São Miguel, the largest island in The Azores, is packed with plenty of interesting things to do. From soaking in thermal pools to visiting a tea plantation, here are some of the top things to add to your São Miguel bucketlist.
Soak in the thermal Pools
São Miguel is known for its hot springs or thermal pools, and there are actually several different groups of pools that you can visit:
- Parque Terra Nostra (Furnas): Largo Marquês da Praia e Monfort, 9675-061 Furnas, Portugal (map)
- Poça da Dona Beija (Furnas): Lomba Das Barracas 1, Furnas, Portugal (map)
- Caldeira Velha: EN5 2A, Ribeira Grande, Portugal (map)
- Termas da Ferraria: Rua Ilha Sabrina, Ginetes, 9555-102 Ginetes, Portugal (map)
Personally, Poça da Dona Beija was my favourite for a number of reasons. Firstly, the water is clear unlike Parque Terra Nostra where it’s brown. Secondly, it stays open quite late and evening is a much better time to visit (especially in summer). I also found it the most beautiful, but perhaps that’s personal preference.
Tip: Be aware that the brown mud that lines some of the walls of the thermal pools can stain clothing. I mustn’t have washed all of the mud off myself (it really sticks to the skin) and it stained one of my shirts. Despite putting it through the was several times, I couldn’t get rid of the brown stain and had to throw it out.
Also, be sure to rinse your towel and swimsuit in the showers or bathroom. The thermal waters have a strong sulphur smell to them and, if you don’t give them a rinse, they’ll smell like bad eggs.
The hot springs are suitable for all ages.
Parque Terra Nostra
Parque Terra Nostra is a beautiful botanical garden that’s located just outside of Furnas (although easily walkable from the town centre). While the gardens are beautiful to walk through, most people visiting the park do so for the thermal pools.
There is one large pool, which goes to a depth of 1.50-1.60 metres, and 2 smaller pools. Changing rooms and showers are available.
Personally, I preferred the smaller pools to the big pool and so spent most of my time in there.
- Opening hours: 10 am – 6 pm.
- Address: Largo Marquês da Praia e Monfort, 9675-061 Furnas, Portugal (map)
- Cost: €8 for adults, €4 for children (2-10 years), free for children under 2
Money Saving Tip: If you’re planning to eat cozido at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, which is considered one of the best places to try it, it’s worth going for lunch first as they will give you free entrance into the park and thermal pools (worth €8 per person).
An even better plan might be to stay at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel. That way you can enjoy the pools in the morning before it gets busy and before you’re full of cozido (quite a heavy dish).
Poça da Dona Beija
Poça da Dona Beija is located slightly out of Furnas: roughly a 15-minute walk from the centre. There is a car park outside, but it tends to get incredibly busy. If you can, try to park somewhere else nearby.
This was my favourite of the hot springs. The water was clear, and it was open late in the evening which was much better than going during the middle of the day. Evening is definitely the best time to visit, and this tends to be when the locals prefer to visit as well. It does get a bit busy early in the evening, but it quietens down around 9 pm.
There are several different pools with temperatures varying between around 28 and 39° celcius. One included a small waterfall that you could sit behind or underneath.
Lockers are available (you need a token) and you also need a token if you want a warm shower. There’s also a gift shop where you can buy towels, Azorean souvenirs, and cold drinks.
- Opening hours: 7 am – 11 pm (including holidays and Sundays)
- Address: Lomba Das Barracas 1, Furnas, Portugal (map)
- Cost: €6 for adults, €4 for children 6 years or younger.
Sea the bubbling hot springs in Caldeiras
On São Miguel, there’s thermal water that you can bathe in and there’s thermal water that’s literally boiling hot. The first is somewhere you go to relax and the second is somewhere where you just admire this unique natural feature.
Caldeiras (on the edge of Furnas) is home to a number of small hot springs – so hot that they bubble aggressively and shoot steam out of the ground. Some are active, some are not, and some are somewhere in between. Like the hot springs in Furnas town centre, there’s a slight eggy smell from the sulfur but you get used to it after a while (well, almost).
It’s fascinating to visit and, if you’re feeling hungry, this is also one of the places where you can buy corn on the cob that has been cooked in the volcanic water. The corn is put into large sacks and lowered into the bubbling pits. If you wander around for long enough, you’ll come across someone cooking it.
(Being honest, it doesn’t really taste any different to normal corn on the cob but it’s fun to try it.)
If corn on the cob isn’t your thing, there are also usually stalls selling pineapple cocktails that are served inside a hollowed-out pineapple.
Visit a tea plantation
There are two tea plantations on São Miguel: Gorreana Tea Factory, which is the more famous, and Chá Porto Formoso. I visited both.
Gorreana Tea Factory
Gorreana Tea Factory is the larger or the two and the more popular. It’s a little chaotic as the tour of the factory is self-guided, but nobody ever tells you that. I saw a lot of people wandering around aimlessly, wondering if they were allowed to.
If you go into the cafeteria, you can sample their organic tea (for free). You can also buy tea, as well as cakes, coffee, and other drinks and snacks.
You can also wander through the tea plantation itself. There’s a small field right next to the main building that you can wander through, but the best place to go is into the fields across the road.
There’s an official 3.4 km hike that goes through the tea plantation (PRC28SMI) or, alternatively, you can just take a stroll through like I did.
Chá Porto Formoso
Chá Porto Formoso isn’t as big or as popular as Gorreana Tea Factory, but that’s one of its main selling points as well: when a tour bus turns up at Gorreana, it can get incredibly busy.
The other major selling point of Chá Porto Formoso is that they give you a free guided tour of the factory. The tour is short and it’s not hugely detailed, but I learned a lot more than I did wandering around Gorreana myself. At the end, there’s a chance to sample some of the tea that they grow there.
Chá Porto Formoso is housed in a beautiful building that has a terrace that looks out over the tea plantation and the nearby coast. It’s a great little place to stop off and relax during a busy day of sightseeing.
Visit a Pineapple Plantation
Pineapples are normally associated with South America, especially Costa Rica, but did you know that they grow pineapples in The Azores as well?
Azorean pineapples originate from Venezuela, and are grown in greenhouses on several different pineapple farms near Ponta Delgada. Even with the greenhouses, growing pineapples here is still incredibly difficult and growers need to work with special soils and use smoke to get the plants to bloom.
At Christmas, it’s typical for Portuguese families to eat Azorean Pineapple and you’ll see a lot of these in the supermarkets in the weeks beforehand. According to my tour guide, however, the pineapples taste quite sharp at this time of year and the best time to eat them is in summer.
There are several pineapple plantations that you can visit on São Miguel and, if you really want the full pineapple experience, you can actually stay on a pineapple farm as well.
- Ananases Santo António (map) – Shows visitors a short video about the Azorean pineapple and gives a guided tour. There is the opportunity to buy pineapples (which are organic and free from pesticides) and products made from pineapple.
- GetYourGuide – The following tours all include a trip to a pineapple plantation and include transporations: Sete Cidades Village and Lakes Half-Day Tour, São Miguel West Full-Day Tour with Lunch
Almost all of these tours are free, if you drive to the farms yourself. I asked one of the tour guides why they gave free tours? Was it for marketing? Did they hope people would buy pineapples or pineapples from their gift shop?
His answer was incredibly Portuguese. He explained that the Portuguese pineapple is the best pineapple in the world but, sadly, most people will never get to experience it because The Azores can’t complete with production levels in places like Costa Rica, Brazil, and the Philippines.
One of the reasons that the Portuguese pineapple is so good, besides the taste and just simply being Portuguese, is that you can eat the middle. I mentioned that you could eat the middle of the pineapples in Thailand as well. He conceded that they also have good pineapples, but they’re still not as good as the Portuguese pineapple. He never followed up with why.
Tip: If you want to splash out and buy an Azorean Pineapple, I would recommend buying one from Ananases Santo António as their pineapples are free from chemicals. They aren’t cheap, and normally cost at least 2-3 times as much as a non-Portuguese pineapple. In summer, when the pineapples are at their best and when you should buy them, prices go up even further.
But, this is the best pineapple in the world you’ll be eating. It may cost almost the same as a cheap lunch, but it’ll be money well spent.
Alternatively, there are a few pineapple-based products made on The Azores that you can try:
- Kima – A local Azorean soft drink made from Azorean pineapples. This is available from a lot of cafés on islands all over The Azores.
- Azores juicy IPA – IPA craft beer that’s mixed with local pineapple juice to give it a unique taste.
- Pineapple cocktail – You’ll see stalls selling cocktails served in a pineapple, especially close to attractions like Caldeiras near Furnas and Lagoa das Furnas.
- Geleia extra de ananás dos acores – Honey-like runny pineapple jam that’s absolutely delicious.
Eat a stew that’s cooked in a volcano (cozido)
Cozido (Cozido à portuguesa) isn’t a dish that I’d necessarily recommend people eat on mainland Portugal. It is very typical, and the Portuguese do love it, but I think it’s one of those dishes that you have to grow up with to appreciate.
It’s hard to find a really great cozido, and although I have, it’s not something I would necessarily order again in a heartbeat. Still, eating cozido is one of the top things to do on São Miguel for the simple reason that it’s cooked in a volcano.
Head to the town of Furnas and you’ll find plenty of restaurants that specialise in this unique dish. Interestingly, the dish isn’t actually cooked in furnas: the volcanic pits are located outside of the town at the Lagoa das Furnas hotsprings (map) and then transported to the restaurants.
Where to eat cozido
I didn’t think the cozido that I ate tasted any different to cozido in mainland Portugal, and I didn’t think it tasted any better either. Maybe it’s a gimmick or maybe I just didn’t go to a good place.
The top place to eat cozido seems to be the restaurant at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel. This is probably the fanciest place to eat in Furnas which means it’s more expensive than everywhere else and the cozido is going to be less traditional (in presentation at least) than most other restaurants. Still, it seems to get good reviews and, if you eat there, you get free entrance to the gardens and thermal pools (which normally would cost €8 per person).
Alternatively, several other places to consider are:
Restaurants are recommended as all of these places fill up, especially with large tour groups.
Even if you decide not to eat Cozido, I’d recommend going to see where the cozido is cooked at Lagoa das Furnas.
Visit Lagoa das Furnas (and see cozido being cooked)
The Lagoa das Furnas hotsprings is where the famous Azorean cozido is cooked. Even if you decide not to eat cozido, it’s still worth visiting Lagoa das Furnas to see the process in action.
Each cozido restaurant in Furnas has their own hole or holes. Pots of stew are lowered into the steaming holes and left to stew for several hours before being transported to the restaurants.
Azorean cozido cookery classes
What’s better than eating volcano stew? Cooking it yourself at one of the following cookery classes:
- Cooking Class with Volcano pic-nic (Airbnb Experiences)
As well as the cooking area, the lake itself is worth spending some time wandering around. There’s a large shady picnic area, walking trails, and usually a few stands selling hot and cold drinks including cocktails served in a hollowed-out pineapple and corn on the cob cooked inside the volcano. Note: you can also get both of these things at Caldeiras near Furnas.
Note: parking is paid and, as of July 2019, cost €2 per day.
Go urban exploring in an abandoned hotel
Note: There are signs up outside the abandoned Hotel Monte Palace telling you not to enter. They’ve even bricked off the entrances. Obviously, entering this abandoned hotel is at your own risk. I’m not saying you should do it, but it’s one of the things that you can do (and that people do on São Miguel).
Despite the no entry signs and the bricked off walls, this abandoned hotel was anything but abandoned. There were at least 20-30 people inside while I was there, and that number probably increased as more people saw us inside.
Exploring the 5* Hotel Monte Palace is a unique and sad experience. This 5* hotel was designed to be one of the most luxurious hotels in Portugal. And, when it opened its doors in the 80s, it was. It had beautiful rooms, on-site restaurants, amenities like a hairdressers, nightclub, bank, and one of the most spectacular views in the world.
Unfortunately, what it didn’t have was customers. Within less than a year of opening, the luxury hotel closed its doors. The owners tried to find a buyer, but nobody else wanted the risk: the hotel was too far from anything and tourism in The Azores just hadn’t taken off yet.
Today, if you’re happy to hop a wall or follow one of the many well-trodden footpaths up the side, you can explore what remains of the Hotel Monte Palace. There’s still bits of the carpet on the stairs and corridors, but just about everything else of value has been taken.
Walk into the hotel roofs or onto the roof and you’ll get to experience the wonderful views of the lakes that the hotel owners were hoping would make their hotel successful. They’re pretty spectacular – and less crowded than the Miradouro da Vista do Rei down below.
Admire the views from Miradouro da Vista do Rei
Right next to the abandoned Hotel Monte Palace is Miradouro da Vista do Rei, a viewpoint (miradouro means golden view) that looks out over Lagoa das Sete Cidades.
It’s one of the most beautiful spots on the island of São Miguel and, of course, this means it’s also one of the most popular as well. Expect to