Somewhat crumbling, but terribly charismatic, Maranhão ’s island capital has a flavor quite unlike any other of Brazil ’s northeastern cities. Its very origins are unique in that São Luís was the only Brazilian city to be founded by the French. While the Portuguese were busy taking care of business further east in Olinda, Recife, and Salvador , in 1612, French commander Daniel de la Touche sailed into the Bay of São Marcos with 500 men.
After erecting a fortress and forging an alliance with the local Tupinambá Indians, the French began building a city, which they named in honor of King Louis XIII. France’s foothold in Brazil was short-lived. It wasn’t long before the Portuguese got wind of the new colony, and by 1615, the French had been sent packing, the Tupinambá had been punished, and Portuguese settlers claimed the city as their own.
By the 18th century, São Luís was thriving as a result of cotton, sugar, and rice plantations whose great output was assured by Indian labor and vast numbers of slaves imported from Africa. The city boasted one of the Northeast’s busiest ports, and wealthy aristocrats and shipping magnates poured their riches into building magnificent palaces overlooking the Baía de São Marcos. To deflect the hot sun, protect against dampness, and simply to impress their neighbors, the upper classes plastered the facades of buildings with gleaming azulejos (ceramic tiles) imported from Portugal. The most traditional were embossed with intricate motifs in hues of yellow and blue.
Although its palaces and azulejos survived—albeit often in a dilapidated state—São Luís itself never fully recovered from the decline that followed the abolition of slavery and the demise of its plantation economy. Only recently have the city’s fortunes began to improve somewhat. The mining of iron ore in the interior coupled with an important aluminum industry and a new deepwater port have given a small jumpstart to the economy.
Meanwhile, in the later 1990s, the beginnings of tourism—combined with the recognition of São Luís’s colonial center as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—were instrumental in launching Projeto Reviver , a project that has been responsible for slowly recuperating São Luís’s architectural treasures and bringing its historic heart back to life.
Aside from cobblestoned praças and restored palácios, the city is bursting with cultural riches, a legacy of slavery that transformed São Luís—along with Rio  and Salvador —into one of the Brazilian cities where African religion, culture, music, and cuisine are still strong. This influence is apparent in the city’s many popular festas as well as the music that regularly fills the streets, be it the powerful drumming of tambores de crioula or the slower, more mellow rhythms of reggae.
Air fare to São Luís is not that cheap, but the alternative is long hours spent on buses. There are few direct flights from major Brazilian cities. You’ll often need to make a connection in Fortaleza  or Brasília . The Aeroporto Marechal Cunha Machado (Av. dos Libaneses, Tirirical, tel. 98/3245-4500), is 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the centro histórico. A taxi to the center costs R$35–40.
Long-distance buses to São Luís are much cheaper, but take forever. There is no direct service along the coast from Fortaleza—instead you have to go via Piaui and change in Parnaíba or Teresina (ultimately, you’ll spend 15 hours on the road). Coming from Recife, Salvador , or Brasília also usually entails a connection in Teresina. The long-distance rodoviária (Av. dos Franceses, Santo Antônio, tel. 98/3249-2488) is 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the centro histórico. A cab will cost between R$25–30. You can also take a municipal bus to the Terminal de Integração, the local bus station located along the waterfront at Praia Grande.