São Francisco do Sul is the oldest city in Santa Catarina and the third oldest in Brazil. Situated on the island of São Francisco, it lies just east of Joinville and 200km north of Florianopolis.
The city features a very beautiful historic waterfront and is famous for its history, museum, beaches, sambaquis (shell mounts), nature trails and ecological reserves.
Note, however, that this is also a port city, and the local government has divested from tourism so not to discourage further investments in the port industry. Therefore, tourist information and support may be less than desired, and the historic waterfront and many tourist sites are not as well kept and funded as they should be. Cruise liners made stops in Sao Francisco do Sul around 2010-2012, but lack of local government support forced the companies to shut down operations to Sao Francisco do Sul. This also undermined many local resident efforts at establishing better restaurants, bars, cafes, and shopping for tourism, as well as the integration with tourist routes from Florianopolis and elsewhere in Santa Catarina.
The historic center is situated 45km east of downtown Joinville, accessed through highways SC-418 and BR-280. The trip usually takes about one hour, but expect delays due to heavy traffic during high tourist season (December - February), especially on Saturday mornings (and Sunday evenings on the return from the island to Joinville).
Note that the company counters and shops at the "new bus station" (rodoviaria nova) are not operational (as of February 2015) even though buses do drop off and pick up passengers there. The main stop for tourists and residents alike is still the "old bus station" (rodoviaria velha), which is little more than a bus stop with a bus company store.
The company Verdes Mares has regular service from the main bus station in Joinville (rodoviaria). These buses can also be taken on bus stops along its route (informed on the company website in Portuguese). There are "urban" and "highway" bus routes between Joinville and Sao Francisco do Sul, the former making more stops along the way. Check the company's website for detailed schedules (they do keep to the schedule). Tickets bought at the rodoviaria will include an additional boarding fee (2 or 3 reais), but may be purchased with credit or debit cards. Tickets may be purchased on the bus itself when boarding along its route without the boarding fee, but by cash only. Buses do not have toilets. The price is around 12 reais (as of February 2015). Note that the bus line to Sao Francisco do Sul itself stops at the new downtown area - the best stop to reach the historic downtown and to change buses to the beaches being the "old bus station" (rodiviaria velha). Note as well that you may take buses from Joinville directly to the beaches on the island (Barra Sul, Ervino, and Enseada), which will cost slightly more and extend the trip about 30 minutes.
The company Catarinense has less frequent buses to Sao Francisco do Sul and Enseada beach as well. These buses are somewhat more comfortable than Verdes Mares but cost slightly more (around 14 reais to Sao Francisco do Sul and 17 reais to Enseada). These buses do have toilets, and the company website has information in English. Check the company's website for updated schedules (they do keep to the schedule) and ticket prices. Tickets may be purchased online, at the bus terminals (rodoviaria), or on the bus itself. Note that credit and debit cards are not accepted for onboard purchase of tickets. Unlike Verdes Mares, Catarinense lines do not pick up and drop off passengers on bus stops along the way in Joinville, but they do make a few stops in other small towns along the way.
This is by far the most enjoyable way to make the trip from Joinville to Sao Francisco do Sul, and it also avoids delays during periods of peak traffic. The Barco Principe boat tour makes a 1.5 hour stop in the old downtown, and regular boat transport has been reestablished on January 2015 by the Marinebus company. Unfortunately, the Marinebus still doesn't have a fully functioning website and many hotels and taxis still don't know details about its schedule or operations (as of February 2015). Searching for "Marinebus Joinville horarios" will bring up some online newspaper articles that list the schedule . Tickets cost 12 reais and are purchased on the boat itself, cash only. In Sao Francisco do Sul, the boat leaves from the passenger boat terminal in the historic waterfront, and in Joinville the boat leaves from the docks (trapiche) in Espinheiro neighborhood (next to the place where the Principe boat docks). The Espinheiro docks are about 10km from downtown Joinville, usually taking 15 minutes by car (follow signs to "Barco Principe"), which may cost around 25 to 30 reais in a taxi. From downtown it is possible to take a bus from the main downtown terminal ("centro"), but first you must go to the "Tupy" terminal, and from there connect to a "Espinheiros" bus.
There are also ferry boats from Joinville and Itapoa, which cost less than Marinebus but provide much slower and less pleasant rides. These are not really used for tourism, but rather for transport by locals. The ferry stops in Sao Francisco do Sul at the far west edge of the Laranjeiras neighborhood, about 8km from the historic waterfront and with very few public transportation options from there. Therefore, this route is is not advised for tourism.
The historic waterfront (centro historico) can be best visited by foot. Arriving by boat or parking at the historic downtown will allow you to visit all the tourist sites within walking distance. Arriving by bus at the "old bus station" (rodoviaria velha) will require taking a local bus to "centro", a taxi, or a 2km walk that is not particularly beautiful or pleasant.
You can get from the historic waterfront to the beaches by car following the signs on the main highway. From downtown Sao Francisco do Sul to the tip of Enseada are about 22km, taking 20 minutes without traffic, and to the tip of Barra Sul are around 30km and 40 minutes. Note, however, that heavy traffic during peak hours (especially during tourist season December - February) may cause significant delays.
Local bus lines are operated by Verdes Mares, which features detailed schedules and bus routes on their website (Portuguese only). Buses may be boarded only at bus stops, fare may be paid by cash only on the bus itself, costing 2.85 reais (as of February 2015). You may take local bus lines to the beaches, and from the "old" or "new bus stops" you may also take an intermunicipal bus to Enseada (check schedules and details on the company websites, see "Get in" section above).
Historic Waterfront. The historic center of the city ("centro historico") features remarkable 18th to early 20th century architecture in Portuguese, Azorean, German, and Norwegian styles. Handicraft shops and restaurants specializing in seafood are also attractions. This area includes over 150 buildings, making it one of the largest collections of registered historical heritage sites in Brazil.edit
Museu Nacional do Mar. Tells the history of Brazillian navigation through replica model ships, included is the ship in which the navigator Amyr Klink sailed across the Atlantic from Africa. This ship had been removed for repairs, but Amyr Klink himself is moving to the city and expects to re-establish his boat and further support for the museum in the near future (as of February 2015).edit
Palácio da Praia do Motta. An 18th century building that was used as the seat of the local government and jailhouse, and now houses the municipal museum. It is not as well maintained as it should be, but it does include very interesting items, pictures, and other artifacts from the 18th and 19th century.edit
Forte Marechal Luz. Built in 1909 over the ruins of a much older fort, this fort is situated 17km north of the historic waterfront. It still features its cannons and historic structures, and provides one of the most beautiful views of the Babitonga bay. Every Saturday at 8am there is a ceremony of the changing of the flags, with the guards dressed in historical gear and firing a cannon round.edit
Mercado Público Municipal. The public market was built in 1900 and restored in 1976. It is quite small and more famous now for its architecture than its shopping. edit
Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora da Graça. Our Lady of Grace church. Construction began in 1768 on the site of a previous chapel built during the founding of the European village in 1642. Unfortunately, the church went through several expansions and transformations along the centuries, so it has lost some of its most interesting historical aspects. The construction was made using pulverized shells (from the sambaquis, shell mounds) and whale oil. The church also features a museum of religious art and sculpture.edit
Rhinow family mansion. Built in 1850 by German colonists, it was used during the early 20th century as a Lutheran kindergarten and school of German language. In 1986 it was declared a historic heritage site, but access by the public must be negotiated with the family, as it does not have a regular visitation schedule.edit
Görressen family mansion. Built in 1873 by Norwegian colonists, it features some of the most remarkable architecture of the historic downtown.edit
Prefeitura. The seat of municipal government. A modernist building from the early to mid 20th century that stands out from the earlier colonial architecture around it. Inside there are several black and white photographs of the city, including interesting views of the port under construction during the 1920s. edit
Sambaquis. Sambaquis are shell mounds built by pre-historic peoples from 8000 to 2000 years ago. The most accessible one forms the southeast limit of Prainha, but most of the sambaquis on the island (also the largest and best preserved ones) are in the Acaraí state park.edit
Barco Principe, . A yacht tour of the Babitonga bay, includes lunch on board (but drinks and deserts are paid separately, cash only), beautiful sights of the many islands of the bay, surrounded by mountains covered in some of the best preserved stretches of Atlantic forest remaining in the world. Boats leave regularly from the Espinheiro docks in Joinville. Check website for schedules and further details. There are price discounts for groups of two or more.146. edit
Pirate boat tours. There are pirate schooner replicas docked off the historic waterfront, which provide a fun tour for families with children, and beautiful views of the historic waterfront from the Babitonga bay (as the architecture was designed to be seen at its best).edit
Enseada. A very popular beach, featuring bars and restaurants, a promenade, traditional fishermen and shellfish communities, and beautiful sights of the surrounding mountains. The easternmost tip of the beach has very calm water, especially favorable for families with small children and the elderly. The beach underwent a significant clean-up effort in recent years, and the eastern part of the beach is in perfect condition, but some of the areas towards Ubatuba beach are not ideal for swimming.edit
Prainha. A smaller beach just to the east of Enseada, featuring some of the most famous and popular bars in Santa Catarina. This is considered one of the top ten surfing beaches in Brazil, especially due to the consistency of good quality waves. Local environmentalists precluded any pollution from ever affecting the beach, so it has some of the best water quality in Brazil. The beach is also the site of frequent gatherings of motorcyclists, eco-sport adventurers, and youth in general. It is located between a mountain and a sambaqui (shell mound), which is itself a major attraction. The sambaqui at Prainha also has a stone-age workshop, where the indigenous peoples would produce and sharpen knives and tools from 8000 to 2000 years ago.edit
Eco-tour of Acaraí State Park, . Established in 2005 after many years of struggle by local environmentalists, the Acaraí state park features over 6600 hectares of preserved nature, including the extremely endangered Atlantic forests (in its climax quartenary stage), river springs, sand dunes, mangroves, and sandbanks. There are hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fish and flora, some of which are endangered. Among them are giant sea turtles and anteaters. Some areas of the park are restricted to all humans, others restricted only to researchers, but much of the park is open to the public. The park also features dozens of sambaqui (shell mounds built by pre-historic peoples from 8000 to 2000 years ago), some of which are among the largest and best preserved in the world. Unfortunately, government funds allocated to the construction of the visitor center, belvederes, tourism boat docks, and for the maintenance of the nature trails have never been applied, so there is very little support infrastructure for tourism in the park.edit
Indigenous handicraft. The Guaraní-Mbyá people occupied most of southeastern Brazilian coast from around 2000 years ago until European colonization, having displaced the earlier shell-mound builders. There are five Guaraní-Mbyá communities in or near Sao Francisco do Sul, some of which are still struggling to gain recognition of their traditional territories. Having been expelled from their territory, made landless and forced into small reservations, they now survive on subsistence agriculture and handicrafts. They sell their crafts to local shops in the historic downtown, but sometimes you will also find them personally selling them on the sidewalks. Purchasing handicrafts directly from the indigenous peoples provides them more income, and it is not considered respectful to bargain for lower prices.edit
Museum cafe. Located at the exit of the Museu Nacional do Mar alongside its gift shop, this is by far the most comfortable and interesting bar and coffee shop on the island. Unlike beach bars, the Museum Cafe features an atmosphere of history, intellectuality, and Brazilian jazz. This is the gathering place for the city's cultural intelligentsia, and features live music on occasion.edit