Often referred to as the “Lisbon of South America”, São Luís is the capital of the state of Maranhão and is one of the largest cities in the Northeast of Brazil.
Considering how densely populated the metropolitan area actually is (it is home to 1,227,659 inhabitants), you will probably remain quite surprised by the empty streets, especially if you are walking around the Old Town at noon.
The main reason is the combination of high temperatures and high humidity, which is so typical for the equatorial areas of Brazil.
Despite the heat of 30-35 degrees Celsius in the shade, São Luís is very special.
It is dominated by old historical buildings, some of which date back to the 17th century.
Most of them are covered with a traditional Portuguese mosaic of colored ceramic tiles, known as azulejos.
For most travelers, a trip to Maranhão is a once in a lifetime experience.
That’s why it is advisable to visit and see as much as you can during your holiday.
Although the distances are very big in Maranhão, you should not limit yourself only to São Luís.
This part of Brazil is a land of exceptional natural beauty.
Here you will find some of the most exciting national parks in the country, unique landscapes and historical villages.
Here are some of the most important things you shouldn’t miss on a trip to São Luís and Maranhão.
1. Visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
Lençóis Maranhenses is the biggest landmark in the state of Maranhão and one of the most important tourist attractions in the Northeast Region of Brazil. Declared a national park in 1981, this place is unique.
It is a kind of coastal desert, which covers a 70 kilometers long section between the city of São Luís and the border of the state of Piaui.
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park covers an area of 155,000 hectares, and in some parts the width of this sandy desert exceeds 25 kilometers.
The landscape is extremely easily recognizable. It is dominated by huge golden-white sand dunes, diversified with thousands of lagoons full of crystal clear fresh water.
And although the distance between the capital of the state of São Luís and the national park is only a hundred kilometers, the combination between difficult terrain and deepwater rivers makes the distance much greater – almost 270 kilometers by road. It will take you about 4 and a half hours to get there, but the trip is definitely worth it.
2. Visit Palácio dos Leões
Palácio dos Leões is located right on the seafront, in the old historical area of São Luís.
Built in 1612, today it is the most beautiful building in the capital of the northeastern Brazilian state.
Built in neoclassical style, the palace has been modified and reconstructed many times over the years.
The last bigger restoration was completed in 2003. Today it is the biggest local architectural landmark and an important place to visit while in the city.
The exceptionally elegant snow-white palace is the seat of the government of the state of Maranhão.
As a result of its cultural and historical importance, the Palácio dos Leões is included in the World Heritage List of UNESCO .
3. Visit the Historical and Art Museum
The Historical and Art Museum of Maranhão (Museu Histórico e Artístico do Maranhão) is considered one of the top places to visit in the city.
It is housed in a beautiful historical building, which was built in 1836.
A number of very famous local politicians and entrepreneurs had been living here before the mansion was sold to the local government in 1968.
4. Experience the festival of Bumba-Meu-Boi
Bumba-Meu-Boi is a music and dance folklore event with deep traditions and over 200 years of history throughout the territory of Brazil.
Although it takes place all around the country, the festival of Maranhão keeps very old traditions.
This is the reason why in 2019 the local version of the carnival was included to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The dance and music performances take place in the second half of June every year, and the streets in the old historic center of São Luís serve as a stage.
Similar but smaller versions of the festival are held in many other towns in the state of Maranhão, in parallel with the main event in the capital.
5. Go to Praia de São Marcos in São Luís
São Marcos is the largest and most popular beach in São Luís.
It is located in the northern part of the city, and stretches along the shore of São Marcos Bay.
As the estuaries of several high-water rivers meet here, the waters along the shore are not very clear and limpid but rather have a specific dense grayish color.
However, low visibility does not bother kiteboard fans. The constant wind provides perfect conditions. In addition, here you will find also one of the two best kite schools in the state.
As it does not attract many sunbathers and swimmers, the beach is a great place for long walks.
The air is exceptionally clean and refreshing, and along the white sandy beach you can find numerous beach bars where you can enjoy a refreshing drink.
6. Don’t miss the beautiful Igreja da Sé
Igreja da Sé (or as it is also called – Catedral Metropolitana) is a spectacular temple located in one of the most beautiful parts of São Luís.
You will find it on the northern side of the small square Praça Dom Pedro II, in the Old Town, where many of the buildings are more than 100 years old.
Nowadays, Igreja da Sé is one of the most important sights of the city.
It took more than 80 years until the cathedral was finally completed in 1699. It is famous for its baroque altar and rich decoration.
Approximately 200 meters away is another important landmark.
This is Palácio dos Leões, which is the main government building in the state of Maranhão.
7. Walk along Avenida Litorânea
Avenida Litorânea is a beautiful coastal boulevard that São Luís’ residents often describe as the local Copacabana.
The background of white sandy beaches is complemented by a good selection of small beach restaurants and cafes where you can have lunch or drink a glass of fresh fruit juice.
Praia do Calhau (the beach that stretches along Avenida Litorânea) is one of the best city beaches in the capital of Maranhão.
For most of the year the beach is empty, which is why it looks really huge.
However, on weekends and public holidays, it could become overcrowded, and on such days even places in restaurants are difficult to find.
8. Take a photographic tour of the Old Historical Center
Aside from some of São Luís’ most popular attractions, many of which are also located in this part of the city, the narrow and unknown streets of the Old Town are a real treasure for connoisseurs of beauty.
A long slow walk through the quiet stone-paved streets should take a central place in your trip to the beautiful Brazilian city.
Don’t forget your camera, because here you will be able to take some amazing photos.
Added to the World Heritage List of UNESCO in 1997, this place is often called “Lisbon of Latin America”, and the association with one of the most romantic cities in the world is not accidental.
The rich decoration and traditional terraces of the historic buildings are very similar to those you can see in Portugal.
Many of the buildings date from the 17th century. There is also a slight French and Dutch influence, which makes the old town of São Luís even more unique.
9. Enjoy a day in Valparaiso Acqua Park
Considering the year-round hot climate and temperatures of over 30 degrees, Valparaiso Acqua Park is one of the most favorite and visited places in São Luís.
Here, amidst coconut palm trees and lush exotic vegetation, you can enjoy swimming pools, water slides and many other water attractions.
The best way to enjoy the park is to book your flexible tickets before the trip, and then visit the park at the most convenient time for you.
Once you get tired of games and entertainment, the park offers the opportunity to enjoy superb local cuisine and refreshing drinks together with your family and friends.
10. Go to Atins
Atins is a small tourist village, which in recent years has gained great popularity with lovers of ecotourism.
It is located approximately 170 kilometers from São Luís. Despite the relatively small distance, it takes about 5 hours (or even more) to get there by car.
However, it is highly recommended to visit it. The best option is to organize at least one or two nights here.
The village is located very picturesquely in the delta of the river Rio Preguiças.
It combines exotic tropical vegetation, mangrove trees and coconut palms with giant sand dunes.
Along the river banks you will find many beautiful white sandy beaches, and the river water is smooth and clear.
11. Try some kiteboarding
The smooth and calm waters of the river delta of Rio Preguiças near Atins, combined with the refreshing wind coming from the Atlantic, are the perfect combination for kiteboarding enthusiasts.
In addition, the weather conditions are fantastic all year round.
Atins is well-known for one of the best kite schools in the state of Maranhão (the other one is in the capital São Luís).
Here you will be able to find also very good instructors and will be provided with all the needed equipment.
If you want to practice outside the river delta, the lagoons of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park are the other great option.
They are located just outside the village and are known for their shallow and limpid waters.
12. Short trip to Mandacaru Lighthouse
While in the village of Atins, be sure to take a short trip to the small village of Mandacaru.
The settlement is located less than 5 km southeast, along the shore of Rio Preguiças.
The village is famous for its lighthouse, which is open for visits on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
Known as the Mandacaru Lighthouse, it reveals beautiful views of the surrounding area.
Built in the first decade of the 20th century, it allows you to enjoy a wonderful 365 degrees panorama of the surrounding plains from a height of 35 meters.
13. Go to Raposa and Dunas de Carimã
Raposa is a small town which lies on the outskirts of São Luís.
And while it is well-known for its fantastic seafood, the small settlement is worth a visit mainly because of its incredible natural beauty.
Located northeast of the settlement, Dunas de Carimã is a small sandy desert.
The entire surrounding area, however, is covered by lush and green mangrove forests.
Despite the closeness to the densely populated area of São Luís, this place is known for its rich biodiversity.
Except for its dunes and wetlands, the area is also known for its great beach.
Praia de Carimã is a nearly 13 kilometers long stretch of golden sands, which never looks crowded and busy.
14. Visit Teatro Arthur Azevedo
Teatro Arthur Azevedo is a beautiful building located in the heart of the old part of São Luís.
Surrounded by historical buildings with exquisite architecture, the theater was completed in 1817, after a year of construction.
The original name was Teatro União, and its current name – Teatro Arthur Azevedo – was given in 1920.
The theater can be visited as a museum during the day, and if you want to enjoy one of the productions, you should visit it in the evening.
15. Go to Praia do Meio
Your walk to Praia do Meio will probably be one of the most interesting experiences while you are in São Luís. This is a huge beach – flat, spacious and empty.
What makes Praia do Meio unique, however, is a small beach bar that has come up with an ingenious way to ensure convenience and comfort to its visitors.
You can park your car directly on the sand, right next to a canopy by your choice. After visitors take their seats at the table, the waiters come to take the order.
The advantage is that in case of sudden rain or on very hot and sunny days, you will just need to take two steps to the car, instead of looking for it in a remote parking lot.
16. Trip to São José de Ribamar
Despite being rated as the 4th most dangerous city in Brazil, São José de Ribamar is worth a visit, at least for one afternoon.
The settlement is located on the same island as the capital São Luís and is actually part of the agglomeration.
It takes about half an hour drive in the east direction to reach from the downtown of the capital to the outskirts of São José de Ribamar.
The settlement is known for its beaches, the most popular of which are Praia do Caúra, Praia de Ponta Verde and Praia de Panaquatira.
Except for its stretches of golden sand, São José de Ribamar is also known for its church.
It is called Igreja Matriz de São José and is the most beautiful building in the town. Completed in 1915, there is no way to miss or mistake the blue building with a red dome.
17. Centro Cultural Vale Maranhão – CCVM
Housed in a beautiful old two-storey building, Centro Cultural Vale Maranhão is easily recognizable by its tall doors on the first floor and terraces with floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor.
It is considered to be one of the most exciting places in the city, especially if you are looking for a place to enrich your culture and get to know this part of Brazil.
Centro Cultural Vale Maranhão is a place where various exhibitions of national and international scale are held.
Various literary and film productions are presented here too, so if you get acquainted with the program of the cultural center, there is a good chance to find something interesting for you.
18. Go to Igreja Nossa Senhora dos Remédios
The construction of Igreja Nossa Senhora dos Remédios began on June 16, 1719.
Nowadays, this is one of the most beautiful buildings in São Luís and the state of Maranhão.
Construction took almost 3 centuries, and the building was fully completed in the early 20th century!
The building is finished in Gothic style, with the typical narrow but elongated and pointed shapes.
The interior is finished in soothing cool tones and shades, including in white and blue.
19. Visit the Reggae Museum
Maranhão is considered the second most popular place in the world after Jamaica when it comes to the spreading of reggae culture.
It is therefore not surprising that here, in the capital São Luís, you will find one of the best reggae museums.
Museu do Reggae, as it is called in Portuguese, is one of the must visit attractions in the old historical center of São Luís.
Here you can find a lot of information about the development of reggae culture, as well as the most famous Brazilian and international artists in the genre.
20. Go to Alcântara
On the north shore of São Marcos Bay, about 15 km northwest of the capital of Maranhão, you will find a small historic town and municipal center called Alcântara.
Founded by French sailors in the 16th century, the settlement is easily accessible from São Luís and is definitely very interesting to explore.
To the town and back travel 2 boats in the morning and 2 in the afternoon.
This is the easiest and most convenient transport from the capital of Maranhão.
The town is well known for its beautiful buildings. The biggest attraction here is undoubtedly the ruins of Igreja Matriz de São Matias.
21. Enjoy a horse ride along the coast
One of the most recommended attractions in São Luís is to enjoy a wonderful afternoon horse ride along the coast.
This is a great way to experience the city, without suffering from the hot and humid weather outside.
In fact, a few people know that Maranhão is one of the 10 best horse ride holiday destinations in the world.
You will be able to discover the beauty of the tropical city as well as the natural wonders in the area.
22. Go to Santo Antônio da Barra
Santo Antônio da Barra is an important historical fortress built by the Portuguese in 1614.
The main purpose was to protect the coastal area of São Luís from invaders, especially from French sailors.
As one of the most important historical buildings in the state of Maranhão, it has been restored and preserved in a very good condition.
It is located near a quiet coastal residential area with tall buildings, but the place is spacious and nice to walk around.
23. Walk along the coast of Lagoa da Jansen
Lagoa da Jansen (or as it is officially known as Parque Ecológico da Lagoa da Jansen) is a beautiful freshwater lagoon surrounded by a ring of tropical vegetation.
The park covers about 150 hectares in northern São Luís.
The shores of the lagoon are a popular place for walking, cycling and recreation both for locals and guests of the city. To the northeast there is a vast green area covered with trees.
Parque Ecológico da Lagoa da Jansen is a place that attracts lovers of active lifestyles.
In addition to numerous tennis courts and other sports facilities, you can go boating or canoeing here.
24. Go to Barreirinhas
Despite it will take almost 4 hours to get to Barreirinhas from the capital city of Maranhão, the trip is really worth it.
Most travelers describe this place as one of the most beautiful in the state.
The town is an important tourist destination, especially if you are into eco-tourism.
It lies on the coast of a deep river, and the entire area is covered by lush vegetation.
The center of the town is a popular spot for recreation. It offers a number of bars and restaurants.
Here you can taste traditional meals in a relaxing setting. On the river bank you will find a fantastic stretch of fine golden sand.
25. Don’t miss Lagoa Bonita and Lagoa Azul
Lagoa Bonita and Lagoa Azul are the most important tourist attractions in the area of Barreirinhas.
They are located in the southern periphery of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park so they are very easily accessible from the town.
Lagoa Bonitas and Lagoa Azul are considered the best place to swim in the state of Maranhão.
They are deeper and wider than most of the other lakes in the national park.
Surrounded by fantastic white sands, Lagoa Bonita and Lagoa Azul are known for their irresistible turquoise colors.
The water is crystal clear and offers an incredible visibility under the surface.
26. Some kayaking in the area of Barreirinhas
Barreirinhas is a fantastic place if you are into kayaking.
The incredible beauty of the surrounding area will be a great background of an incredible journey into the wild.
You will find all the needed equipment in the town as well as a skilled guide to show you the best routes in the area.
Depending on your level of fitness, you can choose between a short walk and all day long adventure.
27. Boat trip from Barreirinhas
If you want to enjoy your walk to Barreirinhas to the full, you should consider joining a river boat trip.
This is a great way to reach some more remote areas, to take incredible pictures and to feel like a real adventurer.
After the expedition, you will be able to come back to São Luís full of impressions and emotions because the chance to see rare animals (birds, mammals etc) is very big, even without leaving the boat.
28. Visit Chapada das Mesas National Park
The distances in Brazil are often huge, even within the same state.
Such is the case with the Chapada das Mesas National Park, which is located more than 600 kilometers from the capital of São Luís.
In addition to being difficult to reach and isolated, another specification you should know before you go is that you need to contact a local guide if you want to visit the national park.
Considering the distance, the best way to visit this place is by plane.
Located in the remote interior of Maranhão, Chapada das Mesas is the perfect example of the amazing natural diversity of Brazil.
Covering an area of 159,952 hectares, this biosphere oasis combines woodlands and open grasslands, plateaus and vast plains, deepwater rivers, springs and beautiful waterfalls.
The variety of wildlife is also huge. Here you can find cougars, anteaters and many others.
29. Go to the waterfalls Prata and São Romão
Prata and São Romão are two of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Northeast Region of Brazil.
They are both within the borders of Chapada das Mesas National Park and you shouldn’t miss them while here.
The distance between the waterfalls is relatively small. Your guide will show you the places you can take the best pictures from.
30. Don’t miss Poço Encanto Azul
According to many visitors, the most beautiful place within the Chapada das Mesas National Park is the so-called Poço Azul or as it is better known – Encanto Azul.
Located at the bottom of a forested canyon and surrounded by overhanging cliffs, the lake lies at the foot of an enchanting waterfall.
The first impression of Encanto Azul comes from its crystal clear azure water and exceptional purity.
The best time to visit the lagoon is during the dry season, because after intensive rainfalls, the water needs a few days to restore its irresistible turquoise color.