Transport in São Paulo can be anything from complicated to hellish. Peak hours are normally roughly 6 AM-9 AM and 4 PM-8 PM, but since city roads are constantly on the edge of their capacity, any little incident can cause major queues and delays. The cheapest way for tourists to get around is to use the subway/metro, trains, and trolleybuses as much as possible, and then take a taxi for shorter distances. Even these means of transport can be uncomfortably crowded during peaks, and only a very limited carry-on is recommended.
The Bilhete Único is a transport smartcard that is used for paying fares on buses, subways, and trains. In essence, a single billing of the card grants a person up to four trips in São Paulo's public transportation system with free transfers between the subway system and buses within 3 hours. The card is issued at underground stations; charge them with any extra amount required in newspaper stands, state-owned betting shops (known as "lotéricas"), supermarkets and other establishments - look for the red, round "Bilhete Único" logo.
By metro and train
The rail network, composed of metro (subway) and surface trains, is the method of transportation a tourist is likely to use the most while visiting São Paulo. The metro is modern, safe, clean and efficient; the quality of surface trains varies, but those in more touristic areas area as good as the metro.
Surface trains can also be used to reach a number of other cities in the metropolitan area of São Paulo and even beyond. The fee is the same, make some of these trips incredible cheap depending on where you want to go.
Buses are the most popular way to get around the city. Even though drivers really step on it through the bumpy streets of São Paulo, buses are not the fastest way to get around. In addition, they can get really crowded. However, unlike the metro/train, they do reach every neighborhood.
You can pay for the ride inside the bus, or use a Bilhete Unico card topped up with credits before boarding. If paying for the ticket on the bus, simply hand over the money to the teller sitting by the turnstile, and he or she will let you pass through. Note that children under 5 years old are allowed by law to slip under the turnstile for free! If you have the Bilhete Unico magnetic card, then a single fare payment allows you to take other buses for free for the next 3 hours after touching in the card. Simply scan the card in front of the card reader, and the turnstile will be released.
Most Brazilians move straight to the back of the bus when they board, which can make it difficult to get off the bus, but it's considered the polite thing to do. Also, if you are holding a large bag and standing, another person may offer to hold your bag for you. This is a perfectly alright thing to do, as they're really just being kind and polite. Use your best judgment if the offer seems like anything other than a friendly gesture.
If you are carrying large suitcases, try to avoid rush-hour traffic as buses can become incredibly packed.
Taxi ranks in São Paulo are white, with a distinctive luminous green "TAXI" sign on the rooftop. Check out for the white color of the taxi rank (unless it's a radio taxi), the official license sticker with the driver's name and photo on the passenger side of the control panel, and the red license plate.
There are two kinds of cabs: cheaper street-hail and radio taxi. White taxis are often found at stands near city squares and big venues. Radio taxis can be ordered by telephone; ask reception at your hotel for help to call a radio cab, or just call a company. Some companies now provide an online, fixed price, quote, and book service. Taxis in São Paulo are relatively expensive compared to other large cities worldwide and, depending on the neighborhood, there is a risk of being overcharged if you're a foreigner.
Unlike you may have heard otherwise, incidents of tourists being brought by taxists to be robbed are extremely rare. Taxis are one of the safest ways to get around the city, and certainly much safer than riding your own car.
Cars are an important tool in the life of every paulistano. By commuting to and from work, one can spend several hours a day inside a car, stuck in the traffic. Some places can be reached only by car, and if you have to travel long distances in town, it is usually the most convenient means of transport. It is also part of Sao Paulo's own urban culture.
São Paulo is definitely not one of the easiest places in the world around by bike. Most drivers respect cyclists, but unfortunately, there are also many drivers (including bus drivers) who don't. Most of the city is flat or moderately steep, with only the extreme north part of the city being extremely hilly. The basic "survival tips" are: use a helmet, follow the direction of traffic at all times, watch out for car doors opening without warning, never ride in freeways, and use a cycleway whenever possible.
Cyclists with bicycles are allowed in the metro/train network at the following times:
- In the metro (Metrô/Via Quatro): Monday-Friday starting from 20:30, Saturday starting from 14:00, Sundays and Holidays the whole day
- In surface trains (CPTM): Saturday starting from 14:00, Sundays and Holidays the whole day
There are public bicycle parking lots in many metro stations (06:00-22:00 daily), and in some, it is also possible to borrow a bike using a credit card. Check the Metrô website for an up-to-date list of stations with infrastructure for bicycles. Parking lots (mainly the ones designed for cars) may not accept your bicycle, so if you are to chain yours to a pole, use a good chain with a strong lock. In metro/train stations, cyclists are allowed to put their bicycles on escalators to go up, but not to go down. As a foreigner, it is complicated to register at ciclosampa.com for renting a bike with your credit card. At Ibirapuera park near gate 3 (Portao 3), it is possible to rent a bike for R$ 5 per hour. You get registered with your passport. It has become a popular place for locals as well, with hundreds renting bikes on Saturdays and Sundays.
São Paulo has about 55 km of cycleways; some of them are displayed are this map (the map is not kept up-to-date, and does not display all existing cycleways). On Sundays, it is also possible to use the Ciclofaixa de Lazer. The cycleways that cover more than one region are listed below; others are described in the individual district sections.
- Cycleway Marginal Pinheiros, from Cidade Universitário to Jurubatuba train stations. The longest cycleway of São Paulo, running in the east shore of the Pinheiros River and linking the West, South Central, and Far South regions. Offers very nice views of the city, although the bad smell of the river may take some time to cope. The only problem of the cycleway is that it is isolated from the city by a train line and a motorway, so it is only possible to enter and leave the cycleway at specific points. 21.2 km.
- Cycleway Radial Leste, from Tatuapé to Corinthians-Itaquera train/metro stations. Goes from the middle of the Southeast to the middle of the Far East regions, running in parallel with the Line 3-Red metro line and the Radial Leste avenue. The cicleway gives an extensive view of suburban residential areas in São Paulo's East region. 12 km.
Although required by the national transit law, pedestrians are definitely not the priority in Sao Paulo, where cars dominate the streets and roads. Take care whenever crossing the streets, watching out for cars that may come unexpectedly, even if the pedestrian lights are green. Do not try to cross large roads with a high volume of car traffic: usually, there will be a pedestrian viaduct or bridge at some point in the sidewalk.
Despite the aggressiveness found in the transit, one can still have peaceful walks across town. The Historic Center area and Avenida Paulista are definitely places to be explored on foot. Check the individual district listings for other nice walks.