Located off the west coast of Portugal is the Azores, a slice of heaven in the form of a nine island archipelago. Sitting approximately 1,643 km (1,021 mi) from Lisbon, São Miguel is the largest island in the Portuguese Azores archipelago.
São Miguel is famous for it volcanic landscape peppered with bubbling geysers, colourful flora and rich marine life, including whales and dolphins. The island’s highlights include the twin crater lakes of Sete Cidades. To the east, is Furnas, with fumaroles and hot springs.
São Miguel was the second of the islands to be discovered by Gonçalo Velho Cabral and settled by colonists from continental Portugal around 1427. Locally known as "The Green Island", São Miguel is most populous island in Azores with around 140,000 inhabitants.
Given its relatively small size, one can travel the entire length of the São Miguel in under two hours. With so much to see and do, visitors can easily fill their days with activities and sightseeing all over the island.
The capital of both the Azores and São Miguel is Ponta Delgada. With promenades overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Ponta Delgada features many highlights including the 18th-century City Gates, Gothic St. Sebastian Church, and the 16th-century Fort of São Brás.
Getting to the São Miguel Island
The Azores has become increasingly more accessible in recent years with direct international flights from the USA, Canada, UK, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Portugal, France, Germany, and Finland.
Reaching São Miguel island is quick and easy with direct flights from London taking as little as 4.5 hours, 5 hours from Boston, and 2.5 hours from Lisbon.
Various airlines connect the Azores to the world such as its local airline SATA / Azores Airlines. In addition, TAP Portugal, Ryanair, Primera, TUI, Germania, and Delta all offer regular flights to the Azores.
Why You Should Visit São Miguel Island
The Azores Archipelago has been voted among the best in sustainable tourism. Since the Azores are still relatively unknown, now is the best time to explore each of its nine islands.
Offering some of the best whale watching, hiking trails and untouched landscapes in the world, these are just a few reasons why you should visit São Miguel island.
Geotourism is the major drawcard to São Miguel island. The island showcases a remarkable geodiversity that is closely linked to the volcanic nature of the islands. Volcanoes, calderas, crater lakes, fumaroles, hot springs, volcanic caves and grottos, are the essence of what makes this island so special and internationally recognised.
Several activities let you explore and enjoy the island’s volcanic landscapes and geosites, including biking, walking, visits to volcanic caves, canyoning, paragliding, and bathing in natural thermal pools. Not to mention the plethora of viewpoints scattered throughout the island and along its coast.
The adventure extends into the deep blue Atlantic ocean with local operators running swimming with dolphin and whale watching tours throughout the year. Sailing, fishing and diving are also popular pastimes here in São Miguel.
The best way to explore São Miguel island is by hire car. While neighbouring islands can easily be reached by boat or plane.
Since most of the island’s highlights can be enjoyed free of charge, this family-friendly, safe, and economical destination checks every box.
Every corner of São Miguel island offers a unique and unforgettable experience. Here are just a few of the island’s natural wonders.
Sete Cidades Lake
The picture perfect Sete Cidades, literally meaning, ‘seven cities’, is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal. At its centre are the Green and Blue Lakes, which according to legend, were formed from the tears of a shepherd and a princess who shared a forbidden love.
View of these lakes can be enjoyed from the Vista do Rei (King’s View) Lookout, which was named after King D. Carlos and Queen D. Amélia to celebrate their visit to the island in 1901.
An entire day can be spent here with the option to take any of the numerous hikes around the caldera and kayaking in the twin lakes.
Head to the quant Sete Cidades village and enjoy a lazy lunch before heading back to Vista do Rei in the late afternoon. Sete Cidades is an absolute delight during sunset. Watch as the sky fills the landscape with pink and purple hues.
Lagoa do Fogo
As São Miguel’s highest lagoon, Lagoa do Fogo, sits 575 metres above sea level.
Literally meaning, ‘Fire Lake’, this gigantic lake is surrounded by various viewpoints each offering dramatic views of the lake and the entire island. A small trails leads down to the quite lagoon beach.
Ponta da Madrugada Lookout
The golden sun rises early over the lush Azorean landscape. Catching the first glimpse of the sun at sunrise is another Azorean must-do. From the appropriately named Dawn Point or Ponta da Madrugada, locals and tourists alike head here for an unforgettable start to the day.
Located on the east coast high above towering jagged cliffs, Ponta da Madrugada Lookout
is also a popular picnic spot. With its serene surroundings you’ll never want to leave.
Miradouro de Santa Iria
Sitting on the northern coastline, Santa Iria lookout offers panoramic views over the Atlantic ocean and its ravine. The lush green landscape is dotted with pink lilies until it meets the sea.
Ponta do Sossego Viewpoint
Perhaps those more beautiful viewpoint on the island is again located in the north east. The gardens at Ponta do Sossego are maintained all year making this a very pleasant spot for a picnic.
Suspended above the staggeringly beautiful cliffs are a series of terraces located at different altitudes. The views from here are unmatched.
Continue north along the coast to see, Arnel Lighthouse, the first lighthouse built in the Azores. For the best view of this lclassic red and white lighthouse, head to Miradouro da Vista dos Barcos (Boat Viewpoint).
Just as São Miguel has a must-see sunrise spot, so too does it have an equally stunning sunset location.
There is no better way to end your day in São Miguel than by heading to Mosteiros to watch the sunset. Located just offshore, the sun dips behind two large boulders, creating an impressive effect under a magenta sky.
Caldeiras das Furnas
From stunning views to volcanic landscapes, see bubbling geysers and smoking fumaroles at Caldeiras das Furnas and Furnas Lake. Located in a dormant volcanic crater this is one of São Miguel main lagoons.
No visit to Furnas would be complete without experiencing a meal cooked by Mother Nature herself. The hot springs of the Caldeira are used by locals to cook a traditional stew known as Cozido das Furnas (Furnas stew). From here it is transported to local restaurants ready for hungry customers to enjoy.
Ponta da Ferraria
There are numerous swimming opportunities in São Miguel, but nothing quite as special as bathing in Ponta da Ferraria geothermal spring.
Located at the base of a giant lava rock cliff, this natural spring flows into the Atlantic ocean, creating a wonderful mixture of warm and cool water.
This unique bathing site with its therapeutic water springs has been in use since the fifteenth century.
Poça da D. Beija Thermal Spa
Poça da D. Beija features five outdoor pools at various temperatures offering a wonderfully authentic experience. The spa is open till late, making it the perfect spot to relax with a significant other.
Caldeira Velha Natural Thermal Spring
On the northern slopes of Fogo Volcano is Caldeira Velha, a nature preserve with two stone-walled naturally heated pools. Surrounded by towering trees and ferns as you bathe, you’ll feel a million miles away from the rest of the world as all your worries melt away.
Terra Nostra Park
Escape the world and take stroll around the São Miguel’s most beautiful park. Terra Nostra Park covering 12 hectares, features immaculate gardens which are shared with over two thousand types of different trees.
Not to be missed is the park’s centrepiece, a large orange natural thermal spring. Feel rested and rejuvenated as you bathe in the water rich in essential minerals.
Ribeira dos Caldeirões Park
Known for its dramatic coastline and lush vegetation, the north-east region of São Miguel is home to Ribeira dos Caldeirões Park, often referred to as the most beautiful park on the island.
With gurgling streams, towering waterfalls surrounded by colorful Hydrangeas, the Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park is the epitope of natural beauty. Keen hikers take to the mountains exploring the forest on rock-cut paths while others wander through the gardens punctuated with waterfalls.
Whatever your adventure, there’s something for everyone here.
Vila Franca Islet
Imagine sunbathing on a private beach in the middle of a islet just one kilometre from São Miguel island. Vila Franca Islet has to be seen to be believed. Formed as a result of an ancient submerged volcano and measuring 300 metres in length, this island oasis features a brilliant blue saltwater inlet. It’s pure heaven.
Gorreana Tea Plantation
Tea lovers alike will enjoy a visit to the Gorreana Tea Plantation. With free tasting and a museum to explore, come for the tea but stay for the views. Located on a hillside, the plantation offers a panoramic view over the Atlantic ocean. Deemed the oldest and only tea plantation in Europe, this family-owned business has been operating since 1883.
With several weather fronts, the Azores enjoys constant wind throughout the year providing perfect conditions for wind and kitesurfing. São Miguel has several ports, coves, beaches and lakes making it possible to enjoy windsurfing and kitesurfing under different and unique conditions.
For those who like to sail with strong winds, the lakes of Furnas and Sete Cidades offer world-class conditions for speeding or freestyling. Beginners can also join in the fun with perfect low wind conditions also found here.
Since the Azores are located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, São Miguel provides excellent canyoning opportunities with numerous itineraries each unique unto themselves..
Take to the skies and enjoy São Miguel from above. Paragliding is possible all year around, with the summer months being the best time to practice this sport. Experience the exhilarating feeling as you fly over volcanic craters, lakes, beaches, and cliffs.
The village of Sete Cidades was even elected by a European jury as one of the 60 most beautiful sites to free fly in Europe.
Cycling and Mountain Biking
Ditch the car and explore São Miguel on bike. Choose from ultra-technical single tracks that connect mountains and beaches or roads that surround lakes. Be surrounded by flourishing flora as you navigate the hills and cross green pastures and pass through beautiful villages.
The Azores provide some of the best surfing conditions in the world. From beach breaks to point breaks, surfing here can be enjoy all year round. The warm waters make it especially inviting. Conditions during the summer are perfect for beginners while the winter months provide hollow and more challenging waves for the more experienced surfer.
Swimming with Dolphins
Go below the waves and swim with dolphins in their natural environment. Get up close to the Short-beaked Common Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin and Atlantic Spotted Dolphin as they play, feed, and swim right in front of you.
Whale watching is one of the memorable experiences that the Azores offer. Up for 25 different kinds of cetaceans are found in the waters at various times of the year. The most common species to be found here include the Sperm Whale, measuring up to 18 metres and 44 tonnes, the Blue Whale and Fin Whale.
São Miguel island is excellent for bird watching. Numerous species of birds can be spotted throughout the island with the wetlands being the best areas. Lakes, mire and coastal islet provide the best conditions for birds to rest, breed and nest away from predators. It’s a real treat being able to see one of the rarest birds in Europe, the Azores Bullfinch, which is endemic to a small area of São Miguel island.
Horseback riding is more than a sport in the Azores, it’s a tradition. Horses were first introduced when the island was settled. At this time, horses were rarely used for work. Owning a horse was a luxury and a symbol of noble distinction.
Today, many riding centres operate on the island allowing visitors with varying degrees of experience to explore the island on horseback all year round.
On São Miguel island you will find the world class Batalha and Furnas Golf Courses. Hosting major national and international competitions, Batalha Golf course has 27 holes over 12 hectares. Even more spectacular is Furnas Golf Course. Rated by North American Golf Digest as the second best golf course in Portugal, the course is located in the middle of an imposing volcanic landscape surrounded by subtropical vegetation.
Exploring the Azores Capital
The capital and gateway to Azores is Ponta Delgada, a charming coastal city home to important historical landmarks and serving the best in regional foods. It’s whitewashed churches and artistically design pattern footpaths invite you to explore the city on foot.
Located in the historical centre is a mix of landmarks, a large botanical, beautiful churches, and an old fort worth exploring.
The City Gates, locally called Portas da Cidade de Ponta Delgada, are the city’s postcard monument. Marking the city’s entry point, the gates date back to 1783.
Located next to the gates is the beautiful gothic style Igreja Matriz da São Sebastião church. Dating back to the 16th century, its impressive facade was built according to the Portuguese Manueline style.
Fort Brás, (Forte de São Brás) is the most important historical landmark on the island. This fortress once protected the island from pirates and privateers. Today, it’s the headquarters of the Military Command of the Azores and includes the Military Museum of the Azores.
No trip to the Azores would be complete without eating an Azorean pineapple. Made famous for being the only place in the world where pineapples are grown in greenhouses, there are over 6,000 pineapple plantations on São Miguel island.
Just outside Ponta Delgada is the famous Arruda Pineapple Plantation, the only plantation open to the public. Wander around the grounds and see the various stages of the pineapple’s lifecycle before retiring in the outdoor cafe with some homepage pineapple ice-cream.
On a hill above Ponta Delgada sits the Hermitage of the Mother of God church, this hilltop terrace gives 360 degree views over the city, making it the perfect spot to watch the sunrise.
Serving some of the best food on the island, try São Miguel’s regional cuisine at the local restaurants. Try delicacies such as Blue Jack mackerel with vilão sauce, Black Pudding with pineapple, and Bolo Lêvedo, a delicious sweet muffin-type bread.
Text written by theintrepidguide.com
Exploring Sao Miguel from Kaneos Media on Vimeo.