We have recently spent 4 days on Sao Miguel island in the Azores. Azores (an autonomous region of Portugal) is a 9-island archipelago located in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, some 870 miles west of Lisbon. Volcanic Azores are known for its hiking trails but as a non-hiker I was worried about finding things to do to fill our 4-day itinerary. 4 days on Sao Miguel was not enough to cover all of the beaches, viewpoints (miradouros) and spas we wanted to visit during our stay. We roughly devoted each day of our 4-day trip to exploring the island’s East, North, South and West parts – Scroll down to the bottom of the post for our four itinerary by day.
Here are our favorite things to do on Sao Miguel Azores for non-hikers:
Relaxing in a thermal spa
We find thermal spas incredibly relaxing and make sure to visit them everywhere we travel. Sao Miguel is known worldwide for its therapeutic spa waters – and spa hotel Terra Nostra Garden in Furnas (located inside the botanical gardens) is where I drew the inspiration for the trip. This spa was my favorite relaxation experience on the island – slowly moving around the huge thermal pool surrounded by lush greenery of the gardens with the views over the mountain tops in the distance.
Thermal spas (natural or man-made) could be found on different parts of Sao Miguel (some-right in the ocean!) – but the majority are located in the hot springs town of Furnas in the East. We stayed in Terra Nostra Garden Hotel there during our trip and I already dream of returning (you can visit this spa with a day ticket purchased on site but hotel guests enjoy 24-hour access to the thermal pool)
In the spirit of blog research, on one of our 4 days on Azores we visited three (!) different spas- in our hotel Terra Nostra in the morning (before outside visitors are let in), the natural ones in Caldeira Velja eco park (be sure to prebook your visit) and Spa Poça da Dona Beija Hot Springs in the town of Furnas after dinner (they were open until 11pm that day). All 3 spas offered a relaxing but very different atmosphere- so you have to try them all!
Finding your favorite Beach
There are a variety of beaches on Sao Miguel island. Many beaches are lined with rock formations- which are beautiful (even mysterious) but may make entering the water a bit challenging (metal stairs/jetties are a fixture at rocky public beaches). Some beaches are sandy but true white sand is rare. We visited the island in early September and found the ocean water quite swimmable (at 22-23c/76f). Many public beaches offer convenient shower and changing facilities, cute cafes and salt water swimming pools.
We visited 7 beaches during our 4-day visit to Sao Miguel and my favorite beach was Praia de Fogo in the town of Ribeira Quente on the South coast. It is a sandy beach with submarine fumaroles which make the ocean water warmer than on nearby beaches.
My husband’s favorite swimming experience was at Ponta da Ferraria natural oceanic thermal pool. We were lucky with timing for our visit – it was a perfect “mid” tide with practically no waves (at a low tide the water can get too hot but on high tide you may miss the “hot springs” effect entirely). The shore is very rocky and I did not brave the metal staircase to enter.
Looking down from one of the many viewpoints
Sao Miguel is a mountainous island with many viewpoints over volcanic lakes and green valleys. The most famous viewpoints are probably the ones in Sete Cidades (on the Western part of the island) over the twin volcanic lakes: The Miradouro da Vista Do Rei and Miradoura da Boca do Inferno.
I have to admit that we were at first hesitant about driving the roads to theses viewpoints in our smallish rental vehicle, but we found pretty much all of the roads we used to get to the viewpoints quite manageable. The windiest road we have experienced was going down to Ponta da Ferraria- just go slow there.
TIP. The viewpoints over the lakes could get clouded so it is often recommend using Azores webcam site to check the conditions before you go. In our experience, the clouds changed so quickly, that we didn’t’ see the point in “pre-checking”. When we arrived at Miradouro do Pico da Barasso to admire Lago da Furnas, for example, we had a great view all around and over the fumaroles down below (they are used for cooking local volcanic specialties), but after just a couple of minutes the view drowned in a thick cloud of fog.
Trying local seafood
Fresh “right from the boat” seafood is in abundance on Sao Miguel. You may or may not fall in love with local delicacies- the limpets (variety of shellfish), but there is no denial of the quality of local seafood in general. Our favorite restaurant was ocean front Bar Caloura on the South Shore -with 7 daily fresh catch options – and a gorgeous view over the rocky beach underneath.
Bar Caloura is popular for a reason (there was a local filming crew at the time of our visit); they also do not accept reservations -so arrive early for lunch/dinner service or be prepared to wait a bit (the line goes fast).
Another place we liked for the abundance of seafood choices was Cais20 -it enjoys a waterfront location near Sao Roque beach (even if the views are not as splendid as Bar Caloura’s).
Admiring lush greenery
Sao Miguel is nicknamed the “The Green Island” – there is abundance of all shades of green everywhere you go. We especially loved walking around the town of Furnas with the green mountain tops in the background and volcanic streams everywhere you go- it felt like we were on another planet! There are 30 springs of different temperatures and chemical compositions around the town’s main square Largo das Caldeiras. There is also a drinking public fountain with therapeutic spring water in the middle of town.
In Furnas you can also visit Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens (also the site of Terra Nostra spa hotel where we stayed) with hundreds of plant species from all over the world.
Another way to admire the greenery on Sao Miguel is to visit a pineapple farm (local specialty) or a tea plantation. Gorreana Tea Plantation is the oldest and only remaining tea plantation n Europe with gorgeous walking trails overlooking the coast.
For the tea tasting experience – we enjoyed a private tea ceremony at Challet da Tia Merces in Furnas where we tasted 13 types of local tea and learnt the secrets of tea making from Paula the owner. (Paula was also an incredibly helpful travel resource to us for everything we wanted to know while on the island).
If you looking for flat easy walks on Sao Miguel, in addition to Terra Nostra Garden walk and Gorreana Plantation walk, there is Caldeira Velja eco park, and a walk around Lago da Furnas (the latter we only admired from the viewpoint: this six-mile lake Furnas trail starts in the village and circles the lake and takes about two hours.)
Stopping by for coffee in small towns
During our busy island explores we made “fuel” stops for coffee and people watching in the main squares of small towns. Our favorite small town for this activity was Ribeira Grande –with interesting architecture and a river running through the center of town.
Our 4 day Sao Miguel Itinerary:
Day 1. East (Airport to Furnas).
Arrival in Ponta Delgada Airport (9am), picking a rental car and driving to our Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in Furnas with stops at Ananases Arruda Pineapple plantation near Ponta Delgada and then on Caloura Beach and Caloura Café for lunch on the South Coast. Checking into Terra Nostra Hotel. Furnas town walk and Chalet da Tia Merces tea ceremony. Overnight: Furnas
Meal of the day: Bar Caloura- for the views and fresh fish selections .
Day 2. North Coast
This was our most packed day of sights and swims: Lake Furnas Viewpoint; Santa Barbara Beach and the town’s beach of Ribeira Grande, Caldera Velha Park (need to prebook to go into natural hot spas), quick stop at Gorreana Tea Plantation and night swim at Poca Donna Beija Spa in Furnas. Overnight: Furnas
Meal of the day: Hotel Terra Nostra birthday dinner was perfect. We did not brave the local cozido style dishes (cooked in the ground by volcanic stream) but everything we ordered (including the fois gra) was fresh, flavorful and beautifully plated.
Day 3. South Coast.
Praia do Fogo Beach and town of Ribeira Quente (lunch and another try of the limpets), town of Villa Franco, climbing to the top of Church Ermida de Nossa Senhora do Paz, checking into Hotel Octant in Ponta Delgada.
Meal of the day: Lunch at Praia do Fogo Beach café for views, prices and relaxed atmosphere. Peel yourself shrimp was best we ever tasted.
Day 4. West Coast
Viewpoint The Miradouro da Vista Do Rei (over Lago Sete Cidades), Lago Sete Cidades, town of Sete Cidades, Ponta Ferraria natural pools, evening walk in Ponta Delgado. Overnight: Ponta Delgado
Meal of the day: Cais20 in Sao Rogue near Ponta Delgada – unbelievable amount of fresh fish and seafood choices.
On our To Do List for next time on Sao Miguel: boat trip to the islet of Vila Franca do Campo (there are limited number of daily boats and they book fast), Viewpoint of Miradouro do Pico da Barasso for views over Lago de Fogo, Formosa Beach for white sand; natural ocean pools of Mosteiros in the West and exploring the coast near Nordeste east of Furnas.
Tips for Planning your Azores getaway
Where to stay
If you are planning a short getaway or are simply looking to stay in one location during your stay, Ponta Delgada is somewhat central. You could reach most points of interest on the island within 40 minutes (and an airport is 10 minutes drive away). We stayed waterfront in a modern Octant Delgada (which was a bargain compared to current US hotel prices). Their buffet breakfast was the best I ever had in any hotel.
If you have more than 2 nights on the island it might make sense to stay in 2 different areas and not backtrack. We divided our stay between Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in Furnas and Octant Delgada in Ponta Delgada.
When to Go
You could visit pretty much any time during the year but for ocean swimming, May-September are probably best. It could rain anytime in the Azores so pack a jacket. It could also get clouded pretty quickly (that’s why I don’t find viewpoint webcams particularly useful).
We prebooked our car rental at Economy Rent-a car located right at the airport. While we were worried about manipulating winding roads in a smaller car, we managed just fine.
How to get there
There are direct 5-hour flights from several US locations, such as Boston and New York but these may be seasonal.