Perhaps for lack of other options, São Luis takes tourism seriously. The city does an excellent job in several small museums presenting the culture and history of the region. Many of the museums in the old city offer visually attractive and informative displays, professionally presented by engaging and informative museum guides. Even better, most of them are free.
The Centro Historico
"The Historic Center of São Luis do Maranhão is an outstanding example of a Portuguese colonial town that adapted successfully to the climatic conditions in equatorial South America and which has preserved its urban fabric, harmoniously integrated with its natural setting, to an exceptional degree." So read the UNESCO declaration, giving the center of São Luis a World Heritage designation in 1997.
The centro histórico formed the heart of São Luis through the 19th-century boom years, but went into decline in the 1920s. Restoration started only in 1989, under pressure from state governor Jose Sarney, and continues to today. The neighborhood still lacks modern water and sewer systems. There is also controversy over whether the historic center should be a tourist enclave or a real residential neighborhood. After fixing up buildings, the state government wants to turn them over to owners with the financial wherewithal to maintain them. That rules out the poor and working classes who for nearly a century have made the neighborhood their home. It's a problem that has not yet been resolved.
The centro histórico sits on a peninsula, almost completely surrounded north and south by wide igarapés. Twice every 24 hours the tide sucks the water from the estuary, leaving the city completely cut off from the ocean. If this seems an odd place to put a seaport, recall that the French expeditions that founded the city were interested mostly in defense. The old city is effectively an island, protected by the tides from large warships and their guns.
The Reviver area, the oldest part of the old city, lies at the very tip of the peninsula, to the east of the Jose Sarney bridge. This area contains most of the centro histórico's museums, and interesting streets and monuments.
The best plan is just to go for a stroll. Numerous antique buildings have been renovated into museums or tourist attractions of one kind or another. The best are given separate listings below. But just as rewarding is the fine-grained texture of the old city, and the serendipitous discovery of a lovely colonial building covered in brilliant blue or yellow tile.
The best place to start a walk is by the Casa do Maranhão just opposite the ferry terminal to Alcântara. Unfortunately at the time of publilcation this excellent small museum about the bumba-meu-boi folklore was closed for renovations. It should reopen again sometime in 2010, so it's worth checking to see if it has. The Rua Portugal is just around the corner. This narrow, cobblestone street features numerous restored colonial buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, many covered in bright patterned tile. Close to the end of the street one comes to the Casa das Tulhas, Rua da Estrela 184 (Mon-Fri 6am-8pm, Sat 6am-6pm, Sun 6am-1pm).
Rua Portugual dead-ends at Rua da Estrela. This is the heart of the Reviver area. At night this wide, tree-shaded street is full of cafes and musicians. Parallel to Rua da Estrela 1 block farther in is Rua da Giz. This lovely colonial street serves as a kind of crossroads leading to many more of the old city's attractions.
Turn right on Rua da Giz and proceed uphill and you come to a small formal square, Praça Benedito Leite. The far side of the square is formed by the Igreja da Sé (tel. 098/3222-7380; Tues-Fri 8am-6:30pm, Sat 8am-noon, Sun 8am-noon and 4-7pm) and the Bishop's Palace. Just around the corner lies Avenida Pedro II, a broad ceremonial boulevard on which you find the Palacio La Ravardiere, which houses city hall, and the Palacio dos Leões, which was built on the foundations of the city's original fort, Fort Saint Louis. Guided visits through the upstairs salons of the Palacio dos Leões (tel. 098/3232-9789; Mon, Wed, and Fri 2-5:30pm) show furniture and oil paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, none especially distinguished.
Turn left on the Rua da Giz and you come first to the Centro de Cultura Popular, and then at the far end of the street to the pretty Convento das Mercês, and the Cafua das Mercês, which is now home to the small Museu do Negro (no phone; Tues-Fri 9am-6pm). During the slave era, the courtyard inside the Cafua was used as an enclosure to keep slaves newly arrived from Africa penned up before they could be auctioned. A whipping post is still in evidence.
Go straight uphill from the Rua da Giz and you come to Praça Joao Lisboa, a rather ugly central square, with the Teatro Arthur Azevedo on one side. Built in 1817, the neoclassical Teatro reopened in 2006 after lengthy renovations (guided visits Tues-Fri 2-5pm; R$3; tel. 098/3218-9000).
East of the Praça João Lisboa, the centro histórico becomes less touristed and more residential. Many of the buildings in this part of the centro histórico are just as historic and picturesque as down in the Reviver area, while the atmosphere is that of a working-class Brazilian neighborhood. In daylight hours it's a fine place to stroll and discover; however, at night it is best to be avoided. Highlights of this part of the old town include the Museu Historico e Artistico do Maranhão and the Mercado Central (daily 6am-5pm), the city's large public market, located at the far end of Avenida Magalhães de Almeida.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.