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São Luís, a city on the west side of São Luís Island, was once called Saint Louis. The charming colonial town harbors a rich cultural mix.

In 1612, the year of the French invasion, noblemen Daniel de La Touche, Lord of Ravardiere, and Franҫois de Rasilly, Lord of Rasilly and Aunelles, landed here and named the settlement and its strategic river fort Louis XIII.

But French colonization didn’t last long: By 1615, São Luis was back in Portuguese hands. Its Portuguese legacy includes the original urban planning, by engineer Francisco Frias de Mesquita (1578-1645), and the tiled faҫades of the historic city center.

São Luis has undergone a long and successful government-sponsored restoration, Projeto Reviver. More than 3,500 large sobrado houses and other buildings sport faҫades of old fashioned Portuguese tiles called Azulejos along with the limestone cobblestones of the curbs and sidewalks. The opening of the José Sarney Bridge in 1970 revitalized the city by connecting the historic center to modern buildings and luxury hotels in the new part of town.

The crossing between the old and new parts of town, however, is complicated by poor signage and chaotic, heavy traffic. São Luis is 463 kilometers (288 miles) west ofTeresina and accessible by the BR-135 highway.


Map of São Luis Maranhão in Brazil

Map of São Luis Maranhão in Brazil

The Ponte José Sarney bridge spans the Anil River and is the portal to Nova São Luis (New São Luis). The area is chock full of skysc rapers, luxury hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls. Three newer bridges also connect the old part of town to the new neighborhoods.

The Ponta d’Areia, São Francisco, and Renascenҫa neighborhoods are home to the capital’s elite. While siltladen waters and high tides limit the appeal of the city beaches, worthy sunbathing spots include Ponta d’Areia, São Marcos, Calhau (which is known for its sunsets) , Caolho, Olho d’Agua, Praia do Meio, and Araҫaji.

Kiosks dotting the beachfronts serve fresh fish and crab. Don’t miss the caranguejada at Base da Lenoca (base is the local term for a restaurant that serves regional cuisine): eight steamed crabs with special seasonings and vinaigrette, served with rice and crispy bacon or baião-de-dois (rice and beans), and thickened pirão sauce.


São Luis‘ historic center exemplifies colonial-era Portuguese urban planning and architecture. It’s more than a living museum, however. The bustling old city preserves its heritage in a dynamic way, as people work and live there today.

The area’s museums, restaurants, bars, and stores cluster near the Praia Grande Market and the terminal Hidroviario (River Terminal), along the old streets Rua do Trapiche, Rua do Giz, Rua da Estrela, and Rua Portugal. If possible, visit in the afternoon, when all the main attractions are open. Even when they’re closed, though, the tiled colonial faҫades make a visit worthwhile.


Historic Center of São Luis do Maranhão

Historic Center of São Luis do Maranhão

Historic Center of São Luis of Maranhão

1. SÃO LUIS BUILDING: the three-storey, 19th century Edifício São Luis is said to be the largest tiled colonial building in Brazil. A fire destroyed the interior in 1969, but in 1976, the bank Caixa Economica Federal restored the building and opened a branch office inside. Rua Nazaré, at the intersection with Rua do Egito.

2. PORTUGAL STREET: these two blocks of tiled, colonial style buildings, bars, and cafes are the focus of the city’s nightlife. Rua Portugal becomes particularly crowded on Thursdays, when it hosts Dia de Festa, a celebration of varying musical styles that attracts some of Brazilian most famous musicians.

3. CASA DO MARANHÃO MUSEUM: this museum occupies the 1873 customs building and exhibits artifacts of the dance called bumba-meu-boi. The ground floor offers performances of the dramatized dance on a large screen, other televisions displaying Maranhão landscapes, and a gift shop. The first floor dedicates a room to each of bumba-meu-boi’s various rhythms (each is called a sotaque, or „accent“) and its instruments and costumes.

Other rooms explain the legend behind the tradition, explore the rehearsals, and demonstrate how the costumes are made. A visit takes about an hour. Rua do Trapiche, Praia Grande.

4. CASA DE NHOZINHO MUSEUM: this museum, in a three-storey house with French-tiled eaves, explores day-to- day life in Maranhão. The first fIoor exhibits farm equipment, primarily used for cotton cultivation – wooden pestles, seed grinders, and looms – as well as products such as cotton bedspreads and rugs.

Artifacts such as fish traps and a canoe carved from a tree trunk represent coastal life. The second fIoor houses works by the museum’s namesake, the famous toymaker known as Nhozinho; Antonio Bruno Pinto Nogueira (1904-1974) was born in Curupu.

The museum’s third fIoor displays artifacts of indigenous culture, with items representing eight ethnic groups that stiLl live in the state’s interior. Outside, life-size replicas depict traditional Maranhão houses, including some of carnauba wood and wattle-and-daub. Visits can opt to take a guided tour. Rua Portugal, 185, Centro.

5. DOMlNGOS VIEIRA FLLHO CULTURAL CENTER: also known as Casa da Festa (Party House), the Centro de Cultura Popular Domingos Vieira Filho honors a local folklorist of that name and exhibits material relating to folk rites and traditions.

The first fIoor is dedicated to religious practices in Maranhão. Its highlight is the section on Casa das Minas, a 19th century terreiro (temple) where people practice Tambor-de-Mina, a religion of African origin.

The second fIoor offers records of the Festa do Divino festivities, particularly those held in Alcantara. It also has space dedicated to the tambor-de-crioula, an Afro-Brazilian circle dance accompanied by drums. Christmas ornaments and artifacts fill the third fIoor. Bilingual guided tours can be arranged. Rua do Giz, 225, Centro.

6 MERCES CONVENT: in 1654, a sermon by Portuguese writer and rnissionary Father Antonio Vieira inaugurated the Convento das Merces, which subsequently housed members of the Spanish Mercedarian Order. Today the building is home to the Fundaҫão da Memoria Republicana (Republican Memory Foundation), which oversees the Memorial José Sarney, a collection of documents and objects belonging to the former president. Rua da Palmta, 502, Centro.

7. SÉ CATHEDRAL: using an indigenous workforce for labor, Jesuits built the Catedral da Sé and inaugurated it in 1699 as the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Vitória. On top of the subsequent name change, successive renovations have completely altered the original design. Today’s faҫade dates from 1922, and the main chapel ceiling was painted in the 1950s by João de Deus.

The altarpiece on the high altar, however, is a magnificent example of 18th century baroque. Its detailed gilded carvings, restored in the 1990s, are considered the city’s most beautiful.

The Iphan institute has protected the church since 1954. Avenida Dom Pedro II, historic center.


African-derived religions find widespread expression in Maranhão. A prime example is Tambor-de-Mina. This religion is similar to Candomblé, from Bahia, and Xango, from Pernambuco, but it has its own unique mythology. While the rituals and ceremonies vary from one temple to the next, they share a common feature: The practitioner invariably falls into a trance and becomes possessed by supernatural entities.

The orixás (deities) are associated with elements of nature, flavored with traces of popular characters from local folklore. One such figure is King Sebastião, from Lenҫóis Island, who is said to have built a castle on the bottom of the ocean for his beloved Princess Ina.

The largest and most traditional terreiro is Casa das Minas (Rua de São Pantaleão, 857, Centro), which was founded in the 19th century. Other temples are Casa Fanti-Ashanti (Rua Militar, 1158, Cruzeiro do AniI), and Casa Nago (Rua das Crioulas, 799, Centro).



The festas juninas refers to a trio of popular celebrations, for the saints John, Anthony and Peter, all held in June.

They take on a special flavor in Maranhão due to the richest expression of popular culture in the state.

Maranhão celebrates the buma-meu-boi more vibrantly than any other state. The tradition blends African, Portuguese, and indigenous influences in a ritual of theater, music and dance. The performance, inspided by the experiences of cattleranching slaves, tells the story of Catirina, a pregnant slave, who craves the tongue of a bull – particularly that of her master’s favorite bull.

Catirina summons her husband, called Pai Francisco, Nego Chico, or Preto Velho, to kill the bull and bring her the delicacy. He grants her wish, but, caught by his master, is ordered to revive the bull or die.

A pajé (medicine man) comes to his aid and orders the bull to get up and dance, whi ch the bull eventually does. Preparations for the performance begin in January; rehearsals begin in May. On June 23, the eve of Saint John’s feast day, the boi (bull) gets symbolically baptized outside the church.

The dances begin when performers present the bull- decorated with velvet, satin, beads, and sequins – to the public. Various sotoques (accents), or rhythms, are associated with the bumba-meu-boi. These include matraca, which is of indigenous origin; zabumba, which is predominantly African-inspired; and orchestra, which displays European influences.

But Maranhão’s folklore isn’t limited to bumba-meu-boi. Other significant traces are the Festa do Divino Espirito Santo festivities and dances such as tambor-de-crioula, danҫa-do-coco, danҫa-do-carouҫo, and danҫa-de-são-gonҫalo some of the most colorfull festivals of its kind in Brazil.

8. and 9. OTHER CHURCHES: the Jesuits and other religious orders have built bea utiful churches here since the founding of São Luís. After construction on the Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Praҫa João Lisboa, 350, Centro) began in 1627, the Dutch ran sacked the structure in 1641.

The Capuchins obtained it in 1894. Its impressive faҫade and main entrance prese rve the original design. According to popular legend, Igreja do Desterro (Largo do Desterro) stands on the site of the city’s first church, which got destroyed during the Dutch invasion. Donations from locals funded the current building in 1893.

10. and 11 FOUNTAINS: five jets of water spout from the mouths of gargoyles, fish, and deities in the Fonte do Ribeirão (Largo do Ribeirão, historic Center), built in 1796. The water comes from a spring beneath the old city that once supplied houses in the city center and ships docked in São Luís.

Legend has it that a giant snake sleeps beneath the spring and will one day awake to devour the city. A paved stone courtyard faces the fountain. The poorly preserved 17th century Fonte das Pedras (Rua de São João, historic Center), draws water from the springs that supplied Portuguese troops during their battle against the French.

Surrounded by a walled square, this fountain’s j ets spurt from the mouths of imposing stone gargoyles.

12. ARTHUR DE AZEVEDO THEATER: Teatro União, later renamed Teatro São Luís, opened in 1817. Since the 1920s, it’s been called Teatro Arthur de Azevedo. Closed in the 1960s, it lay in ruins until 1991, when a renovation restored its original splendor. Rua do Sol, 180, historic center.


Built by the French in 1612, the year the city was founded, Palacio dos Leões was originally called Fort Saint Louis. Today it is the seat of the state government. Of the original construction, just the São Cosme and Sao Danliao bastions remain but all the architecture has been restored.

A wing, that’s open to visitors, exhibits artwork from the collection of local playwright Artur Azevedo (1855-1908), including important canvases by Vitor Meireles and some pieces of 18th century furniture. Avenida Dom Pedro ll, historic center.

14. and 15. CULTURAL CENTERS: Centro de Criatividade Odylo Costa Filho, a popular cultural center, offers European movies, drama classes, and art workshops. It also houses the Sala de Leitura Ferreira Gullar library (Rampa do Comercio, 200, Praia Grande).

Casa de Cultura Josué Montello has an extensive collection of literature, history, and plays; it is open to the public and popular with researchers. (Rua das Horlas, 327, Centro).

16. MARANHÃO HISTORY AND ART MUSEUM: dating from 1836, the Solar Gomes de Souza became the Museu Historico e Artistico do Maranhão in 1973. Its collection of furniture, porcelain, and crystal recreates the splendor of the state’s 19th century residences. Rua do Sol, 302, historic center.

17. SACRED ART MUSEUM: the townhouse known as Solar do Barão do Grajaú was built in the early 19th century. Since 1991, it has housed the Museu de Arte Sacra.

The collections include religious statues and items used in religious plays, which were meant to spread the Catholic faith among indigenous people. Rua 13 de Maio, 500, Centro.

18. SOLAR DOS VASCONCELOS HISTORICAL CENTER: the Centro Historico Solar dos Vasconcelos illustrates São Luís‘ transformations through panels, photographs, and historical objects. The building is a typical example of colonial arc hitecture. An exhibit of scale models in cludes examples of boats used in the state. Rua da Estrela, 562, Praia Grande.

19. VISUAL ART MUSEUM: the Museu de Artes Visuais is a lesson on the European tiles that are a hallmark of Sao Luis. The 18th and 19th century tiles on the first floor are mostly Portuguese blue and white tiles, with some French, German, and English examples as well.

The tiles on the second and third floors are the work of artists, including locals such as Cícero Dias, Tarsila do Amaral, and Alfredo Volpi.

The third floor offers a fine view of the historic center, São Marcos Bay, and Praia Grande Market. Rua Portugal, 293, Praia Grande.

20. CAFUA DAS MERCES MUSEUM: this museum, also known as Museu do Negro (Museum of the African), was built on the site of the city’s slave market, and it was opened in 1975. The collection of statues, musical instruments, clothing, religious objects, and folk artifacts preserves Afro-Brazilian memories and culture. A replica of a whipping post stands in the inner courtyard. Rua Jacinto Maia, 54, Praia Grande.

21. and 22. PRAIA GRANDE MARKET AND ARTS AND CRAFTS CENTER: stores throughout old São Luís sell local products, particularly liquor, sweets, and handicrafts. Mercado Praia Grande (Rua da Estrela, historic center), dating from 1820, is a market at the Casa das Tulhas which sells tiquira – white manioc rum – and all sorts of fragrant grains and spices. Elderly men play cards or dominoes here, and on Friday nights the market is crowded. The arts and crafts market called Centro de Artesanato Ceprama (Rua São Pantaleão, 1323, Madre de Deus) sells hand-painted tiles, lace, and wood and fiber pieces from around the state.


History pulses through the streets of Alcantara, 22 kilometers (14 miles) west of São Luís. Ruins and standing buildings are interspersed along these streets, as if reflecting the rise and fall of this town, which was born in the early 17th century.

Alcantara grew through the following centuries, buoyed first by sugarcane and later by cotton. The town’s historic dependence on an enslaved workforce is evident in the large number of residents who are of African descent.

In the early 19th century, Alcantara was the area’s third most important town in the northern region, after Belém and Silo Luls. The end of slavery, however, caused economic decline in Alcantara, as it did in São Luís and elsewhere, and many of Alcantara’s buildings fell into ruin.

In 1948, however, more than three hundred historic buildings remained, enough for the city to be declared a National Heritage Site. The peace and quiet of the old Alcantara contrasts with the modern bustl e of the nearby space center, which opened in 1980.

The Centro de Lanҫamento (Launch Center), 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the town center, is not open to visitors.

Alcantara has poor tourist facilities, including a dearth of good hotels and accredited guides, so it’s best to visit on a day trip from São Luís. On account of bad roads, a drive between the two towns can take up to two hours. So, even though Alcantara is on the mainland, the best way to get there is by taking a 75-minute motorboat trip from the capital. Motorboats depart from the river terminal in São Luís to Alcantara daily at 7am and 9am and return around 5pm, depending on the tide. After di sembarking at Alcantara’s Porto do Jacaré port, go up the steep street of the same name to admire the view of the ocean and of Ilha do Livramento and Ilha do Cajual islands. Scarlet ibises nest on the latter island.


This blue-a nd-white-tiled townhouse was nearly honored with a visit by Dom Pedro II. When the emperor’s visit to Alcantara was announced, the Viveiros family, who lived here, prepared to receive him, as did the Ferreira family, who lived across the main square. But with the proclamation of the Republic, the trip was cancelled, and the townhouse became a footnote in history. The iron bed that was intended for the emperor’s use is neverth eless on display at the Viveiros house, which became the Museu Historico in 1977. The collection also includes a desk owned by jurist and former occupant Clóvis Beviláqua, as well as paintings, old photographs of the city, relics from Igreja de São Matias, and hollow wooden statues of saints once used to smuggle gold and precious stones. Praҫa da Matriz, historic center.


The Casa Histórica do Iphan exhibits items from the 17th to 19th centuries. Tiles, paintings, furniture, and porcelain are among the highlights. Praҫa da Matriz, historic center.


The ruins of Igreja de São Matias (Praca da Matriz, historic center) are Alcantara’s most famous sight. A chapel dedicated to Saint Matthias is said to have stood on the site as early as 1662. The construction of the church began in 1648, but it was never finished, and after 1884 the building fell into disuse. Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Largo do Carmo, Rua Grande, historic center) dates from 1665 and had its interior recently restored.

It boasts an exaggeratedly rococo high altar, sacristy, pulpit, tribune, and balcony. The Portuguese-tiled main nave contains old tombs. The main attraction of Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos (Largo do Rosário, Rua Doutor Silva Maia, Caravelas) is its high altar.

The church’s namesake, Our Lady of the Rosary, is the patron and protector of the black community in Maranhão (and throughout Brazil). The feast honoring Saint Benedict, a black saint, is held in front of th e church on the first full moon in August.


When the news reached Alcantara on May 13, 1888, that the Brazilian government had abolished slavery, people immediately tore down the whipping post in the central square, in front of São Matias Church. The hated symbol of slavery then vanished. When a team from the organization Projeto Rondon discovered and restored the object in 1948, the government declared the spot a national heritage site. The cylindrical stone colunm is almost 5 meters (16 feet) high and 40 centimeters (16 inches) wide.


The Festa do Divino Espirito Santo, honoring the Holy Spirit, is a Portuguese celebration that came to Maranhão from the Azores in the 17th century. Having incorporated various folk traditions, it has become one of Brazil ’s richest cultural events.

The festivities mobilize all of Alcantara, particularly its residents of African descent, for two weeks each May. The celebration begins on the Wednesday before Pentecost Sunday, with people carrying the 20-meter (66-foot) Mastro do Divino from the port to the main square.

The pole, a banner flying atop it, remains there until the end of the festivities. On the following day, Ascension Thursday, the mestre-sala leads a colorful procession, complete with women called caixeiras, who play snare drums, as well as an orchestra and flag-bearers, to the Casa do Divino. This house is the home of the festival’s reigning “monarch” who is an „Emperor“ one year and an „Empress“ the next.

He or she joins the procession, which travels to the Igreja do Carmo church for mass and litanies. After a coronation ceremony, a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is released. The celebrants then return to Casa do Divino, where a feast awaits: liqueurs, hot cocoa, cake, and doce de espécie. These traditional cookies are made from a recipe that the town’s bakers fiercely guard.

Throughout the celebration, various characters make appea rances. On the first Saturday and Sunday, the mordomo-régio (royal butler) receives the royal court and revelers in his house.

The next week, other „butlers“ do the same. Flower-decked bulls parade along the streets on Friday and are sacrificed on Saturday morning. Also on Saturday, the Emperor or Empress and the butlers make donations to the poor. On Pentecost Sunday, after a celebratory mass and lunch at the Casa do Divino (the outgoing monarch’s home), the crowd appoints the coming year’s Emperor or Empress.

São Luís travel guide and tourism information such as accommodation, festivals, transport, maps, activities and attractions in Maranhão, Brazil – Brazil Travel Guide

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