Although it was founded by the French in 1612 and has also been occupied by the Dutch in the past, São Luis remained a markedly Portuguese colonial city. The buildings with beautiful azulejo (tiles) walls and the cobblestone streets of its well-preserved historic center have been listed a World heritage site by UNESCO.
The city is roughly divided in two regions, divided by a river of sorts:
- São Luís proper with the center, Old Town and industrial and working class suburbs.
- São Francisco and its neighbours, which comprise a newer commercial district, all urban beaches, and many new high rise apartment buildings.
São Luis is also one of those places that have a distinctive culture of its own - typical cuisine, popular traditions and festivals and lively reggae parties that make the culture of São Luis stand out among Brazilian cities.
Bus station some 8 km southeast of the center, close to the airport in Avenida dos Franceses 5073 - right north of the intersection with Rua Tres. Telephone +55 98 3249 2488. The bus Socorrão 2 / Rodoviária(and others) takes you pretty straight to/from the waterfront of Old Town. Taxi about R$ 20. To Belem, 3 daily, 12 hours, R$ 127 (12/2013), by Boa Esperança and Transbrasiliana An exhausting 20 hours to Fortaleza by Guanabara
Distance to other important cities:
- Belém: 800 km
- Teresina: 450 km
- Fortaleza: 1.070 km
- Recife: 1.600 km
- Goiânia: 1.763 km
- Brasília: 2.160 km
- São Paulo (city): 2.970 km
- Rio de Janeiro (city): 3.015 km
- Porto Alegre: 3.890 km
- Chuí: 4.400 km
Train three times a week Marabá and others. The train station is in a street named: Companhia Vale do Rio Doce - next to Avenida dos Portugueses - some kilometers south west of the center. Companhia Vale do Rio Doce is the name of the company that operates the train.
- The bus 901 São Cristovão / Alemanha leaves from right outside the terminal (follow the signs) every 25 minutes or so, and takes about 45 minutes to reach Praça Deodouro in the city center (where you can hop on to get to the airport). Get off one stop after, on Rua do Passeio and walk down the pedestrian Rua Grande for 10 minutes to get to the eastern edge of Old Town.
- If the above bus is not about to leave, a faster way is walking for 10 minutes along the main exit from the airport. Keeping to the right you will see a Shell gas station. From here you take the bus Socorrão 2 / Rodoviária(or ask what other goes), pretty straight to the Old down, about 30 minutes. To get to the airport, a number of buses from the Praia Grande terminal pass by the Shell station.
- Taxis run at fixed prices, displayed at a table just as you exit fromluggage pick up: To Old Town R$ 30, to the beaches R$ 40.
Distance to other important cities:
Staying in the Old Town, most is walkable. There is a big bus terminal, Praia Grande by the sea side:
- T065 São Raimundo / Band Tribuzzi takes you to São Luís Shopping in about 15 minutes.
- 403 Calhau/Litorânea goes by all the beaches.
Many buses pass by the Praça Dedouro.
- Beaches. These all suffer from an enormous tidal variation, -reportedly more than ten metres on spring. On high tide there is no dry sand left. The most popular beach is Ponta d'Areia, -far nicer if you continue a couple of kilometers: The beach of São Marcos continues into the beach of Calhau covering a stretch of some 5 kilometers with plenty of simple bars and restaurants and a broad pavement by the road.
- Old Town is the main attraction of the city. Plenty of colonial architecture, but still quite needing of more refurbishing.
- Bumba-meu-boi - From 13 to 30 June - This beautiful folklore manifestation of Iberian origin is one of the highlights of the city's culture. It has been kept alive by the black people of São Luis and is performed by groups in costumes, telling a tale of a certain Bull through music, dance and theater throughout the city.
There is an art cinema in the Old Town, with a mix of Brazilian and weird imports.
The largest and most modern movie theatre, with 10 showrooms, is at the São Luís Shopping, mostly showing Hollywood fare.
There are three malls in the city with one of them being in the historic part of town. There are numerous shops that sell souvenirs. The city center´s main pedestrian mall is Rua Grande, which has most shops but hardware and foodstuffs.
Local dishes include Peixada(fish) and shrimp pie, and Arroz de cuxá -rice with herbs.
In Old Town:
- La Pizzeria. Real Italian style, probably the best in the state Pizza for 2 R$ 24-35. edit
- Toca da Amizade, Rua João Victal, Old Town. Serves late lunch. Set meals R$ 5-10. edit
- Dom Francisco, Old Town. Lunch R$ 20 per kilo, dinner a la carte. edit
Maranhão has its own version of the guaraná soft drink, called Jesus (nothing religious, it was the inventor´s name). It is pink and rather sweeter than the others. Many small bars around Old Town, but quite dead on Sundays, when most action goes along the beaches. Another area is along the Lagoa da Jansen, near the beach Ponta d'Areia. A third is on the beach of Calhau. Night buses go past these areas every half hour on weekends.
- Kabão, (On the seafront 2 km west of old town). Big open air edit
- Bar do Porto. Reggea spot by the boat terminal edit
- Bar do Nelson, (Near the end of Avenida Litorânea, Calhau). Weekends. Bar come club, mostly reggea, some live. Drinking on the street outside. Entry R$ 10. edit
- Pirata, Avenida Litoranea, Calhau. Weekends. As big as it gets in this city. Forró. Also quite a party on the pavement outside. Entry R$ 10. edit
Plenty of options within the Old Town, which is where most visitors wisely choose to stay. If you for some reason prefer a beach, Calhau has many pousadas (no budget options), beach bars and a few restaurants.
There is a youth hostel in Old Town that also offers singles, doubles and family rooms:
- Solar das Pedras, Rua da Palma, 127 - Centro Histórico São Luís - Maranhão - Brasil, ☎ 98) 32326694/32217191, . checkin: 14.00; checkout: 12.00. Dorm bed R$ 35 (30 with HI Card), Double R$ 80 (70 with HI Card),. edit
- Casa Franky, Rua Vinte e Oito de Julho, 394, (firstname.lastname@example.org). Old colonial townhouse (600m²) in the heart of the historic center offering lovely rooms, a swimming pool and free WiFi, free washing machine. The danish owner speaks English and knows the area really well. Single R$ 60, Double R$ 80, Triple R$ 100, Suite R$ 150. edit
- Pousada Internacional, Rua da Estrela, Old Town, ☎ +55 98 3231 5154. Single R$ 25 (35 in high season), Double R$ 40, shared bathrooms. This old time LP favourite seems to be pricing itself out.. edit
- Pousada Reviver, Rua de Nazaré, 173. Old Town, ☎ +55 86 3231 4465. Bright and clean, high ceilings. Shared bathroom. Kitchen. No breakfast. Double R$ 25 (35 in high season), also dorms and larger rooms.. edit
- Pousada Cantaria, Rua da Estrela, Old Town. Double with fan R$ 80. edit
- Hotel Lord, Old Town. Decadent Double with fan R$ 65, also air con.. edit
- Pousada Maranhense, Old Town. Here people mostly pay by the hour, but you might use it in emergencies. edit
- Pousada Beira Mar, (Right by the bridge). Basic, small rooms Single R$ 25. edit
- Praia Mar Hotel  - Nice rooms right on the beach, good food.
- Solar dos Nobres, (Southeast of the center), . Single R$ 50. edit
- Laundry at Lavamatic, upper end of Rua Ribeirão, R$ 9/kg, next day if you are lucky.
- Alcantara - Reached by an approximately hour long boat ride from Sao Luis. Timetables are not entirely stable as they depend somewhat on tides, bust mostly around 7 and 9 AM there should be a boat, R$ 10, with return in the late afternoon. Doublecheck at ticket office the day before.
- Lençóis Maranhenses through Barreirinhas