São Miguel is the largest of the Azores islands, and with 140,000 inhabitants it is also the most populous.
It’s big enough to have a few two-lane roads and even a stray chain restaurant around the city of Ponta Delgada, but it’s a decidedly rural place with an authentic character. Known locally as the green island, it’s covered in gently rolling hills, topped by three volcanic peaks.
I spent time mainly in two places: the lake of Furnas at the heart of the island, and the northwest point where the crater lake of Sete Sidades is the most iconic sight of all the Azores.
Sete Cidades & around
The caldeira (crater lake) of Sete Cidades is without doubt the biggest attraction of São Miguel. If you research the island you’ll surely come across many selfies taken on a path along a ridge overlooking the conjoined twins that are the two adjacent crater lakes.
Besides the look-out points around the crater rim, it’s worth going down into the crater and exploring the lake perimeter by foot or by bike.
I went with a cycling tour around the lake which was a pleasant ride offering some great views. While you can’t quite cycle all around the lake (there is a dead-end on one side), you can more or less still make a circle, and make a visit to the pictureque lakeside town of Sete Cidades along the way.
There are a few other things nearby that are worth checking out.
The seaside town of Mosteiros has a wonderful bay bounded by some large rocks poking out of the sea. The rocky volcanic beach here makes for a good place to relax.
The Sul Mosteiros Tidal Pools are some swimming pools along the shore created by natural rock formations. Some ropes and stairs were installed to help swimmers get up the steep edges, and this has made it a popular spot for both locals and visitors to take a dip.
A similar facility exists at Termas da Ferraria, though this also has a spa and an indoor and outdoor swimming pool using warm thermal waters. It’s not a bad place to wind down after hiking or cycling around Cete Cidades.
Lake Furnas & around
The central lake Furnas is another focal point on the island around which you can find many attractions.
The lake itself is rather beautiful and can be hiked all the way around, while kayaking the lake is also possible.
At one end of the lake are some thermal vents where hot sulpheric water bubbles to the surface. Local restaurants use the vents to cook a typical meat stew called Cozido das Furnas, which takes about 6 hours to cook on the natural vents.
Some people from the municipality come here every day to retrieve the cooking pots that are part-buried underground and deliver them to the restaurants where Cozido das Furnas is served. The meal is very tasty but also extremely filling, so be sure to clear your schedule and maybe skip breakfast that day. I like my hearty stews but it was still a lot to process!
I had my Cozido at the posh Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in the town of Furnas, though many told me that Restaurant Tony’s is another great place to have it.
Near the thermal vents along the lake is aso a path going up the crater rim. Following this path will get you some great views of the lake.
Not far from Furnas is also Chá Gorreana, a tea plantation with an adjacent tea museum (entry is free). The Azores is actually the only place in Europe where tea is produced, thanks to its balmy climate. Walking around the tea fields on the gently flowing hills I felt vaguely like I was on the tea fields of Malaysia… except much closer to home. The Tea Route hiking trail leaves from a point opposite of the Chá Gorreana factory.
São Miguel is known for having the most secondary activity from the volcanoes, meaning it’s the island where things are most likely to bubble to the surface.
Some parts of the town of Furnas were hidden behind a screen of sulphuric vents, giving it an air of mystery.
Signs will warn you of certain sources where boiling-temperature water comes to the surface, but others are safe to drink and, apparently, rich in iron and very healthy.
But apart from drinking the thermal waters, people like to swim in it, and on my trip I ended up going to several thermal baths. (Look, it was at the end of my trip, and I needed to chill!)
Poca Da Dona Beija in Furnas is a wonderful spot with half a dozen small thermal baths. People from the village would come here to enjoy the water inside a natural cave at the back of the site, but the cave collapsed and some proper baths were built outside of it. These small baths have a fun local feel, though I was told they’re best enjoyed outside the summer high season when there’s enough space for everyone.
While relaxing in these baths I had a fun conversation with an American woman who is living on Terceira, who gave me about five and a half million reasons why Terceira is clearly the better island. There’s a bit of intra-island rivalry on the Azores, though she did convince me to see Terceira next time I’m in the Azores.
The Terra Nostra Garden not only has wide spacious baths that give you a lot more room to swim, but they’re also surrounded by botanical gardens, lakes, and a garden with topiary sculptures.
But the best thermal baths are, I think, the ones at Caldeira Velha. My guide said the entrance area will ‘feel like Jurassic Park’, and he was right. It’s in a forested area on a mountain with gnarly trees and wonderful foliage along a nice little creek. At the end of the path is a mineral water pool under a waterfall. Nearby cliffs make this a very scenic spot for a bath or a picnic.
Tips for visiting São Miguel
Places to stay
Search on Booking.com and you can find a nice pousada or guesthouse starting at about 40 to 50 Euro a night. São Miguel also has a selection of backpacker hostels, making this island the best option for the most low-budget travellers.
Getting around the island
Travelling on São Miguel without your own transportation is just about do-able: there is some very limited public transportation available, and you could book a minivan tour to take you to other spots on the island. Renting a car or motorbike is still the best option however. You can compare options at Auto Europe.
The official site of the Azores has a list of the walking trails on São Miguel. The Ribeira do Faial da Terra trail in the southeast is said to be particularly beautiful. You might also want to check out the short walk around the Salto do Cabrito waterfall. I thought the waterfall was very scenic! It is also a great spot for canyoning.
I travelled to Sao Miguel with assistance from the local tourism board.
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