São Miguel is the largest of 9 volcanic islands in the Azores Archipelago. This autonomous region of Portugal is located in the North Atlantic Ocean about 1,500km off the coast of Lisbon and 3,900km from the east coast of North America.
The Azores aren’t the most accessible holiday destination, however this has changed in recent years. In 2015, low cost, direct flights to the islands were introduced, and for better or for worse, this has led to a rise in tourism. More on this later.
We were in São Miguel for about a week, and, even though we did a lot, I know we barely scratched the surface of this pretty, (and unbelievably green) little island. Seriously… it’s the greenest and most beautiful place I’ve ever been… even over Ireland.
To prove it, I haven’t edited any of the photos in this article… yes, it’s REALLY that green!
When to Visit
Peak season in São Miguel is from July to August… so (as you might expect) this is the one time I would NOT suggest for you to go. Sure, the weather is nice, but you’ll also be experiencing the island at its busiest.
Keep in mind that the word “busy” is pretty relative here. Peak season in the Azores is still far more calm than “peak season” in other unbearably busy travel hotspots.
We visited in early April and experienced some pretty hectic weather conditions. It was sunny one second and blazing hot… then we’d get a torrential downpour and the temperature dropped.
We also had a whole lot of peace and quiet. In most cases, we were the only ones at the view points, lakes, and other places we visited.
According to locals, it’s not uncommon to experience all four seasons in a day here. No matter when you visit, the weather will be unpredictable, so pack accordingly!
What to Do
Visit Sete Cidades
The lakes themselves are obviously the highlight in this district… but lots of people who “visit them” make the mistake of only experiencing them from the viewpoints. If you come all this way, be sure to head down to explore the trails and villages surrounding the lakes, too.
Weather permitting, you can do lots of activities here.
Our plan was to spend a day kayaking, SUP boarding, and biking, but mother nature had other plans. It was insanely windy, so we were only able to bike… which is probably a good thing given that it was also pretty cold and water activities might have led to pneumonia.
We spent a full three hours biking and taking in epic, moody views of the lake.
There are also lots of hiking and walking trials around the lakes, but, even with a mountain bike, you can only get so far. Ditch your bike and explore a bit!
Attempt a water activity (or Explore Ponta Delgada)
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Azores. The city’s main harbor is located here, and so are lots of companies offering water sports rentals and other water activities.
We were planning to go swimming with dolphins… and were willing to brave the freezing water to do so… but (once again) mother nature said, “NOT TODAY, FELICIA!”
We were put on a whale watching tour instead, but, sadly, this didn’t pan out either…
We boarded our boat, had a quick safety briefing, and then, while attempting to leave the harbor, were informed that one of the boat’s engines wasn’t working properly… which is why we had been driving in circles since leaving the dock.
We didn’t see any whales that day, but we did get a nice 360 view of the harbor as the boat captains fought against the faulty engines to get us back to land.
It was a big bummer that we weren’t able to experience the abundance of wildlife the Azores are known for, but it was also the first of many lessons in going with the flow on this trip.
Instead of freezing our butts off on/in the water, we spent the day walking around Ponta Delgada, along the coast, and enjoying the surprisingly sunny weather.
Visit the Gorreana Tea Factory
Family owned and operated since 1883, the Gorreana Tea Factory is the oldest in Europe and, currently, the only remaining tea plantation on the continent. Located on the northern coast of the island, it covers an impressive 32 acres and produces about 33 tons of tea each year.
It was really cool to see workers in the fields processing the tea, (which, according to the guys, looked like they were “just trimming the hedges”).
There is also an on-site museum you can walk through to learn more about the tea making process, to have a cup of tea, or buy some souvenirs to take home! I unintentionally bought a box of Gorreana’s green tea at one of the supermarkets before visiting the plantation, and can confirm that it is in fact really good.
Take a hike
…and I mean this in the nicest way possible!
On nice days, this particular viewpoint boasts unbeatable panoramic views of the island and crater lakes below. I know this because it was a photo of this hike in particular that immediately sold us on coming here.
Unfortunately, we had no such luck when visiting Miradouro da Boca do Inferno…
…As a matter of fact, it was a real instagram versus reality situation - (and if you don’t believe me, just google what it looks like on a clear day to see for yourself).
As you can see, we couldn’t really see much of anything… but it was cool having our heads up in the clouds for a bit!
Take a detour through the Valley of Lombadas
The drive through the valley was incredible!
The best part - we didn’t pass a single car or see another person the entire time.
Once you reach the bottom, you’ll see some walking trails and an abandoned crumbling building which we all eventually climbed up on - Lindsey, Laura and I to snap some photos… and Andrew to perform his rendition of Cher’s smash hit, “Believe.”
Said a performance will now live on ‘til the end of time in (shaky because I was laughing so hard) GIPH form. You’re welcome.
If you make the drive to the valley WEAR GOOD (OLD) SHOES so you can explore.
Also, keep an eye out for the waterfall along the way!
take a dip in furnas’ Hot springs
We visited Poça da Dona Beija, and it was one of the only places we went on the island where we saw more than half a dozen other people.
Though it was a bit busy (and raining) we still really enjoyed it. The rain was actually quite refreshing while sitting in the steaming pools.
There are also natural hot springs at the Caldeira Velha Nature Reserve.
I totally did not even know this was a thing due to poor planning (and an overall lack of research) beforehand… which was a pretty common theme throughout the whole trip.
I can’t confirm whether it’s actually a good spot to go, but it looks cool enough to tempt me back in to a second visit… as if I really need tempting…
Pro tip: Most of the hot springs charge guests a small entrance fee (and an additional fee for extras like lockers and towels). Save some money and bring your own towel if you can!
Again… I mean this in the nicest way possible.
It’s an island, so, it’s kind of impossible to really get lost… but you can try.
Get off the main roads. Get off your bike.
Take the path less travelled and go until the path runs out.
Perhaps you’ll find nothing… you’ll definitely find some graving cows… or you might just find another incredible view.
Unique Eats + Drinks
eat Cozida Das Furnas
While visiting Furnas, make sure to try Cozida das Furnas, or volcanic stew. This traditional stew is cooked underground with volcanic heat… and tastes super delicious!
Lots of restaurants in the area serve up this unique dish, but if you want to actually see it being taken out of the ground, you’ll have to get here early.
Around noon, workers head to the “cooking holes” locally known as Fumarolas to remove the cooking pots from the ground and transport them to the restaurants around the region.
drink Purple tea
While visiting Furnas, head to the Chalet da Tia Mercês for a quirky cup of tea. Water from the nearby mineral rich hot springs causes this green tea to turn purple!
Unfortunately, we made the mistake of leaving this stop til our last day on the island.
Turns out, the tea house was closing early for a private event, when we arrived they told us they had just served their last customer for the day! I considered begging and pleading and telling them it was our last day, but decided I’d suck it up, take the high road and plan a purple tea return trip instead!
No purple tea shots this time around, but here’s a cool photo from their outdoor patio overlooking some steaming geothermal holes… (and it was then that I truly realized we were on holiday on an active volcano)… no big deal!
So, this was the one tricky part about our trip to São Miguel…
Andrew and I arrived a couple of days ahead of our friends, so we just got around Ponta Delgada on foot. I don’t know that I’d recommend this, especially after dark… because the cars drove extremely fast and the sidewalks were just about non-existent.
Walking/hitch-hiking can for sure be done… but it isn’t necessarily the safest option.
Buses and taxis are also an option for getting around the island, but they can both be a bit expensive depending on where you’re going. Plus, the buses aren’t the most convenient choice as they run pretty infrequently throughout the day.
If you plan on exploring a lot of the island, your best bet is to rent a car.
I would recommend this if you are travelling as a group and can split the cost, though, even if you’re travelling solo and doing a lot of bouncing around, it would likely work out cheaper to just pay the daily fee for a rental car.
For example, a taxi from Ponta Delgada to Furnas would have cost us anywhere from 40-50Euros…and that’s just one way. It’s much more cost efficient to just rent a car. Plus, this will give you the added convenience of exploring the island at your leisure.
Where We Stayed
When Andrew and I arrived in São Miguel, we spent two nights in Ponta Delgada.
This was a good starting point for us because of its proximity to the airport (and to the harbor where we were supposed to meet for the dolphin swimming excursion the following morning), but it is farther from’s the islands other hot spots like Sete Cidades and the hot springs in Furnas (no pun intended).
We were tired from our journey, so it was nice to have only have a short cab ride between the airport and our cozy home away from home.
Both places we stayed were nice, but we hit the AirBnb jackpot with this first property.
The beautiful glass loft was covered in greenery on the outside and tastefully decorated on the inside. We had a fully equipped kitchen, washing machine, an outdoor patio, plus, an amazing panoramic view of the ocean, mountains, and the pineapple farm next door.
View the listing: Mirante Loft
The host Joana will also be reopening an eco-hotel on the property next year.
Read more: Unique AirBnb in Ponta Delgada
Vila Franca Do Campo
Our second AirBnb in Vila Franca Do Campo was a bit more centrally located.
The three bedroom house was right by the ocean and had all of the amenities we needed!
View the listing: Three Bedroom House with Ocean View
From here, we could get just about anywhere on the island within 30-40 minutes by car (with obvious photo pit stops along the way). It was a lot quieter than Ponta Delgada, (which was nice and peaceful), but also meant we had a lot fewer options for dining out.
We took advantage of the fully equipped kitchen, and saved money on food by cooking most of our meals at home.
Overall, both AirBnbs were incredible with very helpful and responsive hosts.
Know Before You Go
First and foremost, this is not a party destination.
Sure, the wine is cheap… but you won’t find a buzzing “nightlife scene” here. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re better off going elsewhere.
Secondly, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, the Azores have become an increasingly popular destination among tourists in recent years. Since São Miguel is the easiest to reach, the rise in the number of tourists visiting each year has been more drastic here.
This is great for the economy, but, for obvious reasons, also poses a serious negative threat to the very thing the islands are famous for - their raw and natural beauty.
Sustainable tourism is a hot topic everywhere, and the Azores are no exception.
If you’re planning a trip here, BE MINDFUL. Respect the locals, the land, and leave each place as beautiful as you find it.
Thirdly… (is this a word? third of all? idk?)…
…if you’ve been considering a trip to these beautiful islands, NOW is the time.
Need some help getting around? I’ve pinned all of the places we visited, (and the spots that are on my list for next time) in the interactive map below!
Planning a trip to São Miguel?