Things to do in São Miguel, Azores Island
Have you thought about a tropical getaway but want to try somewhere new? The Portuguese Azores Islands are a great intro into the archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There are nine Azores Islands, but the most visited are São Miguel and Terceira. Ponta Delgada, the main city in São Miguel, is less than 6 hours from New York. Azores Airlines offers direct flights from Boston, New York and Toronto, with stopover options for a few days on the islands before continuing on to Europe. We traveled during January and did not expect the lush, tropical landscape of the island. The Azores are a nature lover’s paradise with many ways to get outside and explore. From hiking to soaking in natural springs, the island has a little bit for everyone. You can take a ferry between the islands, but I will focus on just São Miguel for this post.
Now, let’s look at the top 10 things to do on São Miguel island, the largest of the Azores.
What is there to do in São Miguel?
The capital of Ponta Delgada is a great jumping off place for your adventures. The island is less than 40 miles long and while the winding roads means it takes a little longer to reach either end, it’s not a doozy of a driving day to explore all parts of the island. You can arrange each day to head to various parts of the island, so staying all the eastern side one day ensures you aren’t spending more time in the car than seeing the sights. I’d recommend renting a car in order to explore more of the island. If that’s not for you, then consider a tour from Ponta Delgada to see some of the highlights.
1. Sete Cidads and the Lagoa das Sete Cidads (The Seven Cities and the Lake)
The views over the Sete Cidades are some of the most famous in the Azores with the Blue and Green Lakes sitting inside the crater of an extinct volcano. A bridge divides the lakes and during a bright sunny day you can see the distinct colors. There are two viewpoints worth mentioning – Miradouro da Boca do Inferno and Miradouro da Vista Do Rei. Hell’s Mouth (Boca do Inferno) has one of the best viewpoints 1000m above sea level, with the trail starting just off the Miradouro da Lagoa do Canario. The trail to the viewpoint is only about 15 minutes and relatively flat for the most part.
2. Natural Springs
There are 4 natural springs throughout the island, spaced out in different directions that allow for one a day!
Caldeira Velha lies in the middle of the island along the winding road from Lagoa do Fogo. There is parking below the entrance (separate road). During the high season book your timed entry in advance. There are four natural pools, with some reaching temps of 100 degrees. Start at the coolest one in the back with the waterfall. It’s great for pictures and eases you into the warmer waters. There are changing rooms available, and entry is for two hours. Full tickets are €10, which includes entry into the thermal pools. Arrive early in the morning to avoid having to wait.
Ferraria on the west coast is a hot spring in the ocean! Swimming in the cove is free, but during the high season the parking lot has a fee. Follow the clear path toward the left down to the water. Be prepared for some zig-zagging. There is a changing room, showers and toilets on site about halfway down the cliffs. Pay attention to the tides before you go. It’s best to go about 1-2 hours on either side of low tide. During high tide the waters are too rough, and the hot springs barely affect the water temperature. There are ropes in the small cove, but exercise caution and swim at your own risk. Location: Ponta da Ferraria is located on the west coast of São Miguel, Azores just outside the civil parish of Ginetas. The GPS coordinates of the thermal baths are 37°51’29.9″N 25°51’08.1″W.
Terra Nostra Park in the Furnas dates back 1775 and includes over 2,000 trees, lush vegetation and beautiful gardens around the thermal pool and hotel. I would HIGHLY recommend wearing a black or old swimsuit as the yellow iron deposits in the water can stain your clothes. It’s easy to spend an hour exploring the lush plants and garden paths before coming back to the large pool. There are changing rooms and toilets on site. No swimsuits are allowed outside of the thermal pool area. Entry is €10 for adults and €5 for children (3-10 years old). They are open from 10 am to 4:30 pm daily.
Poca da Dona Beija is the last of the major hot springs and the only one I didn’t visit on my trip. It is also in the Furnas area, just inside the town on the eastern side of the island. Entry is €8 for 90 mins, but they are open into the evening from 8:30 am to 11 pm. There are changing rooms, showers and lockers available for rent.
Pro tip: Keep a towel, change of clothes and bathing suit in your car or on your person. You never know when you find a secret waterfall you want to dive into or when the urge to soak in a natural spring will strike. You don’t want to loose time and sunlight driving back to your accommodations.
3. Arnel Lighthouse
Visit the oldest lighthouse in the Azores at the Faro do Arnel. The lighthouse is only open on Wednesdays, but the stunning location means you should visit any day of the week. Be sure to park at the TOP of the drive along the main road and walk down the very steep hill to the lighthouse, or until you decide the trek back up outweighs any additional photo op! The extremely steep, winding road is not worth risking your rental car on the climb.
As you drive along the coastal road in the Nordeste, stop at the Ponta do Sessego Viewpiont and Gardens for lunch. The site includes charcoal grills, toilets and panoramic views. There are many local cats in the gardens being cared for by locals.
Just 5 minutes from Ponta do Sessego is another viewpoint – Ponta da Madrugada. The landscape is a bit more rugged, with wild trees and untrimmed shrubs, but the smaller crowds make it a good stop. There are also picnic tables and toilets here, along with more local cats.
4. Caldeiras das Furnas
The Caldeiras das Furnas are hot springs and mud springs that steam from a volcanic complex near the lake. The fumaroles, or volcanic holes, are also used to make the traditional Portuguese stew: Cozido das Furnas, which can be found at various restaurants in the Furnas area. Entry to the Caldeiras and Furnas Springs is €3 per person.
There is a wonderful, flat hike around the Lagoa das Furnas that winds along the water’s edge and into the thick forest. It’s a full 6-mile loop, but you can do an out and back at your own pace from the Caldeiras.
The beaches on the north part of the island at Ribeira Grande are great for surfing or kitesurfing. The long stretches of Praia de Santa Barbara and Praia Calhau D’Areia offer beautiful sunset views. Even in the off-season, the beaches are warm, and we sat to enjoy the waves for hours, though the surfers are in wetsuits! There is a surf school in the summer where you can rent equipment or get lessons.
6. Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake)
Views are hard to come by with the wind and cloud cover, but it’s worth the drive up the middle of the island to the Lagoa do Fogo. The lake sits in a volcanic crater and is one of the highest points on the island. You can travel to the lookout point – Miradouro da Logoa do Fogo and take the path down to the lagoon shoreline (about 30 mins down). Check the weather or go back a few times during your trip to catch a clear day! When we were there, it rained one day and was so windy the next! The low season’s weather is a bit unpredictable.
7. Chá Gorreana (Tea Plantation)
We loved this sight so much we went back two days in a row! The oldest and currently only tea plantation in Europe, Gorreana sits along the northern road between Ribeira Grande and Nordeste. Established in 1883, it’s still family run with free guided tours and a café offering complimentary black and green tea. The views are stupendous and a little other-worldly with cows freely roaming alongside the tea plants.
8. Ponta Delgada
Explore the old town of Ponta Delgada. You can choose to explore a little each evening after your daily excursions if you are based out of the capital city or spend a day wandering around the town. There are cute boutiques and restaurants along the harbor and in the town center, but don’t expect a plethora of tourist activities. You can walk along the waterfront to Forte de São Brás (the military fort). There are cannons and ship ankers along the outside walls and the Azores Military Museum inside. Across the street is the Holy Christ of Miracles chapel that dates back to the 17th century.
9. Whale Watching
We didn’t get a chance to jump aboard a boat, but whale watching from the islands is a highlight to be sure. April to June is the best time to see blue whales, but other whales and dolphins can be viewed year-round. Trips leave from Ponta Delgada. There are several 3-hour options here with trips starting around $50 per person.
10. Gruta do Carvão
The longest underground lava tunnel can be visited just outside Ponta Delgada. Gruta do Carvão extends for 1912 meters into three sections, with some parts of the tunnel just a few inches from the surface. The ancient cave was once used by sailors who dropped into the tunnels for entertainment, drink and accommodations. Guided tours of the small route are €8 for adults and €5 for children (7-14) and seniors (>65). Bookings are recommended in advance as tours are small groups, leaving 10:30, 11:30, 2:30, 3:30 and 4:30 daily. You can also do a longer visit with further entry into the tunnels for €20. Since it’s indoors, this complex is great to visit on rainy afternoons.
As you can see, there is a lot to see and do while on São Miguel island. I'd recommend spending at least 4 days on the island in order to see different parts of the island and explore the lush environment. The São Miguel beaches and hot springs make for a relaxing getaway!
Pro tip: There isn’t an excess of tasty dining on the island, so I’d recommend packing a lunch for each day’s excursions. There are grocery stores through Ponta Delgada to pick up a few things and many offer pre-packaged options.