Look out the window as your plane descends toward São Paulo, and you'll see nothing but high-rises as far as the eye can see. It's a truly awesome sight.
Now the largest metropolis in South America -- and, with 17 million people spread over 7,770 sq. km (3,000 sq. miles), the third-largest city in the world -- São Paulo nevertheless sprang from humble beginnings. In 1554, Jesuit priests founded a mission on a small hill, strategically close to the River Tietê. The mission developed into a small trading post and then, in the 17th and early 18th century, into a jumping-off point for Bandeirante expeditions traveling into the interior. In 1711 the little market town was incorporated as the city of São Paulo. The seeds of its future prosperity showed up just 12 years later with the arrival of the first coffee plants in Brazil.
The climate and soil surrounding São Paulo turned out to be perfect for coffee. With the arrival of the railway in 1867, large-scale cultivation exploded. São Paulo became one of the largest coffee exporters in the world.
When slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, coffee growers started looking toward immigrant labor. Italians and Japanese, and later, eastern Europeans, Spanish, Portuguese, and Germans, made the trek to São Paulo. To this day São Paulo remains the most culturally diverse city in Brazil.
In the mid-1950s São Paulo surpassed Rio in population and kept growing. Foreign investment by car companies such as Ford, GM, and Volkswagen transformed the city into South America's largest car manufacturer.
Unfortunately, little foresight and only rudimentary planning were devoted to the growth of the city. So although wages are the highest in the country, São Paulo's traffic regularly snarls into nearly endless traffic jams.
Prospective visitors often hear of this chaos and shy away from Brazil's big city, which is a shame. Visitors to São Paulo get all the benefits of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city -- they can eat at the finest restaurants in Brazil, shop at boutiques that even New York doesn't have, browse high-end art galleries, check out top-name Brazilian bands almost any night of the week, and take advantage of one of Brazil's most dynamic nightlife scenes to party until the wee-est of hours. And they can do all this without ever experiencing the big drawback to this city, which is traffic.
The challenge to living in São is the commute. Visitors get a free pass. Stay in the Jardins, Higienópolis, or Centro, and all the sights and shops and galleries and restaurants are within easy reach. The word commute need never enter your consciousness.
Best of all, time in São Paulo is a chance to get to know that subspecies of Brazilian known as the Paulista. They're proud of their work ethic and their "un-Brazilian" efficiency. Lacking beaches and mountains, Paulistas have devoted themselves entirely to urban pursuits. They dominate Brazilian politics. They run Brazilian business. Dining out is an almost religious observance. And in São Paulo, the music and nightlife never end.