The city of Sao Luis is usually not included in the itinerary of foreign visitors coming to Brazil. It's completely off the beaten path and yet it can offer some beautiful, although neglected historical buildings in the city center and world class, unique natural phenomenon you can find nearby - the spectacular sand dunes of Lencois Maranhenses. It was actually Lencois Maranhenses (take a look at my post about it) that brought us to Sao Luis. We also met some friends that we had known before and who lived in Sao Luis now. Thanks to this, we had a chance to explore this unknown city deeper.
First impressions of Sao Luis
Right before landing in Sao Luis, we could admire the aerial views of the endless rain forest and the delta of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, if you're lucky with the clear skies, you can spot the amazing lakes among sand dunes of Lencois Maranhenses - the view will take your breath away (check my photos here).
Right after the arrival, at the airport, we were greeted by the locals dressed in traditional costumes - it was the time right before the carnival - they were happy to pose for a photographs! Such a nice welcome into the city.
Safety concerns about Sao Luis
As we all know, Brazil is not the safest country in the world. Reading the government websites about safety in Brazil can give you goosebumps. But as an ordinary tourist, you are quite unlikely to get in trouble.
Right before we went out to the historic part of Sao Luis, we'd overheard a strange story of the other guests at the B&B we stayed at - they were saying they'd seen someone getting mugged, that they wouldn't go out to see the city anymore and had decided to stay in the hotel instead.
That really confused us and we were not sure what to do. Anyway, we thought - if we're here, we should see the city. We put the camera in an old, worn-out plastic bag in order not to draw any attention and left the hotel.
Sao Luis Old Historic Center
The historic center of Sao Luis was strangely empty, maybe because it was Sunday. There were very few people around which added to the weird feeling that something might not be right.
But luckily, all those premonitions turned out to be false and we started enjoying the walk in the old, narrow cobblestone streets. It's very easy to see the whole historic center on foot. As Sao Luis used to be a Portuguese colony, the architecture reminds of the typical Portuguese style of small towns, and a bit of a mix of Porto and Lisbon. Nevertheless, the beautiful, tiled buildings are neglected, the walls are crumbling and you can easily see that the city is not maintained properly. But surprisingly this doesn't affect it in a negative way - it just feels like a city that is really old - its run-down colonial houses do have their charm!
In the evening, the city became more lively with the locals (we failed to notice any other foreign tourists). Our friends recommended the pizzeria in the very old town and I must say it was one of the best pizza I'd ever had in my life!
Sao Luiz - The new city and waterfront
There's a huge contrast in Sao Luis everywhere, right where the old town ends, the streets become completely neglected and quite dodgy-looking. The ubiquitous, tangled wires reminds more of some Asian countries, like India or Nepal rather than South America. There are a few nice churches and other buildings which would be amazing if they received a bit of renovation works.
The new city around the waterfront is a different story - it's modern skyscrapers, fancy restaurants and beach bars are in line with other cities in the west. We had some exceptional meals and couple of drinks there - also, note that capoiera is very famous in the region so you're most likely to see some people practicing it in the parks and showing off their skills - it's amazing.
Around the seafront, you can spot some interesting monuments, like the Monument to the fisherman, for example.
The beach itself in the city wasn't too nice, to be honest - the color of water is dark gray, and emphasized by the cloudy weather didn't seem too attractive. Brazil has way more nice, paradise beaches (like Porto de Galinias and around Paraty which I'll describe soon).
Outside Sao Luis
As I've mentioned, Sao Luis was only our base for getting to the real unique wonder - the desert-like sand dunes and lakes of Lencois Maranhenses. It's hard to believe that such landscapes are actually possible in the tropical rain forest area so close to the sea. It's easy to get there from Sao Luis - if you wish to know exactly how, check my article about it.
Another place, nice for a day trip using public transport, is the town of Sao Jose de Ribamar which has a more countryside vibe and nicer beaches than the city center of Sao Luis. You can enjoy a local way of life here and visit the blue Church of Sao Jose de Ribamar which is beautiful.
If you liked this article, you can also download it via the GPSmyCity app - you will be able to gain access to the guide, which will direct you to all the attractions described above, even if you're offline. Download it here.
Author: Tom @ adventurous-travels.com
Copying without permission is not allowed. If you wish to use any of the site's content (photos or text) or work with us, please contact us.
We welcome questions, advice, support or criticism. However, spam comments will be removed.