As the archipelago’s largest island, São Miguel makes for the perfect introduction to the Azores. With gently rolling hills and topped by three impressive volcanoes, São Miguel is truly an adventure travelers’ playground.
If it’s your first time going to the Azores, then chances are you’ll end up on São Miguel. It’s the most convenient of the nine islands to visit, having the most direct flight connections from the US and Europe. It also has tons of things to see and do without having to transfer between any islands.
But the ease of travel is far from the main reason to go…
Why visit São Miguel?
The island is insanely green — it’s truly one of the lushest places I’ve been. It’s also joyfully cute, with small rural roads hemmed by blue hydrangea flowers and traditional fishing towns scattered all along the coast.
You won’t find many bars or commercial beaches on the Azores, so you shouldn’t think of it as sun-and-sand or party destination. It’s also hard to get around if you don’t rent a car (but more on that later).
Instead, São Miguel’s natural volcanic hot springs, waterfalls, rainforest hikes, whale watching, and epic viewpoints all conspire to make it an incredible destination for those who seek nature and the outdoors.
Not only that, the island is incredibly rich in seafood and locally produced goods benefiting from its subtropical oceanic climate. If you love simple and traditional food, you’ll be in just the right place.
How many days on São Miguel?
How long you should spend on the island depends entirely on the type of trip you’re planning and what your transportation options are.
So far, I’ve done two trips on São Miguel: one that lasted 3 days and where I took organized tours around the island, and one that lasted 7 days and where I drove around myself with a rental car.
São Miguel in 3 Days: If you want to see some epic viewpoints, visit tourist sites like the tea or pineapple plantations, and maybe chill in a volcanic hot spring or two, then you can pretty comfortably cover a lot in 3 days. By doing sightseeing trips every day you can get a good impression of São Miguel, but it’s not enough to go hiking a lot or explore in depth.
São Miguel in 7 Days: If you love to hike, enjoy exploring more remote villages, or wish to spend more time swimming in the many natural pools or at the beaches, then stay at least a week. Adding hikes unlocks a whole other level of São Miguel; I missed out on this the first time, then on my second visit realized it’s absolutely the best thing about the island! Staying a week is especially worth it if you have a rental car and can explore far and wide.
Even after 7 days, there were still more things I wanted to see and do. If you’re a slow-traveler who likes to go deep on a single destination, you could spend 10 days just on São Miguel.
Exploring São Miguel by rental car
This is truly the best way to see the island. If you have any chance of doing your trip by car, take it. Having your own car is a game-changer on São Miguel, or really any of the Azores islands.
São Miguel is not easily explored using public transportation. The bus network is very rudimentary and doesn’t go to the places most interesting to tourists.
The cost of rental cars is quite seasonal, but I managed to rent a 5-seater compact with insurance for €26 per day in summer. Split between 5 friends, this was pretty cheap. It’s a lot more expensive to use organized tours or taxis. You can search and compare car rentals on São Miguel using DiscoverCars.com.
I’ve had some emails and DMs about car rentals on the Azores from people who were unsure about the driving conditions. If you search about the topic you might find some warnings about twisty roads or misty conditions on the island. I should say that I’m not the world’s most confident driver, but I still found the roads in São Miguel to be not really a problem. Just know that its villages have plenty of narrow streets, as is the case in so many older towns in Europe.
About half of the island’s width is connected by 2-lane highways that are very easy to drive, while other parts can be accessed through well-maintained provincial roads.
Still, it’s understandable when British travelers might have qualms about driving on the right side. And if you’re American, you should also know that most rental cars are manual, though you may be able to snap up one of the rare automatics if you book early.
Do keep in mind there is a limited stock of rental cars on São Miguel. It is, after all, an island. Therefore it’s recommended to book well in advance of your trip. It’s worth comparing all the rental car offerings through an independent site so you get the best price.
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Exploring São Miguel using tours
If you are unable to self-drive, the alternative is to base yourself somewhere central (for instance, in or near the city of Ponta Delgada) and take tours to see all the highlights on São Miguel.
This doesn’t give you the same degree of freedom and it’ll be more costly, but on the flip side you’ll have an expert guide to tell you everything you need to know about the sights on the island.
I did my first stay on São Miguel entirely with tours, letting myself get picked up and dropped off by minivan every day.
A full-day tour of the impressive western half of the island will set you back about $80 or €70 per person. This includes visit to the top sights, such as the crater lake of Sete Cidades, Fogo Lake, the Caldeira Velha hot springs, and more. I recommend this São Miguel day-tour with lunch offered by GetYourGuide.
A half-day tour mainly to Sete Cidades will cost around $40 or €35 per person and can also be booked easily through GetYourGuide.
Besides these driving tours to the sights, there are various other daytrips and activities you can look at. These are interesting to consider regardless of whether you have your own transportation or need a pick-up.
Even when I had my own rental car, I also did an organized snorkeling trip at the islet of Vila Franca do Campo, went mountain biking at Sete Cidades, and booked on a dolphin- and whale-watching tour.
Exploring São Miguel by public transportation
Many people have asked me if you really need to rent a car or really need to go on organized tours. Can’t you just do things yourself?
I normally love to travel that way too, but to be honest, it’s very difficult on São Miguel. It’s just not an ideal destination for independent travel using public transportation. There are only a few buses and they don’t go to the places tourists most want to see. Get a car if you can!
São Miguel is not ideal for a backpacking-style trip, but better visited as a couples’ trip or with a group of friends sharing a house and renting a car. If you’re on a super tight budget, it may be difficult to really see the island, as you either need to spend on a car rental or on organized day-trips.
Where to stay on São Miguel
My general advice is to simply look for Sao Miguel stays on Airbnb or hotel sites like Booking.com for some accommodation you like. Almost the whole island can be described as charming and it doesn’t matter too much in which town you stay.
One possible exception is the town of Rabo de Peixe, which is the poorest area of São Miguel and arguably not as attractive to stay.
(How it became this way is a bit of a crazy story: back in 2001, half a ton of cocaine washed up on its shore. It got scavenged by the villagers, leading to an insane coke addiction epidemic that plunged the town into misery. Two decades on and it’s still a bit rough around the edges. You can read the fascinating story here.)
If you’re short on time, consider staying somewhere in the island’s center as you’ll be able to easily reach all parts of the island. It’s about 2 hours driving between the island’s furthest extremes.
If you have your own car, then in my opinion there is no requirement to stay in Ponta Delgada. The capital city is fine — it has some nice shopping streets with old houses — but it mostly functions as the commercial and industrial heart of the island. Despite its relatively small size it is ringed by a highway, has fast-food chains, home improvement centers, and all the rest of it. I generally think it’s better to stay in some cute fishing village somewhere if you can.
That said, Ponta Delgada is the only place where you’ll find backpacker hostels on São Miguel, so this is good to know if you’re a budget traveler.
Towns that I’ve liked a lot include Caloura, Vila Franca do Campo, Povocao, Ribeira Grande, Salga, Capelas, and more — and these are all good hunting grounds for finding Airbnbs or small guesthouses.
Things to do on São Miguel
This is truly one of the top things to do on São Miguel, blessed as it is with numerous well-marked trails that offer a variety of landscapes and flora.
Consider going on the Salto do Cabrito hike which goes parallel to rusty old pipes used by an abandoned hydroelectric dam, followed by a stop at one of the island’s most beautiful waterfalls. Or hike to the Salto do Prego, a waterfall on the remote east coast of São Miguel.
For a lot more hiking tips, see my top hikes on the Azores.
Relax at the hot springs
São Miguel is the only island on the Azores that has any secondary volcanic activity, meaning it’s the island where steam vents and sulphuric baths can be found. The Caldeira Velha hot spring is the most beautiful one, surrounded by a Jurassic Park-like jungle, but there are four other great hot springs on São Miguel.
Beaches & pools
Although the Azores is not a typical beach destination due to its climate and relative lack of sandy beaches, there are nevertheless a fair number of beaches around. There are also numerous natural rocky pools and harbors where you can jump into the sea from the docks. For a few ideas, see my list of beaches and natural pools on the Azores.
Tip: pack some old swimming gear for use in the hot springs, as the iron content can leave hard-to-wash orange stains!
Go whale & dolphin watching
The waters around the Azores are filled with whales and dolphins. I highly recommend heading out to sea with Moby Dick Tours in Ponta Delgada, a family-run company whose captain is truly passionate about spotting these incredible creatures.
Even the most cynical bastard will crack a big smile when seeing a pod of dolphins hopping all around the boat.
Enjoy the fresh seafood
Fresh seafood is never far away on the Azores and on São Miguel you can have it in spades — and it’s not expensive, either. Go for some freshly caught seabass, or go for something more adventurous like some gnarly barnacles, which take a little specialized hook to get the meat out. Bon Appetit.
Visit a tea plantation
Did you know that tea is grown in Europe? Well, it isn’t, except for this one spot on the Azores. At the Gorreana Tea Factory, you can learn about tea cultivation on the island and how the product was brought to the Azores by two Chinese tea experts in 1874.
Visit the smoking town of Furnas
The town of Furnas is where the secondary volcanic activity is at its most obvious. Sulphuric steam rises up from a dozen or so vents at the center of town, lending the place a certain pungent smell as well. Consider trying the Cozida de Furnas, a stew that is slow-cooked over a volcanic steam vent for many hours. Tony’s is one of the restaurants where this typical dish can be tried.
See the epic Fogo lake
Known as the ‘smoke lake’, Fogo can be found in one of the island’s three volcanic calderas. Multiple viewpoints let you enjoy the epic view – that is, when the lake is not shrouded under a veil of mist, as is sometimes the case. A small trail leads to the lakeshore.
See the Sete Cidades
This is arguably the most known attraction on São Miguel, featuring often on posters, brochures, and Instagram. The two volcanic lakes split by a dam in the middle can be best seen from the Boca do Inferno viewpoint. Keep in mind this is a popular drone- and selfie-spot, but you can get there early in the day for an uncrowded experience.
Drive to the remote eastern side
Most visitors to São Miguel stick to the west of the island, attracted principally by Sete Cidades, but it’s the eastern extreme that holds some of the nicest surprises. Without any highways and with some remote and beautifully situated villages (like Povocao), it’s São Miguel at its most pure.
Try the Azorean food
The Azores is known for its local production of a wide variety of ingredients, which makes it a foodie paradise. Being in the sea, of course, makes it a perfect place to try the super fresh seafood.
But the islands are also known for their excellent quality beef, thanks to happy cows spending all their time in the green fields of São Miguel. An amazing place to try the beef is at the Restaurante da Associacao Agricola, the official restaurant of the island’s farmer’s association. I have to say I’m not much of a steak lover myself as I find it just way too much work to eat, but my American friend assured me this place would be worth it… and I have to admit it was some of the best damn steak I’ve had.
Snorkel at the Vila Franca Islet
The islet of Vila Franca is a small crescent-shaped islet on the coast, the inside of which has a little beach where you can stay with the requisite ticket (visitor numbers are strictly controlled). The many dive shops on the island will also organize snorkeling trips that take you all along the outside of the islet. I must be honest and state that I did not quite see a huge abundance of sea life, though it was still a worthwhile experience and I nevertheless got to see several schools of fishes.
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