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São Luís, Maranhão

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Rich History and Folklore in Northeastern Brazil
São Luís, Maranhão
Photo © Maurício Moreira/ Maranhão Turismo

São Luís (pop: 870,028) is the only Brazilian state capital founded by the French who ruled over some of Brazil until they were defeated by the Portuguese.

Founded in 1612, the city is named after French King Louis XIII. Later, it was also occupied by the Dutch, until the Portuguese colonizers took over.

While little material evidence remains from the French and Dutch periods, the historic downtown area, comprising over 3,500 buildings mainly covered with tiles in the manner of Portuguese architecture, was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.

A great number of Brazilian folkloric traditions as well as cultural expressions peculiar to Maranhão are alive and well in São Luís. The most important among them is bumba-meu-boi, a festive pantomime which takes place during June Festivals.

São Luís is also famous for recovering Carnival traditions that were fading away under the influence of Southeastern Brazil Carnival. Rhythms and dances such as tambor de crioula, or "the black woman's drum", which dates back to slavery times, are strong again in the city's Carnival.

Marafolia, the São Luís micareta (off-season Carnival), is one of the country's best and attracts thousands of tourists in October.

São Luís is known as Brazil's Reggae Capital. Cultural affinities between São Luís and the not-so-distant Caribbean turned reggae into a local passion with unique traits such as cheek-to-cheek dancing and distinct lingo.

Sound towers known as paredões, or "big walls" - some with dozens of speakers - are set up at clubs, on the street, or on the beach, and blast away during the city's constantly warm days and nights.

Projeto Trapiche, in Ponta d'Areia, Mama África, in Calhau, and Bar do Nelson, on Avenida Litorânea, are some of the best reggae bars in São Luís. Located in central areas, they are also safe options for tourists who want to enjoy the local reggae scene.

Some of the city's best beaches are Calhau, known for its sand dunes; Ponta d'Areia, with reggae clubs; São Marcos, good for surfing; and Praia Grande, by the historic district.

Museums & Historic Constructions

  • Casa do Maranhão (R. do Trapiche, phone: 55-98-3218-9955) - In a historic building, a museum dedicated to Maranhão geography and culture, especially bumba-meu-boi
  • Casa de Nhozinho (Rua Portugal 185, phone: 55-98-3218-9951) - Features the works of artisan Antônio Bruno Nogueira (Nhozinho)
  • Museu Histórico e Artístico do Maranhão (Rua do Sol, 302, phone: 55-983221-4537)
  • Also interesting: Teatro Arthur Azevedo, Casa das Tulhas, Palácio dos Leões.

Typical Food & Drink

No local dish is more famous than arroz-de-cuxá(pronounced "aHOZ de kooSHAH"), rice served with cuxá, a dish made from a slightly bitter vegetable called vinagreira, shrimp and various seasonings.

The state's signature drink is Guaraná Jesus (created in the 1920s by a non-religious pharmacist called Jesus Norberto Gomes). It's a sweet pink soda with some guaraná extract and a clover and cinnamon flavor.

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