Given that there are 9 islands in the Azores archipelago, first-time visitors often wonder which to go to first. Due to its size, diversity and the number of flights, I’d say that São Miguel is the best island in the Azores to start off with.
The attraction of the Azores is mainly the natural beauty; there are few “must-see” monuments on any of the islands, although there are plenty of interesting spots. The best things to do in São Miguel include exploring its lakes, hot springs, natural swimming pools, tea plantation, rock formations and hiking trails.
For accommodation options check out my Which Is The Best Hotel In São Miguel, Azores, For You? post.
You don’t have to be super fit or adventurous to make the most of your visit; there are plenty of viewing spots you can drive to or visit on a guided tour to learn more about the local culture and landscapes.
1. Discover the delights of Ponta Delgada
Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel Island, is charming but quite small and laid back as cities go.
If you’re not planning to rent a car, or have a driver take you to different places on the island, Ponta Delgada is a good base. Most of the small group tours start from here and this is the best place for public transport, too.
There are plenty of accommodations, restaurants and shops, as well as a few interesting monuments and some pleasant gardens to explore during your stay.
If you’re looking for accommodation, check out my The best Ponta Delgada hotels and guesthouses post for some great ideas.
If you’re based elsewhere and just visiting, allow half a day to see the main sights. You could take this guided walking tour of Ponta Delgada to learn more about the city as you explore it.
2. Walk beneath the Portas da Cidade (City Gates)
These iconic black and white gates mark the entrance to Ponta Delgada’s historical centre and have seen many dignitaries walk beneath its three arches over time and featured in countless holiday photos.
Originally built in 1783 at a different location, they were moved to the present spot in 1952. On top of the central arch you can see the coat of arms of Portugal and of the municipality of Ponta Delgada.
3. Browse the collections at the Azorean Museum
Created in 1876, this Ponta Delgada museum (Museu Carlos Machado), soon built collections of zoology, botany, geology and mineralogy, principally for studying. Over the years these collections have grown and are now displayed over three spaces.
The museum has a variety of circuits that visitors can follow. The Natural History Circuit explores the original basis for the museum but you can also follow the Sacred Art Circuit or Convent Memory Circuit, which offers insights into the life of the Poor Clares who lived in the convent building long before it became a museum space.
Museum opening times: Summer (May 1st to October 31st) Tuesday to Sunday 10 am to 5:30 pm. Winter Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 am to 5 pm. Closed Monday.
Admission: 1 museum €2, all 3 museums €5.
4. Wander around the Sant’Ana Palace and José do Canto Gardens
Also in Ponta Delgada, this magnificent palace and surrounding gardens date back to the 19th century, a time when orange exportation to Great Britain was a booming business.
Purchased by the Azorean government in 1977, the palace is now presidential and therefore not open to the public. Entry to the landscaped botanical gardens is €5.
5. Stroll through the António Borges Gardens
Although not the most stunning public gardens I’ve ever set foot in, Jardim António Borges is a pleasant park to wander around if you have spare time in Ponta Delgada.
Once a private garden, until it was given to the local council in the 1950s, you’ll find a good selection of tree species and well-kept gardens.
Opening times are June to October, Monday to Friday 9 am to 8 pm, weekends and holidays 9 am to 9 pm. November to May, every day 9 am to 6 pm.
6. Admire the architecture of Ponta Delgada’s parish church
Located just behind Ponta Delgada’s famous town gates (see #2), the 16th century church of Saint Sebastian (Igreja Matriz de Sao Sebastião) is worth a look, mainly for the gilded carving on the main altar and azulejos.
I was most impressed by the stonework surrounding the doorway and windows of the parish church. I’m used to seeing elaborately carved limestone, sandstone and even granite on the mainland but this black basalt stone, and the contrast it makes against a white background, is striking.
7. Pop inside Igreja de São José for colourful tiles and unique ceilings
When a Franciscan order needed accommodation in Ponta Delgada in the 18th century, they decided to build a chapel/monastery on the site of an old primitive church. The result is this quite intriguing temple with its foreboding façade, dominated by the main entrance, stretching along the street.
The swirly stonework is a feature here too, making its windows stand out and beg to be photographed.
Go inside and you’ll find an extremely golden altar; look closely at the gilded decorations inside the church and you might spot a cherub throttling a goose!
I loved the painted ceiling, even if the 3D effect doesn’t quite work. It’s very different in terms of colour and style from ceilings I’ve seen in other Portuguese churches.
If you’re keen to see some of the azulejos (painted tiles) that Portugal is renowned for, you’ll find some beautiful polychrome murals.
The church is open from Monday to Sunday 9 am to 12 pm and 2 pm to 7 pm.
Whilst you’re visiting the church it’s well worth your while to take a moment and glance around the square (Campo de São Francisco) in which the church sits. The massive tree and pretty cobblestones are worth seeing in their own right.
8. Take in some history at Forte de São Brás
You won’t find any castles in the Azores but if you’re looking for the next best thing, this fortress in Ponta Delgada is pretty impressive.
Built in the 16th century, to see off pirates and corsairs, it was the biggest fortification on the Azores islands. Now it hosts a fine military museum where you can get your fix of weapons and military paraphernalia. There are lots of tunnels to wander through and you can climb to the roof for some great views of the city and port.
The museum is open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission €3.
9. Cool off at the Piscinas do Pesqueiro
A lovely way to cool off in Ponta Delgada is to go for a swim at this outdoor seawater swimming pool located just inside the Complexo das Portas do Mar by the marina. It’s very popular, open to the public every day from 7 am to 9 pm, free of charge and safe.
If you prefer enclosed outdoor pools, the adjacent Piscinas de São Pedro has an olympic sized pool as well as shallow ones for kiddies.
10. Enjoy a stroll along the waterfront
Sandwiched between the Piscinas do Pesqueiro pool and the fortress is the waterfront, including the marina. It’s a lovely walk and an ideal place for a little bit of people watching and ocean-gazing while sat on the seawall.
11. Discover the double coloured lakes at Sete Cidades
Visitors looking for things to do in São Miguel inevitably end up here and they’re rarely disappointed. Located within a 3-mile wide volcanic crater you’ll find the tiny village of Sete Cidades. It’s most famous for the distinctive colours of its two lakes, one blue, the other green.
Legend has it that the differently coloured lakes were created when a princess and her lover, a young shepherd, had to part from each other. The tears they shed at their farewell became the two lakes, mirroring the colours of their eyes.
Try paddling around the enchanted Blue Lake with this kayak rental service.
If you’re based in Ponta Delgada, you can explore Sete Cidades on this tour.
Although there are no major sights, a stroll around the village is pleasant and you’ll probably want to get a closer look at the pretty Igreja de São Nicolau, a neo-Gothic church with a single bell tower.
You can also discover Sete Cidades on this full day van tour which includes lunch. Other areas you’ll visit include Fogo Lake, Salto do Cabrito Waterfall, Ribeira Grande and Mosteiros (see below).
Or you could get to know Sete Cidades at your own pace by choosing from a variety of trails via this E-bike rental. GPS and maps are included.
12. Explore Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park
This wonderful natural park is a protected area in the northeast of São Miguel Island, where you’ll find cascading waterfalls and a myriad of different species of flora and fauna, from large tree ferns to hydrangeas and enormous conifers.
Thanks to its position on a watercourse, there’s a lovely waterfall along with a mill and millers’ house to explore.
There are some easy walking trails through the park which you could check out here.
If you’re happier with a quick visit, and would also like to spend time in Furnas (see below), you could discover the park and waterfall on this East São Miguel tour from Ponte Delgada.
13. Go whale and dolphin watching
Because São Miguel is a small island, you’re never far away from an opportunity to take to the waters, whether merely observing the best of nature or participating in some kind of recreational sport. One very popular activity, aside from diving, is whale and dolphin watching.
This eco-certified tour is led by a marine biologist who will help you to spot various different species of whales and dolphins as well as other marine life.
14. Uncover the mysteries of Mosteiros
Well, they’re not really mysteries. Mosteiros is a picturesque coastal village located on the west coast known for its stunning natural beauty. One thing that draws people here is its extraordinary beach.
The photogenic volcanic black sand of Mosteiros beach is quite enthralling and it’s lovely to walk along the beach, gazing out at the ocean.
The natural swimming pools to the north of the village (Piscinas Naturais Caneiros) offer a refreshing dip in the crystal clear rock pools. There are plenty of pools so keep wandering until you find one you like.
Just offshore are some lovely lava rock formations which again have to be photographed. These are the Ilhéus dos Mosteiros, 4 large rocks that are the remains of an island. One of them looks like a building with a sloped roof.
This area is also good for birdwatching, particularly waders. Mosteiros is home to birds such as cormorants, great miller, osprey and fusels, among others. If you’re interested in observing birds in their natural habitat, this seabird watching tour is for you.
In the centre of Mosteiros village is the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, built in 1837. With its white facade, edged with black volcanic stone, it’s a very attractive building.
This west São Miguel full day tour with lunch includes Mosteiros amongst other places.
15. Watch the earth bubble at Furnas, São Miguel
The geysers and geothermal waters attract many visitors to the village of Furnas and I can totally understand why. Steam, sulphurous vapour and the plopping of boiling grey clay welcome you to the lake, creating a kind of strange otherworldliness.
You can try a delicious casserole straight from the fumarole, aka underground cooking hole, where it’s been cooking for up to 6 hours. There’s usually a food truck serving samples or you can head to a nearby restaurant for your cozido.
You can taste the delicious cozido and bathe in a thermal pool during the cool evening on this night-time thermal pools and food experience.
Read more about Furnas in this article.
16. Visit Vila Franca do Campo Island
Head down to the southern part of São Miguel island to the town of Vila Franca do Campo and you’ll see the gorgeous islet of Vila Franca do Campo about a kilometre off the coast.
The islet is formed from the crater of an ancient, submerged volcano and its almost circular lake, with crystal clear waters, is perfect for swimming and diving.
It’s a protected area so the number of visitors per day is limited. For that reason, I’d aim to catch a ferry earlier in the day to avoid disappointment. Unfortunately, Dori and I missed out because there was an event going on so tickets had sold out by the time we got there. It’s high on my list of things to do on my next trip to the Azores.
We made do instead with the small sandy beach of Praia da Vinha da Areia to the east of the town of Vila Franca do Campo.
17. Explore the Tropical Terra Nostra Gardens
You can wander around a variety of bubbling lakes and themed gardens, with an array of amazing tropical flowers. Watch out for examples of topiary with some quite scary looking species of green beasts.
18. Bathe in hot springs at Poças da Dona Beija
Poças da Dona Beija is my preferred hot springs venue in Furnas, although there is another one inside Terra Nostra Gardens.
Within the outdoor complex there are a variety of pools offering water at different temperatures and pressure so you can treat your body to a self-guided therapeutic hydromassage or just relax in the warm water and enjoy being surrounded by tropical foliage.
19. Visit Gorreana tea plantation
The Gorreana Tea Factory is the oldest tea factory in Europe still in operation. Because of the climate and volcanic soil, and the lack of nearby industrialisation, the green and black teas produced here are 100% organic and recognised throughout the world for their quality.
If you visit the plantation you can watch the entire process, from picking to packaging, and learn about the company’s history. My favourite of their teas is the Orange Pekoe so do make a point of trying it.
There’s also a 3.4 km circular hiking trail (PRC28 SMI) that runs through its verdant tea plantations and was quite easy to follow. It offers great views of the coastline as well as of the tea plantation.
20. Take in the surroundings at Pico do Ferro Viewpoint
There are some amazing miradouros, or viewpoints, throughout the island but I think one of the most spectacular must be this one.
From here you’ll get marvellous views, not just of Furnas and the lagoons but the whole of the surrounding area. It’s just a 5-minute drive from Furnas Lake and there’s plenty of parking.
You can get a taste of it with this short video.
Of course, if you can get there at sunset, even better!
You can visit the Pico do Ferro viewpoint on this east São Miguel full day trip.
21. Enjoy the views from Miradouro da Boca do Inferno
At the other end of the island from Pico do Ferro you’ll find Miradouro da Boca do Inferno. Here you’ll get views of Lagoa do Canário, Lagoa das Sete Cidades, Lagoa Rasa, part of the village of Sete Cidades and part of Serra Devassa.
Be aware that you can only drive so far before having to take the walkway but you don’t have to walk much further for magnificent views. That is assuming any mist has cleared; it was very misty in the morning when I visited but by later in the day it had lifted and we could actually see the lakes from above.
An easy hike is this 2.4 km out-and-back trail which should take you less than an hour to complete.
22. Get your fill of art at Centro de Artes Arquipélago
18 km from Ponta Delgada, in Ribeira Grande, you’ll find this contemporary arts centre. Beyond the foreboding and imposing grey exterior you’ll find a range of exhibits, from visual arts to architecture.
The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission is €3.
23. Find out why the Azores and pineapples go together
If you’d like to find out more about one of the most popular products of the island, check out one of the pineapple plantations. Apparently, there are more than 6,000 of them!
The Azorean pineapple is thought to be more aromatic, has less sugars and is rich in proteins and vitamins, as well as having countless therapeutic and healing properties. Sounds pretty good and it does taste delicious!
Up to the 19th century, the orange was the main fruit of the island, all until it was decimated by a nasty fungal disease.
Its replacement was chosen and in 1832 the first pineapple was introduced to the Azores from South America and cultivation soon followed. Since they are non-native, cultivating them requires special care and greenhouses but a tour is well worthwhile.
You can visit a pineapple plantation on this Full-day tour to Sete Cidades and Lagoa do Fogo.
24. Choose from the best hiking trails
Sadly for Dori and I, we haven’t yet had much luck with hiking in São Miguel but there are some fabulous trails to explore and we are excited for our next trip.
We tried to do the circular trail around the Sete Cidades crater but it was so foggy we couldn’t see the views and decided to turn back. To be honest, we were never going to do the full 20 km loop but we had hoped to see some amazing views from the rim of the crater before retracing our steps. Next time!
We were thwarted by heavy rain that made a walk around Furnas lake less appealing but that’s also supposed to be a nice one.
You can see the beautiful Salto do Prego waterfall, hidden in the middle of the forest, on this 4 km loop trail near Faial da Terra. It’s a moderately challenging route which usually takes about an hour and a half to complete.
For some excellent walking trail choices see this Best trails in Azores from AllTrails.
25. Discover the joys of golfing in Azores
São Miguel Island has 2 courses for golfers to enjoy, (with a third on the smaller island of Terceira) and both have highly-praised conditions and beautiful views.
Close to Ponta Delgada, Batalha’s tree lined fairways are a joy to play and the Furnas course provides a genuine test of skill and finesse.
For a complete rundown of golf courses found in Madeira, check out what golf travel expert Andy Waple says in this Stunning Madeira and Azores golf courses for you to enjoy article.
How to get to São Miguel and move around the island
The Aeroporto João Paulo II, around 3 kilometers from the capital Ponta Delgada, is Sao Miguel’s international airport so it’s relatively easy to catch a flight there. There are daily direct flights from the US and Canada but limited direct flights from the UK, although it’s straightforward to fly to Lisbon or Porto and then get a connecting flight to the island.
For getting around the island once you’re there, I’d recommend hiring a car, unless you’re using guides and drivers to get around. Roads are quiet, signage good and you get to explore loads of off-the-beaten-track places in your own good time.
Search for a car with Discovercars.com
If you don’t fancy getting behind the wheel yourself, there are plenty of tours to choose from, especially if you’re based in Ponta Delgada.
Where to stay on São Miguel
There’s a wide choice of accommodation to stay in on São Miguel, from superb hotels to quaint guesthouses. These are just a quick selection – for more recommendations, see my Best Hotels in São Miguel guide.
The 4-star Senhora da Rosa, Tradition & Nature Hotel is set in beautiful surroundings on the outskirts of Ponta Delgada with an outdoor pool and a fantastic rooftop restaurant. There’s a spa and a lovely hot-tub among the pineapples! The rooms are spacious with lots of natural light and the beds are comfy. The staff are very friendly and helpful. Choose dates to suit you.
Search Booking.com for places to stay on São Miguel island. If you’re planning to explore the other islands and need accommodation, take a look at my Where To Stay In the Azores For An Unforgettable Vacation post.