Although São Paulo  gives the impression of being a relatively new city, it was actually founded over 450 years ago. Older still is the port of Santos (originally known as São Vicente). Brazil ’s second-oldest settlement, it dates back to 1507. While São Vicente was an important port for the Portuguese, São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga was a tiny Jesuit outpost, settled in 1554 by priests intent on converting the local Tupi-Guarani Indian population to Catholicism.
Perched atop a plateau, on the banks of the Rio Tietê, close to the Paraná and Prata Rivers, its strategic location ensured residents protection from attacks as well as fluvial transportation. In fact, it was from here that, in the 1600s, gangs of Portuguese settlers set off to discover Brazil’s uncharted hinterlands. Known as bandeirantes because they carried Portugal’s bandeira (flag), these rugged adventurers were motivated by the promise of finding diamonds and gold and enslaving Indians. Along the way, they opened up much of Brazil’s interior.
However, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that São Paulo ’s fortunes really took off. Spurred by the arrival of Confederate refugees who fled the American South following the U.S. Civil War, local planters had unsuccessfully dabbled in cotton plantations before deciding to switch over to coffee. With this new crop, they struck gold: The fertile red soil of the hills provided ideal growing conditions, and by the late 1800s, São Paulo state  was the one of the biggest coffee producers in the world. Although there was widespread concern about plantation labor when Brazil  abolished slavery in 1889, a flood of immigrant workers from Europe and Japan ensured the continuation of this lucrative crop.
For a few decades, São Paulo lived through a veritable coffee boom. Wealthy “coffee barons” moved to the city, where they built opulent mansions with the finest imported materials money could buy. They contributed vast sums to civic architecture and patronized the arts. Wisely foreseeing the day when the boom would fizzle out, they also invested in the region’s nascent industries, particularly textiles.
By the early 20th century, São Paulo —which for 300 years had remained a sleepy, provincial town—was becoming a bustling and somewhat grand metropolis with elegant parks and wide European-inspired boulevards. British, German, and French companies flocked to invest in the city’s infrastructure while immigrants from the rest of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia came in droves to work in the factories that sprang up in and around the city. As the population multiplied exponentially, commerce flourished and skyscrapers sprang up.
The nation’s automobile industry started in São Paulo, and by the 1940s the country was experiencing its first traffic jams. To clear space for the six-lane avenidas and viaducts necessary to (attempt to) ease the eternal congestion of vehicles, buildings were knocked down with amazing speed—and, unfortunately, complete disdain for historical or architectural preservation. By the 1950s, São Paulo was the largest industrial center in Latin America. In the 1970s, it had become the driving force of Brazil ’s “Economic Miracle,” a period of exponential economic growth that attracted a vast new wave of immigrants from Brazil’s poor northeastern states to the city (and its suburban favelas ).
Today, São Paulo state  still concentrates much of the nation’s industrial activities, while the increasingly globalized city of São Paulo reigns supreme as the most important commercial, financial, technological, and service center in Latin America. Currently, São Paulo state boasts a population of 40 million and an economy that accounts for 34 percent of Brazil’s GNP. Despite its relative wealth and pockets of extremely sophisticated First Worldliness, the same extreme social and economic inequalities—as well as severe problems ranging from pollution to urban violence—that plague the rest of Brazil are rampant. The only difference between São Paulo and a city like Rio  is that, to a visitor’s eye, these socio-economic extremes may be less immediately visible.