It was the French, not the Portuguese, who founded the city of São Luis. In 1612 a French colony 500 strong under the command of Daniel de la Touche, Sieur de la Ravardiere, established a fortress and city that they named in honor of King Louis XIII.

Ironically enough, almost 400 years later, French and other visitors flock to São Luis because its historic center, better than almost any city in Brazil, preserves the look and feel of a traditional Portuguese city.

The northeast coast of Brazil was a void on explorers' maps when the French colonists arrived. Though Portuguese cities farther south such as Salvador and Olinda were already thriving, winds and currents conspired to isolate this part of the coastline. It was quicker to sail from Olinda to Lisbon than it was from Olinda up the coast to Belém. The French hoped to take advantage of this gap to establish a successful commercial and missionary settlement before the Portuguese even noticed.

It was not to be. The Portuguese rallied, and by 1615 succeeded in driving out the would-be French colonists. Portugal took over the colony, but kept the name bestowed by the French.

São Luis's heyday came in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the city grew rich on the export of sugar, cattle, and especially cotton. Sometime in the 1820s, the fashion spread among São Luis's rich middle classes of covering their houses with Portuguese ceramic tiles. Not only were the blue, yellow, and green tiles ornate and beautiful, but they also reflected the sun and kept houses cooler. São Luis became one of the richest, most beautiful cities in the Northeast.

But in the late 1800s the Maranhão economy went into a steep decline. The end of slavery spelled the end of cheap cotton and sugar, while the city's tidal port grew too shallow for the new large ships of the steam age.

Marooned in an economic backwater, the center of São Luis -- tiles and all -- survived the 20th century intact. Restoration work on the city's old center began in 1989, culminating with the recognition in 1997 of the historic center of São Luis as a World Heritage Site.

Though still one of Brazil's poorer states, Maranhão has lately seen an upswing. With a new deepwater port, São Luis now serves as the export point for iron ore mined in the interior. Brazil's satellite-launching facility is located across the bay from São Luis near the city of Alcântara. Tourism is also a growing force in the economy, but remains very much in its infancy.

Visitors to São Luis can wander the streets of a beautiful colonial city without the crowds now found in Salvador. They can also savor the strong musical culture of São Luis, expressed in its love of reggae and in the yearly celebration of bumba-meu-boi.

Farther afield, there is the chance to visit the Lençóis Maranhenses, a desert of snow-white sand dunes whose low points are full of water -- truly one of the most intriguing natural landscapes in Brazil.