Did you know that there is a hidden treasure in the Atlantic? A remarkable nine-island archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal, is just recently starting to get some tourism love. The Azores Islands, or in Portuguese, Açores, are the Hawaii of Europe, and should be the next destination on your bucket list. After spending the last three months living in Mexico, Sasha and I decided to start our next stint of living and working remotely abroad by spending two weeks on Sao Miguel Island, the largest island in the archipelago also known as Ilha Verde or “Green Island”. I grew up on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, which has many similarities and connections to the Azores, however, these unique islands have a special energy all their own. The entire island of Sao Miguel is like a giant perfectly manicured park with rolling green hills, vibrant azaleas and hydrangeas around each winding road, dotting hillsides with specks of color, stunning cliff sides, and interesting rock formations jutting out of the ocean.
If you’re curious to know more about the Azores Islands; the culture, the food, the ethnography, the geography and the history, check out my informative blog post on Everything You Need To Know About Visiting The Azores Islands.
In this post, I’ll be focusing on Sao Miguel Island, including where to eat, where to stay, and the top 21 things to do on Sao Miguel Island. So, what kind of traveler is best suited for a visit to Sao Miguel Island? If you love nature, ocean sports, flying drones, photographing natural beauty, relaxing in hot springs, and hiking, then Sao Miguel is for you. Conversely, if you’re looking for parties, nightlife, a foodie city, and fashion, then you’ll be quite disappointed. Being on the island of Sao Miguel is like taking a step back into time, where neighbors all know one another, virtually no crime exists, and you can actually imagine what an island looked like before mass tourism takes over.
Since Sasha and I work remotely and on Seattle time zone hours, we had the privilege of having the entire day to ourselves, and then beginning our work day at 3:00 PM local time. This enabled us to explore the island and get in some good hikes and hot springs before working! For more on hiking trails on Sao Miguel Island, check out Azores Trails, or All Trails also works here.
WHERE TO STAY ON SAO MIGUEL ISLAND
If you prefer not to stay in hotels, or you’ve got a family and prefer two bedrooms, or if you’re a couple working remotely, or are here for a long-term stay, I recommend this Airbnb in Ribiera Grande. We stayed here during our two weeks on Sao Miguel and it was perfect! The owner, Diane, is from the U.S., so communication in English is no problem. The views are great, it’s quiet and spacious with lots of natural light, it’s got a full kitchen, and a supermarket Continente right next door.
Just across the street from this Airbnb is Mar Verde Hotel, which is a five-star property situated right on the ocean.
If you’re looking for a more boutique experience situated just off the beach with gorgeous views and a remote feel, Santa Barbara Eco Resort is a great place to stay.
If you’re looking for more affordable accommodation and prefer to be in more of a shared, communal space, check out Dwell Azores, which is also a coworking space! (More on this below in the top 21 things to do on Sao Miguel Island.)
For the Best Places To Eat on Sao Miguel Island, read on to the end of this blog post. But first, you’re probably wondering what there is to do on Sao Miguel Island!
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU STAY ON SAO MIGUEL?
Before our trip, we wondered if we would get bored. Our original plan was to stay for one month until Europe re-opened to U.S. travelers, but after two weeks we discovered that because we were already on European Union land, a flight into mainland Portugal was considered a domestic flight! And that’s how we were able to come to Lisbon, which is where we are now. After spending two weeks on the island, the verdict was that we absolutely could have stayed longer without feeling bored. However, this is highly subjective; if you thrive in city life with nightlife, bars, happening places with lots of people, then you may feel bored by the lack of nightlife on the island. But the word “bored” just isn’t in our vocabulary, because we always keep ourselves busy with exploring or simply relaxing on a beach with a good audio book or podcast to listen to. All the people who have visited Sao Miguel say the same; that they could have easily stayed longer than they did.
With that being said, it is entirely possible to drive the circumference of the island in one day, but why would you want to do that? The beauty of the island lies in being able to savor the sights, sounds, tastes and textures which surround you. For folks who don’t have much time on a holiday or are keen to visit other islands, I would say that 5 – 7 days on Sao Miguel is sufficient. But if you’re able to stay longer, I recommend it!
TOP 21 THINGS TO DO ON SAO MIGUEL ISLAND
- Visit The Town of Furnas (Lagoa das Furnas, Termas das Furnas, Terra Nostra Park)
- Try Cozido
- Hike Sete Cidades
- Go Canoeing on Sete Cidades Lake
- Go on a Canyoning Tour with Picos de Aventura
- Go Whale or Dolphin Watching
- Hike Lagoa do Fogo
- Visit a Hot Spring (or all five!)
- Drive the Harrowing Steep Hill Down to Farol Do Arnel Lighthouse
- Take a Food Tour with Hungry Whale Food Tours
- Take a Fondue Cheese Making Class with Wine on the Terrace at Lapsa Garden
- Shop at the Mercado da Graca
- Visit Cha Gorreana – The Oldest Working Tea Factory in Europe
- Take a Stroll Through Ponta Delgada
- Stand in Awe at the Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego
- Marvel at Incredible Cliff Formations at Farol do Cintrao
- Hike to Lagoa do Congro – The Greenest Lake on the Island
- Take a Surf Lesson at Santa Barbara
- Visit Nordeste
- Hike Praia da Viola
- Check Out Dwell Azores – a Sweet Co-Working Space
Visit The Town of Furnas
Furnas (pronounced Foor-nosh) was by far our favorite spot on the island. It’s got a unique vibe that makes you feel as though you’ve entered a giant zen garden. As soon as you step out of your car and breathe in the fresh air mixed with smells of sulfur from the natural boiling springs, you’re immediately soothed into a relaxing state of mind.
There are several things to see and do in Furnas, including:
- Hike Lagoa das Furnas
- Termas das Furnas (hot springs)
- Ensconce Yourself in Nature at Terra Nostra Park
- Try Cozido das Furnas
Lagoa das Furnas is a lovely lake nestled in the crater, perfect for a nature walk.
There’s a quaint cafe / museum nestled at the foot of the lake inside the park if you’d like to enjoy a break from walking with an espresso or agua con gas (sparkling water).
Another natural phenomenon that Furnas is known for, is their boiling hot springs called Termas das Furnas, located in Terra Nostra Park, one of the most beautiful parks if not THE most beautiful park on the island. This is the largest hot spring, and even though the color is not the most aesthetically appealing, it’s the warmest water temperature and rich in iron, hence the copper color.
Either before, after, or in between soaks, you can walk through the beautiful Terra Nostra Garden, which looks like a postcard straight out of Southeast Asia (minus the tell tale Acorean architecture).
The famous dish of Furnas (and also of Sao Miguel Island as a whole), is called Cozido, which simply means “cooked” in Portuguese. To make Cozido das Furnas, all the ingredients are placed in a giant pot (usually cabbage, carrots, onion, many different types of meats (on the bone), chorizo, blood sausage, potatoes, taro root and chard.) The pot is buried in the boiling waters, covered with soil, and left to cook for at least five hours. We were told by one of our local guides that you know it’s a good Cozido if it does not have the taste of sulfur.
HIKE SETE CIDADES
Sete Cidades is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal. There are two lookouts that you’ll want to be sure not to miss. The first lookout is right across from the old abandoned hotel, and is where you can see the two different lakes side by side and clearly see the difference between the colors, caused by the slope of the mountain, reflecting the green trees onto the water.
The second vista is from the very top, and is one of the most photographed locations in the entire Azores Islands archipelago. When you Google images of Azores Islands, this is the view that most commonly shows up in photos.
Once you drive to the top and see the incredible views, you can drive down to the lake. While there is no swimming allowed, you can take a canoe tour!
TAKE A CANYONING TOUR WITH PICOS DE AVENTURA
If you’re looking for adventure or adrenaline, look no further than an awesome local company called Picos De Aventura. They offer many different types of adventure and eco tours, including whale and dolphin watching, canyoning, and walking tours. Their guides are funny and knowledgeable, and made us feel very safe. You can see their offerings and book your tour here.
GO WHALE OR DOLPHIN WATCHING
The Azores Islands is one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins. Whale watching season lasts from April through October, where you can spot the mighty Blue Whale and Humpback Whale, however, Sperm Whales can be seen all year long. However, The Atlantic Ocean can be quite rough, so I recommend going in the morning when the sea is calmer.
HIKE LAGOA DO FOGO
This was our favorite hike with the most rewarding views that you don’t even need to hike to get to! You can simply drive up to the view point, or you can hike down to the lake and back up again (out and back), which is around 6.3 kilometers with only 140 meters elevation gain. There’s a lovely beach at the bottom where you can rest and watch fisherman fly fishing. However, please note that no swimming is allowed in the lake.
VISIT A HOT SPRING (OR ALL FIVE!)
Sao Miguel is the hot springs mecca, and each has its own special charm. Before you visit the hot springs, here are some helpful tips to know:
- Wear an old, dark-colored bathing suit, as some of the baths will stain clothing
- Remove your jewelry (especially silver and gold), as the iron in the water may tarnish it
- For men and women with long hair; tie it up so as not to liter the baths with stray hairs
- If you’re pregnant, consult your doctor prior to entering
Here are the five hot springs:
- Terra Nostra Park (Termas das Furnas)
- Caldeira Velha
- Termas das Caldeiras
- Termas Da Ferraria
- Poca de Dona Beija
Terra Nostra Park
Two main pools, plus a bonus of a waterfall-fed warm spring!
Termas das Caldeiras
This is the smallest of all the hot springs, located just outside Ribiera Grande. This milky water spring is set against a quiet, peaceful backdrop. Be sure to go across the street to the best restaurant in town for Cozido, Restaurante Caldeiras.
Termas da Ferraria
This is a special one, because it’s in the ocean! There are also two smaller pools (you must make advance reservation for the ones in the above photo), but the ocean springs are open to the public and quite the natural phenomenon! The warm water from beneath the earth, mixes with the cold ocean water, creating a bathtub-like experience, though it is dependent on the ebb and flow of the tides. It’s best to go during low tide, otherwise it can be quite rough getting in and out, and you must know how to swim.
Drive the Harrowing Steep Hill Down to Farol Do Arnel Lighthouse
This was one of the steepest, most harrowing downhill slopes we’ve ever climbed in a car with a stick shift, and I’m not going to lie to you, it was a bit frightening! But the views made it a stunning reward. Just be warned that if you are driving a stick shift and are not comfortable on hills, do not attempt this, as it truly feels nearly vertical!
Take a Food Tour with Hungry Whale Food Tours
If you’re keen to learn about the food, history, geography, geology, culture and ethnography of the magical and mysterious Azores Islands, I highly recommend taking a food tour with Hungry Whale Food Tours. To learn more about this tour, read my article on Everything You Need To Know About Visiting The Azores Islands.
Take a Fondue Cheese Making Class with Wine on the Terrace at Lapsa Garden
For another lovely foodie-meets-nature experience, check out Lapsa Garden. They do several foodie experiences, including a fondue cheese making class in their beautiful garden terrace overlooking the ocean.
Shop at the Mercado da Graca
This is the largest farmers market in Ponta Delgada, selling everything from honey to hand-made soaps, to fresh fish and vegetables, all locally produced. And don’t miss O Rei Dos Queijos (The King of Cheese).
Visit Cha Gorreana – The Oldest Working Tea Factory in Europe
Cha Gorreana is the oldest working tea factory in Europe, established in 1883. Admission is free, and you can take a self guided tour, following the arrows on the ground to see how tea is still produced today. After your self-guided walking tour through the relatively small factory, you can sample a few different types of tea (also free), and then walk the beautiful hike through the perfectly manicured fields where the tea is grown.
Stroll Through Ponta Delgada
Ponta Delgada is the capital of Sao Miguel Island. We loved the tiled buildings and decorated mosaic sidewalks, depicting patterns and foods that are special to the islands, such as wheat and pineapples.
Stand in Awe at the Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego
This was the most unexpectedly beautiful miradouro (lookout) on Sao Miguel that we stumbled upon. You don’t even realize how gorgeous it is until you get out of your car and walk up the steps to the main part of the garden, where you will be met with this exquisite views, which reminded me of Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii.
See Incredible Cliff Formations at Farol do Cintrao
This was yet another unexpected lookout that took us by surprise! Sasha had just searched for hikes in the area, and this came up; while it isn’t a hike, the views alone are worth the stop! Watch your hats, it’s windy! This was also a pretty epic place to fly our drone.
Hike to Lagoa do Congro – The Greenest Lake on the Island
This is an easy out and back trail, which takes you to a bright green lake that looks as though it’s filled with slime because of the intense color. There is no swimming allowed here.
Take a Surf Lesson at Santa Barbara and Enjoy Ribiera Grande
Santa Barbara in Ribiera Grande, is a great place for beginner to intermediate surfers, and there are lessons and board / wetsuit rentals offered just below the Santa Barbara Eco Resort. I highly recommend taking a lesson with these guys; they’re awesome, and one of the instructors, Peter, was actually the model for the giant surfer fountain that you see in the roundabout in Ribiera Grand near the Hotel Verde Mar & Spa! This is where we met several of our new friends on the islands.
Ribiera Grande is a cute area to walk around in for its quaint churches and architecture. When we visited, it felt like an abandoned ghost town.
Nordeste is a quiet town nestled in the mountains, and it’s lovely for a drive through or to stop at a cafe.
Hike Praia da Viola
Sao Miguel Island is surrounded by black sand beaches, and Praia da Viola is a lovely easy hike downhill to the beach (out and back).
Check Out Dwell Azores – a Sweet Coworking Space
If you’re looking for a co-working / cohabitation space, check out Dwell Azores, a co-working space-meets-hostel-meets-awesome-hang-out where all the cool kids of Sao Miguel gather. We met Charles and Ania, the couple who owns this co-working space, at a surf lesson in Santa Barbara and immediately became friends. We feel lucky to have met them, and highly encourage others to check out the space! It’s a great way to meet like-minded travelers and make new friends. And you can’t beat the views!
WHERE TO EAT ON SAO MIGUEL ISLAND
While The Azores Islands are not a foodie destination, you will find some delicious local treats that can only be found on the islands. Meals are home cooked and prepared from scratch, using local ingredients from the islands that people will serve to you with great pride! For more about traditional Acorean food, check out my blog post: Everything You Need To Know About Visiting The Azores Islands.
Here are our top favorite places to eat on Sao Miguel Island:
- TuKaTuLa (Ribiera Grande) – healthy, fresh food specializing in bowls (vegan options available). Order their tuna bowl and relax with splendid views right on the ocean.
- Santa Barbara Eco Resort (Ribiera Grande) – located inside the hotel and open to the public. Great for breakfast with a nice selection of teas.
- Boteco do Miguel – delicious pizza owned by a Canadian / Azorean
Try the smoked chorizo with French garlic (AKA leeks).
- Restaurante O Silva (Ribiera Grande) – traditional food and a local favorite
- Restaurante Caldeiras (great for a visit after soaking at Termas das Furnas) – order their Cozido and garlic bread!
- Tony’s (Furnas) – another local favorite
- Casa de Cha “O Poejo” (Furnas) – lovely garden ambience with a great selection of tea and delicious soup and pastries
- Coffee Bar Alfredo (pastry & coffee shop on the side of the road on the way to Furnas from Ribiera Grande)
- Tasca (Ponta Delgada) – traditional Acorean food
Now you know all the best hot springs, hikes, beaches, things to do, and where to eat on Sao Miguel Island! We are keen to return to the Azores to explore all the other islands. But alas, our goal was to get to mainland Europe, which we have accomplished as we are now in Lisbon. The Romanov adventures of living and working remotely abroad, continue!
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