Historic Center of São Luís
Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, São Luís historic center is a perfect place to admire the Portuguese azulejos as well as other elements of colonial architecture. The capital city of Maranhão sits on a peninsula between two bays. It’s also known as the reggae capital of Brazil so if you’re looking for a show, Bar do Nelson is the place. Most visitors only stop briefly in the city on their way in and/or out, en route to trekking in Lençóis Maranhenses, one of the state’s (and Brazil’s) most famous national parks.
Why not stay a few days and explore? Here are some of the things to do while wandering in the historic center of São Luís.
One of the most monumental buildings in the old historic center is the Catedral de São Luís, or Igreja da Sé. It was constructed by the indigenous people in 1699 and sits in Praça Pedro II. The cathedral is one of the more well-preserved buildings in the city. Down the street is the governor’s mansion, Palácio dos Leões, which hosts tours and even has English speaking guides (that’s rare here).
Admire the Azulejos
The most famous architectural elements from the Portuguese colonial cities are, of course, the gorgeous azulejo tiles. You’ll find no lack of them in São Luís. They’re on almost every building, many with multiple differently designed tiles.
Enter a Jungle Infested Building & Admire Graffiti
Like all Brazilian historic centers (except Olinda) that I’ve seen, the historic center of São Luís is also crumbling, invaded by graffiti and slowly eaten by jungle. While I love seeing the old world in all its former glory, perfectly preserved like pristine European capitals, I’m also a big fan of this somewhat ‘ruinous’ aesthetic. In São Luís you can peak into many of the buildings and see they’re entirely full of vegetation; it’s not just ivy growing around the edges. It also speaks to the economic and political problems in Brazil, a country that is ironically ultra rich in resources, but continuously finds itself in crisis thanks to corruption and a, perhaps, too relaxed population (and I’m saying that with all the love in my heart).
At any rate, I can appreciate the mix of old and new… I find good graffiti to be interesting social commentary and I’m all for street art.
Have a Drink at a Bar or On The Street
The historic center isn’t terribly busy in São Luís and no one is really ever hassling you to buy anything. When someone did talk to me they were so surprised I spoke Portuguese that we spent the afternoon drinking in the plaza (typical Brazilians), though they did say it could get seedy in the area in the evening (everyone put all your valuables out of sight at 5pm).
Check Out the Central Market
If you do want to buy something, definitely go check out the central market where you can find all sorts of interesting and weird stuff. There’s everything from souvenirs and cachaça to regular groceries. I for the life of me can’t figure out how they stuff the crabs into these bottles.
Find a Capoeira Roda
I landed up in the center on a São Luís cultural celebration day on one of my visits into town. There was a giant capoeira roda of children and various bands performing in the plaza outside the cultural center SECMA.
Also stumbled into the Casa do Maranhão museum which had a number of exhibits on the state, its history, and São Luís, itself. It also had this awesome projection thing going on and I had waaaaay too much fun in there with my camera.
Another important building in the historic center is Convento das Mercês (which has a museum in it). There’s an interesting mix of objects in there, all taken care of by the Fundação da Memória Republicana Brasileira. São Luís has a number of other museums and I have to say I’m probably most disappointed I didn’t find the tree museum.
Day Trip to Alcântara
If you hang out in São Luís for a while, you can even explore a little beyond the peninsula. It’s a just a short boat trip to Alcântara, a charming little historical town, that the Portuguese used to launch their attack and conquer São Luís (which was founded by French and occupied by Dutch, before the Portuguese took interest).
Overall, I’d say São Luís is probably underrated and doesn’t show up on most tourists’ radars (because most foreigners only ever think of Rio). Sure, it needs some more investment, but São Luís has a lot of potential and plenty of party to offer.