15 Must See Spots on São Miguel Island | The Azores, Portugal
THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS. WHEN YOU CLICK ON THESE LINKS WE RECEIVE COMPENSATION, AT NO EXPENSE TO YOU, THAT HELPS THIS BLOG RUN. ALL OPINIONS ARE OUR OWN.
The largest and most popular island to visit in the Azores is the gorgeous São Miguel island. São Miguel is known as the green island for its lush and beautiful nature – you’ll truly be amazed by all of the variations of green hues. Due to its size and location, it is the most diverse of all the Azorean islands. You can go from a pine forest to the beach to the mountains to the jungle all within an hour. In this list we include 15 of the must-see spots all around the island – all jaw-dropping in their own way. Best part? Everything on this list (except one) is free to visit!
The largest city and one of the best places to base yourself on São Miguel Island is the city of Ponta Delgada. You have easy access to the airport, many restaurants, all the main hotels, and several sights to start off your trip. If you are arriving from the United States, chances are you will be arriving onto the island in the early morning. This may also be true if you are coming from Europe or one of the other Azorean islands. To make the most of your first day, stick around Ponta Delgada and visit the first three spots on this list. Depending on how long you have on São Miguel, split the rest of the sights up based on weather conditions and what region of the island they are located in.
While you can drive around the whole island within a day, each of these spots can take a while to fully explore. Plan to visit 3-4 of these places each day and possibly schedule in an inclement weather day into your itinerary. No matter the season, the weather in the Azores can be a bit unpredictable. You might have 3 perfect sunny days followed by a day where the island is covered in a thick fog. You might also have vast shifts in the weather from one hour to the next. Since the appeal of many of these sights are the incredible views, factor in that you may need to revisit places when the fog lifts later in the day or on a subsequent day. I typically love a well-planned schedule, but the Azores are just one of those places where you need to be flexible.
In order to be flexible, you’ll need to rent a car. Relying on organized tours may lead you to be disappointed. If you are in control of where you go and when, you can switch up your schedule to visit the east side of the island on a day when the west side is foggy. Or if the weather is bad across the island, you can take the afternoon off and enjoy a filling lunch in Ponta Delgada.
António Borges Garden
The Azores has an amazing range of beautiful flora from massive trees to unique flowers. Driving around the island, you’ll be constantly amazed by the amount of diversity between areas just a few miles apart. In Ponta Delgada, 3 botanical gardens honor the nature from the rest of the island. Two required paid entry, but the António Borges Garden is free. For the admission fee at the other gardens, you don’t get that much more – if anything, you get access to a lower quality park. The António Borges Garden is a bit smaller but is packed with well-maintained trees, sunken grottos, caves, and beds of wild ferns.
You could spend anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half walking around (or just sitting and relaxing) in this park. There is a small cafe for drinks or snacks. We visited right after the park opened and enjoyed about 45 minutes of a nearly empty garden. The park is within walking distance from the city center, located right next to the city’s main mall. The mail, Parque Atlantico, is also a good place to visit if you want a quick lunch at the food court, need to grab a pre-paid SIM card from the Vodafone store, or want to do a bit of shopping with the locals.
Time Spent: 45 minutes
Hermitage of the Mother of God
Known as Ermida de Nossa Senhora Mae de Deus in Portuguese. This church sits above the city and provides views below of the harbor, beautiful Portuguese architecture, and the surrounding landscape. The church itself is rarely open, but a visit here is worth it regardless. It is a short but steep hike to get up to the base of the church, but very manageable for the average person.
Time Spent: 20 minutes
The Arruda Pineapple Plantation is close to the city of Ponta Delgada, but unlike the previous two sights, it does require a car to reach. It is a short 5-10 minute drive from the city center and there is ample parking once you get there. The plantation is free to enter and to go on a self-guided walking tour between each of the greenhouses. The greenhouses have hundreds of pineapple plants at different stages of growth, so you can see all steps of the process, no matter when you visit. Most of the greenhouses have a sign outside stating where in the growth phase these pineapples are and a little bit about how the fruit develops. It can take over two years for a single pineapple to grow, and yes each plant only produces 1 fruit.
Not only were the greenhouses neat to visit, but we also gained an appreciation for just how time-consuming pineapples are to grow. The information on the signs was lacking, but it motivated us to google more while sitting in the cafe on site. The plantation has a small gift shop of a variety of pineapple themed items and a stand where you can buy drinks, ice cream, or pineapple cake. We visited in the afternoon, which turned out to be a perfect time. There were no tour groups, just us and a couple of other people peeking in each of the greenhouses.
Time Spent: 30 minutes
Pico da Barrosa
São Miguel island, and the rest of the islands in the Azores were formed from fairly recent volcanic activity. Recent meaning a few million years ago... yeah recent might be a relative term. But, in terms of the whole history of the Earth and other landmasses, that is recent. Most of these volcanos are dormant (not extinct) and the volcanic complex is easily recognizable in the island’s scenery. The volcanic cones throughout the island have become beautiful lakes surrounded by trees and greenery.
In the center of the island is the lake called: Lagoa do Fogo. There are a few areas to stop and take in this impressive lake, but one of our favorites is at Pico da Barrosa – the highest point on the island. If you are coming from Ponta Delgada, you will run into this lookout point along the main road before actually reaching the spot for the hike down to the lake. At this lookout, there are two platforms on either side and a dirt path that leads to a better view. Walk up the dirt path, passing the antennas and abandoned-looking buildings, to find an amazing view of the lake below. If it is a clear day, you can see the island in its entirety up at this point. On foggy days, you might need to wait 30 minutes or so for the clouds to pass so you can see the lake. You may not see the full lake, but it is so rewarding even seeing parts of it through the fog. As you drive down to other viewpoints, it will likely get clearer. However, you do not need to stop at all the viewpoints on the road. Once you’ve seen it well at one, skip the others. It is a hassle trying to park your car on the narrow make-shift viewpoints for essentially the exact same view you’ve already seen.
There are webcams that you can access before making the drive up to Pico da Barrosa to ensure that you’ll be able to get a good view. Just because it is clear and sunny down by the harbor in Ponta Delgada, does not mean it is clear up on the mountain.
Time Spent: 45 minutes
Lagoa do Fogo
After viewing Lagoa do Fogo from Pico da Barrosa, continue on the road until you reach a larger parking lot with another great viewing platform of the lake. From here, you can take the path that descends into the lagoon. It is about a 30-minute hike each way, perhaps longer on the way back up. The path itself is a bit steep and rocky, so proper footwear and clothing is a must. There is no swimming allowed in the lake, but you can relax on the small beach and enjoy the views before heading back up. If you don’t plan on doing the hike, it is worthwhile to stop here for a bit for a slightly different view of this lake. It is truly one of the most beautiful sights in all of the Azores.
Time Spent: 1.5 hours
Salto do Cabrito
Continue on the road from Lagoa do Fogo heading north to visit this next spot – Salto do Cabrito. Along the way, there is another popular spot, Caldeira Velha, where you can stop and pay to swim in some hot springs in a jungle-like scenery. You won’t be able to miss Caldeira Velha, as there will likely be dozens of cars along either side of the road leading to and from the entrance. However, finding the entrance to Salto do Cabrito is a bit more difficult and the site is a lot less visited. Salto do Cabrito includes a small waterfall with a swimming area beneath it and a cool hiking trail.
Off of the main road, there is a sign for Salto do Cabrito – turn there. You then have two options. You can either park your car at the top of a steep switchback road (about 1 minute off the main road) or drive down it and park right near the waterfall. The steep road consists of 3-4 switchbacks and is quite narrow, which may make it challenging with two-way traffic. Luckily, this site isn’t visited frequently, so chances are you won’t encounter another car when you are going up/down. We decided to park at the top of the road and walk down. We are not very comfortable with driving manual cars (there are very few automatics on the island, all of which are considerably more expensive), especially on narrow inclines. The walk down wasn’t too bad and took about 5 minutes. The walk up was quite the workout, especially being 25 weeks pregnant. It’s a steep road! I still managed to make it up even with my very labored breathing throughout the process. If you are less risk-averse than us or are more comfortable with the car you’re driving, I do not see a major issue with driving down to the parking lot right next to the waterfall to save you that steep walk.
Whether you walk or drive, once you get down to the parking lot head towards the noisy factory and you’ll find a waterfall. It is completely free to visit and swim. There are no toilets or changing areas, so be prepared before you arrive if you are planning on swimming. When we visited, there was just one person in the water and a couple of other people taking pictures around it. The waterfall itself was a bit disappointing. I should also note here that it is an artificial waterfall created by water that traveled through pipes from atop the mountain. The part of this stop we enjoyed most was the hike along the pipe. The hike starts up steep stairs. You then follow bridges through the forest and along a cliff with the pipe below you. The bridges and nature is unlike any other hike I’ve been on. You can turn around once you reach the large bridge across the river the leads to a building or you can keep going through the forest for a bit. The path eventually leads you down to the north end of the island. However, if you just do the hike along the bridges and walkways, it should take less than an hour round-trip.
If you want to try canyoning on São Miguel, this is a great place to do it – with a trained guide. We saw a group head up with their gear while we were on their hike, looking very excited and accompanied by very friendly guides.
Time Spent: 1.5 hours
Porto Formoso Tea Plantation
For a continent that loves their tea, Europe is severely lacking on its land suitable for growing tea. Believe it or not, São Miguel has the only tea plantations in Europe. It is a working plantation with long stretches of tea rising up on the hills and a small factory that processes and packages the leaves. You can even go on a free guided tour (only 10 minutes) through the factory which ends with a complimentary cup of tea. The workers were very friendly and weren’t at all pushy about selling the tea. However, you are free to buy one of the three varieties they make at the end of the tour at a fairly reasonable price. The scenery of the plantation is reason enough to make the stop. If you come during the summer, you’ll likely see the hydrangeas in bloom.
There are actually two tea plantation close together on this side of the island – Porto Formoso and Gorreana. They are only a couple minute drive apart. If you are interested, feel free to visit both. Both are free, both offer factory tours, and both have large expanses of tea fields. If you want to visit just one, I’d suggest Porto Formoso. There are fewer visitors because the large tour groups go to Gorreana (due to their larger parking lot). Porto Formoso, in my opinion, also has better scenery and the more friendly employees.
Time Spent: 30 minutes
Our Lady of Peace Chapel
In Portuguese, it’s called Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz. This peaceful church up on a hill over incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean, Vila Franca do Campo, and the island just off the coast. The chapel itself is surrounded by picturesque pastures with cows off in the distance. It is a bit tricky to drive up there. You can walk up the hill if you are a bit sheepish. Navigating the narrow roads in Vila Franca do Campo was possibly the most nerve-racking part, but the steep road up to the chapel was a challenge as well with the blind corners. It was still doable for a novice with a manual car. The chapel itself has beautiful blue accents and is especially mesmerizing in the summer months surrounded by hydrangeas. The chapel itself is often open but was fairly mundane inside. You come for the exterior and the view.
Time Spent: 30 minutes
Ponta da Madrugada
On the far eastern side of the island, when you are visiting Noreste, there are three great viewpoints to stop at. Depending on which way you are coming from, the first or last you’ll encounter is Miradouro da Ponta da Magrugada. One of the first Portuguese words I picked up was miradouro which means viewpoint or outlook – there are so many incredible ones in the Azores. The viewpoint at Ponta da Magrugada has a beautifully landscaped small garden, free-roaming cats, and an amazing view of the steep cliffs and towns of the east coast. I could stare out at the vastness of the ocean for hours. The cats are feral and likely have fleas, so while they are cute to look at from afar, it probably is best to not run towards them to pet them. They won’t pester you and will likely just keep to themselves while they sleep in the sun.
The next viewpoint is Ponta do Sossego, which I found slightly better (but stop at both regardless). It also has an amazing garden to walk through before you are amazed by the view. Both of these viewpoints are very well attended to, with toilets and plenty of picnic spaces. You will likely encounter tour buses and groups of tourists, but if you wait a bit you may get lucky and have the place to yourself for a few minutes. It is so serene to just watch the waves or the clouds floating above.
The final viewpoint is at the Lighthouse Arnel, or Farol do Arnel. You can either park and walk down to the lighthouse (do not attempt to drive down as you will not be able to make it back up due to the incline) or you can head to Miradouro da Ponta do Arnel to get a view of the lighthouse right off the main road. The walk to the lighthouse is long, especially on the way back up, so decide for yourself if it is worth getting a closer look or you are satisfied with the view from above.
Time Spent: 30 minutes - 1 hour
Ribeira dos Caldeirões
This picturesque park is perfectly situated around large old-growth trees and rich vegetation. The park has two partially-artificial waterfalls and a mill to explore. You could walk around the main area within 20 minutes or you could spend longer taking the extra trail into the lush forested valley, eating at the cafe, or enjoying the thermal pools. The park is just a 5-minute diversion on the main road around the island and since it is free, there is no reason not to stop. There are very few waterfalls on São Miguel compared to the other islands, so every opportunity is worth the visit. This park can get quite busy mid-day, but the crowd will likely be spread out across the park. Don’t be too alarmed when you see a few dozen cars parked near the entrance.
Time Spent: 45 minutes
Miradouro do Pico do Ferro
Add this view over the city of Furnas to your list of must-see viewpoints on São Miguel. This well-maintained overlook provides views of the city and the large Furnas Lake with bubbling hot springs. Even on a super foggy day, even when you drive up the road going through clouds, you still may be able to see a fair amount when you look over the edge. The view is even better when you visit on a clear day; you can see out to the ocean and the mountains around you. Once you get to the parking lot it is a couple of minute walk up a hill to reach the view. Take the less steep path on the left on the way up and the shorter and steeper path on the way down. There is a hiking path that leaves from this spot as well if you have plenty of time to spare. If this is the first place you visit near Furnas, get prepared for the strong sulfur smell.
Time Spent: 15 minutes
Just to the east of the town of Furnas are the bubbling hot springs called Caldeiras Vulcânicas. There are roughly half a dozen volcanic steam pits that you watch from a well-maintained path. The one thing that will likely stop you from admiring these for too long is the smell. It is an awful and pungent sulfur smell. It is still worth it though! You might spot some workers from local restaurants pulling out cooked food. Close by is a corn stand with sweet corn that was cooked by the heat of the hot springs (don’t worry, they taste amazing). We visited on a chilly and rainy day and the heat from the area was very welcoming.
After a quick visit to the Caldeiras Vulcânicas, explore the rest of the town of Furnas. Many popular restaurants in town offer a famous traditional stew cooked from the hot springs and other offerings (you will likely need to book a spot at one of these restaurants ahead of time). The town also has an inverted house (Casa Invertida) that you can take a picture with and a picturesque church.
Time Spent: 20 minutes
Parque Terra Nostra
I said at the beginning that everything on this list is free except for one place, well this is the place. This garden is well worth the 8 euro entry fee (free for kids under 10). One of the main draws of the park is the thermal jacuzzis and the large pool filled with hot spring water. If you are interested in swimming in some of the naturally heated waters of Furnas, this is a great place to do it. The water is a rust color due to all the minerals, but that hasn’t turned off thousands of guests before you. Keep in mind that the water might stain your swimsuit if it is lightly colored, so bring a suit you don’t care about or something that is already black. It does cost an extra 2 euros to rent a towel, which is a smart option to avoid staining any towels you’ve brought yourself.
Even if you don’t wish to swim (we didn’t), the garden beyond the pools is expansive and beautiful. It was one of the lushest and gorgeous gardens we’ve visited around the world. You could spend over 2 hours walking along all the paths and into the side gardens. There is such a diversity of plants and trees – from a tropical jungle to pine trees to flower beds. There are beautiful water features throughout the gardens from a waterfall to fountains to large ponds. Since the park is so large, even on a crowded day, you can easily find a section of the gardens to yourself. Being surrounded by lush nature will relax you no matter how crappy the weather is or how hectic your day has been. My favorite section of the park is the unique animal topiaries, possibly because they weren’t quite as immaculate as the rest of the park or that the scale between animals was humorously off.
We walked to the Terra Nostra Gardens after eating lunch in town and visiting the Caldeiras Vulcânicas. It was about a 10-minute walk from where we were parked in town and it was relatively easy to find a spot to park in. There is a parking lot close to the entrance of Terra Nostra, but when we walked past it, it was completely full with dozens of cars circling the area trying to find a space to park either in the lot or on one of the neighboring streets. We visited during a popular time (1pm) so if you are visiting earlier or later in the day, parking may not be as big of an issue. If you can walk, park somewhere closer to the town so you don’t have to stress.
Time Spent: 2 hours
Cost: 8 euros
A 5-10 minute drive west of the town of Furnas is the beautiful Furnas lake. While it is not the most exciting lake on São Miguel (that is saved for either Lagoa do Fogo or the lakes of Sete Cidades), it is well worth a quick look or a more thorough exploration. The two most popular spots to visit near the lake are the hot springs to the north and the gardens to the south. Both have parking lots with plenty of spots and both, unfortunately, cost money. The hot springs cost 2 euros and the gardens are 3 euros. Can you skip both of those and still be amazing by the beauty of the lake? Absolutely. There is a path that goes around a large part of the lake that you can walk along; you can see the architecturally beautiful church along the water from afar.
Time Spent: 45 minutes
Here we are, the final spot on this list and the only one on the far west side of the island. This is another one of the large volcanic craters on São Miguel. This area includes numerous great lookout points (like Miradouro da Vista do Rei and Miradouro da Grota do Inferno) that give amazing views down to the two large lakes in the crater below – Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul. Both of these viewpoints are a bit high up so if you are visiting on a foggy day like we were, you may not see anything until the lower down viewpoints. The hike to the Miradouro da Grota do Inferno is one of the most famous on São Miguel but is unfortunately also prone to fog. If you’re visiting on a clear day, you can either park for this hike on the side of the main road or you can drive the road that’ll take you closer to the viewpoint (if the gate is open) for a much shorter walk.
After you are done viewing the lakes from above, head down the hill to enjoy the lakes up close. The road down can get quite busy, especially with all the cars parking along the side of the road (or on the road) to look out at one of the several viewpoints along the way. Once you’ve seen the lakes from at least one of the viewpoints, skip the rest and carefully try to maneuver your way around the other cars. Once you get down to the town level, you can visit the city of Sete Cidades or walk along the edge of the lakes. In the town is a gorgeous church – Church of São Nicolau – that is worth a quick picture. If you are looking for a bit more action, you can go kayaking on the lake or quad biking.