Halfway between Europe and North America lie the 9 islands of the Azores. No mass tourism here, instead the Azores are one of the best well-kept ecotourism destinations in the world! Up to now that is… Low-cost carriers like Ryanair have discovered the charms of the archipelago too, so it might only be a matter of a couple of years before the masses do.
I had the chance to visit the main island of Sao Miguel for a week. It’s an ideal place for hiking, but there are plenty of other things to keep you busy too! So, read on to discover the best things to do in Sao Miguel.
How to get to Sao Miguel?
Assuming you don’t want to spend hours in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll probably arrive on Sao Miguel by plane. The main airport to fly into is the capital Ponta Delgada. There are direct flights from Lisbon (Portugal), London, the USA and Canada to name a few. Airlines that serve Ponta Delgada include Delta Airlines, Ryanair and TAP Portugal.
What is the best time to visit the Azores?
European summer, between June and September, are the best months weather-wise. This will obviously be high season, but high season on Sao Miguel isn’t anywhere near high season in busy beach resorts!
Remember that the Azores are not a beach destination; people attracted to this part of the world are usually into nature and sustainable tourism. This said, it can get a bit crowded around the main attractions, but let this not deter you from visiting.
I visited mid-September and the weather was clement, a mix of sun and clouds, but hardly any rain. Sao Miguel being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean means that the weather can change very quickly!
As for how long you should stay, I’d recommend a week if you want to do some hiking and take in the main attractions without rushing around. The Azores are the perfect place for slow travel!
How to get around Sao Miguel?
If you want to visit the main attractions and do some hiking, there’s really no other option than renting a car. Public transport isn’t frequent enough and the main bus routes don’t serve the often off-the-beaten-track viewpoints and/or hotsprings.
The main car rental companies (Hertz, Europcar, Avis, …) all have an office at Ponta Delgada airport and prices are very reasonable.
Where to stay on Sao Miguel?
If you rely on public transport, then your best option is definitely to stay in the capital, Ponta Delgada. It might lack in natural attractions, but there are connections from here to other parts of the islands and plenty of restaurants for an evening meal.
If you are renting a car, then it doesn’t really matter too much, since the island is small enough. I stayed in an Airbnb on the north coast, not far off Ribeira Grande. It was close to the main motorway, so very handy for getting around to all the main attractions.
Another handy option would be to stay in Furnas, though I found that a bit too touristy for my liking.
The 10 best places to visit on Sao Miguel
Let’s face it, if you go to the Azores it’s probably because you are into nature. And what better way to truly appreciate nature than walking, right? Well, you’re in for a treat! Sao Miguel has numerous, well signposted trails to keep you busy for at least a few weeks! Whether you prefer lakes or viewpoints, countryside or city, Sao Miguel has you covered! Most walks are easy to moderate, so you don’t need to be hitting the gym every day to be able to complete them. Have a look at my favourite walking trails on Sao Miguel for some inspiration!
2/ Miradouro Vista do Rei
If a viewpoint is called “King’s View”, you know you’re in for a treat! Overlooking the green and azure-blue lakes of Sete Cidades, this is the poster child of the Azores and THE picture you will find in every tourist guide and on every postcard.
The legend goes that the King’s blue-eyed daughter fell in love with a green-eyed shepherd. The King wanted his daughter to marry a prince, so he was less than pleased with his daughter’s choice and forbid their love. The princess and the shepherd escaped into the fields to say goodbye one last time. The tears they cried formed two lagoons that would remain together forever and never part. One blue lake for the blue-eyed princess and one green lake blue for the green-eyed shepherd.
3/ Miradouro Boca do Inferno
From the “King’s View” to the “Mouth of Hell”! No idea why this stunning viewpoint got such a terrifying name. The view you get from this “miradouro” over the volcanic crater couldn’t be any more peaceful and impressive! On a sunny day, that is…
I’d recommend you to get there early before tour buses arrive, it wouldn’t be much fun with people queuing up to get to the vantage point. Allow some time to enjoy the surroundings too.
4/ Miradouro Lagoa do Fogo
Don’t you just love the poetic names of the main attractions on Sao Miguel? This one is translated as “Lake of Fire”. The lake is situated in a 30m deep volcanic crater and is Sao Miguel’s highest lagoon. From the parking area, take the steep path downhill and you’ll arrive at an unspoilt stretch of beach in about 30 minutes!
5/ Caldeira Velha
On the way to the Lagoa do Fogo and located on the northern slope of the Fogo volcano you can find several naturally heated pools and a waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation. The smell can be a bit overwhelming, but once you’re inside the soothing hot water, the sun in your face, you’ll forget about the penetrating smell straight away! Again, make sure to visit when it’s less busy, you don’t want to share your perfect peaceful moment with 10 other people soaking next to you.
Entrance is 6€, including the hot springs (price 2018)
6/ Dolphin and whale watching
Did you know that the Azores are home to almost a third of the world’s whale and dolphin population? Sounds like the perfect place to do some whale watching, right?
On a sunny, but brisky, morning I spent over 3 hours in the Azorean waters checking out dolphins and a family of sperm whales. Whale watching is big business in the Azores, so it’s good to see that most of the companies adhere to the Rules and Code of Conduct for Whale Watching, respecting the animals and their environment.
Most companies start from Ponta Delgada, be sure to book in advance as this is a very popular activity!
7/ Ribeira dos Caldeirões
Lagoa do Fogo, Sete Cidades, … you’d be forgiven to think that Sao Miguel is all about lakes. Exploring the island, don’t forget to check out the numerous waterfalls either. A good place to start is on the north coast, in Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeirões, a protected area that stretches along the stream of Ribeira dos Caldeirões. It is a beautifully laid out valley with watermills, waterfalls and tree ferns. The trails invite you to explore the lush surroundings.
Another waterfall, the Salto do Prego, can be found in the south-eastern corner of the island, when hiking from Faial da Terra.
The entire valley is a giant volcanic crater which last erupted in 1630. There is a lot to do in the area, so I’d recommend a full day visit for this.
The main attraction is probably the lake or “Lagoa das Furnas”. You can easily walk the whole circumference of the lake in about 90 minutes, but the main thing to look out for are the “fumaroles” or steam holes in which the famous “cozido das furnas” is cooked, a stew of boiled vegetables and meat. It takes about 6 hours before the stew is ready!
For the best view over the lake, climb or drive up to the Pico do Ferro. You’ll be able to see the whole valley and get a bird’s eye view of the lake and the crater.
The last stop in Furnas is situated within the village. The caldeiras are a series of hot springs and bubbling mud holes. Again the smell is overwhelming, I assume inhabitants become immune to it, but this is one of the best places to witness the volcanic origins of Sao Miguel.
9/ Visit a tea plantation
The Chá Gorreana plantation is the only remaining tea plantation in Europe. It is situated on the north coast of Sao Miguel and covers 32 acres, producing about 33 tons per year. I would strongly recommend a visit. You can learn about the manufacturing process and even better, have a leisurely stroll in the tea plantations on the other side of the road. Be prepared for some stunning views over the Atlantic.
On your way back, the only choice you’ll have to make will be to try either the black or the green tea (or both) .
10/ Ponta Delgada
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the island, but it’s hardly a metropolis. The seaside promenade is a nice enough place to wander alongside coffee shops, restaurants and the marine activity. You’ll automatically come across the city gates, the entry to the old town and the most interesting part of the city. There are a few churches that are deserve a closer look, a few markets and it’s generally a nice small-scale place to spend a few hours in.
If you rely on public transport to get around the island, then Ponta Delgada is probably the best place to base yourself.
I truly enjoyed the variety of attractions on Sao Miguel and could have easily stayed for another week. Do yourself a favour and take your time! Sao Miguel isn’t the place to rush.
Hope you enjoyed this Sao Miguel guide and found great inspiration on what to do on Sao Miguel! Have you been to the island? Or maybe to one of the other islands of the Azores? Looking forward to reading your comments!