São Miguel, Azores: Guide to Portugal’s Best Kept Secret

Sao Miguel Azores GuideThe Azores are basically the love child of Ireland and Hawaii, with a Portuguese accent. This archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic has volcanoes shooting out of the sea, fishing villages perched on sheer cliffs, calderas nurturing exotic forests, and centuries-old architecture layering on the charm. Each of the nine volcanic islands are unique, and while we loved Terceira and are dying to get to the remote isle of Flores…São Miguel has it all. The largest by size and population in the Azores, “Ilha Verde” is a lush fusion of six massive volcanoes and packed with adventures…hot springs, canyoneering, coasteering, big surf (like the ISA World Masters), whale watching, and charming colonial towns tucked in calderas and beach coves. We spent 13 days here and it quickly became one our favorite places we’ve explored in the 9 years we’ve been on the road. Discover our favorite destinations in our São Miguel Azores Guide.
 

Historic Ponta Delgada

Ponta Delgada Sao Miguel guideNot just a pretty string of islands, the Azores are rich in world history. The Portuguese first laid eyes on the archipelago in 1427 and it quickly became a hub of their maritime empire. Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, and countless other New World explorers came through these islands. The UNESCO city of Angra do Heroísmo was once the main port of call, but today modern-day travelers fly directly into Ponta Delgada. It’s the Azores most cosmopolitan city, yet it retains its 15th-18th century architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, and museums to commemorate it all. We loved wandering the central market, climbing the bell tower for panoramic views, and marveling at the Church of the Jesuit College’s magnificent carved wooden altar. Ponta Delgada is a great place to start your visit (2-3 days is perfect) to get your bearings and line up a few adventures, but the real magic of São Miguel lies beyond the city limits.
 

A Whale Watching Mecca

whale watching sao miguel azoresSituated along the temperate and nutrient-rich Gulf Stream, the Azores are the go-to pitstop for migrating marine mammals. Twenty-eight different species of whales and dolphins pass through this archipelago every year (prime whale watching season is April-October). Right from the downtown harbor, we hit the water with Picos de Aventura and saw sooooo many dolphins! We’d never seen the adorable Atlantic spotted dolphin and spied over 50! They are basically mini dolphins, and to level up the cuteness, mamas and babies were dashing and diving all around our zodiac. In addition to being an action-packed wildlife experience, the boat ride offered a great overview of the island. Watch this video.
 

São Miguel, Land of Delights

Azorean countryside of Sao MiguelThe city quickly turns to a pastoral landscape, with centuries-old stone walls divvying up cow pastures and plantations of exotic produce. While most other European islands are stuck growing potatoes and cabbage, the Azores are sprouting oranges, pineapples, passion fruit, bananas, and pekoe tea! In fact, the north coast of São Miguel has the only tea plantations in the Eurozone. We stopped at Fábrica de Chá do Porto Formoso for a tour of their traditional tea plantation, a cup of Azorean brew, and a stroll along their seaside fields. On your way there, pop into the century-old Arruda Pineapple Plantation to see their gorgeous grounds and one-of-a-kind greenhouses. More photos, here
 

Volcanic Fun in Furnas

Furnas Sao Miguel azoresOn the east side of the island, set deep in a caldera, lies the 16th-century town of Furnas. Steaming with fumaroles, bubbling with hot springs, and dripping with tropical plants, there is something truly magical about this place. Walking the Lagoa das Furnas boardwalk, we could see and feel the volcanic activity beneath our feet. Cast iron pots, loaded with meat and veggies, were curiously being buried in the hot earth. Locals use the geothermal energy to slow cook their signature dish: Cozido das Furnas. We went to the famed Restaurante Tony’s, where we had placed an advance order (it takes 4-6 hours for proper volcano cooking) to try it vegetarian style: carrots, sweet potatoes, cabbage, and taro root steamed in their own juices. The veggies melted under the weight of our fork and there was a rich smoky flavor unlike anything we’ve tasted; paired with an island-cultivated red wine and a view over town, it couldn’t have been better. To round out our volcanic experience, we strolled the Terra Nostra Gardens, which have been cultivated by master gardeners and botanists for over 200 years. We spent 2 hours getting lost among the exotic trees and flowers from around the world, then took a blissful soak in their hot springs. See the full photo gallery from our Furnas adventures.
 

Canyoneering Ribeira Grande

Canyoneering—a combination of rock scrambling, cliff jumping, swimming, and abseiling down waterfalls—has long been on our adventure wish list. To make it happen, we set out with Picos de Aventura for a full day at Salto do Cabrito—a place straight out of Jurassic Park with prehistoric ferns, steamy fumaroles, and a river flowing through a craggy canyon. With harnesses and a dose of moxie, we rappelled down 45-foot waterfalls, squealing and giggling the whole way. Don’t miss the video above.
 

The Prettiest Hot Springs Ever: Caldeira Velha

Caldeira Velha hot springsTo top off this epic river day, we went to nearby Centro de Interpretação Ambiental da Caldeira Velha, where hot waterfalls spill over a cliff of tropical plants and into four natural pools of varying temperatures. Soaking here warmed us to the core and soothed canyoneering muscles we didn’t know we had.
 

The Crater Lakes of Sete Cidades

7 Cities Sao MiguelDuring our first day on São Miguel, we briefly stopped at the parish of Sete Cidades in the west half of the island to get an overview of the volcanic landscape, but one look at this dramatic caldera from Visto do Rei and we were already planning our return. At the bottom of this ring of cliffs are twin crater lakes and a pastoral village with one of the island’s best boutique hotels, Quinta da Queiro. Funny enough, we heard about it from one of our Instagram fans who is part Azorean and good friends with the owners (Thanks for the tip, Zelia!). It is a third-generation farm that has been renovated into stunning guest accommodations and an incredible tea house (you’ve gotta try the orange pie!). While being at the bottom of a caldera makes it a bit remote, the village is incredibly serene and the commute here is half the fun, passing through a veritable tunnel of hydrangeas and a dozen dramatic vista points. From the rim, take the hike to Miradouro da Boca do Inferno for the full panorama and an extra crater lake! If you have time, take the Serra Devassa trail across the road to explore the rolling volcanic hills and forests. Being isolated from any continent, the archipelago thrives with dozens of native plant species that have hardly changed since prehistoric times.
 

The Beaches of São Miguel, Azores

Sao Miguel beachesWith so many sheer cliffs and so much to do, São Miguel is not a lay-on-the-beach kind of destination, though there are definitely a few places to kick back and relax by the waves. Just outside Ponta Delgada, you’ll find classically sandy and family-friendly beaches at Praia Populo (we loved our stay at Aqua Populo). For the best surfing and beach strolls, head north to Santa Barbara. For something totally unique, Ponta da Ferraria has under-sea hot springs that mix with the ocean at low tide for the perfect temperature swim. Walk the craggy shoreline and you’ll find massive rock arches and impressive waves crashing against the cliffs. Wrap up your day at Mosteiros beach, where rock islets frame a sunset that you rarely see from the Atlantic.
 

Extend or Start Your Trip on Terceira Island

While we’ve been singing the praises of São Miguel, we also loved Terceira Island. It has plenty to offer—from their UNESCO World Heritage City of Angra do Heroísmo, rare volcanic formations, rugged coastline, and unique traditions. Plus, there are craaaaazy flight deals (see below) and it’s a good launch pad to explore three surrounding islands by ferry. If it wasn’t for the complications of pandemic travel, we would have certainly been hopping a boat to see more Azorean isles and hope you will too!
 

Essential São Miguel Azores Guide

Sao Miguel Azores Guide

Language: While Portuguese is the main language, English is widely spoken in the Azores. This is partly due to the US military base and the fact that over one million North Americans trace their roots to the Azores (four times the islands’ current population). Communication is rarely an issue, and when in doubt use Google Translate.

Weather: Never too hot or cold, the Azores have springtime temperatures practically year round. That said it can get unpredictably windy, foggy, and rainy. The weather source that all the locals swear by is Spot Azores, which is a series of 19 webcams around São Miguel. Sounds a little janky, but nothing is more accurate than seeing the current conditions with your own eyes.

Affordability: We were amazed how reasonable it was here, especially considering it’s a remote European archipelago. A nice entrée goes for around $8-10 and glass of wine for $3. We got a great bungalow on Airbnb with a kitchen, yard, and pool for $40 an night, and boutique hotels like Aqua Populo are around $150.

Renting a Car: To get the most out of the island, renting a car is a must. Not sure how this was possible, but on DiscoverCars.com we scored a rental for $2.82/day! No guarantee you’ll get that freakish deal, but check them out and use that massive savings for a car with extra horsepower or even 4WD. There are some STEEP hills, like 20% grade, to get to some of the cutest fishing villages, even main towns like Villa Franca, and you don’t want to get stuck. Our car literally could not get up the hill from Lighthouse Arnel, and I had to push, while Mike did some crazy race car driver moves to get to the top. Expect stick shift or reserve an automatic well in advance. If you’d rather not drive, Picos de Aventura offers fantastic tours.

Flights: Azores Airlines offers a five-hour direct flight from Boston. Otherwise, you’ll likely connect through Lisbon and take a 2.5-hour flight to Ponta Delgada. In the off season (November-May), Azores Getaways charters flights from Boston to Terceira for a craaaaaazy package deal (like $499 for the flight plus 7 days of lodging!), so snag it if you can! From Terceira you can easily take inter-island flights or ferries.

We loved São Miguel and if we get the chance to update Ultimate Journeys for Two, we’ll certainly be adding it (alongside Sintra, Portugal) as one of our favorite destinations in the world. Have any questions about our São Miguel Azores guide or traveling to the archipelago? Lay ‘em on us! And for even more photos and videos from our Azorean adventures, see our Instagram Stories highlight reel.

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21 thoughts on “São Miguel, Azores: Guide to Portugal’s Best Kept Secret

  • March 30, 2021 at 10:30 am
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    Oh my goodness, Sao Miguel Azores truly looks like the best kept secret! Can’t wait to add this one to my travel bucket list. The beaches, the whale watching, and the volcanic activity (SO cool!) makes me eager to visit. Thank you for introducing me to this place!

    Reply
  • March 31, 2021 at 6:15 am
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    São Miguel looks like a beautiful destination. Vacation in the Azores was always my dream. Having lived in Tenerife for half a year, I can imagine that the Portuguese archipelago is just as astonishing and even more green.

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    • April 9, 2021 at 1:17 pm
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      Funny you mentioned Tenerife…we heard the Canaries are comparable to the Azores and that makes me want to go even more! Though you’re right on the greenery, the Azores is so lush!

      Reply
  • March 31, 2021 at 1:59 pm
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    No wonder travelers like to visit the Azores. The town of Ponta Delgada is so pretty and the surrounding volcanic areas are just amazing. The caldera looks so calm and green, and the beaches are so welcoming! And to get to see so many dolphins not too far from the shore, that was really amazing!

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    • April 9, 2021 at 1:13 pm
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      Good news is it’s popular but very over-touristed. The islands are kept wild and dreamy!

      Reply
  • March 31, 2021 at 9:17 pm
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    Azores was on my list of places to see when I was in Portugal the last time. Unfortunately, I could not go but I will make sure I visit it the next time I am there. The beaches look stunning and seeing dolphins is like a dream.

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    • April 9, 2021 at 1:11 pm
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      Raksha, yea most people skip it because it seems so far from the mainland but it’s certainly worth the two hour flight–even if you just have 5 days on Sao Miguel. We’d love to go back in prime whale watching season.

      Reply
  • April 1, 2021 at 9:33 am
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    I love the way you have showcased this gorgeous destination. From history to adventure and nature- it seems to have it all. I loved Ponta Delgada and its gorgeous churches. No doubt that the hot springs here is one of the prettiest and I am all game for canyoning. Awesome pictures!

    Reply
    • April 2, 2021 at 10:32 am
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      I was born there, left almost 40 year’s ago.
      I can say that I am proud of where I come from. Such beautiful Islands and also the main land.
      I’m a proud portuguese with double nationality. ❤️❤️

      Reply
      • April 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm
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        Oh wow, you’re Azorean!! What is your other nationality? You certainly have a lot to be proud of in Portugal!

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    • April 9, 2021 at 1:09 pm
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      Thank you! It is such a multi-faceted destination. And to top it all off with that canyoneering and hot-springs day…too good!

      Reply
  • April 1, 2021 at 3:43 pm
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    We’ve been wanting to do a roadtrip to Portugal for ages now and we hadn’t heard of Azores yet. Your guide has definitely convinced us to give it a look when travel reopens. Love the historic and adventurous side to it. The beaches, the greenery, the potential places to hike and take photos of aerial views – Azores is going on our bucket list.

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    • April 9, 2021 at 1:06 pm
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      I’d say you could put your car from the mainland on a boat but the car rental so crazy cheap in the Azores that would be the way to go. Having a car is definitely the way to go with so many unexpectedly beautiful spots at every turn. Have fun!

      Reply
  • April 3, 2021 at 6:04 am
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    Sao Miguel Azores seem to be a dream destination for both nature lovers and historical aficionados. The place looks amazing with its beaches, hot springs and caldera. I have been wanting to visit Portugal for a long time and when I am there I would surely take a trip to the Azores.

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    • April 9, 2021 at 1:04 pm
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      It really has the best of all worlds. We probably should have shared more of the architecture in this post because it truly was so historic and endearing. But wow that volcanic scenery and sea cliffs steal the show!

      Reply
  • April 6, 2021 at 9:28 am
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    I have heard so much about Azores and your post has just added to my belief that it is possibly the prettiest place in Portugal. I was supposed to travel to Portugal in 2020, right before Covid hit, and had thought I’d go once it opens up in 2021 but here we are, still not able to make it. But when I do, rest assured, Azores will be on the top of my list. The crater lakes in Sete Cidades look absolutely incredible!

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    • April 9, 2021 at 1:02 pm
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      We had dreamt about the Azores forever and came in with very high expectations–and they were certainly exceeded! And the good news is, you can still keep that mainland Portugal trip–it’s so easy to get the islands from Lisbon. Hope you love your time in the Azores!

      Reply
  • April 6, 2021 at 9:15 pm
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    We purchased an air plus hotel package from Azores Getaways and spent a week on Terceira Island. It was a GREAT vacation in all respects.

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    • April 9, 2021 at 1:00 pm
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      That’s so great to hear! Terceira was charming, just couldn’t pack all this Azores goodness into one blog. Hope you can check out our Facebook page, we posted a ton about Terceira. How cool were those lava tubes?!

      Reply
  • April 6, 2021 at 10:36 pm
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    We visited Sao Miguel in April, 2019. It was sooo beautiful! We had a private all day tour our with a young man from Punta Delgado area on our first day and he was charming. Language was not an issue at all, local food, including cheese, was amazing and very affordable. We loved our short visit and look forward to going back in the off season.

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    • April 9, 2021 at 12:58 pm
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      That’s so great you spent on Sao Miguel too! We completely agree with everything you said–including the charming guides and locals! Can you believe that off-season deal by Azores Getaways to Terceira?! Def check that out.

      Reply

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