A Super Detailed Road Trip Guide For Sao Miguel Island (Azores)

January 7, 2024
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A Super Detailed Road Trip Guide to Sao Miguel (Azores) | Sao Miguel island is not a white sand lazy vacation...things to do in Sao Miguel, including stunning scenic viewpoints, hiking, waterfalls, whale watching, hot springs, pineapple & tea plantations, & so much more! Where to stay in Sao Miguel, Azores itinerary ideas, car rental in Sao Miguel, what to do in Azores. #azores #portugal #saomiguel #roadtrip

São Miguel is not your traditional island destination.  If you’re looking for a lazy vacation with white sand beaches and warm turquoise waters, this is not the place for you.

But if you’re looking for lush and rocky volcanic scenery, history, architecture, crashing waves, wild coastal views, geothermal springs, and an epic roadtrip experience??  Sao Miguel’s got you covered.

Things to do in Sao Miguel, including stunning scenic viewpoints, hiking, waterfalls, whale watching, hot springs, pineapple & tea plantations, & so much more! Miradouro de Santa Iria at sunset

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Why visit Sao Miguel?

Where else can you find stunning miradouro views, vivid blue hydrangeas, hot springs, waterfalls, lush greenery, pineapple plantations, cool architecture, amazing hiking, natural pools, world-class whale watching, and Europe’s only tea farms all in one compact little package?

The Azores are often called the Hawaii of Europe, which is probably unfair but gives a very helpful mental picture.  The tiny archipelago sits smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and has been inhabited since around 700-850 AD (originally by the Norse, then “discovered” by the Portuguese in the 1400s).

It’s a great destination for those looking for a more active vacation or a road trip with lots to discover.  It’s also great for US travelers wanting to visit Europe with fewer layovers and less travel time.  And its temperate climate makes it a good choice through most of the year.

A Super Detailed Road Trip Guide to Sao Miguel (Azores) | Sao Miguel island is not a white sand lazy vacation...things to do in Sao Miguel, including stunning scenic viewpoints, hiking, waterfalls, whale watching, hot springs, pineapple & tea plantations, & so much more!

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A detailed guide to Sao Miguel, Azores

Let’s start with getting there…the only real way to get to Sao Miguel is to fly, either on a tiny plane from one of the other islands, or as your main international arrival airport.  Sao Miguel and Terceira are the two main islands with international flights from both the US and mainland Europe, and what’s great is you can get there from the US without having to do a layover in Europe.

I flew United and landed in Ponta Delgada.  Getting through customs was quick, and then I found a legit ATM out in the main lobby (not one of those garbage Euronet ones, a real bank…Santander I think?).  The rental car counters are out in the main lobby as well, I’d booked an off-airport one which added a bit of time.

For departing Sao Miguel, you don’t need to get there too early for an inter-island flight…maybe an hour (or hour and a half, max), because it’s a tiny airport and there’s not a ton of seating.  Though security lines can be a bit slow, so don’t push it too much.

I was flying to Pico on SATA (the Azores airline) and was glad I’d booked a ticket that included a checked bag because the plane was tiny and my carry-on suitcase would def not go in the overhead.

walking to board our plane in Sao Miguel

This post contains some affiliate links. I may earn a small commission from any qualifying purchases through clicks on these links (which I greatly appreciate, and at NO EXTRA COST to you). All opinions are, as always, completely my own. 

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Getting around: car rental in Sao Miguel

Do you need a car in Sao Miguel, Azores?  I definitely believe you need a car to explore Sao Miguel as it gives you flexibility to adapt your itinerary based on weather (more on that later).  Car rental in Sao Miguel is super easy.  The driving is not necessarily *difficult*, but does requires you to really pay attention and streets in the towns are crazy narrow.

If you’re on a super short day trip and don’t want to deal with the hassle, consider a guided tour focused on either the Sete Cidades side, the Furnas side, or a full two-day tour if you’re just scared of driving.

I used DiscoverCars to book all three rental cars across the islands and would highly recommend them…good rates, no hassle, and they found me an automatic when no one else could.  I also always compare RentalCars.com and sometimes AutoEurope.  Finding an automatic car can be hard so book early!  Also, get the smallest car possible to drive the insanely narrow streets.

I had booked one of the off-airport rental companies, which I slightly regretted only due to it adding a bit of extra time (I had to wait like 15 minutes for a shuttle, then 10-minute drive to their office, then only one person working the desk so another 15-minute or so wait).

A few tips for driving in the Azores:

  • You can rely on Google Maps maybe 75% of the time but have to use your brain because it will sometimes insist something is a road when it’s not, or try to take you the wrong way on a one-way street.
  • Gas stations are NOT open 24/7…usually they open around 7:00am and often close between 9:00-10:00pm.  Also, they usually only accept debit/credit cards issued in Portugal, so make sure you have cash to fuel up.
  • Make sure you have good insurance!  I use my Chase Sapphire’s rental car insurance which has always served me well, but otherwise you definitely should take the extra insurance offered because there’s always a good chance of scratches or small dents, as well as flat tires.
  • Brush up on the road signs in Portugal before visiting, and make sure you understand roundabout (traffic circle) etiquette.  Same rules apply as in Ireland driving-wise except on the right side of the road (check out my guide)…that includes passing and pulling over etiquette, one-lane road/bridges, etc.
  • You’ll see these big bulbous mirrors posted everywhere…learn how to use them!  You’ll be turning out into traffic frequently and these are critical to see oncoming traffic and prevent accidents.

I also was reminded by Google Maps instructions that, as always, I have zero concept of what meters are… 🙂

Read my detailed guide to car rental & driving in the Azores!

A roadtrip is the perfect way to experience the stunning island of Sao Miguel, Azores

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Where to stay in São Miguel

Where you base yourself will depend on how long you’re spending on the island and the areas you most want to visit.  And if it’s more than a couple days, you may want to consider splitting up your time.

For most of my stay in Sao Miguel, I ended up basing myself in a beautiful, unique apartment called Herdade do Lameiro on the north-central coast, giving me easy access to the whole island.  I also really wanted to try out this stunning Santa Barbara eco resort, but they weren’t available on my dates.

Herdade was lovely!  The owner, Crispim, welcomed me and got me settled.  The apartment is next to the main house (which you see in the pic below).  It does have air conditioning (somewhat rare in the Azores, and very much needed!).  There’s a pretty pool and patio area and sweeping views of the fields and out toward the coast.

One note…if Google Maps tries to make you turn right coming out of the house, I wouldn’t bother with it. It thinks it’s technically a short cut, but it’s on dirt roads that are a little iffy.  I drove it and it’s doable, but I think it might be difficult in rain/mud.  If you just go left, your Google Maps will reroute and you’ll be fine.

Where to stay in Sao Miguel - the gorgeous Herdade do Lameiro

Consider a unique accommodation in Sao Miguel Azores, such as this rental Herdade do Lameiro

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Ponta Delgada is obviously a popular choice for basing yourself, and gives you easy access to lots of restaurants.  I only stayed in Ponta Delgada proper on my last night, before my flight home.  But I highly recommend where I stayed, the awesome Praia de Santos (pics below).  I also wanted to stay at Casa de Palmeiras but it wasn’t available for my dates.

Living room of Praia de Santos in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel

Where to stay in Sao Miguel - Praia de Santos

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What to pack

I visited in early September and it was SO hot….and humid!  I definitely didn’t pack enough cool clothes for the Azores overall.  I was dripping sweat constantly and it’s not uncommon for both hotels/rentals and cars to not have A/C.

I wished I’d brought more sundresses (a lot of mine are from StitchFix & I love this one from Amazon).  I had mostly brought lightweight, breathable stretchy travel pants (Athleta and these Eddie Bauer ones are my faves), lightweight sleeveless or short-sleeve tops, and alternated between my beloved cute/comfy walking sandals and my cute white sneakers.  I’d skip jeans (too heavy, don’t dry easily, and take up packing space).

Depending on how much hiking you’re planning to do and the time of year, you’ll want to make sure you have windproof and waterproof outer layers—the Azores have plenty of wind, fog, and rain!  I brought this super light rain jacket but didn’t end up needing it (this North Face is another great option, particularly in cooler times of year).

I wasn’t planning to do a ton of hiking so didn’t bother with much gear but did bring lightweight yoga pants (these and these are my faves), sports bra and tank top, and my running shoes that dry quickly.  Similarly, I didn’t plan to do natural pool swimming or waterfall hiking, but if you plan to then good hiking/water sandals are recommended.

And I brought a regular swimsuit because I didn’t plan to get in any hot springs (I’m not a huge fan) but if you plan to, bring a swimsuit that can get ruined (or a black one) due to discoloration from iron and sulfur in the water.

Don’t forget coral-safe sunblock if you’re planning to swim in the natural pools (see my favorite body sunscreens for travel and my fave face sunscreens).  I also relied on my my go-to natural non-toxic makeup (which does great in sweaty weather!), a headband (for keeping my hair out of my eyes in the wind), and polarized sunglasses.

girl smiling scenic view Sao Miguel, Azores

what to wear in the Azores - comfy shoes & lightweight breathable pants

Other Azores adventures to help plan your trip:

Everything You Need To Know About Car Rental & Driving In The Azores

Exploring the Vibrant, Medieval City of Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel

Sao Miguel’s Glorious Sete Cidades: Miradouro Vista do Rei & More

Steeped In Tradition: Visiting A Tea Plantation In The Azores

A Unique Taste Of History (& Wine!) On Pico Island, Azores

Where To Stay On Pico Island: The Unique, Beautiful, & Historic Casas de Incensos

How To Make The Most of a Day on Faial Island

…& more coming soon.  Check out all my Portugal posts here!

How to shape your Sao Miguel itinerary

Okay, first I’ll say that this post is a DOOZY.  Because there’s so much to see and do on this fairly compact island!  And due to the mercurial weather, you can only *plan* so much…you’ll need to research, have lots of ideas and priorities, but then make lots of gametime decisions.

Road trips are always interesting for me, because I see so much amazing stuff and I want to pull over and capture it, but I can’t because there are no safe places to pull out, and then I get frustrated.  Plus, I sometimes end up just going “quick hits” (here’s a cute town, stop, take a pic, move on) but miss really EXPLORING it.  I’m trying to get better about that but it can be a challenge.

Though it’s the largest island in the Azores archipelago, it’s still a fairly small amount of space to explore—yet, the first day really gave me a reality check on what I could do here in just 2 to 3 days.

Driving from one side of the island to the other takes between an hour and hour and a half, but the reality is that you’re stopping constantly for photos, and any kind of hiking or other exploration (e.g. visiting the hot springs) will take a few hours to a half day.

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - explore all the stunning miradouros - this one overlooks Furnas Lake

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So how do you best structure your Sao Miguel itinerary?  First, let’s talk weather and webcams!  We’re located in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, so the islands play host to several weather systems at the same time, creating all these microclimates.  So one part of the island might be warm and sunny, another part can be cold and fog-covered, so weather forecasts aren’t super helpful.

Enter, the webcams…you’ll want to download the SpotAzores app to see a real-time view of the weather in various towns and viewpoints around the island.  IT’S CLUTCH.  Below is a side-by-side comparison from Sao Miguel to give you an idea of how different areas can be at the same time.

Many of the miradouro viewpoints, lakes, scenic drives, and hikes are up high, so are prone to fog and cloud cover that can obscure the view (and be dangerous).  That’s why you can’t just determine your exact Sao Miguel itinerary ahead of time.  You have to be flexible.

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So now that you know how to monitor the viewpoints, you’ll want to think about how to group individual things to do in Sao Miguel.  Though it’s small-ish, you still can’t just ping-pong all over and expect to really see anything.  Here’s how I grouped the things I was hoping to see:

  • I was basing myself on the north-central side near Ribeira Grande, with Miradouro de Santa Iria, the tea plantations, and Salto do Cabrito waterfall (short hike, a bit steep).
  • The east side has Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego (and more!), Furnas, Furnas Lake, Salto do Rosal waterfall, Poca da Dona Beija hot springs, and Parque Natural das Ribeira dos Caldeirões (on the north side).  For my money, these are the best miradouros, and it’s beautiful at sunrise.
  • The west side has Mosteiros, Sete Cidades, Miradouros Vista do Rei and Boca da Inferno, Ponta da Ferraria (natural pools), and Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado.  And obviously, great sunsets.
  • My whale watching trip was in Vila Franca do Campo, which is south-central, and you’ll also find Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz (including an amazing viewpoint), Lagoa do Congro, Caloura, and Miradouro do Pisao.  I didn’t get to explore this area as much.
  • Lagoa do Fogo is truly central on the island, and has extremely fussy weather (that didn’t cooperate for me).  It’s supposed to be most beautiful at sunset.

I think my absolute favorites were Miradouro Vista do Rei over Sete Cidades, Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego, the whale watching trip (or anything where I can get out on the water), Miradouro de Santa Iria at sunset, and the view from Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz in Vila Franca do Campo.  I was also obsessed with the main church in Ponta Delgada.

I’ve put together a map to givey ou a sense of where everything is.  You can access the live map here (easier to view).

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A few other details for planning your time on Sao Miguel.  The east coast of the island is harder to get to than you’d expect, and just takes a long time.  For whatever reason, Google Maps always routes you along the north coast vs. along the southern coast, which really messed up some of my timings.  I’m not sure why though, it just doesn’t even give the option to go south from Nordeste.

If you have good weather (on the webcams) at Lagoa do Fogo, GO!!!  I never could find a clearing for that and its two best viewpoints, Miradouro do Pico da Barrosa and Miradouro da Lagoa do Fogo.  I was bummed to miss this, as it’s supposed to be one of the best things to do in Sao MIguel.  Dense fog tends to sit here, and so the views are notoriously fussy (and the drive can be dangerous).

If you end up with rain, I recommend shuffling things around and spending some time in Ponta Delgada.  Visit the pineapple plantations, get some delicious food, etc.  Or, go sit in the hot springs of Furnas since relaxing in hot water while being rained on can feel pretty cool.

And lastly, plan for some failures.  This is just a fact of life on road trips, in my experience.  There were some places I’d hoped or planned to visit that just didn’t pan out.  For instance, where Google Maps took me for Salto do Rosal (a waterfall hike) wasn’t remotely correct.  Figure out how much time you’re willing to spend trying to find something, then eventually move on.

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - stone house with hydrangeas

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A few additional tips for visiting Sao Miguel (& the Azores in general)

These are somewhat random, but here are some other things to be aware of.

  • Parking in Ponta Delgada is a bit messy, so it’s hard to just randomly stop for a quick coffee and keep moving.  There are a few public (paid) parking lots in the main area.
  • When you pay by credit card, you have to have to choose “2” to pay in euros and then “2” AGAIN to reject the conversion.  You want to do both of those (see my tips for paying for things overseas).  I just hadn’t seen the double choice before.
  • Generally speaking, I found things really affordable here, which was suprising as island nations are often pretty expensive just due to the logistics of importing everything.  But apparently Portugal is committed to making sure that food, gas, etc. coming from the mainland are affordable for the locals.
  • Bring tons of water bottles with you!  Like I said above, it’s hot and humid and I had trouble finding places to just stop and buy water.  So I took to keeping several bottles in my car and filling up whenever I could.
  • I ran into public restrooms rarely.  Make sure to go to the bathroom whenever one’s available (e.g. if you are at a cafe and buy a coffee), and keep some toilet paper on hand because sometimes the public restrooms don’t have it.
  • I was using Google Maps and taking so many photos, and my phone battery was STRUGGLING.  Make sure to have an external battery or two for charging up!
  • I recommend making dinner reservations whenever possible especially if there’s somewhere specific you’re wanting to eat.  Also, a lot of restaurants close for 2-3 hours late afternoon, so make sure you get lunch before things close.

typical blue hydrangea on Sao Miguel, Azores

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Things to do in Sao Miguel

So now that we’ve covered building our itinerary in broad strokes, I’ll dive SUPER deep into what to do in Sao Miguel, things to see, the best miradouros (scenic viewpoints), what I felt was skippable, and much more.  I’m goign to go in a somewhat logical order—a combination of the actual order I did them in, but also trying to group closer locations together.

Also, there were a handful of tour experiences that I didn’t have time for but want to mention.  This Portuguese gin & tonic masterclass sounded RIGHT up my alley, I love me a sunset sail, and I really wanted to snorkel with dolphins!!

Ponta Delgada

This is a no-brainer since you’ll be beginning and ending your visit here.  But how much time you spend will depend on your priorities and where you base yourself.  Sao Miguel’s main city is worth a few hours or even a day of your itinerary, depending on how much time you’re spending on the island.

The city began as a sleepy fishing village in the 15th century, and still gives off those vibes even half a millennium later.  I was thoroughly charmed by the impossibly-narrow decorative cobblestone streets and stark black-and-white churches that both trace their origins back to the 15th century.

The main square has Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião, which I was a little obsessed with photographing from various angles.  Just a few steps away, you’ll also find the Portas da Cidade (literally “city gates”) dating back to the 1700s.  This is a great place to start your explorations, and then branch out from here.

Here’s my full post on what to do in Ponta Delgada!

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - explore Ponta Delgada

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - explore Ponta Delgada

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - explore Ponta Delgada

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The city offers delicious food, a lovely historic harbor, and even a plantation growing adorable tiny pineapples.  I loved just wandering up and down the narrow streets and finding colorful buildings, interesting sidewalk tile patterns, and cool hidden street art.

I had dinner at Suplexio one night (delish burgers!) and snagged an early lunch at Louvre Michelanese, and recommend both.  Some others on my list were Doris Bar and Tã Gente for cocktails, and eating at A Tasca, Gastronomo, and Reserva Wine and Tapas Bar.

I’ve already done a full post on Ponta Delgada, so won’t spend more time on it here…check it out!

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - explore Ponta Delgada

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - explore Ponta Delgada's colorful buildings

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Visit a pineapple plantation

This is not the order I actually *did* these in, but I can’t leave Ponta Delgada without talking about visiting a pineapple plantation—one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel.  Here you’ll see how they grow the insanely cute tiny pineapples that the Azores are famous for.  I visited Arruda Plantation, and there is another pineapple plantation closeby that I didn’t visit, called Plantação de Ananás dos Açores.

It was free to enter and you can do a quick self-guided tour of the greenhouses (they also offer free guided tours).  There’s a pretty decent gift shop (I got some pineapple liqueur to take home) and a bar that serves drinks and some snacks—I got a piña colada and pineapple cake, naturally.

See more about visiting the pineapple plantation!

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - Arruda pineapple plantation

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - pina colada & pineapple cake at Arruda pineapple plantation

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - Arruda pineapple plantation

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Sete Cidades

What I ACTUALLY did from Ponta Delgada was check the webcams, and I saw that Sete Cidades had clear skies, so headed west along the coast.  And WOW, did I luck out with the most amazing blue skies and sun?!

The two lakes—Lagoa Verde (Green Lake) and Lagoa Azul (Blue Lake)—really come to life under the sun, so I recommend trying to catch a blue-sky day when visiting.  I drove the winding road up to Miradouro Vista do Rei, which has the easiest and most rewarding view of the lakes.

That also means it’s super crowded but it’s still at the top of my list of things to do in Sao Miguel, despite the drowds.  I couldn’t get enough of seeing the blue and green lakes spread out in front of me in all their glory, surrounded by lush greenery, puffy periwinkle hydrangeas, and bright blue skies.

I just stayed about 20 minutes to enjoy the view and get a bunch of photos, but you can also do a full-day hike down to the bottom of the caldera to see the lakes up close.  This was quite the welcome to the Azores!

Read all about how to visit Sete Cidades here!

looking over the Sete Cidades lakes from Miradouro Vista do Rei - Sao Miguel Island, Azores

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - looking over the Sete Cidades lakes from Miradouro Vista do Rei

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - looking over the Sete Cidades lakes from Miradouro Vista do Rei

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One thing to know is that Sete Cidades refers not only to the famous caldera (volcanic crater), but the whole area, multiple miradouros (viewpoints), and the town itself.

I tried to figure out where Miradouro da Grota do Inferno was, but failed.  Instead headed toward Miradouro do Cerrado das Freiras, to see Sete Cidades from a different angle (my deeper post on Sete Cidades has pics of that).

Then I briefly stopped by the cool Church of São Nicolau, a neo-Gothic church in the town of Sete Cidades built in the 1800s, and stopped for a quick lunch on the cute patio of Casa de Cha (formerly O Peojo).  I also drove through the lakes at “lake level” but to me I didn’t find them interesting…they’re just lakes when not viewed from above.

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - Church of Sao Nicolau in Sete Cidades

pineapple tart & white wine in Sao MIguel

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Part of what’s awesome about a Sao Miguel road trip is the scenery while driving…not just the individual “must-see” sights.  The pics below are from fairly close to the Sete Cidades viewpoints, and you can see how lush and kind of wild the greenery is.

Sao Miguel (like several of the Azore islands) is known for the insane amount of blue hydrangeas filling the island.  I was there toward the tail end of peak season and definitely saw some, but not nearly the amount of the flowers as I’d expected from my pre-trip research.

Car rental in Sao Miguel - the best way to do an Azores road trip

The famous hydrangeas of Sao Miguel, Azores

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Ponta da Ferraria

Since I’d started down the western path, I continued going around the island clock-wise.  Next up was Ponta da Ferraria.  I stopped in briefly at Farol da Ferraria, the nearby lighthouse, but was a bit underwhelmed.

The views were fine but I found much better elsewhere, and I don’t think you can go inside or learn anything.  To me, this is a “skip” on your Sao Miguel itinerary.

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - Farol da Ferraria lighthouse

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So I few minutes later I turned onto the INSANELY steep drive down to Ponta da Ferraria.  It kind of scared me but is actually doable as long as the road conditions are good.  If it’s slick I’d be cautious.  These natural pools are a formed by volcanic rocks and have a mix of hot volcanic water and cold Atlantic water.

If you time your visit with low tide, you can experience the fascinating clash of those two things (if your timing is off, you’ll just be fighting crowds in lukewarm water).  I’m told that the second low tide of the day (in evening) is the best time to visit, and you might get a bonus sunset view depending on the time.

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - the views from Ponta da Ferraria

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - the views from Ponta da Ferraria

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - the natural pools at Ponta da Ferraria

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I wasn’t planning to swim so it wasn’t the most productive stop for me.  There’s a little miradouro at the top but you don’t see the pools much…you do get a nice view back to the lighthouse though.

I loved the contrast of the black volcanic rock with the turquoise waters, and stopped in at the little bar to grab a water and use the restroom.

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - the views from Ponta da Ferraria

Things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - the views from Ponta da Ferraria

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Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado

Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado was easy to find as I continued along the coast toward Mosteiros.  It’s far less-known but is a great quick stop because it offers some pretty awesome sweeping coastal views.

You don’t need more than 10 minutes here, but definitely make sure to stop if the weather is clear.

Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado - a great stop on a Sao Miguel roadtrip

Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado - a great stop on a Sao Miguel roadtrip

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Mosteiros Beach

The views as I drove into the western town of Mosteiros were great, and I kept wishing there were places to stop and snap some photos.  The afternoon was waning at this point and I knew I needed to get a move on toward my accommodation, so this wasn’t a long stop.

Mosteiros is known for its black sand beach, and the three cool rock formations (sea stacks) out in the ocean.  It’s quieter and a little less touristy.  I had trouble finding street parking, but there’s a small dirt lot just past the beach if the streets are full.  Pull up a chair at the little bar overlooking the beach and enjoy the view.

I never could get back here at the right time, but sunset is supposed to be amazing here.  You can enjoy it here at the beach, or drive a bit further along (and further up) to Sunset Poço da Pedra for cocktails and a view.

What to do in Sao Miguel Azores - stop at Mosteiros Beach (for sunset!)

What to do in Sao Miguel Azores - stop at Mosteiros Beach

What to do in Sao Miguel Azores - stop at Mosteiros Beach

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Ribeira Grande

Located at about the center of Sao Miguel’s northern coast is the lovely town of Ribeira Grande.  It was only a few minutes from my accommodation so I walked around for a bit while waiting on my host to call me.

The traditional Azorean church Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Estrela is a stunner—a perfect example of the dramatic and intensely-decorated local style.

Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Estrela in Ribeira Grande, Sao Miguel (Azores)

Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Estrela in Ribeira Grande, Sao Miguel (Azores)

Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Estrela in Ribeira Grande, Sao Miguel (Azores)

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I also enjoyed a short walk in the Jardim Municipal de Ribeira Grande, which has walking paths, trees, and some little bridges.

There’s also a scenic viewpoint (Miradouro do Castelo) in town that I didn’t get a chance to visit.  I’ll talk about a couple other nearby attractions in a minute.

Jardim Municipal de Ribeira Grande

Jardim Municipal de Ribeira Grande

Jardim Municipal de Ribeira Grande

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For some coffee and pastries in the morning, I stopped by A Merenda a local bakery with a wonderful assortment to choose from.

Pastries in Sao Miguel, Azores

Pastries in the Azores

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For dinner, my host recommended Restaurante Maré Cheia, a small local favorite.  The drive from Ribeira Grande to the town of Porto Formosa features achingly, beautiful coastal views, and I was able to find parking in a small lot just before the restaurant.

The service was very warm and welcoming. My waitress brought me a platter of fish to pick out my dinner for the night…I think the one I chose was called cantaro?  I believe it was that pink one on the left.

Restaurante Mare Cheia in Porto Formosa, Sao Miguel

fresh fish in Porto Formosa, Sao Miguel

sunset in Porto Formosa, Sao Miguel

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My meal was very simple and VERY delicious.  I got some green sangria (made with viñho verde) to start with, and enjoyed some broth-based fish soup.

Then they brought out my whole fish, cooked very simply but well.  The whole meal was *chef’s kiss*.

things to do in sao miguel,sao miguel azores,what to do in sao miguel,sao miguel island,car rental in sao miguel,sao miguel island azores

things to do in sao miguel,sao miguel azores,what to do in sao miguel,sao miguel island,car rental in sao miguel,sao miguel island azores

things to do in sao miguel,sao miguel azores,what to do in sao miguel,sao miguel island,car rental in sao miguel,sao miguel island azores

There are two popular things to do near Ribeira Grande that I skipped due to time and prioritization, but will mention here.  One is Caldeira Velha hot springs, and  the other was Salto do Cabrito, a manmade waterfall with a short hike.

Miradouro de Santa Iria

The amazing Miradouro De Santa Iria is a must-visit at any time of day, but was STUNNING at sunset!  It’s located on the north-central shore of Sao Migurel, very near Ribeira Grande, so I caught it—and the sunset—on my way back from dinner.

There’s a small parking lot and then a very short (like 1-minute) walk to the viewpoint, and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views out of Sao Miguel’s green terraced hills and rocky shoreline.

And, one of the biggest advantages of this miradouro is that, due to its location, this viewpoint is often clear even when others are cloudy.

Sunset at Miradouro De Santa Iria - things to do in Sao Miguel Island, Azores

Sunset at Miradouro De Santa Iria - things to do in Sao Miguel Island, Azores

View from Miradouro De Santa Iria - things to do in Sao Miguel Island, Azores

Visit a tea plantation

One of the interesting things about Sao Miguel is that it boasts the only two tea plantations in Europe, located just minutes apart.  I visited Cha Gorreana twice…mostly because it was my closest early morning coffee and pastry option.  I didn’t get a chance to visit the Porto Formoso Tea Factory.

The two are only a couple minutes’ drive apart so it’s easy to visit both.  The main reason I visited Cha Gorreana (literally my brain wants to type “gonorrhea” every time…) was that it opens earlier and has the nice tea shop and baked goods, which was the major selling point for me.  Porto Formoso is supposed to have a bit better scenery and has a smaller parking lot so doesn’t get the tour buses, but they weren’t open at 8am.

In addition to the bakery and gift shop, I loved the sweeping views that surrounded Gorreana, sweeping across the tea fields toward the ocean, a sea of green punctuated by intense pops of purple from the flowers.  Again, I’ve heard that Porto Formoso is even better view-wise.

You can do a self-guided tour of the factory (you won’t learn anything, but can see the various machines and steps in the process) or a free guided tour (I recommend giving a small tip!).  In both cases you can see how the harvested tea is further processed, and you can walk across the road to see the plants up close.  And it smells AMAZING!

If you’re consdiering guided tour options on São Miguel that will allow you to see lots of different things in one day, many of them include a stop at Cha Gorreana.

visit a tea plantation, Cha Gorreana - things to do in Sao Miguel Island, Azores

visit a tea plantation, Cha Gorreana - things to do in Sao Miguel Island, Azores

visit a tea plantation, Cha Gorreana - things to do in Sao Miguel Island, Azores

visit a tea plantation, Cha Gorreana - things to do in Sao Miguel Island, Azores

Parque Natural das Ribeira dos Caldeirões

This place is such a hidden gem!!  Parque Natural das Ribeira dos Caldeiroes—boy, there’s a mouthful—was one of my favorite stops on my Sao Miguel road trip.  It’s a small natural park filled with flowing waterfalls, verdant flowers and greenery, and beautiful views.

There’s one waterfall inside the park (which is underwhelming, in my opinion), but make sure not to miss the larger waterfall on the other side of the road just past the park entrance….thats the next few pics.

I was here early/mid-morning and it was already getting hard to find parking.  Note that if you keep going past the park and curve around the bend, there’s another small parking lot.

Parque Natural das Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - stunning waterfall right outside the park

Parque Natural das Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - stunning waterfall right outside the park

Parque Natural das Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - stunning waterfall right outside the park

You can make this a short stop if you’d like, in the 15-20 minute range.  Or, you could spend longer wandering around or letting kids run around, and there are some picnic areas available.  There is a small cafe and gift shop.  Apparently there’s also an extra trail into the valley along with thermal pools…I didn’t see them, but if it’s of interest, do some research ahead of time.

The light mid-morning is not as flattering here, and I’ve heard sunset is amazing (or golden hour before sunset).  One thing to know is that there are lots of steep, uneven stone stairs so this is not a good stop for someone with mobility challenges (though you could still probably see the large waterfall outside the park, so worth a quick stop).

Parque Natural das Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - walking trails, hydrangeas, & waterfalls

Parque Natural das Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores) - walking trails, hydrangeas, & waterfalls

Vila Franca do Campo

I had a lot of ground to cover this day though, and a tour time to hit, so I moved on.  Because my whale watching tour was leaving from the harbor at Vila Franca do Campo, it gave me an excuse to briefly explore this cute seaside town.

I was short on time unfortunately so didn’t get to see much…and I had trouble finding a quick spot for a bite of lunch.  But I did make a brief stop at a miradouro overlooking the coast…maybe Miradouro do Tanque??  Or very close anyway.  I just remember the streets being so narrow that I wasn’t sure how I could get my car back up.

But I wanted to make sure I saved enough time for the amazing church…

a miradouro in Vila Franca do Campo, Sao Miguel Azores

things to do in sao miguel,sao miguel azores,what to do in sao miguel,sao miguel island,car rental in sao miguel,sao miguel island azores

things to do in sao miguel,sao miguel azores,what to do in sao miguel,sao miguel island,car rental in sao miguel,sao miguel island azores

Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz

This iconic church sits way above the town of Vila Franca do Campo, and (IMO) is one of the must-do stops on a Sao Miguel roadtrip—especially on a clear day!  You get a two-fer…an awesome miradouro view and a really cool architectural experience.

The drive up to Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz is a bit tricky just due to blind corners, but completely doable, and there was plenty of parking when I was there.

So first off, there’s that view.  The chapel looks out over the town and is one of the best ways to see Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo, the tiny crater island off the coast.  I couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous day for this particular stop.

View from Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz over Vila Franca do Campo - things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores)

Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz over Vila Franca do Campo - things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores)

When you tire of the view, turn around and enjoy the slightly mesmerizing symmetrical design of the church itself.  Terraced sets of stairs take you up the hillside, with the sterotypical Azorean whitewashed and black-accented design, but then pops of more traditional Portuguese blue tiles (azulejos).

You don’t need to spend more than a few minutes here (the inside of the chapel is pretty mundane), but you’ll love the combination of awesome view and photogenic architecture.  I was here midday and it was gorgeous, but I’ve heard it’s also amazing at sunset.

Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz over Vila Franca do Campo - things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores)

Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz over Vila Franca do Campo - things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores)

Go on a dolphin & whale watching boat trip

When the Azores’ whale hunting business finally closed up shop in the early 1980s, whale *watching* became a new big business.  You can do this from several of the Azores Islands, and from both Ponta Delgada and Vila Franca do Campo on Sao Miguel.  There are usually two types of boats that go out, bigger ones where you’re higher off the water, and then these smaller zodiac ones (what I chose).

After quite a bit of research and reading through reviews, I chose this whale watching tour with Terra Azul.  I met the group at the marina in Vila Franca do Campo, where we were given some orientation and interesting info about the research organizations they work with, the 24 types of dolphins and whales in the area (some resident, some rare), and what to expect on our trip.

Technically the best whale watching in Sao Miguel is done from land, including these whale watching lookouts.  Our boat tour guides were in close contact with co-workers who were lookouts on land to identify possible sightings.

Dolphin & whale watching is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores)

Dolphin & whale watching is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores)

view from boat toward Sao Miguel (Azores)

It was lovely being out on the water, and it ended up being quite a warm day (dead still wind-wise, so when the boat wasn’t moving it got HOT).  Personally on this tour I feel like the left side of the boat would have been better, and definitely in the front, in terms of being able to see clearly and get the best photos.

I’m guessing certain times of year are more active for proper whales, and we mostly didn’t get lucky.  We saw a bunch of different types of dolphins—who knew there were so many?!  Haha, and “false orcas” which is a type of dolphin apparently.  We saw dolphins mating, and multiple large pods of dolphins.

Lol, you’ve never experienced a group’s excitement like I did when someone shouted, “Breaching in the front!  Let’s go!”  We saw a beak whale from afar…apparently it’s very rare and a master diver so they spend 3-4 hours at a time underwater (95% of their time).  To me it didn’t look as whale-like but still cool to say I saw it.

Dolphin & whale watching is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores)

Dolphin & whale watching is one of the best things to do in Sao Miguel (Azores)

I couldn’t have picked a better day to be out on the water, but had prepared for less-awesome weather (always a possibility).  I had put on breathable, quick-drying pants and had a super lightweight waterproof jacket in my pack.

Lots of people were in shorts and t-shirts, but they do recommend bringing a jacket.  Make sure to put on some sunscreen (here are my faves), polarized sunglasses, and I also brought lens cloths to clean my sunglasses and phone camera lens (sea spray!).  I definitely recommend you don’t bring a large bag or pack if you’ll be on the zodiac boats, just a very small one or a purse that closes ( had my beloved favorite cross-body purse).

There are a lot of different types of whale watching tours but it’s definitely one of the “must” things to do in Sao Miguel!

Islet of Vila Franca do Campo

Toward the end of our whale watching tour, the boat took a couple loops around Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo, which is that tiny flooded volcanic crater island off the coast.  It’s a natural reserve and great place for bird spotting as well as tropical fish and other wildlife, and the government limits the number of people who can visit each day to protect it.  It’s also the home of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championship.

If you’re spending a good amount of time on the island, it’s a great thing to do in Sao Miguel as a half-day or even full-day excursion.  You can bring a picnic lunch, take a ferry over from Vila Franca do Campo, do some whale watching of your own, snorkel, swim, lay out, explore some of the tide pools, and walk around the tiny island.

During busy seasons you may want to book the ferry ahead of time or book as part of a tour that combines a dolphin/whale watching boat trip with a visit to the island.

Islet of Vila Franca do Campo is an interesting place to visit on Sao Miguel if you have the time

Islet of Vila Franca do Campo is an interesting place to visit on Sao Miguel if you have the time

Furnas Lake

If you’re looking for an extremely easy hike in Sao Miguel, the walk around Furnas Lake is definitely one of the good options (about 2 hours with stops for photos).  I wanted to see if the lake was all it’s cracked up to be, as well as visit the very cool abandoned Capela da Nossa Senhora das Vitorias.

I got a bit discombobulated trying to figure out the whole Furnas Lake experience, but was mildly successful.  First, I tried to go directly to the chapel, but was unable to turn where Google Maps told me to.  There was a parking lot across the street so I parked there (the machine seemed out of business so I didn’t end up paying).  Then I walked for a bit (15 minutes?) and found the chapel.

The colors of the lake will change depending on your angle, time of day, cloud and sky situation, and more.  It’s usually pretty green, but I find that harder to see at ground level.  To me it looked like…a lake.

I think you can do a waterfall hike from there, to Salto do Rosal…I was a bit confused here and there was no signage, but I think the trail starts somewhere just past the chapel?  I heard very conflicting information, including “it’s 2.2 miles round trip” and “it only takes a couple of minutes to get to the waterfall”.  So…IDK.  But I believe the former.  Do your research!

The abandoned Capela da Nossa Senhora das Vitorias on the shores of Furnas lake is a cool thing to see in Sao Miguel, Azores

You can hike around the shore of Furnas lake - things to do in Sao Miguel, Azores

The abandoned Capela da Nossa Senhora das Vitorias on the shores of Furnas lake is a cool thing to see in Sao Miguel, Azores

Furnas & its hot springs

This was another fail for me, but I’m not heartbroken about it.  I did drive through the Mediterranean-feeling village of Furnas and it looked really cute, but I couldn’t find parking to save my life.  So I kept on going as it was getting late in the day.  The area is best-known for the Calediras Vulcanicas, the volcanic complex of Furnas.

The surrounding area is dotted with volcanic geysers and hot springs, so there’s a delightful rotten egg smell everywhere 🙂  Many people will spend a whole day here, whether on their own or within a tour experience (which can simplify some of the logistics such as parking, entrance fees and crowds, etc).

Among the popular things to do are soaking in the hot springs, hiking through them, and devouring steaming-hot cozidos (traditional stews cooked in the geothermic heat of the earth).

Miradouro do Pico do Ferro

Rather than soaking in sulfur water (even hot tubs kind of freak me out), I instead drove up to Miradouro do Pico Ferro for a bird’s-eye view of Furnas and Furnas Lake.

There was plenty of parking (though later in the day, so it’s possible tour buses clog it up earlier) and then it was just a short, steep walk up the hill (I took the slightly less steep and longer one up, and the shorter, steeper one down).

On a clear day you’ll get amazing views over the whole valley, including Furnas village and then the large Furnas Lake.  The mostly-overcast sky didn’t make the lake’s vivid green color “sing” as well as a sunny day would have, but it still was a great view (and I appreciated the dramatic clouds).

Miradouro do Pico Ferro provides an amazing view over Furnas Lake

Miradouro do Pico Ferro provides an amazing view over Furnas Lake & the village of Furnas

Miradouro do Pico Ferro provides an amazing view over Furnas Lake & the village of Furnas

Miradouro da Ponta do Arnel

Now we’ll really explore the far east side of the island.  I could never make it happen, but the east coast (obviously) is supposed to be EPIC at sunrise.  There are a handful of miradouros over here to talk about, including:

First I’ll mention two that I didn’t get to visit—Miradouro Ribeira da Boca and Miradouro da Vista dos Barcos.  Both look amazing, so definitely catch if you can.

I’ll focus on three in particular, starting with Miradouro da Ponta do Arnel.  This viewpoint is before the lighthouse and is extremely small but you definitely need to pull in for a quick stop.  To the right you’ll have views of the lighthouse, and to the left you’ll see beautiful cliffs, with a turquoise rocky beach below.

If you have time you can try to visit the lighthouse (Farol do Arnel).  There’s a small parking lot at the top and a sign that says the road is dangerous to drive down (but honestly I’m not entirely sure why…I walked partway down and it had no issues other than steepness).  I was super tight on time so didn’t bother going the rest of the way.  It’s a LONG STEEP walk.

Amazing ocean views from Miradouro da Ponta do Arnel - things to do in Sao Miguel island, Azores

Amazing ocean views from Miradouro da Ponta do Arnel - things to do in Sao Miguel island, Azores

Amazing ocean views from Miradouro da Ponta do Arnel - things to do in Sao Miguel island, Azores

Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego / Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada

My next stop was the UTTERLY AMAZING Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego.  This is a must-do!  It’s like this delightful little botanical garden complex, with little trails, there are picnic tables and bathrooms, and it’s big enough that it doesn’t feel crowded.  I was here on a sabbath morning and just found the experience really peaceful.

I’m confused because I’m a little confused I’ve also seen part of this miradouro called Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada, but as far as I could tell they were the same larger stop.

One note, I had to be super careful of my white sneakers with the red mud.  The views of the cliffs are incredible, and there are stunning hydrangeas and other flowers everywhere you look…super wild and lush feeling!

The beautiful views, trails, & botanical gardens at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego were one of my favorite things to do in Sao Miguel, Azores

The beautiful views, trails, & botanical gardens at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego were one of my favorite things to do in Sao Miguel, Azores

The beautiful views, trails, & botanical gardens at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego were one of my favorite things to do in Sao Miguel, Azores

The beautiful views, trails, & botanical gardens at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego were one of my favorite things to do in Sao Miguel, Azores

eating a pastel de nata at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego

I found one of the best viewpoints accidentally, because it’s from the bathrooms—the ones that are snugged down on the cliff on the left side of the garden (“left” as you’re facing the ocean).

This miradouro would be amazing at sunrise…

The beautiful views, trails, & botanical gardens at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego were one of my favorite things to do in Sao Miguel, Azores

The beautiful views, trails, & botanical gardens at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego were one of my favorite things to do in Sao Miguel, Azores

blue hydrangeas in Sao Miguel

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Miradouro do Pico Longo

As I drove back toward Ponta Delgada to make my flight (to the island of Pico), I also made a quick stop at Miradouro do Pico Longo.  It’s got a nice little garden but the viewpoints aren’t particularly impressive or as sweeping as the others I just mentioned.

views from Miradouro do Pico Longo

views from Miradouro do Pico Longo

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And then it was on to Pico!  I loved my 3 days in Sao Miguel, and hope this detailed guide is helpful in planning your own trip.

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A Super Detailed Road Trip Guide to Sao Miguel (Azores) | Sao Miguel island is not a white sand lazy vacation...things to do in Sao Miguel, including stunning scenic viewpoints, hiking, waterfalls, whale watching, hot springs, pineapple & tea plantations, & so much more! Where to stay in Sao Miguel, Azores itinerary ideas, car rental in Sao Miguel, what to do in Azores. #azores #portugal #saomiguel #roadtrip

Comments (1)

  • brittany

    April 11, 2024 at 12:34 pm

    thank you so much for this guide as i plan my trip, beautifully done!

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