7 things to do in Sao Luis – everything about Brazil’s hidden gem

The best things to do in Sao Luis

I have to admit: I didn’t know about Sao Luis before I planned my trip to  Brazil. Thanks to my friend that lives there that I didn’t miss it! On the internet, you will read many bad things about Sao Luis, which is the capital of Maranhao. It is even listed as one of the most dangerous cities around the whole world. Admittedly, it is not as safe as most Europeans city, however, you will never be in serious danger if you follow some tricks. I will talk about that more specific later in that post. Before I start with 7 great things to do in Sao Luis, here are

7 facts about Sao Luis:

  1. Sao Luis is the only Brazilian state capital founded by France
  2. The location of Sao Luis is special: On an Island.
  3. Due to its many poets, Sao Luis is also often called the “Island of Love” or the “Brazilian Athens”.
  4. The ancestral composition of Sao Luis, according to DNA studies, is 42% European, 39% Native American and 19% African.
  5. Because of the popular Reggae music, Sao Luis is also known as “the Brazilian Jamaica”.
  6. On average the sun shines over 2000 hours (2’312) every year in Sao Luis.
  7. Maranhao has its own pink and sweeter version of “Guarana” which is called Jesus.

7 Things to do in Sao Luis

1. The historic city center

The old city center is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of Sao Luis. Its style and houses reminded me of Lisbon, which makes sense due to it being part of the Portuguese colonial empire in the past. Striking was the condition of some of the buildings: They were run-down and looked really old. But that’s part of the charm of this place. It feels like you walk around an authentic old city, which is not perfectly renovated like most places in Europe are. To me, this was a special feeling that I really enjoyed. Whenever you make it there, the historic center should be one of the first things to do in Sao Luis. Deservedly, the Historic Center of Sao Luis is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. Once you are in the Historic Center, you will also find several souvenir stores and cafes, which are a perfect option to spend some more time.

Things to do in Sao Luis: Historic Center
The Historic Center of Sao Luis is a feast for the eyes.

 

Best things to do in Sao Luis
A local women walking around the historic city center

2. Bumba-Meu-Boi do Maranhao

Bumba-Meu-Whaaaaat? I know, this name sounds quite confusing at first. But Bumba-Meu-Boi is basically a cultural feast that is celebrated in Sao Luis for over 200 years.  The festival takes places in the Historic Center and turns it into a colorful, crowded area full of folklore groups. The center becomes a huge open-air stage with music around every corner. This event has nothing to do with the famous Carnaval, that you might know from Rio de Janeiro, but is not less spectacular. Unfortunately, I missed the festival, that occurs during the month of June. But I still saw some of the colorful decorations throughout the city and heard a lot about it from my local friend – so definitely a great opportunity to experience a less touristic alternative to the Brazilian Carnaval.

3. Try the local food

Brazilian food itself is already amazing and so incredibly tasty, but what I’ve eaten in Sao Luis just left me speechless. No matter what I tried: Pizza, Burger, Seafood, Churrasco and much more. Everything was just amazing! And you know what’s also amazing? The prices are really cheap, especially when compared to the huge metropolis Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. One of the most famous restaurants in Sao Luis is the “Cabano do Sol”, which served me some of the best meat I’ve ever had in my life. If you go there you should try the “Carne de sol de filé”, which is basically sun-dried meat. But to be honest no restaurant in Sao Luis disappointed me, so you will definitely find some great food there.

From Sao Luis to Lencois Maranhenses
Lencois Maranhenses is the highlight of Maranhao

4. A trip to Lencois Maranhenses

The Lencois Maranhenses National Park is definitely the highlight in the state of Maranhao and easily reachable from its capital Sao Luis. For me, this is a must-do on my things to do in Sao Luis! With its large and white dunes and the incredibly beautiful rainwater, you will have an amazing time there. The crystal clear water in Lencois Maranhenses alone was, for me, worth a trip. In my opinion, it is even one of the most beautiful places in whole Brazil. For all information, including how to get there from Sao Luis, you can check out my complete Lencois Maranhenses guide.

5. Monument of the Fisherman

Every day we drove past the Monument of the Fisherman, which is located nearby the city’s beach. It can be seen as a symbol of the city, as fishing was and is still an important part of many locals life, especially when you leave the city itself. I was lucky to get to a more remote place and talked with many locals (or at least, we tried to communicate :D) that still do fishing. It was a very interesting insight and added some power to this Monument for me. Apparently, I never made a selfie with it. So if you ever visit Sao Luis be sure to take a selfie with the Monument of the Fisherman and feel free to provide it for my blog!

Sao Luis beach
Sunset at the beach

6. Spend a day at the beach

First of all, I have to admit that the beach in Sao Luis was not the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. BUT I really enjoyed it. The beach itself is not touristic at all (I think I was the only person that had no tan at all, so probably I was the only tourist!) and has something, that makes it special. Locals like to spend their day in “beach restaurants”, where you sit, relax and talk with your friends or family. You can then order different dishes and drinks. I usually got myself seafood (the best crabs ever!) and coconut water, which I didn’t like before. Well, I left Sao Luis with an addiction towards coconut water. The water has a warm temperature but doesn’t have a really inviting color. In summary, I really liked my time at the beach of Sao Luis. And I almost forgot to add: The sunsets there are absolutely magical and the beach is one the best places in Sao Luis to enjoy it.

Things to see in Sao Luis: Beach Sunset
Best coconut water ever?

7. Leave the city: Explore

I already told you that there are some beautiful places outside of the city itself – and you should explore them if you have the chance. There are various tour providers that will take you on a boat ride – which I absolutely loved. On the small boats, you will get to remote beaches and lagoons that are just amazing. During the trip, they also provided us with drinks. As I went to one of these tours with my local friend and most of the organizers don’t speak English, I would recommend asking in the hotel you stay for specific tours. I’m sure they can help you out. Boat tours are definitely one of the funniest activities in Sao Luis.

Best things to do in Sao Luis: Boat tours
One of the remote beaches we explored on our boat tour

Safety in Sao Luis

Before I came to Sao Luis I was pretty concerned about the safety of the city. Of course, you can’t always trust reports on the internet, but Sao Luis seemed to be one of the most dangerous places in the world, also according to some official reports. I can already tell you the good thing: It’s not as dangerous as you would expect. But still, you have to be careful, especially when you are without a local, and follow some rules:

  • Don’t walk around at night
  • Take uber/cabs instead of walking around the whole city
  • Stay on the main places/streets
  • If someone wants to rub you: Give him what he wants (money)
  • Don’t walk around with expensive cameras/phones in your hand

Again, this sounds scarier than it is. The historic city center is safe, as long as you don’t walk around like the biggest tourist. You can take pictures and stroll around. It is absolutely beautiful there. In general, it is also safe to be there at night, as long as you know where you’re going. I wouldn’t recommend doing it. It happens that people get mugged when they choose a wrong place to walk around, but this can also happen to you in Rio de Janeiro or every other Brazilian city. My recommendation would be to rent a car or just take cabs (as they’re cheap anyway) to get around – if you’re not completely sure you can also hire a local guide. With my local friend I always felt safe – no matter if we were at the beach, the historic city center or even a bar in the middle of the night. The people of Sao Luis are, in general, some of the most hospitable I’ve ever met. Seriously, they are absolutely lovely and want you to love their city.

Read about my first impressions when I arrived in Brazil and how it changed once I experienced the reality here.

How to get to Sao Luis?

This is actually quite easy: Sao Luis has an international airport with both international and national connections. If you are doing a trip to South America or even Brazil it is easily reachable from several airports, such as from Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo. If you’re not a completely crazy adventurer this is actually the only route that makes sense, especially because driving long-distances by car in Brazil can be dangerous. Of course, I will not hold you back to do a 40-hour ride from Rio de Janeiro though ;D

Inside the city

Once you are in the city you can use public transportation (bus), which is not really recommended for tourists, or just take cabs/uber for affordable prices to get from A to B.

Don’t know how to find the cheapest flights? I tell you my best tricks to do it in this guide!

Accommodation in Sao Luis

Sao Luis is not only cheap when it comes to food, but also with its hotels. No matter if you are a budget traveler or you love luxurious stays, in Sao Luis, you will find a place for your needs. You can find an overview of all hotels right here. Two of the best-rated properties would be Hotel Luzeiros and New Friends Hostel.

Conclusion

To come to an end I will tell you a short and personal opinion about my stay in Sao Luis. Clearly, the city has a lot to offer and was very interesting. There might be cities with more tradition or more spectacular buildings. There might also be more beautiful beaches somewhere else. But what you can’t get in every city is the soul and almost untouched rough beauty of Sao Luis. It’s not a touristic city and some things are clearly not perfect. But at the end that was the point that made it so special to me. If you ever stay in Brazil I can highly recommend you visiting Maranhao with its beautiful places like Sao Luis and Lencois Maranhenses. And I hope the list of things to do in Sao Luis was a help for your own journey.

Let me know in the comments if you have been to Sao Luis and if yes, how did you like it? Otherwise, you should definitely put it on your list!

Best things to do in Sao Luis
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