Founded in 1726 and settled largely by Portuguese immigrants from the Azores, Florianópolis was a little more than a small fishing town until the early 19th century when, having benefited enormously from the region’s thriving whaling trade, it became the capital of Santa Catarina .
Most of the Centro’s charming pastel-hued buildings—those that remain—are from this era. Yet despite Floripa’s modern skyline and dynamic growth, this city of close to 400,000 still manages to retain a laid-back, small town flavor that is very appealing.
Floripa’s Carnaval has become one of the most flocked-to festivals of the South. Even Cariocas abandon Rio  to join in the festivities, which feature a significant gay and lesbian contingent. If you want to indulge, make sure you book accommodations far in advance.
Due to its compact size and relative lack of history, Florianópolis’s urban attractions are limited and can be easily seen in half a day.
Although most of Floripa—the historic and commercial center, the upscale neighborhood of Beira Mar, the airport, bus stations, and most hotels and restaurants—sits upon the western coast of the island, other bairros (many of them industrial) are located on the mainland. The island is linked to the mainland by two bridges—the Ponte Colombo Machado Salles and the Ponte Hercílio Luz. One of the world’s largest suspension bridges, the Ponte Hercílio Luz bridge was inaugurated in 1926. It has since become the city’s most recognizable landmark. The sight of this Golden Gate rival illuminated at night is quite enchanting.
Floripa’s few attractions are concentrated in the historic center. Across from the main bus station (site of the former port), a gracious building with a saffron facade houses the Mercado Público (Av. Paulo Fontes, 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat.) that dates back to the 1890s. Amidst the market’s colorful stalls and lively atmosphere are numerous patio bars and restaurants. Featuring live music and serving beer and shrimp, they serve as a favorite meeting point for Floripanos.
A pedestrian-only zone surrounds the market and the nearby Casa da Alfândega (Rua Conselheiro Mafra 141, tel. 48/3028-8102, 9 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat.), a handsome biscuit-colored neoclassical building from 1875 that used to be the city’s customs house. Today, it lodges a local artisans’ association where you can purchase traditional Azorean crafts ranging from ceramic bowls to delicate lace.
At the end of Rua Conselheiro Mafra is the city’s oldest square, Praça XV de Novembro, a lovely tree-shaded plaza whose focal point is a majestic 100-year-old fig tree. Among the restored historic buildings surrounding the square is an 18th-century palace that used to be the governors’ residence. Today it houses the Museu Histórico de Santa Catarina (Praça 15 de Novembro 227, tel. 48/3028-8091, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$2) which possesses a rather trivial collection of indigenous and colonial artifacts. However, the ornate interior, with its glossy parquet floors and elegant period furnishings, is worth peeking at.
Sitting at the top of Praça XV is the imposing Catedral Municipal. Although it cuts an impressive figure, few of its colonial features remain following a radical overhaul in the 1920s. The best preserved of the city’s churches, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Rua Marechal Guilherme 60) is perched a top a rather grand flight of stairs. Leading off Praça XV de Novembro, Rua Felipe Schmidt is the main street of a pedestrian zone that makes for pleasant strolling and window gazing.