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Where to live in Brazil

From the north of the country with the Amazon forest on your doorstep to the modern cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, our article explores the many options expats are spoiled with when looking for a new home in Brazil.

Major cities


The federal capital city of Brazil only came into being in 1960, but has since become one of the most successful planned cities in the world. At the last census in 2010, the city had a population of 2.48 million, which is expected to almost double by 2030 as international and domestic migration continues as people move to the area for work. The city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 due to its innovative design and layout, which is often compared to a bird in flight.

Unlike many of Brazil’s larger cities, Brasilia is a governmental centre rather than industrial. While many national companies have headquarters there, the main industries of the city are either construction or services in government, finance and legal fields.

Known locally as ‘cerrado’, the tropical savannah climate of Brasilia is warm all year round, but not as humid as many regions of the country.

Brasilia has a reputation for being an affluent, safe place to live, especially in the central district. However, as the population increases, so do the satellite cities on the outskirts of the main city. As with Brazil’s infamous favelas in Rio de Janeiro, these areas are much poorer and more susceptible to crime.

São Paulo

With a population of over 12 million, São Paulo is not just the largest city in Brazil, but also its financial centre. Aside from its size and affluence, the one thing that São Paulo is well known for among expats is its cultural diversity. As well as large Italian and Japanese communities, the strong economy has also attracted Brazilians from across the country adding even more cultures into the mix.

With so many people, it is not surprising that traffic is one of the main concerns for expats moving to São Paulo. With millions of cars on the road each day, tailbacks can total 180km (112 miles) on an average day.

Despite its sprawling size, expats are likely to find that living in São Paulo could be significantly cheaper than other major cities around the world. The Expatistan (May 2018) cost of living database puts São Paulo about 50% cheaper than London, UK.

São Paulo enjoys a tropical climate. The Tropic of Capricorn passes directly through the city, but due to its elevation, the average temperature in the summer is a temperate 21C. However, the combination of humidity and pollution means it is common for a mist hangs over the city.

Compared with the laid-back lifestyle of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo is much more in line with other major industrial hubs around the world. This is reflected in the fact that almost 34% of Brazil’s gross domestic profit (GDP) comes from São Paulo alone. This vast economic success makes it a very attractive location for many expats, especially as many multinationals have offices in the city.

Major industries in the city include car manufacture, consumer products and technology-based industries, which are seeing an increase as the city moves from its traditional industrial base to service and IT-focused industries.

Rio de Janeiro

Surrounded by mountains, rainforests, beaches and perfect blue oceans, the idea of Rio de Janeiro is a romantic one for many expats and the city has earned the nickname ‘the Marvellous City’. But at the same time, Rio is a major cosmopolitan city with an estimated population of 6.45 million (2016). Due to its size and the number of tourists, expats may be able to get by speaking English, French or Spanish, although it is still worth knowing at least some key phrases in Portuguese, the official language.

After São Paulo, Rio has the second-largest economy of any Brazilian city and is home to the offices of major oil, pharmaceutical and media companies from around the world, making it an excellent environment for potential expats. However, this means that the job market is competitive for those who are not moving due to relocation within an existing company.

The change in culture that expats experience when moving to Rio can be vast. Locals are referred to as cariocas, and this term is not just for locals, but anyone who lives in the city and adopts its laid-back way of life. This can include a relaxed attitude to punctuality and a more physical and enthusiastic attitude to conversation than expats from Europe are used to.

One point of notoriety in Rio de Janeiro is the large amount of favelas, or shanty towns, that flow around the edges of the city and into the mountains. The geographical gap between the richest and poorest in Rio is almost non-existent as they effectively live side by side. Where possible, expats should be careful not to stray into the favelas due to the level of crime associated with them.

(Source: InterNations.)

Smaller cities


Known as the Model City, Curitiba, capital of the agricultural state of Paraná, is a highly structured metropolitan region with a population of 1.8 million people. It is one of the largest cities in southern Brazil; in a 2013 analysis of quality of life, income, education and health across the major cities of Brazil (known as the Municipal Development Firjan Index), Curitiba was named as the highest- ranking city.

After the innovative decision by mayor Jamie Lerner in the 1970s to pedestrianise six blocks of downtown, develop an express bus network and create green areas, Curitiba today is now a world-famous example of best practice for urban planners. There is an estimated 50 sq m (164 sq ft) of green space per person — in comparison to just two sq m  (6.5 sq ft) per person in Buenos Aires — and the city continues to innovate. The region is referred to by people from southern Brazil as ‘the other Brazil’ due to the high level of development it offers its residents.

While Curitiba is in a humid, sub-tropical region, its placement at 900m (3,000ft) above sea level makes it much cooler than other nearby towns and cities. With an average high of 25C, the temperature is likely to be comfortable for most expats from mainland Europe. Despite being forward thinking, Curitiba is still a local community, so while many people may know some degree of English, it is important for expats to be familiar with Portuguese to communicate effectively.


Nicknamed ‘Floripa’, Florianapolis is a municipality consisting of the mainland and Santa Caterina island. The mainland districts of Estreito and Coqueiros make up the industrial zone. The historic centre and popular Beira-Mar Norte region can be found on the island.

The area is known for its coast. With planning laws preventing buildings within 90m (100) yards of the 40+ beaches, the town makes for an idyllic location. As a result, it is no surprise that the cost of living is very high. Looking to rent for less than six months could prove expensive depending on the time of year, so expats should be sure to plan their move to avoid peak seasons.

There are two bridges linking the two sections of Florianopolis but it is the Ponte Hercílio Luz that has become a famous landmark. While no longer in use, it is an iconic part of the local skyline. Named after the mayor, the bridge opened in 1926 and was the first permanent connection between the island and mainland in Brazil. It remains the longest suspension bridge in Brazil.

The largest industry in Florianopolis is IT, which is likely to be ideal for many expats. Other than large hotels, much of the business is small and family-run, so unlike many of the larger cities in Brazil, there are far fewer people speaking English. This means that a good understanding of Portuguese is essential for those looking to stay for more than just a few days.

(Source: LonelyPlanet.)

Mild climate

Porto Alegre

Located in southern Brazil, Porto Alegre is a major port city and is popular with students and expats alike, thanks to its modern style and reputation as an education hub. Porto Alegre is home to one of the main international schools in the country, the Pan-American School of Porto Alegre, which is ideal for the city’s international population. The city also has two universities: the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (founded 1948) and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (founded 1934).

One of the largest cities in southern Brazil, Porto Alegre makes the most of its rural surroundings, producing local products such as meats, wool, rice tobacco and lumber in its industrial sector. There are also steel mills, a hydroelectric plant and an oil terminal representing the industrial sectors of the region. The city’s economic strength is demonstrated by its annual gross domestic profit (GDP) of R$30 billion (7.8 billion USD), more than that of Paraguay and Uruguay combined.

Due to its location on the eastern shore of the Guaíba River, Porto Alegre is the most important centre of inland navigation in Brazil, allowing for the transport of goods out to the Atlantic Ocean via both Lagoa dos Patos and Rio Grande. The sunsets over Lake Guaíba are a major tourist attraction, especially during the winter months. The Catedral Metropolitana is another popular attraction due to its architecture and links to the city’s early years.

Transport options are strong, with a metro system that runs through the suburbs and north of the city. In the city centre, an extensive bus network keeps the city moving.

(Source: InterNations.)

Belo Horizonte

Literally meaning “beautiful horizon”, Belo Horizonte is the capital city of Brazil’s fourth-largest state, Minas Gerais. It is a dynamic, modern city and a major economic hub built on the hillside. With an estimated population of 2.5 million in 2017, it is a big city but without the bustling feel of a metropolis. With no access to a beach, the city hasn’t been chosen as a home by many expats, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an excellent location to live.

Belo Horizonte, called Beaga by the locals, claims to be the bar capital of Brazil with some 12,000 in the city. A popular annual event is the Comida di Buteco competition, held in April, which sees the top bars compete in a number of categories and a public ballot to determine the winners.

Savassi, Funcionarios and Lourdes are all popular locations due to their proximity to the centre of the city, although the cost reflects this. Cheaper areas include Centro and Serra, both of which are also close to the city centre but are both less attractive locations.

Expats who are looking to move to the state of Minas Gerais should be aware of the variations in Portuguese used there compared with other states.

Northern Brazil

The north-east of Brazil retains a close connection to its regional culture despite the growth of cities in recent years. Significantly poorer and less modern than the south, it has never seen an influx of expats, but those that do choose the north over the south will be rewarded by the climate, culture and slow pace of life. While tourists may enjoy the cultural novelty, expats moving permanently will need be flexible and prepared to allow some time to adapt to this unique living experience.

The rich history of the region is a blend of African and Portuguese cultures, both of which are still found in daily life. While economically it is behind major cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the region’s economy continues to make significant, positive steps, especially in the regional capitals of Natal, Recife, Salvador and Fortaleza. With a GDP of R$1.5tn (400 billion USD), the north-east of Brazil alone is comparable with many other Latin American countries and has an exciting future.


Taking its name from the reefs along its shoreline, Recife is a vibrant cultural city and is the capital of Pernambuco state. Due to the number of waterways and bridges, it is sometimes referred to as the Venice of Brazil.

Aside from the beauty of the city, it is one of the most industrial zones in the northern regions of the country and has a population over 4 million, making it a great option for expats looking for work.


Known as the City of the Sun, Natal enjoys an average of 300 days with more than 10 hours of sunshine per year. NASA has also reported that Natal has the cleanest air in the western hemisphere.

The city is also home to Governador Aluízio Alves International Airport, which opened in 2014. Not only does this make Natal easier to reach, it is a demonstration of how cities in the north of Brazil are continuing to grow.


As Brazil’s original capital city and a major port, Salvador de Bahia (the capital of Bahia state) retains a blend of the nation’s varied history in its striking architecture. This history is also reflected in the culture, which is more Afro-Brazilian than many other regions, but also is touched by Portuguese influences that were established during the city’s founding.

The city today is well connected with an international airport and harbour. While there are many industries in the city (automobiles, chemical production and shipbuilding), most are focused on production and manufacturing.


With the Atlantic Ocean marking the northern and western boundaries and a tropical climate, Fortaleza is an increasingly popular location for tourists looking to enjoy the beaches, nightlife and restaurants. Despite an energetic town centre (Centro), Fortaleza does not have a large expat community, which should be considered before making the move.

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