture to take advantage of the beautiful space. The bathroom was shared, which I didn’t mind, and the mattress was absolutely to-die for — though to be fair, my standards were pretty low coming straight from the rock-like beds of Thailand.

We Hostel Sao Paulo

We Hostel Sao Paulo

In the morning We Design Hostel included a bitchin’ breakfast buffet with scrambled eggs, bacon, homemade cakes and fresh squeezed juices — one of the best I had in Brazil — to be enjoyed on a wraparound patio. A well-stocked kitchen was available to guests and as I was in deep hibernation mode I used it to make a few simple meals rather than go out and socialize.

Other amenities included a relatively busy bar, a tv room, a patio with a ping pong table, a work room with a huge conference-like table, and an English-speaking staff. As with every hostel I’d stay at throughout my time in the country, the guests were primarily Brazilian, though a large contingent — compared to the rest of the hostels I’d eventually stay at, at least — of international guests arrived the night before Tomorrowland.

We Hostel Sao Paulo

We Hostel Sao Paulo

We Hostel Sao Paulo

My first foray out into the big bad world of Brazil was the afternoon after my very early morning arrival at the hostel, when my hunger demanded I go forage for food. Maybe it was the jetlag, maybe it was my slight unease in a completely new corner of the world, maybe it was the relentless warnings that had been drilled into me over how dangerous the country was, but despite considering myself a level-headed, experienced traveler, I mentally and physically prepared for a barrage of pickpockets and muggers as I set out for the market.

I literally grabbed nothing but an empty tote bag, my debit card tucked into my bra, and at the last minute, fearing getting lost, my cell phone hidden in my waistband.

Vila Mariana Sao Paulo

Vila Mariana Sao Paulo

Vila Mariana Sao Paulo

Vila Mariana Sao Paulo

I walked outside, steely-eyed, ready to face whatever desolate City of God-inspired hellscape awaited me… and found myself in pretty much the Park Slope of São Paulo. Trendy craft beer bars, hipsters walking purebred dogs, and moms with designer strollers chatting and snapping away on iPhones way nicer than the one I had hidden in my underwear. Once I stopped laughing at myself for my uncharacteristic paranoia, I realized that this wouldn’t be the last time conventional wisdom about Brazil failed me.

Vila Mariana was laid back and charming, and I cursed not bringing my camera out as I snapped clever murals and adorable storefronts on my iPhone. Unfortunately it was a Monday, when the neighborhood is more or less closed for business, but I had a blast scouring exotic grocery stores and corner shops for supplies for the hostel kitchen.

Vila Mariana Sao Paulo

Vila Mariana Sao Paulo

Vila Mariana Sao Paulo

My second day in São Paulo, I arranged for a tour that would give me a good overview of the city for subsequent visits. After all, my festival partner-in-crime Heather and I would spend a few days recovering there post-Tomorrowland, and I’d have to return to the city at least one more time again to catch my return flight the next month. It can be hard to wrap your head around such a sprawling, enormous city, and I knew just who to turn to for help.

Enter Dani Ruano, the brains behind Viator’s Arts, Fashion and Architecture Trends Walking Tour of São Paulo, and the creative behind Instagram’s @RealCoolSampa, an account I’d been following avidly in anticipation of this tour. As an artist and a marketing consultant that helps brands keep on the pulse of what’s cool, I felt confident Dani would lead me to the best bars, shops, and urban art in the city.

I arrived early at Aro 27 Bike Café, our meeting point where customers can kick back with a gourmet coffee or tea, or shop for accessories and equipment for urban cycling.

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

We meandered our way through Pinheiros, stopping to peek in on a secret coding club Dani had recently discovered, a once-dilapidated public square revitalized by a cutting-edge architecture firm, and street art — so much street art!

We stopped for a fresh juice break at Pitico, an outdoor bar main a complex made wholly by shipping containers. Along the way we chatted about everything from Zika (“Why are Americans still talking about Zika?,” Dani wondered) to Instagram, from politics to the infamous São Paulo vs. Rio rivalry (“We are jealous of their beaches, they are jealous of our money,” Dani laughed.)

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Our next stop was for a snack at Mercado Municipal de Pinheiros, a bustling market with fresh produce, meat and groceries on the ground floor and small cafes ringing the second level. We headed straight for Motocó Cafe, a casual spin-off of the wildly popular and oft-awarded Brazilian food restaurant Mocotó. We ordered the infamous tapioca squares — dadinhos de tapioca com queijo coalho — and I had my first taste of Guaranajá. What Irn Bru is to Scotland and Coca Cola is to America, Guaranajá is to Brazil.

I was instantly obsessed with both and while I’d have many more Guaranajás ahead throughout my time in Brazil, I never found another tapioca dish that compared to the one at Motocó Cafe. If you want to avoid the lines, high prices and inconvenient location of the original, head to this hidden gem instead!

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

We walked off our snack heading in the direction of Instituto Tomie Ohtake, a wildly unique piece of architecture housing a theater and rotation of art-filled galleries we quickly glanced through. I made note of dozens of bars and restaurants in the area that I hoped to return to for a longer look.

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Slowly, we wound our way towards Vila Madalena (not to be confused with Vila Mariana), one of São Paulo’s hippest neighborhoods and the one I’d be staying in upon my return. Every street seemed bursting with creativity, community and life. I was in love.

Along the way Dani pointed out boutiques and small fashion designers who focus on what she called “slow fashion” — sustainable materials, ethical manufacturing, and thoughtful design. Despite not being much of a shopper, I found Dani’s explanations fascinating.

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Finally, as the sun was setting, we made our way to the infamous Beco de Batman street art epicenter. As the light was low and casting strange shadows, I kept my camera in my bag and vowing to come back later for photos, simply enjoying strolling the street at a tourist-free moment and learning about the various artists and their work.

After popping into a few more galleries and shops, we hopped in a cab for the final stop of the evening — downtown. I have to admit that by this point my jetlag had gotten the better of me and I fell fast asleep in the cab. It would be my first taste of São Paulo’s monstrous traffic, as to Dani’s frustration we missed one of the tour stops — a Brazilian dance hall — while gridlocked at an intersection. Exhausted as I was, I didn’t mind, and when I emerged from my nap we were downtown in Roosevelt Square, heart of the city’s theater scene. There was a slight change in mood downtown in the dark and while I fully believed Dani’s assurances that we were more than safe, I kept my camera tucked away and was grateful to be walking with a local rather than alone.

With one last stop at another boutique and a hidden trendy bar for celebratory drinks, we toasted to a fabulous day, and Dani presented me with a gift from the tour company — a beautiful reusable travel tote. Sweet! If you’re heading to São Paulo, I cannot recommend this tour more highly. I felt like I got to see the city like a local, or a tourist lucky enough to be shown around by a hip friend.

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Before I knew it, I was packing up for Tomorrowland. In my excitement over exploring a new country, I had made some very ambitious plans for the sixty-ish hours I was going to be in Vila Mariana in addition to the one tour I did make it to. We’re talking yoga classes, runs in Ibirapuera Park, free walking tours, and all kinds of festival preparations.

Clearly, jetlag and travel fatigue had other plans and other than this tour and a few errands I barely left my hostel. But Vila Mariana was the perfect low-key ‘hood for easing into Brazil, and my day with Dani was the perfect introduction to what to explore when I returned — which I couldn’t wait to do!

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Bem Sao Paulo City Tours

Stay tuned for Tomorrowland!

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I received a media discount for my stay at We Design Hostel and I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.

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58 Comments...
  • Hannah
    September 24 2016

    I loved Sao Paulo, it totally surprised me! Spent 4 months in Brazil and didn’t bother with it years ago, then spent another 4 months just recently and decided to spend 5 days on my way out. I always had it pegged as just a big sprawling industrial city but it is such a great city!!! Can’t wait to hear about Brazil, dying to know what parts you struggled with.

    • Alex
      September 24 2016

      I probably would have skipped São Paulo too had Tomorrowland not brought me there… so I’m super grateful it did!

  • joannerambling
    September 24 2016

    Brazil is one place I don’t think I will ever visit, not one my go to places but I did find this interesting
    joannerambling recently posted..32 Years

    • Alex
      September 25 2016

      Never say never 🙂 Maybe I’ll convince ya!

  • Rachel
    September 24 2016

    Ah so excited to read about this trip! No offense to your Thailand posts, but I find Brazil a bit more intriguing since it’s not written about as frequently. I really don’t know much about the country besides watching City of God and the Olympics. And I LOVE your festival posts.

    • Alex
      September 25 2016

      Lots of festival fun coming right up 🙂 I do always try to find new sides of Thailand to show you guys, but I definitely understand it’s been written about endlessly!

  • Rachel
    September 24 2016

    Also weird question, but your skin is really good….. Traveling through different climates can mess mine up, as well as things like pollution and cigarette smoke that I’m not really exposed to as much at home. Do you use specific products or just sunscreen and good genetics?

    • Alex
      September 25 2016

      I am just really lucky! I use whatever face wash is on sale but I only wash my face in the shower, not before bed or anything. And I put on Jergens Natural Glow sunscreen every day. I do wear fairly minimal face makeup which maybe helps? I get breakouts sometimes — but mostly just blackheads which don’t really show up on camera!

  • Cate
    September 24 2016

    I’m so excited to hear about Brazil! I never knew Sao Paolo was so artsy and bohemian. Definitely going on my bucket list now.
    Cate recently posted..Back in the Bend: The University of Notre Dame Photo Essay

    • Alex
      September 25 2016

      I never expected to fall so in love with it! It really was a killer city.

  • Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate
    September 24 2016

    a) I love that hotel!
    b) I love that LBD on you!
    c) I love all the colorful murals in this city!
    d) I love you!
    so e) can we go to Sao Paolo together sometime, please?
    Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Nashville’s Most Delicious Weekend of the Year

    • Alex
      September 25 2016

      One of these days, I’m going to make a list of all the trips we’ve planned in the comments section of our blogs… 😛

  • Eva Casey
    September 25 2016

    THIS looks like my kinda place!! I totally would have behaved similarly going out in Brazil alone for the first time, too! 😛 Glad to hear that you had a nice experience, though! Love a good design hostel, too!
    Eva Casey recently posted..How To Live Cheaply in New York City

    • Alex
      September 25 2016

      Ha ha yes it was a true wake up call that all of Brazil cannot be painted with one brushstroke! I felt so at ease in Vila Mariana.

  • Janice
    September 25 2016

    I learn so much from you!!!!!!!!!!
    Janice recently posted..Fizz Beachlounge Koh Tao

    • Alex
      September 25 2016

      Aw, thank you Janice! What a compliment!

  • Breanna
    September 25 2016

    YAAAY!!!! I have been waiting for this day since I found this blog!!
    I’m interested to see another persons take on São Paulo. My love for this city is more of a slow burn type compared to Rio, however I am picking up tips for my inevitable return to visit my second family!

    • Alex
      September 25 2016

      I wonder how I would have felt if Rio would have been my first stop and then I visited Sao Paulo after. I just fell so hard for Sao Paulo! To this day I see it as one of the highlights of my trip.

  • Stephanie Craig
    September 25 2016

    I’ve been to Rio, but I haven’t been to Sao Paolo yet. I see that you love the street art there. There’s this great Sao Paolo Instagram account I follow, Ruieltemar, which you should check out. It’s all Sao Paolo street art, some finished and some in process.
    Stephanie Craig recently posted..Comment on Checking out the Best Museum in the US by 5 Fun (and Free!) Things to do in St. Louis – GoThreeTwentyFour

    • Alex
      September 26 2016

      Awesome, thanks for the recommendation Stephanie! Going to go check it out now!

  • Kacy
    September 25 2016

    Love seeing these familiar sights! That tour sounds amazing, such hidden gems you discovered. Highly anticipating the rest of your Brazil coverage!
    Kacy recently posted..Because Vogue Says So: Your Guide to OKC

    • Alex
      September 26 2016

      I’m having fun writing it 🙂 Can’t wait to share!

  • Dominique
    September 26 2016

    I never pictured Brazil looking this.. colourful! Those murals are insane! Brazil was never really on my travel-soon list but when I look at your pictures I think it should be! Can’t wait to read more about your trip!
    Dominique recently posted..Rotterdam – Van Nelle Factory

    • Alex
      September 26 2016

      Much much more to come 🙂

  • Leah
    September 27 2016

    So much street art! It looks so beautiful! São Paulo has never been on my radar until now, maybe I’ll have to start planning my next foray into Latin America!
    Leah recently posted..Why I started blogging, and what it means to me now

    • Alex
      October 5 2016

      Yeah I have to admit had the festival not been based there it wouldn’t have been a huge priority. I’m so glad it was though because it ended up being one of my favorites from the trip!

  • Jessica
    September 27 2016

    Sao Paulo looks amazing! So colorful and trendy and with a great vibe. I definitely need to get my butt down to Brazil sometime. And I am sooo jealous that you hit another Tomorrowland, getting to one is probably one of the biggest things on my bucket list. I can’t wait to read your account of their Brazilian show this year.
    Jessica recently posted..Behind the Scenes at Our Vineyard Vines Photo Shoot

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      Now that they’ve cut TomorrowWorld, I’ll be curious to see what they release next! Of course I’ll have to complete the tri-fecta!

  • Jazzy
    September 29 2016

    Sao Paulo, looks gorgeous! The pictures and the Street Art are beautiful!

    P.s. It’s the experiences that completely blow away your expectations and wash away any preconceived notions are the ones that are the best experience. At least in my opinion
    Jazzy recently posted..Backpacking Venice on a Budget

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      Absolutely! I love being proven wrong 🙂 It’s the fun part about travel!

  • Thuc
    September 29 2016

    WOW I loved this post. I had no idea Brazil could look like that – but I know really little about Central and South America. We Design Hostel sounds amazing – I am a BIG FAN of hostels. When they do it right, hostels are just so much more fun. Can’t wait to read more about your Brazilian travels!
    Thuc recently posted..5 Things You Should NOT Hike South Sister Without

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      I know! Sometimes when I’m in a fancy hotel I miss the fun (and amenities!) of a hostel 🙂

  • becky hutner
    September 29 2016

    The street art though!! For some reason, Brazil has never really called my name. Well, I guess it’s called but other countries have called louder! Maybe you can convince me to whack it on my list.

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      I’ll see what I can do with this festival coverage 😛

  • Charlotte
    September 29 2016

    Wow! São Paulo looks so much more cool and colorful than what I thought. I’m so happy I saw this, it’definitely on my bucket list now!

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      That’s what I love to hear, Charlotte! Thanks for reading!

  • Kate Storm
    September 29 2016

    Sao Paulo looks amazing! All of the street art and cafes remind me of Ljubljana, Slovenia, of all places!
    Kate Storm recently posted..How to Crush the Competition as an Airbnb Host

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      Interesting, I’ve never had an inkling to go… but I’m Googling it now!

  • Ijana
    September 30 2016

    Excited to finally read about your Brazil trip! Brazil is super high up on my list, so I’m pumped to read your reviews of all the places. I had definitely considered skipping Sao Paolo on a future trip, but reading this may have changed my mind.

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      So glad Tomorrowland brought me to Sao Paulo! I otherwise might have missed it too, and that would have been such a shame. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous city!

  • Celine Elsa
    September 30 2016

    Wow, I love all the street art! I am in Budapest at the moment and the city is also filled with art. Now I know where to go next ;)!
    Celine Elsa recently posted..TBEX STOCKHOLM 2016: ABBA & FLAPPER DRESSES

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      Love hearing about all these other cool cities that Sao Paulo reminds you guys of — I’m going to add them all to my bucket list!

  • Michelle
    October 3 2016

    Hey!
    Off topic from this post, but was wondering if you could recommend local dishes for different areas in SEA. Especially Thailand. Not sure if you’ve already written a post about this, but I’ll be spending a month there and have found tons of info on things to see, but not what to eat. Any suggestions would be awesome. I’m also a health freak so I’d love your opinion! Also random, but have you ever gotten a Thai visa without an exiting flight? Having trouble as I’ll be traveling over land. You seem to have the visa thing down so I figured it can’t hurt to ask 🙂 Thanks for all the great posts!
    Best,
    Michelle
    Michelle recently posted..Beware of Alligators: Visiting Brookgreen Gardens in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      Hey Michelle! I’m surprised you haven’t found posts like that — I feel the blogging world loves Thailand, and loves to talk about food! I’m a fairly picky eater so probably not the best to ask 🙂 In trying to stay healthy in Thailand I mostly order stir fries and skip the rice, though sometimes I have massaman curry which is pretty rich and carby. I also seek out Western or vegetarian restaurants often for big beautiful salads — you won’t see them on many Thai menus.

      For the visa it depends on where you apply. I’ve applied without one and gotten the visa in New York many times. Just have a detailed itinerary to show, or even better a flight home out of a neighboring or other country — if requested. Best of luck!

  • Sara
    October 4 2016

    Wow this looks amazing – some great pictures. Can’t wait to hear all about your travels in Brazil!

    • Alex
      October 15 2016

      Thanks Sara! It was a beautiful start to the trip!

  • Taís
    October 7 2016

    You have no idea how happy I’m too see this post. I’m from São Paulo (but I live in Ireland now) and I think I never read a post about my own city through a foreigner eyes before, at least not like this. You visited really cool areas of the city, Vila Mariana and Vila Madalena, if I have to recommend places to go when visiting São Paulo these two would certainly be on the list. São Paulo can be a very dangerous places if you are not careful in some certain areas or walking alone late night, it is very sad to say that, I wish things would be better there.

    I’m glad you get the chance to taste our food, Tapioca is really nice, and this last time I was at home I made sure to eat lots! haha I just love Brazilian food, and living abroad now is one thing I miss the most!

    Ca’t wait to read more of your posts and see more of my country though your eyes.
    Taís recently posted..Avondale River Walk – Wicklow, Ireland

    • Alex
      October 15 2016

      Aw, thanks Taís, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! I had such a great time in Sao Paulo — stay tuned for more posts about it!

  • Jess
    October 9 2016

    Yes! I’m a little late to the party (have been doing some travelling myself) but I was so excited for this post to come up! It’s so refreshing to read an outsider point of view about my city. We do see some posts about Rio and all but about São Paulo is not that usual. Such a colorful city, with the best nightlife and friendly people.
    Vila Mariana is like, 10 minutes away from my neighborhood, I’m really glad you enjoyed it! Can’t wait for the next posts about the festival and the other places you visited. xx

    • Alex
      October 15 2016

      I have more Sao Paulo posts coming up too 🙂 Glad you enjoyed this one! It’s fun writing about places that haven’t been blogged to death yet.

  • Sao Paulo and that hostel both look amazing! So colorful! Can’t wait to see more posts 🙂
    Leigh | Campfires & Concierges recently posted..Backpacking Pictured Rocks

    • Alex
      October 23 2016

      I have a little more Sao Paulo love coming up 🙂 Stay tuned!

  • Jonathan
    October 21 2016

    Hi Alex!
    I love this post, its nice to read about tommorowland in Brazil – as no other blogger has covered it. Ive watched so many awesome videos of tommorowland on youtube and hopefully one day will be able get there myself!
    Thanks for the inspiration, ive been a fan of you blog now for a long time. 🙂
    Jonathan recently posted..That Time I Missed My Flight Home And Got Stranded In Barcelona

    • Alex
      October 23 2016

      That’s what I’m aiming for — to cover festivals no one else has delved into! It’s fun to help people get that hard-to-find information they’re looking for.

  • Jonathan
    October 21 2016

    forgot to mention, I hope you’ve had a few Caipirinha’s for me!
    Jonathan recently posted..That Time I Missed My Flight Home And Got Stranded In Barcelona

    • Alex
      October 23 2016

      More than a few 🙂

  • Chris @ Fly Family Fly
    October 24 2016

    Great intro to SP! We live in Rio and Sao Paulo is a great city to visit.

    Love your pics too!

    • Alex
      November 1 2016

      Thanks Chris! Let me know what you think of my latest Sao Paulo post when it goes live tonight 🙂

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