Colonial Buildings of São Luis

Walking up and down the cobblestone streets of São Luis’ historical district is like stepping back in time. Beautiful 17th and 18th century Portuguese colonial buildings line the hilly streets. Located on an elevated prominence between two rivers, this Old Town has a unique and wonderful setting.

The port city of São Luis is steeped in history. It is located on an island between St. Mark’s and St. Joseph’s Bays (Baías de São Marcos and São José) whose waters spill out into the Atlantic Ocean. This strategic location was first used by the French who established a fort in 1612. Only three years later though, it was taken over by the Portuguese.

Old Town São Luis was established on the cliffs between the rivers Anil and Bacanga. Being on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean meant it was a great location for shipping goods to Europe and was originally used for transporting agricultural products. During the American Revolution it replaced US ports to become the primary port for shipping cotton to Europe. This new industry brought a lot of wealth to the city resulting in a population growth which led to the building of new homes, stores, warehouses and roads.

After the American Revolution ended, so did São Luis’ prominence in cotton. It lost a lot of wealth and many people moved out. Even though São Luis was a large centre for shipping, there weren’t many roads leading to towns in Brazil. This resulted in the city being mostly abandoned rather than destroyed or modified.

Since the city was left vacant for so long the cobblestone streets and many of the buildings are in their original condition. In fact, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is still laid out in a typical 17th century grid street plan.

Recently, the government and locals have begun slowly restoring this historical area. Before arriving in São Luis we read that only one or two streets had been restored, but were pleasantly surprised when we found the restored area to be much larger. We walked from block to block, up and down hills, passing many renovated colonial homes and buildings. Most were built in traditional Portuguese style with a few modification to reflect building supplies and the layout of the city. Even the ones that haven’t yet been renovated still show their beauty.

Many of the old buildings are covered in the original Portuguese azulejos. These colourful tiles make the buildings look very different from the Spanish colonial buildings we have seen throughout the rest of South America.

Elegant government buildings were built near the edge of Old Town on a cliff high above the bay. Palácio dos Leõe used to be the residence of the state Governor and is still used as government offices. Immediately beside it is Palácio de la Ravardière which is used today as City Hall. Across the street is the equally lovely Law Courts Building.

At the end of the street a lookout lets you see the meeting of the two rivers. Across the Anil River modern high-rises poke above the horizon. The newer part of the city is popular with Brazilian tourists because it has a string of beaches on its coast. We didn’t have time to explore the beaches, I guess we’ve left something for our next trip.

After visiting the beautiful theatres in Manaus and Belém (read our stories here Manaus, Belém) we were excited to see the theatre in São Luis. It was a nice building, but nothing in comparison to the other theatres we had seen. It was disappointing and didn’t even seem to be open.

Old Town is a hilly area and the cobblestone streets and stairs climb up and down the small hills. Some of the streets were so steep, it was difficult to walk downhill, especially in flipflops.

It wouldn’t be a Portuguese colonial city without a few churches. There are several in the area, but many were being restored at the time and were covered in scaffolding, but we managed to see a couple.

 There is no shortage of places to eat in the historical centre. Many of the buildings are now home to cafés and restaurants. Even though they were restored inside, it was nice to sit in one of the outdoor patios set up on the cobblestone streets.

On the edge of Old Town a lookout from the top of a new building provides another perspective of the historical centre. The view from Mirante da Cidade lets you see Baia de Sao Marcus, both rivers, the rooftops of Old Town and even toward the new section of the city.

Admission is free but you have to book a spot in advance on-line. We didn’t have any problems getting a spot even though it was the weekend.

Getting to São Luis

São Luis has a domestic airport with flights arriving from across the country. There are also buses operating between São Luis and major centres near by.

Where to stay

Although there are a lot of hotels in the new part of the city, if you are going to São Luis to see the historical centre, we recommend staying in one of the smaller hotels in Old Town. At night there are many choices for eating in the historic centre.

Coming Next – Dreamlike Views in Lençóis Maranhenses

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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