The World Heritage-listed historic center of São Luís is an enchanting neighborhood of steamy cobbled streets and pastel-colored colonial mansions, some handsomely restored, many still deep in tropical decay. It’s a charming area with a unique atmosphere and one of the best concentrations of museums, galleries and craft stores in the Northeast; but unfortunately, a general sketchiness pervades some of these streets after dark. The city as a whole has a markedly Afro-Brazilian tinge to its culture, from its lively reggae scene to its highly colorful and unusual Bumba Meu Boi festivities. The trip across Baía de São Marcos to Alcântara, an impressive historic town slumbering in regal decay, is an added reason to put São Luís on your itinerary.
São Luís sits at the northwest corner of the 50km-long Ilha de São Luís, which is separated from the mainland only by narrow channels. The city itself is divided by the Rio Anil. South of the Anil, the Centro Histórico’s street grid rambles up and down over hilly terrain, with its heart in the lower area known as Praia Grande. North of the Anil are the more modern suburbs, as well as the city’s beaches stretched along the island’s north coast. The bus station is 9km southeast of the center and the airport 3km further southeast.
The widely available Roteiro e Mapa Turístico São Luís (R$7) is an excellent map and information guide to the historic center, but be forewarned: many street names will not match the street signs – it seems each new mayor likes to rename the streets to their liking.