So, you have decided to venture away from mainland Portugal and visit some of the islands? YES, GO YOU!!! You won’t regret it, I promise. I’m ashamed to say it took me almost 7 years of living in Portugal to finally visit São Miguel but it was more than worth the wait. I drove every inch of the island, ate an abundance of limpets, took photos of all the cows and swam under gushing waterfalls. I dedicated a whole week to non-stop travel in São Miguel so that I could write the best ever travel guide for the island.
If you’re new here, you might not know that my travel guides are different from the rest you can find online. They are written in-depth from personal experience and don’t just focus on the same old tourist spots we all already know about. I had so much fun exploring São Miguel and I hope this guide can encourage you to get off the beaten path and soak up all the experiences the island has to offer! Vamos lá!
Got other travel plans in Portugal?
WHY VISIT SÃO MIGUEL?
There are many reasons to visit São Miguel that I could reel off, but in my opinion the best reason to visit the island is the diversity of landscape coupled with it’s great tourist infrastructure. The Azores are a great trip to bolt on to your mainland Portugal itinerary but also worth a standalone trip. Most people traveling to Portugal usually travel to the usual suspects Lisbon, Porto and Algarve but if you have the time (2-3 weeks in Portugal) then it’s worth spending 4 or 5 days in the Azores or Madeira. Once in The Azores It may be tempting to try and visit as many islands as possible but my advice would be to pick one or 2 islands at most. If you only have 4 or 5 days, choose São Miguel to spend that time.
WHERE IS SÃO MIGUEL?
São Miguel is one of 9 islands in The Azores archipelago; located 1,400km from The coast of Portugal and 2,500km from the east coast of the US/Canada. These little islands are tiny gems in the vast Atlantic. São Miguel is the largest island in the archipelago. Zoom out using the map below to see all 9 islands.
HOW LONG TO SPEND IN SÃO MIGUEL?
At least 4 or 5 days. I spent 7 days there and managed to see and do everything I wanted in that amount of time. If you want a more laid back holiday you could easily spend 10 days or 2 weeks and island hop.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER AZORES ISLANDS?
This guide is specifically written for São Miguel because it is the only island I have visited. The reason I chose to spend all my time on São Miguel during this trip is because I wanted to experience it fully and not spend all my time rushing from one island to the next. After a week deep exploring the island I feel ready to share all the best experiences with you. I plan on visiting the other islands in the coming year; next on my list is Pico!
Heading to Madeira? Hop over to my MADEIRA TRAVEL GUIDE to start planning!
HOW TO GET TO SÃO MIGUEL?
São Miguel’s main airport is Ponta Delgada, reachable in just 2.5 hours from Lisbon. At the moment the only way to travel between São Miguel and the other islands is via plane. Carriers include Azores Airlines, TAP and RyanAir. It is possible to travel by ferry between some of the smaller islands during the summer season, when the weather permits it.
HOW TO GET AROUND SÃO MIGUEL?
If you want to make the most of São Miguel you need a car, no question about it. Without a rental car you will not be able to experience the island properly. As always I recommend Zest which is the broker I used for this trip and every trip thanks to their great insurance and lovely customer service team. Driving was the best part of my trip and I loved the freedom having my own car gave me.
First time hiring a car in Portugal? It’s not as scary as you think!
For transparency and an honest account of when things go wrong… I scratched the paintwork of my hire car during this trip, but thanks to the full insurance Zest provided there is no excess and I’ve been fully refunded. This is the benefit of working with a broker that offers fully comp insurance.
No car? Your options will be limited but of course you will still be able to do what you want with time and money. There is a good airport transfer service. You can buy tickets in the main terminal next to luggage storage. There is public transport between major towns but getting to tourist sites can be more difficult. Consider booking a tour or private driver. Both these exist on the island but since I have no experience using either I can’t recommend any in particular.
HOW TO CREATE THE PERFECT SÃO MIGUEL ITINERARY
The weather in São Miguel is really unpredictable so you need to have a flexible itinerary. This is an island where a fully planned itinerary just won’t work. You can still have a list of activities/ sights but there is little point planning them for set days during your trip. Allow for flexibility in your itinerary so you can switch days if needed. The good thing is that the island is relatively small and easy to drive around so you can plan each day as you go easy enough. Getting up and deciding what to do each day is part of the fun and you’ll experience more this way. For those of you who feel uncomfortable without any sort of itinerary I suggest creating “good weather” day plans and “bad weather” day plans that you can pick and choose as you go. For example on clear days you’re going to want to be up at the view points for the crater lakes but when the weathers not so clear the waterfalls and thermal pools are great fun!
MY SÃO MIGUEL ITINERARY (and why you can’t follow it)
So here’s the truth. I didn’t have a set itinerary. I did hours and hours of research (as always) so I knew what I wanted to see and had a rough idea of how I wanted to do things but other than that I made it up as I went along.
Once you get to The Azores you’ll realise the weather is constantly changing and since the majority of activities are outdoors you won’t be able to follow a strict itinerary.
So how did I do it? Before I left I made a list of places I wanted to visit and pinned them on GoogleMaps. I woke up each day and made a plan based on the weather and my feelings. Driving was one of the main attractions for me and I enjoyed planning my route each morning but also leaving time to go off the beaten path if I saw something cool (which happens alot on São Miguel!)
The good thing is that São Miguel is very easy to navigate and it’s not big. You can drive from one side of the island to the other west to east in less than 2 hours.
Here is how my itinerary panned out. You can use this as an idea of how much you can fit in a day but not much else sorry! This also isn’t everything i did each day as I went off course to various miradouros etc frequently.
Day 1 : Termas da Ferraria, Mosteiros, Várzea. Where I stayed.
Day 2 : Lagoa das Sete Cidades, Lagoa do Fogo, Caloura. Where I stayed.
Day 3 : Vila Franca do Campo, Furnas, Nordeste including remote beaches. Where I stayed.
Day 4 : Ribeira dos Caldeirões, Tea plantation, Porto Formoso, Maia. Where I stayed.
Day 5 : Maia, Cascata Salto do Cabrito, Fenais da Luz, Ribeira Grande . Where I stayed.
Day 6 : Ribeira Grande, Capelas. Where I stayed.
Day 7 : Ponta Delgada plus pineapple plantation
Planning a trip to Portugal, Spain or Italy? I’m here to help.
If you want to plan the perfect trip but there are just too many options, I can help you make the most of your time. If you want a personalised travel itinerary, full to the brim with authentic experiences, I’ve got you…
WHERE TO STAY IN SÃO MIGUEL?
The island is not massive by any stretch of imagination so you could easily stay in one place for the duration of your trip and head out to a different location each day.
However, I wanted to experience different parts of the island so I stayed in a total of 5 locations. I stuck to the coast the whole time but if I had an extra night or two next time I would stay somewhere interior too.
São Miguel has options to suit all budgets; everything from fancy resorts, guest houses, hotels, apartments and backpackers. I even found a boat!
As usual I used BookingCom to find most of my accommodation. It has the biggest selection and best value properties. Most have free cancellation up until a week before your stay which gives you good flexibility. One thing worth noting – accommodation does get full up. I booked last minute and missed out on a lot of places I would have liked to stay. If you want my advice don’t leave it to the last minute to book your accommodation.
BEST TOWNS TO VISIT IN SÃO MIGUEL
I drove the entire ring road following the coast road where possible and also cut across the island in several places. There are so many special towns to visit but I couldn’t mention all of them so here are just a few you might want to add to your list…
In my opinion if you don’t have much time don’t worry too much about Ponta Delgada (except for a meal at A Tasca!). There isn’t much to see and it’s really nothing special. If you are here for more than 3 or 4 days then aim to spend an afternoon here otherwise I would dedicate your time to the natural beauty around the island.
Again I wouldn’t stay in Ponta Delgada either. There are so many great stay options around the island. If you still want to stay in a bigger town rather than a village then look at Ribeira Grande instead which has more character.
This was my favourite location overall in São Miguel. Although Caloura is no secret it still has an underrated vibe that I really loved. It’s a tiny coastal town with a very good restaurant and a sea pool. It reminds me a lot of Southern Puglia in Italy.
I can personally recommend the ANC resort which offers spacious rooms with sea views. Very close to Caloura and the famous seafood restaurant.
MOSTERIOS / VÁRZEA
Way out west is Mosterios and your best bet at catching a stunning sunset on the island. There are a few laid back bars with a great atmosphere, especially at sunset. There are also some gorgeous sea pools here but you’ll need calm seas and low tide to enjoy them safely.
I spent my first night in Várzea and it was the perfect introduction to the island. Villa Várzea is located only a 10 minute drive from Lagoas das Sete Cidades so it is one of the best locations if the crater lakes are number 1 on your wishlist. It’s also close to Mosteiros and has a beautiful garden and surroundings. I stayed in the Charming Suite and the bed was beyond dreamy. I loved the spacious room and bathtub too! It was one of my favourite places I stayed in São Miguel but next time I would stay at least 2 nights to make the most of it.
Another favourite for me was Nordeste, not the town itself, but the surrounding area and beaches. Miradouro Vista dos Barcos is a beautiful sunrise spot. There are a few real remote beaches here too. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, but if you look hard enough on GoogleMaps you’ll find them.
I stayed in a guesthouse which was clean, comfortable and in a central location but to be honest I wouldn’t stay again because there are better value options such as
I only found this place because of >> this sea view apartment I stayed << otherwise I’m not sure I would have thought to visit. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I made and it was here I stumbled across a true hidden gem on the coastal path. It also has some typical restaurants that are well worth a meal or two.
São Miguel’s second largest town sits on the north coast and is a haven for surfers. As the surf capital of The Azores Ribeira Grande has a laid back seaside vibe. The town itself isn’t anything special although it has lots of colourful buildings to admire but the beach is beautiful in a wild and windswept kind of way. I also had some top clams at the beach bar. It’s a good location to be based as it’s in the middle of the island.
I loved my suite at Matriz Guest House, big, light, comfortable with a little balcony and sea view. The breakfast was also fantastic, offering homemade jams, eggs, bread,cheese etc.
If it has availability I would have stayed at Matriz Sunset View.
Central yet immersed in nature. I stuck to the coast during my trip but if I were to go back I would definitely spend a night or 2 in Furnas. There are quite a few options but the obvious is the spenny but definitely memorable Octant Furnas.
RABO DE PEIXE
Cute traditional town, a little bit run down, but extra charming. If you have a few hours spare take a drive through and see what you find but avoid rush hour.
Another lovely little village close to the sea.
VILA FRANCA DO CAMPO
Located on the south coast looking out to the famous island. In season you can take a tour to the island from here. There are a few beaches I spotted around here that I would have liked to have explored further if I had the time.
Another accidental find was Porto Formoso which sits on the north coast. There are some great beaches, restaurants and best of all? Just a short walk from the car park there is a hidden waterfall that looks like something out of the jungle book! Pack your swimmers! I would stay at Casa da Praia which is right on the beach.
RESORTS IN SÃO MIGUEL
If you’re looking for a real treat while in São Miguel there are some special hotels and resorts to choose from. These are my picks…
BEST EXPERIENCES IN SÃO MIGUEL?
DRIVE THE COAST RING ROAD
For me, the best experience in São Miguel is driving. The scenery is ever-changing and in parts, truly breathtaking. The roads are mostly in very good condition and the tourist infrastructure on São Miguel is well established. Before I left I had already planned to drive the entire ring road so I had researched it well but even without the research São Miguel is easy to navigate. I highly recommend renting a car for most if not all of your trip to São Miguel. Without it you will be limited. The best experiences for me were waking up at sunrise, deciding where to go for the day and being able to go off route when I noticed something cool out my window. I spent the majority of my time in my car exploring.
São Miguel’s impressive crater lakes are probably the island’s biggest draw and the sights most of us want to see. Why? Because there are few places where you can experience natural beauty like this.
One thing you should know about the crater lakes is the weather is really unpredictable on the island and especially around the peaks and lakes. This is why I say you need to be flexible. I was very lucky with the two main crater lakes and was able to see them with clear skies. However even with some cloud they still look amazing. If they are completely covered during the time you were planning on visiting try not to be dissuaded as the weather moves quickly. If you want help planning I recommend using the webcams.
LAGOAS DAS SETE CIDADES
On my first full day I woke up to a clear sky punctuated with stars (thanks to the beautiful remote location of Vila Várzea) so at 6am I drove straight to Sete Cidades with all my fingers crossed. It paid off and as the sun came up the Miradouro Vista do Rei I was treated to an impossibly beautiful view. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of photos of Lagoas das Sete Cidades but I promise you it is even better in real life. The two lakes are particularly spectacular because of their contrasting colours, one blue and one green. There is an old folk tale associated with this but scientists will tell you it’s simply because they are different depths.
LAGOA DO FOGO
As the sky was still clear when I left Sete Cidades I drove straight to Lagoa do Fogo in the hope it would be the same. I couldn’t believe it but I lucked out again and arrived to a clear blue sky. Although I think most people prefer Sete Cidades, Lagoa do Fogo was my absolute favourite. The drive to the viewpoint was so green and full of cows that I felt as though I could have been back in the UK but when I caught that first glimpse of Fogo I was suddenly in Hawaii. Unless you live on a tropical island I think it would be pretty hard not to be at least a little in awe of Lagoa do Fogo.
LAGOA DAS FURNAS
This huge green crater lake has a trail you can walk around and the road to Furnas runs alongside it. Impossibly tall trees line the lake and it feels like a hidden forest paradise smack bang in the middle of the island. Don’t forget to stop of at Capela de Nossa Senhora das Vitórias too!
Top Tip : I had read and been told over and over again that the weather is extremely unpredictable on the island. The most popular crater lakes and their viewpoints are often in clouds so you have to be prepared to be flexible. If you wake up to a clear day – go, go, go! If you don’t have a clear day don’t panic, the weather changes quickly and while it can be cloudy one hour the next it can be clear. You can use the webcams here to help you plan but bear in mind you can’t see much in the dark.
So my one piece of advice is that if you have a clear day while in São Miguel, get to the crater lakes!
POÇA DA DONA BEIJA POOLS
These pools were a last minute decision after spotting them on GoogleMaps and they turned out to be one of the best surprises of the trip. Poça da Dona Beija is a series of geothermal pools with iron-rich water in a serene space. Located in Furnas. They are also open at night which would be a truly magical experience.
Another cool way to see the island is by hiking. There are miles of trails to enjoy. Unfortunately I was recovering from an operation and I didn’t have the full energy needed to hike. AllTrails has some great suggestions though. Remember the weather is very unpredictable and rain is common so make sure you pack all the correct clothing.
Another mystical experience is Furnas Caldeiras. These bizarre bubbling, smoking pits are better known as geothermal pools and geysers. So cool and well worth your time. The area is small and easy to walk around; you can stop off on route to Parque Terra Nostra. One of the fanciest hotels is located here and there is also a popular restaurant with a great view.
LUNCH WITH THE LOCALS
I had no shortage of good eats in São Miguel but for me the most “authentic” experience was eating at Café Canto do Cais…. I found this place after many hours of searching GoogleMaps. This local restaurant is extremely good value and serves up huge fish platters (complete with tropical fruit). It’s not that it’s not frequented by tourists (the big writing wall confirms this) but that it is also a lunch spot popular with local workers. It’s simple, cheap, good food with friendly staff. Extra points if you can find my message on the wall!
SWIM IN A WATERFALL
Probably my favourite experience (in addition to the driving) was swimming in the many waterfalls dotted across the island. I wasn’t sure how possible it was going to be but I was really surprised at how accessible most of the waterfalls are. Many of them are actually set up specifically so you can swim in them which is so cool. Seriously hats off to the local council who obviously put a lot of work into protecting the natural assets of São Miguel while also enabling tourists to enjoy them safely.
VISIT A NATURAL PARK
As I’ve already mentioned numerous times São Miguel is overrun with nature – just how I like it! The whole island kinda feels like a natural park but if you want to visit a specific one I can recommend the beautiful Ribeira dos Caldeirões with its shocking pink flowers and crashing waterfall. There is a path that allows you to walk right past the waterfall so you can basically touch it but be careful, it’s slippery!!
SEAFOOD SURROUNDED BY CRASHING WAVES
My favourite meal experience is far from a secret but I loved it nonetheless. Bar do Caloura is tucked away in the tiny cover of Caloura which reminds me so much of southern Puglia and Sicily in Italy. Despite the restaurant firmly holding a place on the tourist trail of São Miguel the location still feels understated. If you’re up for it – try the ‘lapas’ (limpets!) they are arguably the best on the island.. There is a chilled vibe despite the busy restaurant. There are no extras set up to accommodate tourists. There is simply a harbour with a small sea pool and the restaurant right over the sea.I hope it never changes. This is a popular restaurant and you can’t book in advance. However tables do move quite quickly. I arrived just before opening at 12 and managed to get a table within 10 minutes. If you arrive later in the day expect to wait a little longer but it’s worth the wait. Instead of rushing off after the meal, go down to the harbour and enjoy the simple beauty of it all.
WINE TASTING JARDINETE
Whenever I visit a new region or island in Portugal I seek out one tasting experience. While wine tasting is a big shiny deal in Douro (for good reason) the rest of the country is often overlooked. The whole of Portugal from Algarve, to Alentejo to Madeira produces excellent wine and The Azores are no exception. While many may have heard of Pico’s impressive wine production, few realise São Miguel also produces some fantastic wine, albeit on a smaller scale. I found Quinta das Jardinete after extensive GoogleMap research so I booked a tour and tasting. It was brilliant. I love finding small scale producers as you get a real glimpse of the love that goes into producing wine. The tasting took place in a small chapel which was really fun. As it stands Quinta das Jardinete only exports a very small amount of wine to Lisbon, the remaining stays on the island so if you book a tasting here you’re one of only a few that get to experience it. That is until they inevitably grow (you’ll see what I mean when you taste the wine). Book in advance here.
EAT THE BEST PINEAPPLE IN THE WORLD
I had some pretty sweet pineapples in Hawaaii but that was a long time ago. So my new favourite pineapple can be found in The Azores! Make sure you enjoy it in it’s various forms (especially the pineapple cake) but do not leave the island without eating it fresh. You can buy it in most markets and supermarkets and also as a dessert in most restaurants.
To be honest after swimming in lots of waterfalls and visiting the other pools around the island I was a little underwhelmed with Caldeira Velha. The pools were super busy which took away from the relaxation of it. However I’m recommending it because the park is well run and maintained. It’s probably the most accessible waterfall you can swim in. It’s good for families and there’s no denying it, the surroundings are totally gorgeous! To visit you need to book at least a day in advance. You can book online easily here.
BEST MIRADOUROS IN SÃO MIGUEL
I’m not going to list everything here, there are SO MANY miradouro’s but these were the most memorable/unique for me. Click name for the GoogleMap location.
VISTA DOS BARCOS Beautiful spot for sunrise and a peek of the charming winding road down to Nordeste Port.
CINTRÃO Huge cliffs, crashing waves and a feeling you are on top of the world.
LAGOA DO FOGO I still can’t get over the beauty of Lagoa do Fogo.
PICO DOS BODES Probably the strangest miradouro I came across, but pretty cool too, don’t you think?
VISTA DO REI (SETE CIDADES) In my opinion the best view of Lagoa das Sete Cidades
HIDDEN GEMS IN SÃO MIGUEL
Again, there is no limit on hidden gems to find on this island. Everyday feels like a treasure hunt. Here are just a few of my favourite spots.
NORDESTE PORT VIEW Porto do Nordeste is one of the more remote corners of the island. Huge dramatic cliffs with tumble-down houses and fishing shacks. The view gets better the closer you get to the beach and you’ll drive straight past the Arnel lighthouse which is pretty impressive in itself. Top tip : Go to the Port early so you can drive to the bottom of the cliffs without traffic. Beware the road is very steep so you need confidence when driving back up!
PRAIA RIBEIRA DAS TAINHAS This lovely little beach close to Vila Franca do Campo (like many of the beaches on this stretch of coast) reminded me of southern Italy. There was too much swell the day I was there but on a calm summer day you can swim out to the small rock, climb the ladder and claim it as your island for the day!
WATERFALL PORTO FORMOSO My favourite waterfall experience is somewhat hidden but still very easy to reach. It’s located a 10 minute walk from the carpark at Porto Formoso. It’s amazing how quickly it turns from concrete to jungle! Very cool! Both the path and pool are well maintained.
MAIA Mentioning this village by the sea again because I’m confident most people wouldn’t think to visit it but it is in a really great location and feels more authentic than some of the bigger towns.
COFFEE WITH A WITH VIEW NORDESTE In search for breakfast I found this cafe with a view. Turned out the didn’t have breakfast but the terrace offered the best view to drink my morning coffee.
FIND YOUR OWN HIDDEN POOL
This is a true secret spot so I’m not going to share all the details but I want you to know there are lots of hidden gems to be found on São Miguel that really are very special. If you’ve got the time to explore the coast paths you’ll be rewarded greatly. If you want to take a dip here, head to Maia and follow the coastal path. Keep your eyes peeled. This spot can’t be found on GoogleMaps – let’s keep it that way!
Part of the joy of travel is finding these for yourself so go forth and explore!
BEST RESTAURANTS + BARS IN SÃO MIGUEL
Just a couple of the best eats and drinks in São Miguel….
BAR CALOURA, CALOURA
Already mentioned above, but it was my favourite dining experience overall. Highly recommend If you want to enjoy fresh fish by the sea. You can’t book in advance so be prepared to wait for a seat. It’s worth it.
SUNSET STEVE’S BAR, MOSTEIROS
Situated way out west in Mosterois this funky seaside shack offers drinks and snacks but more importantly a great sunset view (when the weather allows!). This seemed to be a popular hangout spot for locals and it had a really friendly laid back vibe. There’s loads of seating but even if it’s busy you can grab a place on the wall.
CAFÉ CANTO DO CAIS RESTAURANT, CAPELAS
Mentioned in my best experiences. A local lunch spot with great value seafood and meat platters. Passionfruit with fish? Honestly? It’s delicious!
A TASCA, PONTA DELGADA
Excellent tapas in central Ponta Delgada. The only problem with A Tasca is everything on the menu looks amazing. I was there solo and didn’t get to try everything I wanted. It would be the perfect place to come with a group or at least as a couple! Be prepared to wait for a table. It’s worth it.
TUKA TULA, RIBEIRA GRANDE
The best beach bar in Ribeira Grande for a treat meal. Small but tasty portions. I loved the Amêjioas! They also make mean cocktails if you fancy a change from Especial lager.
WHAT TO EAT IN SÃO MIGUEL
Limpets. Yes, really. These little sea nuggets are a must when you are in the Azores (and Madeira). Imagine a mix between clams and mussels and you’re kinda there. Best shared with friends and a bottle of vinho verde.
São Miguel’s own beer. A nice break and very obvious flavour change from the usual Sagres and Superbock you’ll find on the mainland.
Steak sandwich anyone? On an island with so many grass fed cows it’s no surprise São Miguel makes an excellent one. Remember you pay for what you get so avoid the super cheap ones if you want the real deal.
I really wasn’t expecting to love this as much as I did but it really is the perfect match for a strong coffee. Eat it in as many places as you can! I had several and they were all good!
TERRAS DE LAVA WINE
I’ve been drinking Portuguese wine almost non-stop since 2016 so I know what I like. Although this bottle from Pico (another island in Azores) doesn’t quite live up to my beloved Alentejo whites it’s a very close second. I loved it so much as soon as I got back I stocked up my fridge with it! Definitely give it a try when in Azores.
So there we are, an action-packed travel guide for the mesmerising island of São Miguel in The Azores.
Planning a trip to Portugal, Spain or Italy? I’m here to help.
If you want to plan the perfect trip but there are just too many options, I can help you make the most of your time. If you want a personalised travel itinerary, full to the brim with authentic experiences, I’ve got you…
For transparency, I use affiliate links in my travel guides. You’ll notice I use them sparingly and only include links for services I actually use. The most common affiliate links you will see are Zest Car Hire and BookingCom because I use those very frequently while living in and travelling around Europe. If you click through to a page using these links and make a purchase I receive a small commission (at no cost to you). If you choose to visit one of these sites from Google, Google gets that commission instead. If you find my travel guides helpful in trip planning please do use these links. The small amount (usually just a few pounds) helps me cover website hosting. If you have any questions about affiliate links or marketing I am really happy to answer them.