Santa Maria is a picturesque island in the Azores archipelago, located in the Atlantic Ocean. With its stunning landscapes, pristine beaches, and rich cultural heritage, Santa Maria offers a unique travel experience. Santa Maria isn’t as dramatic as some of the other Azores islands, but it is very beautiful and a great place to spend a few days. You could probably see the main attractions in two full days, but you may want to allow more to take your time — or just in case the weather isn’t good.
This travel guide will help you explore the best attractions, savour delicious local cuisine, find the perfect time to visit, and choose suitable accommodation options.
Getting to Santa Maria is becoming increasingly convenient with the availability of direct flights from Lisbon, as well as connecting flights from the Ponta Delgada Airport (PDL) on São Miguel, the largest island in the Azores. If you’re flying from Lisbon, you can embark on a direct flight that will transport you to Santa Maria’s Vila do Porto Airport in just 2.5 hours. Alternatively, if you’re already in the Azores, you can catch a connecting flight from Ponta Delgada to Santa Maria.
There is usually a ferry service between São Miguel and Santa Maria, but it may not always be available due to weather conditions, seasonality, or other factors. Recently, Atlantico-line, the ferry operator, seems to have stopped running this route. You can check on their website for more info.
It’s also possible to take a day trip from São Miguel. This is probably a bit too quick for most people, as you really need at least two days to see everything the island has to offer, but could be an option for those short on time.
Where to Stay
Vila do Porto (the main town on the island) is a good option for many people as it has the majority of the island’s restaurants and supermarkets so even if you don’t stay here, you’ll inevitably end up coming here quite a bit. There are small shops and cafes in other parts of the island, but these tend to be very small and only suitable for basics. However, if you have a car, and you do your shopping once you arrive, you could take advantage of the freedom to stay anywhere on the island.
- Car Rental: Discover Cars and RentalCars.com list the main companies (Ilha Verde and AutAtlantis Rent-a-Car). Some smaller companies are mentioned in this guide to car rental on Santa Maria. ParaisoRadical in Vila do Porto also rents scooters.
- Accommodation: Booking.com and Airbnb are the two main sites to look at for accommodation.
- Tours: There aren’t a huge number of tours of Santa Maria, but some can be found on Viator.
What to See and Do
There are lots of things to see and do on Santa Maria. While there is a bus service (download the app here), many of the attractions require a car to get there.
Sit on one of the world’s most scenic swings
Miradouro do Tagarete is probably the most magical place on the whole island. You’ll need to venture down a long country road, but the journey is definitely worth it. Here you’ll find a picnic table and a swing that offers the most incredible views of the Santa Maria coastline. This is a fantastic place for couples looking for somewhere romantic.
Have a picnic next to a waterfall
There are lots of amazing picnic spots and miradouros all over Santa Maria island, but one of the best (along with Miradouro do Tagarete) is Cascata do Aveiro. It’s an incredibly beautiful spot that feels tucked away from the rest of the world.
There’s only one picnic table here, so you’ll have to hope that nobody else has had the same idea. However, there are two picnic tables and a BBQ area in the carpark nearby.
Go for a swim on Praia Formosa
Most of the islands on the Azores don’t have white sands, so Santa Maria is very unique in this aspect. If the weather is warm, and you want to take a dip, Praia Formosa is definitely the main place to do it. Another white, sandy beach to consider is Praia de São Lourenço. This beach offers incredibly stunning views on the way down but if you only have time for one beach, Praia Formosa is definitely easier to get to for most people.
Hike or drive to the summit of Pico Alto, the highest point on the island. The trail takes you through lush greenery and provides panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes, including the neighbouring islands. Unfortunately, as this is the highest point on the island, the viewpoint if often covered in fog and you won’t see very much. This part of the island is often covered in fog, so you will need to make hay while the sun shines: if you get a clear day (and you should be able to see Pico Alto from other parts of the island) be sure to head up there as you don’t know what weather tomorrow will bring.
Museu de Santa Maria
The Museu de Santa Maria in Santo Espirito offers an interesting insight into what life was like for the people of Santa Maria in times gone by. You’ll see examples of how both the rich and poor lived, photos from the time, and examples of interior kitchens. This is a very small museum so it won’t take long to see everything, but it’s still worth a visit. You can combine this with a trip to the Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria (a handicrafts cooperative) and a trip of Pico Alto.
Relax by Ribeira de Maloás
Ribeira de Maloás is an incredibly beautiful waterfall that cascades over black volcanic rock. You can go down to the bottom of the waterfall and look up at the rock formation, while listening to the sound of the water hitting the small pool below. This is an incredibly scenic attraction and definitely worth the short walk to get there.
Visit the São Bras Fortress
The São Bras Fortress is quite small and you can’t go inside the buildings, but it will give you a sense of the island’s history back when they had to defend themselves from warring pirates. The walls are still in good condition, as are the cannons, and the view gives an idea of what its inhabitants looked out at (if you can ignore the marina that’s there now). If you’re staying in Vila do Porto, this is just a short walk or drive from the town centre.
View the Scenic Gonçalo Velho lighthouse
The Gonçalo Velho Lighthouse is one of the most beautiful spots on the island, thanks in part to the beautiful sloped vineyards, which cover the hill it sits on. You’ll get a beautiful view of the ocean and the coastline and if you’re lucky, you might even see some whales.
Barreiro da Faneca
Known as the red desert, this area is characterised by the dry, clay landscape, reddish in colour, that many people say reminds them of the planet Mars. It isn’t completely barren — there are some plants growing in the red soil — but it is generally lacking in life.
Typical Food from Santa Maria
Santa Maria is home to several local dishes. Unfortunately, even though you’ll find a lot of restaurants serving fresh fish (some of which is quite unique) it’s hard to find restaurants that specifically serve these local, traditional dishes.
However, some dishes to look out for include:
- Biscoitos de Orelha: Biscoitos de Orelha, also known as “ear cookies,” are a popular local sweet treat. These crispy, thin cookies are typically made with flour, sugar, eggs, and lard. They are named for their shape, which resembles an ear. Biscoitos de Orelha are perfect for enjoying with a cup of tea or coffee. You can find these in Continente and at the Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria in Santo Espirito.
- Meloa: Meloa is a type of melon that is widely grown on the island of Santa Maria. Known for its sweet and refreshing flavour, this melon variety is often enjoyed as a fresh snack or used in salads and desserts. This is usually available between July and September. Meloa is also common on Graciosa.
- Sopa de Peixe: Sopa de Peixe, or fish soup, is a popular dish in the Azores, including Santa Maria. This hearty soup is made with a variety of fish, such as local catches like wrasse or mackerel. It is typically flavored with onions, tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and sometimes saffron. Sopa de Peixe is a flavorful and comforting choice, especially for seafood lovers.
- Caldeirada de Peixe: Caldeirada de Peixe is a traditional fish stew commonly enjoyed in Santa Maria. This dish combines different types of fish, such as grouper, mackerel, and wrasse, with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs and spices. The stew is slowly cooked to allow the flavours to meld together, resulting in a rich and satisfying meal.
- Alheiras de Santa Maria: Alheiras are a type of Portuguese sausage, and the version from Santa Maria is particularly renowned. Alheiras de Santa Maria are made from a mixture of meats, including chicken, bread, and various seasonings. They are traditionally smoked and can be grilled or fried before serving. Alheiras de Santa Maria are often enjoyed as part of a main course or served as an appetiser.
A longer list of dishes from Santa Maria can be found here.
Most of the food is meat or fish-focused, but some of the cafes and restaurants have vegan options. In Vila do Porto this includes Monk Surf Shop & Coffee Bar, which is probably one of the most vegan and vegetarian-friendly. DuFogo Take Away and A Travessa have a few vegan and vegetarian options too.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Santa Maria is during the spring and summer months, from May to September. The weather is pleasant, with temperatures ranging from 20°C to 25°C (68°F to 77°F). This period allows you to enjoy outdoor activities, relax on the beaches, and explore the island’s natural beauty to the fullest.
Airbnb and Vacation Rentals
Santa Maria has a range of Airbnb and vacation rental options, allowing you to choose a place that suits your preferences and budget. This can be a great way to experience local hospitality and immerse yourself in the island’s culture.
There’s are a few medium-sized supermarkets in Vila do Porto: Pingo Doce, Continente Bom Dia, and Supermercado Ângelo. There’s also a small local market (Mercado Municipal de Vila do Porto) that’s open most days. In some of the smaller towns and villages, such as Santo Espírito, you’ll find a very small grocery store, which is suitable for small purchases. For most of your shopping, however, you should head to the Continente in Vila do Porto.
The supermarkets are small and more expensive than mainland Portugal, but you will find enough to make self-catering work on the island.