Historic Centre of São Luís

An outstanding example of a colonial town harmoniously integrated with its natural setting

UNESCO World Heritage

Historic Centre of São Luís (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

Traditions, culture and an incredible history are at the heart of the city of São Luís do Maranhão and its Historic Centre. The city was founded by the French in 1612,  later invaded by the Dutch and finally colonized by the Portuguese. As a result of these influences, the Historic Centre of São Luís was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

Upaon-Açu (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

São Luís do Maranhão is an unique city for many reasons. In addition to a rich history, culture and strong traditions, it is situated in an interesting geographical location on an island called Upaon-Açu, which is also home to three other cities.  

São Luís is also referred to as Brazilian Jamaica, Island of Love and Capital of Reggae. The city gained these names in the 1980s when this music became popular. Nowadays this is reflected in numerous bars and pubs that host live reggae nights.

Gastronomy (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

In its beginning, the capital of Maranhão had only indigenous huts made of wood and straw and it was almost untouched. It was home of the village of Upaon-Açu, where the Tupinambás Indians lived on subsistence agriculture and nature's offerings. These indigenous people lived in São Luís, but Brazil was divided into hereditary captaincies in 1535, when João de Barros first colonized the country with Portuguese people.

Then, in 1612, the French arrived in the city led by Daniel de La Touche or M. Ravardière, who had a French dream of occupying the tropics. Subsequently, there was a war between France and Portugal (determined to regain the territory). It ended in 1614 with the expulsion of French people the following year.

Historic Centre of São Luís (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

At the helm of a fleet of 18 vessels, the Dutch Jan Cornelisz Lichthart and Colonel Koin Handerson landed in São Luís around 1641. Their aim was to explore the land with the expansion of the region's sugar industry in mind.

The invasion frightened residents and resulted in the imprisonment of Portuguese noble Governor Bento Maciel Parente. The war between the Portugueses and Dutch began in 1642 and lasted until 1644, when the Dutch left the city of São Luís, completely destroyed.

Historic Centre of São Luís (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

São Luís is a living example of a melting pot of cultures. These cultures are evident in the architecture and in the many buildings of the town.

Palácio dos Leões (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

The Palácio dos Leões in São Luís provides a historical narrative of the city. It showcases  objects and in itself is an architectural masterpiece taking us back in time to when Brazil was colonized. Approximately one thousand pieces including French porcelain, tapestries, paintings, engravings and furniture, from the 16th to the 20th century, are distributed among the six public halls at the Palácio dos Leões.

Aerial view of the Palácio dos Leões (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage


In one of the halls, you can find Baccarat crystal chandeliers, a traditional 19th century French manufacture, chairs and tables with gold applications and 16th century style, porcelain and bevelled mirrors decorated with gold leaf flowers and leaves. Other exhibits include engravings from the collection of Maranhão theatrician, Arthur Azevedo.

Additional there is iconic art from masters such as Goya, Rembrandt, among others; the paintings by artists like Victor Meirelles, including his best known work “The First Mass in Brazil”, as well as works of art by other important Brazilians, like Aurélio de Figueiredo.

Façade of the Palácio dos Leões (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

This is one of the most visited places in São Luís, the Palácio dos Leões is located within the World Heritage site and listed as one of its component buildings.

Igreja da Sé (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

Another important monument in São Luís is the Igreja da Sé, a sacred place and symbol of a great historical event. During the 1615 conflict between the Portuguese and French which lead to the eventual expusion of the French from the Maranhão, the story goes that the outnumbered Portuguese soldiers asked for help from the Virgin Mary and their prayers were answered.  For this reason, the church was called Nossa Senhora da Vitória (Virgin Mary of Victory).

Inside the Igreja da Se.

Convento das Mercês (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage


Considered one of the seven treasures of São Luís, the Convento das Mercês is a fascinating site with tremendous history. Built in 1654, it’s an important cultural centre and also known as the former Convent of the Order of Mercenaries. 


Since 2012, it has been the home of the Brazilian Memory Foundation which houses a museum, library, art gallery, restaurant and an extensive document collection. It contains around four thousand works of art, including paintings, sculptures, decorative objects and pieces of sacred art. At the Padre Antônio Vieira Library there is a bibliographic collection consisting of 23,733 volumes, of which 3,217 are rare works.

A living city (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

The Historic Centre of São Luís is characterized by its urban grid of streets lined with residential buildings of various heights, many with tiled roofs, painted ornamented cornices, tall narrow windows set in decorated surrounds and balconies with forged or cast iron railings. 

Historic Centre of São Luís (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

Harmoniously expanded through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the historic centre is an outstanding example of a Portuguese colonial town adapted to the climatic conditions of Equatorial America, with traditional Portuguese architecture adapted to incorporate raised piers and shuttered, wooden verandas. 

Coastal avenue (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

The Historic Centre of São Luís do Maranhão is located on the promontory formed by the Rivers Anil and Bacanga, northwest of São Luís Island.

Beach (1997) by Historic Centre of São LuísUNESCO World Heritage

This is one of many beaches around São Luís.

The Historic Centre of São Luís is an outstanding example of a colonial town which has preserved its urban fabric, harmoniously integrated with its natural setting, to an exceptional degree.

Criteria

The Historic Centre of São Luís bears exceptional testimony to Portuguese colonial civilisation. It is an outstanding example of a Portuguese colonial town adapted to the climatic conditions of equatorial South America. 

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by Embratur: www.embratur.gov.br
More on Serra da Capivara National Park and World Heritage: whc.unesco.org/en/list/821
Photos: Embratur

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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