São Luís

Historical Center of São Luís

São Luís is the capital of the Brazilian state of Maranhão. It's known for its colonial Historical Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a common stopover for visiting the stunning Lençóis Maranhenses.


Typical tiled walls in São Luís

São Luís's people, history and culture is marked by a distinctive fusion of Portuguese, indigenous Brazilian and African elements, such as its highly popular local version of the Bumba meu boi festival, happening yearly in June and July. The reggae music from the Caribbean is also immensely popular in São Luís, often referred to as the "Brazilian Jamaica".


São Luís was founded by the French invaders in 1612, and taken over by the Portuguese in 1615. It was subsequently conquered by Dutch invaders in 1641, and finally, re-taken over for good by the Portuguese in 1644. The city prospered between the XVII and XIX centuries by means of export-oriented plantations (especially cotton) and slave trade. The city's Historical Center, a World heritage site, with buildings with beautiful azulejo (tiles) walls and the cobblestone streets, has been erected mostly during this era.

In the end of the XIX century, however, São Luís suffered from economic collapse due to the decline of cotton exportations. Only after the 1960s the city started to recover by means of government investments and iron exports, via the Vale do Rio Doce mining company. Tourism has also become an important part of economy, especially during the Bumba meu boi festivities, but tourism development is still hampered by several factors, including subpar infrastructure, lack of lingual proficiency of tourism workers, difficulties on preservation of historical heritage, and urban violence.


For a visitor, there are two main areas of interest in São Luís:

Get in

By bus

Bus station some 8 km southeast of the center, close to the airport in Avenida dos Franceses 5073 - right north of the intersection with Rua Tres. Telephone +55 98 3249-2488. The bus Socorrão 2 / Rodoviária(and others) takes you pretty straight to/from the waterfront of Old Town. Taxi R$ 25 from rodoviaria (fixed price), 25-30R$ taximetro from centro (12/2013). To Belem, 3 daily, 12 hours (more often 15-16h), R$ 125-160(leito) (12/2013), by Boa Esperança and Transbrasiliana An exhausting 20 hours to Fortaleza by Guanabara

By train

Train three times a week to Parauapebas via Santa Inês, Açailândia, Marabá and others. The train station is in a street named: Companhia Vale do Rio Doce - next to Avenida dos Portugueses - some kilometers south west of the center. Companhia Vale do Rio Doce is the name of the company that operates the train.

By plane

Airport some 13 km from the centre. Domestic flights by Gol, TAM, Oceanair, TAF (also flies to French Guiana) and Litorânea.

Distance to other important cities:

Get around

Street corner in the Historic Center

By taxi

Taxi is the the most popular means of transport for international visitors to São Luís. A trip between Ponta do Farol (near Lagoa da Jansen) and the Historical Center should cost about R$20 (as of Oct 2015).

By bus

Buses are not often used by tourists, except those on a tight budget. Besides being confusing and poorly mapped as in the rest of Brazil, buses in São Luís are also remarkably unsafe, with armed robberies on buses being commonplace. A single ride ticket costs R$ 2.60 as of March 2015.

The city's main bus interchange is located in the west of the Historical Center, at Av. Sen. Vitórino Freire. There, the following bus lines can be of use to visitors:


Historic Center

Palácio dos Leões
São Luís Cathedral

São Luís's Historical Center is certainly the city's main attraction. Founded in 1612 by the French, it has been gradually expanded until the XX century, incorporating mostly Portuguese architecture adapted to the local climate. The azulejo titles, with insulating properties, are an example of adaption to tropical climate. The place is a testimony to the city's past wealth as the home of the cotton aristocrats, although unfortunately, many buildings are currently in sorrow shape.


São Luís' urban beaches do not match the beauty of those found in other Northeastern capital cities, such as Maceió or Natal, neither are know for their cleanness. However, they are a still a nice place to experience Brazilian urban beach life. The city's beaches suffer from an enormous tidal variation - the sea reportedly recedes close to 1 km on some spots at low tide, and at high tide there is no dry sand left



There is an art cinema in the Old Town, with a mix of Brazilian and weird imports.

The largest and most modern movie theatre, with 10 showrooms, is at the São Luís Shopping, mostly showing Hollywood fare.


There are three malls in the city with one of them being in the historic part of town. There are numerous shops that sell souvenirs. The city center´s main pedestrian mall is Rua Grande, which has most shops but hardware and foodstuffs.


Local dishes include Peixada(fish) and shrimp pie, and Arroz de cuxá -rice with herbs.

In Old Town:


Maranhão has its own version of the guaraná soft drink, called Jesus (nothing religious, it was the inventor´s name). It is pink and rather sweeter than the others. Many small bars around Old Town, but quite dead on Sundays, when most action goes along the beaches. Another area is along the Lagoa da Jansen, near the beach Ponta d'Areia. A third is on the beach of Calhau. Night buses go past these areas every half hour on weekends.


Plenty of options within the Old Town, which is where most visitors wisely choose to stay. If you for some reason prefer a beach, Calhau has many pousadas (no budget options), beach bars and a few restaurants.


There is a youth hostel in Old Town that also offers singles, doubles and family rooms:

Mid Range

Stay safe

São Luís is one of Brazil's (and the World's) most violent cities. Although most of murders in the city are related to drug trafficking, violent assaults on tourists are not a rarity. The Historical Center area should be avoided during the night, and even during the day, avoiding displaying expensive possessions (such as professional cameras and smartphones), as well as avoiding narrow and poorly-lit streets, is highly advised.


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This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, October 14, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.