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Some 17 million people make their home in and around São Paulo. It's a daunting number. But for all its ridiculous sprawl there's a charm to South America's biggest city, and getting around the areas of interest is neither difficult nor especially stressful.

Centro -- The old heart of the city stands around Praça da Sé, atop what was once a small hill circled by a pair of small rivers. Little remains of that original city; Paulistas take a manic joy in knocking buildings down almost as soon as they go up. The neo-Gothic Catedral da Sé dates to only 1912. Evidence of the city's age can be seen only in downtown's narrow and irregular streets. Rua Direita, São Paulo's original main street, leads through this maze to a viaduct crossing over a busy freeway that now occupies the Anhangabaú valley and goes into the "newer" section of the old town. This area, centered on leafy green Praça República, contains government buildings plus office buildings from the '20s to the '40s (and later). Back at the edge of the Anhangabaú valley stands the ornate Teatro Municipal, a Parisian-style opera house still used for concerts and theater. The Anhangabaú River, which once separated the two halves of downtown, was long ago filled and covered with a freeway, which in turn has been covered over by a broad and open city plaza -- the Parque Anhangabaú -- which effectively rejoins the two halves of downtown. Together, these two halves of the old inner city are known as Centro.

Higienópolis -- Immediately west of Centro is one of São Paulo's original upscale suburbs, Higienópolis. Though long since swallowed up in the city, Higienópolis remains a green and leafy enclave with some good restaurants and the city's Museum of Brazilian Art, also known as FAAP.

Liberdade & Bixiga -- To the south of Centro are two turn-of-the-20th-century working-class neighborhoods long adopted by immigrants. Due south of Centro is Liberdade, said to have the largest Japanese population of any city outside Japan. In addition to great food and interesting shopping, Liberdade is also home to the Museum of Japanese Immigration. Southwest of Centro lies Bela Vista, more often referred to as Bixiga. This is São Paulo's Little Italy. Bela Vista in turn butts up against São Paulo's proudest street, the Avenida Paulista.

Avenida Paulista -- Long and straight and set on a ridge above surrounding neighborhoods, the Avenida Paulista has rank upon rank of skyscrapers, the headquarters of the city's banking and financial interests. On the adjacent side streets are numerous hotels catering to business travelers. Halfway along the street is São Paulo's top-notch Museum of Art, known by its Portuguese acronym as MASP. Avenida Paulista marks the border between the old working-class areas and the new middle-class neighborhoods.

Jardins -- Extending southwest from Avenida Paulista are a series of upscale neighborhoods developed in the '20s according to the best Garden City principles and accordingly named gardens (jardins) to emphasize their green and leafy separation from the gritty urban core. Though each area has a particular name -- Jardim Paulista, Jardim America, Cerqueira Cesar, Jardim Europa -- Paulistas tend to refer to them as a group as Jardins.

What these areas offer is a bit of calm, some terrific restaurants, and the best shopping in São Paulo. Particularly noteworthy is the Rua Augusta, which intersects the Avenida Paulista at the Consolação Metrô stop and continues southwest through the heart of the Jardins. The few square blocks where Rua Augusta is intersected by Alameda Lorena and Rua Oscar Freire is the apex of the city's upscale shopping scene, São Paulo's Rodeo Drive.

Rua Augusta continues on straight through the Jardins, changing names as it goes to Avenida Columbia and then Avenida Europa and finally Avenida Cidade Jardim. At this point it intersects with Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima. Though a much less fashionable street, Avenida Brig. Faria Lima is home to a number of large shopping malls; the most important is Shopping Iguatemi. Following Avenida Brig. Faria Lima northwest leads to another Jardim-like area called Pinheiros; going the opposite direction leads to Itaim Bibi and then to a fun and slightly funky area of restaurants, clubs, and cafes called Vila Olímpia.

The Park -- The last key element to São Paulo is a green space -- Ibirapuera Park. Located immediately south of Jardim Paulista, Ibirapuera is to São Paulo what Central Park is to New York. It's a place for strolling, lazy sun-tanning, outdoor concerts, and the view to a couple of the city's top cultural facilities, including the Modern Art Museum and the São Paulo Bienal.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.