Update (08/24/2014): I just posted a companion article for this one, highlighting the tourist points of the city.
Update (02/2014): this article was written for Rubyconf Brazil 2013, so don't be confused by the context.
Rubyconf Brasil is quickly approaching, don't miss it on August 29, 30. Register today at the website. Several speakers will be coming to Brazil, don't miss your chance to get to know Hal Fulton, Hongli Lai, Laurent Sansonetti, Kevin Tripplet, Jaime Andrés, Dávila, Ben Langfeld, Pablo Astigarraga.
I understand that it can be intimidating to come to Brazil for the first time so I decided that it could be a good idea to draft a few important things to keep in mind while staying around here.
First things First (TL;DR)
The weather is quite cool these days, it's Winter in Brazil and although it's not as cold as in North Europe it's a good idea to bring some extra coats if you're not used to a cold weather. On the other hand, the weather can change quite dramatically in a few days here in São Paulo. For example, right now it's around 12 degrees Celsius (or around 54 Fahrenheit), going down to less than 9C (48F) at night. But it seems like it's possible to go up to almost 30C (86F) during the conference days, so come prepared, specially if you are staying for an entire week or more.
DO NOT FORGET TO BRING A UNIVERSAL POWER PLUG ADAPTER!!
This is very important: until 2011 we had outlets that were compatible to the USA and some European power plugs. After that the country changed to a (worse in my opinion) new standard that is completely incompatible with any other plugs. Some good hotels have adapters for foreigners but I wouldn't count on that. When you land at the airport you can buy them at the duty free stores, just don't forget or you will be out of juice for your devices!
Speaking of which, another thing that is quite useful is to find a telecomunications store at the airport (Claro, Vivo, Oi, Tim) or in any mall or big commercial area (Paulista Ave. has some). Buy a pre-paid SIM card for your smartphone, with 3G enabled - and test it in the store!. It will be a whole lot easier to navigate through out the city that way. Whenever I go to other countries that is the first thing I try to do. Also make sure to have some friends or acquaintances in your contact list in case you have any emergencies or even get lost in the city.
You most probably don't speak Brazilian Portuguese. The first thing to know is that it's not nearly the same as Spanish. It's very difficult to find people that can speak fluent English, but be assured that most people here will try their hardest to understand you. Friendliness is definitely something you can count on. Speak slowly and the clearest that you can to make yourself understood. In public transportation and taxi cabs that's going to be bit different as workers under our traffic stress aren't particularly friendly, so be patient.
About taxi cabs, when you arrive at the airport you may be approached by private drivers. DO NOT TAKE THEM. Use an official taxi company at the airport exit. It's easy to make the distinction as the official taxi are all standardized and you will see staff organizing the lines. Pay the fare at the taxi booth inside the airport with a pre-determined price. Even while walking around the city, always get a cab from an official line. You may want to try apps such as 99Taxi while in the city.
By the way, Google Maps works great around here, even to know subway time schedules. Waze also works great.
BRAZIL IS NOT VIOLENT!! (in general)
Regardless of what you may have heard or read in news channels, Brazil in general is not a violent country. Not even in São Paulo, our largest and crowdest city. It doesn't mean that it's not there, just don't go look for it. Keep in mind a few useful rules: don't make it easy for pickpockets. If you leave your bag in the floor, unattended, you may not find it there later.
There is a popular saying here "a oportunidade faz o ladrão" that can be roughly translated as "opportunity makes thieves". It's not properly translated culturally wise but I think you got it. Just make sure to not have all your money in your wallet in the backpocket of your pants. It's wise to distribute it in your pockets, specially if you decide to wander around some of the rougher areas of the city (more on that below).
It's totally safe for you to walk around by yourself. Avoid "showing off" while in busy areas. Speaking in your shiny brand new smartphone while walking around crowded streets may not be a good idea. If you're in a taxi cab, stuck in a traffic jam, don't be playing with your tablet while having your window wide open. Be aware of your surroundings. That being said, there's no need to be paranoid. In 6 years of receiving foreign speakers at Rubyconf, not once I have heard of anything that happened to any of our speakers or to anyone else for that matter. I myself have lived more than 3 decades here and I've been robbed once a decade.
Rubyconf will be near one of the landmarks of this city: Paulista Avenue. If your hotel is nearby it's a good area to be because it's the easiest way to access most of what's important in the city. If you're not near the conference venue and not near a subway station be prepared to get some heavy traffic. Rush hours in São Paulo start around 8AM until 10AM and then from 5PM until 9PM. And I mean much-worse-than-Manhatan levels of traffic jams. So be organized and wake up early. If you're 5 miles away or more from the conference, calculate at least 1 hour in traffic.
Business hours in São Paulo start at 9AM and ends at 6PM. Banks open at 10AM and close at 4PM. Shopping Centers and other stores and restaurants are usually open at least until 10PM, lot's keep working until after midnight. Night life in São Paulo is particularly busy. You will find drugstores, markets, convenience stores, and several busineses that go on for 24 hours.
Understanding the City: A Geography Overview
With the most important points being said, let's focus on location. As the wise would say, "location, location, location."
First and foremost, some may find this confusing because "São Paulo" can refer to 3 different things: the state, the capital city of the state, the big metropolitan area also known as "Greater São Paulo" which is a group of 39 municipalities around São Paulo City.
The metropolitan area is humongous. The Greater São Paulo has no less than 20 million people. São Paulo City alone has more than 11 million. We are talking about the 6th most densely populated area in the planet. If we expand to the Campinas city through Jundiaí city, this area has 12% of the country population. In terms of size, we are talking about something the size of the entire country of Lebanon or Jamaica.
Even with this size, one thing you will notice right away is that our public transportation is surprisingly lacking given that the GDP of this area alone was more than USD 300 billion (2011).
It's important to understand the geographic map. The map below shows the Greater São Paulo metropolitan group:
São Paulo City is the big grey area in the middle. When you land here, you will be at Guarulhos International Airport (GRU) in Guarulhos City, which is outside of São Paulo. It's one of the green cities in the north. You will have to go through a 40 to 50 minutes ride (without traffic) to go downtown.
Now, let's zoom in the grey area from the previous map:
Our city is roughly divided in 5 zones: North, South, East, West and Center or what I prefer to call "Old Downtown". This is 11 million people city but you will never have to go out of the area I circled in red, mainly near Old Downtown and what I personally call "New Downtown".
Let's zoom in a little bit the area surrouding the red circle:
There is this river named "Tietê" that cuts through the city. It creates this "semi-island" that we call "Expanded Downtown". Inside the island are the areas I called "Old Downtown" and "New Downtown". The Paulista Avenue roughly divides those 2 areas. The old one more up north and the other more south.
The red lines are the main avenues that connect the city traffic. Line number 4 in the map is the Paulista Avenue. The blue line is what we call the "Marginal", it's a large road that surround this Expanded Area and follow the Tietê River course. Although it's one single continuous wide road, it has 2 names: Marginal Tietê at the north half and Marginal Pinheiros at the south half.
So you will be most of the time around Red Line Line 4 (from the map above), the Paulista Avenue, located within the Expanded Area, surrounded by the Marginais. You will probably go through the Marginal when you come from the Guarulhos Airport (which would be way north outside of the map).
Remember I mentioned much-worse-than-Manhatan traffic jams? This is a snapshot of the traffic layer of the São Paulo Expanded Area around 5:30PM on a Thursday just so you have an idea of what I mean:
I call this traffic map "São Paulo bleeding".
I hope you're still with me in the Geography lesson. Now let's get more practical: subway lines!
I will overlay the metro lines on top of the map above so you have an idea:
Now the cleaner map (click the image to see the larger version):
And now the abstract representation to make it easier to navigate (again, click the image for the larger version):
You will most certainly not go away from the area cropped in the image above, the green line, which go under the Paulista Avenue. So you guessed it: from Paulista Avenue you have easy access to many of the interesting places in the city.
We have several ways to go through the public transportation, but the easiest way is to know that you can buy individual tickets inside the subway station. Always buy at least 2 so you have your way back guaranteed. It's the cheapest and faster way to navigate through the city. Use taxi cabs to go from a subway station to where you want to go and then back. Using a taxi for tourism is the easiest way to go bankrupt fast, because they aren't cheap, specially with heavy traffic.
This should cover the basics to understand the city. The São Paulo page at Wikipedia does a great job of explaining more details about the city, tourism and recreation options. There is also this Wikitravel Page that might help.
Most people will be staying at the Pergamon Hotel. It's at walking distance from the conference venue (Frei Caneca Theater), but you will probably want to get a taxi to go to Paulista Avenue, it's less than 5 min by car. And the Frei Caneca St. is parallel to Augusta St. which is very well known for it's active nightlife, if you like it.
Unfortunately we don't have anything that comes close to Yelp! around here. Don't be shy, if you don't know anyone from here, use the conference to get to know more people. Brazilians are really very friendly and they will be more than willing to explain a lot more and give great recommendations.
Don't stay just in the hotel. This is a great opportunity to get to know a new place, different people and culture. Pay special attention to the Old Downtown, the historic center and contrast it with the "New Downtown" where you will find the luxurious neighborhood of Jardins and the Tech neighborhoods of Vila Olímpia and Brooklin. Get in touch with the Brazilian Ruby community beforehand to schedule visits to startups and other companies.
Don't be a stranger, this is a city and a community that wants to exchange experiences and knowledge. Welcome to São Paulo!