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Sao Miguel or Terceira: Which is the Best Island to Visit in the Azores?

The Azores are comprised of 9 islands. This post shares pros and cons of visiting Sao Miguel vs Terceira. Which is the best island to visit?
Are you trying to decide between visiting São Miguel or Terceira on your trip to the Azores? As someone who has been lucky enough to explore both islands, I'd like to share my personal experience and impressions. 

Both islands are stunning and unique in their own ways, but depending on your interests, time, and budget, one might be a better fit for you than the other. 

Keep reading to learn about the highlights and challenges of visiting São Miguel and Terceira, and hopefully, make an informed decision that suits your travel style and preferences.

Azores Airlines plane on the runway

About the Azores

The Azores is an archipelago of nine volcanic islands located in the North Atlantic Ocean. The islands are part of Portugal and have a rich history dating back to the 15th century. Diogo de Silva is credited with discovering the Azores in 1427.

The Azores are known for their unique geography, featuring rugged coastlines, lush green valleys, hot springs, and volcanic craters. Due to their location, the Azores have been an important strategic point throughout history, with many battles fought over control of the islands. 

For example, in 1582, The Battle of Ponta Delgada on São Miguel cemented a Spanish takeover of Portugal by King Philip II.

Sé Catedral de Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira Island in the Azores

Today, the Azores are an autonomous region of Portugal with their own government and parliament. They are a popular tourist destination, offering visitors a chance to experience a unique blend of Portuguese and Azorean culture, outdoor activities, and fascinating natural beauty.

The Azores are not a "fly and flop" destination. You'll find some beaches here, but not to the same extent that you would in warmer Canary Island destinations like Lanzarote. Instead, you'll find fascinating history, colorful architecture, and great food.

Choose an Azorean Island(s) to Visit?

If you only have a few days, I recommend visiting either São Miguel or Terceira because they are the easier of the Azorean Islands to get to from Europe and the U.S. But which one should you choose? 

If you have 7-10 days to spent in the Azores, I think you can easily cover both São Miguel and Terceira.

São Miguel vs Terceira

But what if you are short on time? How do São Miguel and Terceira compare across various important dimensions? 

Weather

Based on my personal experience, the weather in the Azores can be unpredictable and vary greatly from island to island. While both Terceira and São Miguel are known for their lush green landscapes and temperate climate, the weather can change rapidly and rain is always a possibility. 

During our visit in April, the weather in Terceira was much better weather than São Miguel. São Miguel was extremely humid. 

To give you a sense of how humid it can get, the temperature gauge and barometer that we brought with us clocked 95% relative humitity in São Miguel in our Airbnb. The humidity was oppressive and felt almost claustrophobic. 

Cow in fog on São Miguel Island in the Azores

Our attempts to drive to some of the island's beautiful volcanic locations for hikes and views were thwarted by pea-soup fog and heavy wind.

On average, the Azores have a mild oceanic climate with temperatures ranging between 14°C to 24°C (57°F to 75°F) throughout the year. However, there can be significant variations in weather conditions from island to island. 

View of Angra do Heroismo with dark clouds rolling in on Terceira Island in the Azores

In terms of temperature and rainfall, São Miguel tends to be warmer and wetter than Terceira with higher humidity.

Winner? Terceira because it's mild and less humid

Population (Locals and Tourists)

São Miguel is the largest and most populous island in the Azores, with around 140,000 people. Terceira  has a smaller population of around 56,000. São Miguel is the most popular island in the Azores for tourists. 

São Miguel receives more cruise ships than Terceira. It's a good idea to check when cruise ships may be in port when you are planning a trip to the Azores. You can adjust your itinerary to avoid the most popular and crowded attractions when the ships are in town to avoid these extra people. 

Cruise ship in Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island in the Azores

Why does São Miguel get more cruise ships? This is because São Miguel has a larger port with deeper waters that can accommodate larger cruise ships. 

In recent years, the number of cruise ships visiting the Azores has increased significantly, and most of them include a stop in Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel. Some cruise ships and yachts also visit Terceira, typically docking at Praia da Vitoria.

Winner? Terceira (because the island feels smaller and more authentic)

Tourism Infrastructure

São Miguel is the most heavily visited island and has a larger number of hotels, restaurants, and attractions geared towards tourists. Terceira, while also popular among tourists, has a less developed tourism infrastructure with fewer hotels and restaurants to choose from. 

Car parked at a foggy viewpoint on São Miguel Island in the Azores

In fact, we noticed that on Terceira, the rental cars were much more expensive (~500 EUR for 4 days vs ~400 EUR for 5 days) and not as nice as they were on São Miguel.

Winner? São Miguel

Ease of Getting to the Islands

Both Terceira and São Miguel have international airports with direct flights to major cities in Europe and the U.S. São Miguel has a larger airport and more frequent flights, making it generally easier to get to. Terceira technically has a larger runway due to the island's association with a U.S. Air Force Base.

Aerogare Civil das Lajes on Terceira Island in the Azores

São Miguel has a wider variety of airlines offering direct flights, which helps keep flight prices under control. That said, Terceira is adding direct flights from U.S. cities like Newark and Oakland seasonally. 

Oakland may sound like a strange choice, but apparently, a large number of Azoreans live in the San Francisco Bay Area

Terceira is a smaller and less crowded airport, which can mean shorter wait times and less hassle. 

Winner? São Miguel due to better direct flight options.

History and Culture

Terceira has a greater concentration of historical attractions, including Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with well-preserved 16th and 17th-century architecture including some magnificent doors

Colorful church spires in Angra do Heroismo on Terceira Island in the Azores

Did you know that Vasco de Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer landed in Terceira on his return trip from India in 1499. Sadly, his brother had taken ill and ultimately died on Terceira. 

Statue of Vasco de Gama on Terceira Island in the Azores

Terceira is also home to over 70 imperios, small shrines dedicated to the Cult of the Holy Spirit. Even if you are not a religious person, the colorful architecture is a photographer's dream.

Colorful imperio on Terceira Island in the Azores

Terceira was also the site of the Battle of Salga, a key moment in Portugal's struggle for independence from Spain, holding off the Spanish takeover in 1581. Terceira has several museums and landmarks related to this period of history. 

Winner? Terceira

Unique Things to Do

Now let's look at some of the unique things to do in São Miguel and Terceira to help you shape your itinerary and decide which island(s) to spend time on and what to do on your trip. 

São Miguel

  • Drive to Sete Cidades and go for a hike along the volcanic lake. Unfortunately, we didn't get to do this ourselves because the fog spoiled the fun on the days we were on São Miguel.
Foggy viewpoints with hints of green on São Miguel Island in the Azores
  • The Furnas Volcano is one of the three central active volcanoes on São Miguel and was formed about 30,000 years ago. Significant eruptions occurred in the mid-15th and 16th centuries. The thermal pools around Furnas became popular with tourists starting in the 19th century and were known for their geothermal diversity packed into a small area.
Fumaroles and boiling mud near Furnas on São Miguel Island in the Azores
  • Antigo Pomar das Caldeiras da Lagoa das Furnas is a site where volcanic cozido is made. There are holes where meat and vegetables are buried for seven hours and then voila! Volcano Stew! You can also walk around the boardwalks past boiling mud and sulfurous fumaroles. Heed the warning signs not to step on the boil zone.
  • Poça da Dona Beija is a popular thermal spa in Furnas. Pay 8 EUR per person for 90 minutes in the natural thermal pools.
Thermal pools at Poça da Dona Beija near Furnas on São Miguel Island in the Azores

Terceira

  • The Museu de Angra do Heroísmo is definitely worth a visit, especially on Sundays when it's free to enter. If you're visiting on another day, the entrance fee is just 2 EUR. The museum is located in the Convento São Francisco and features a mix of exhibits from different periods of history, including historic carriages, memorial stones, and modern art. 
Garden and facade of Museu de Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira Island in the Azores
One of the most interesting parts of the museum is the historic church, which is the final resting place of Vasco da Gama's brother. Visitors can explore the church and see a mid-20th century hearse on display.
 
If you're patient enough to follow the winding path through the museum, you'll be able to access the choir and see beautiful azulejos (Portuguese ceramic tiles) and a national treasure: an early 19th century pipe organ.
 
All in all, a visit to MAH is a great way to get to know Terceira better and learn about its fascinating history.

Collage of exhibits at Museu de Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira Island in the Azores 

  • Monte Brasil is a volcanic formation that offers stunning views of Angra do Heroísmo and the ocean. You can hike to the top of the mountain or drive up and park at the viewpoint. Let me share some details from our personal experience hiking to the top of Monte Brasil.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Our hike started with a steep uphill climb on a path that led towards Fortaleza de São João Batista. Although the fortress was not open to the public, the views from the top were spectacular. 
 
We walked around the perimeter and then walked down a staircase by the car gate. However, we faced a decision of whether to stay on the road or take the pedestrian trail. We chose the trail and enjoyed the path and the views until we realized we had taken a detour.

College of pictures from the hike to Monte Brasil on Terceira Island in the Azores 

We scrambled up a very steep dirt path to get back on track. Finally, after 30 minutes, we reached the top at Miradouro do Pico das Cruzinhas where we could see the volcanic features of Terceira and WWII gun batteries.
 
We enjoyed a picnic with a view and met some of the resident waterfowl, including ducks, roosters, and helmeted guineafowls. We then scrambled down Monte Brasil and were lucky enough to spot some resident deer.

Deer at Monte Brasil on Terceira Island in the Azores Helmeted guineafowl at Monte Brasil on Terceira Island in the Azores

 
Overall, the hike was challenging but worth it for the stunning views and wildlife sightings.
  • If you aren't up for a strenuous hike, there are other options. We enjoyed starting the day at Jardim Duque da Terceira, a lovely park filled with colorful flowers, ponds, and loud amorous frogs! 
We walked up a series of winding paths and staircases to Memória a D. Pedro IV. Enjoy spectacular views over Angra do Heroísmo and Monte Brasil from here! It takes about 10-15 minutes to reach the top at a leisurely pace.
Jardim Duque da Terceira and the walk to Memória a D. Pedro IV in Angra do Heroismo on Terceira Island in the Azores
  • We also took a 20 minute drive from Angra do Heroísmo to Furnas do Enxofre. Turns out São Miguel doesn't have a monopoly on geothermal attractions in the Azores! Take the marked path for a loop around the fumaroles and take in all the amazing colors! 
Furnas do Enxofre on Terceira Island in the Azores

Winner? It depends... Choose Terceira if you value cultural and historical attractions. Choose São Miguel for nature and landscapes. That said, you will also find culture in São Miguel and volcanic landscapes in Terceira so you won't totally miss out if you like both kinds of attractions.

Food and Drink

São Miguel and Terceira both offer food experiences featuring local products. 

São Miguel

One of the best places to start exploring the food scene is at Mercado da Graça, a bustling market where visitors can find local produce, meats, and cheeses. A standout vendor at the market is O Rei dos Queijos, which offers an array of Azorean cheeses. The market is also a fun place to browse for unique finds, such as green tea cookies and hot sauce meant for fresh cheese.

At Mercado da Graça, visitors should not miss the opportunity to head below ground to the fruit and vegetable area. Here, we found great deals on local produce, such as Azorean pineapples, which are a must-try when in the Azores. 

Pineapple based food and drink at Plantação de Ananás dos Açores on São Miguel Island

Take a self-guided tour of Plantação de Ananás dos Açores, a pineapple plantation with a tasting tent where we indulged in free tastings of pineapple liqueur and jam, and order from a pineapple-themed menu that features items like pineapple caipirinhas and flambeed pineapples served with vanilla ice cream.

Plate of limpets on São Miguel Island in the Azores

São Miguel has an array of fine dining options like Michel's restaurant in Ponta Delgada, which offers Azorean specialties like limpets, a type of sea snail. We also tried rare tuna in sesame, a seafood stew called pote de mar and beef cheeks with pureed sweet potatoes. For dessert, we enjoyed pineapple liqueur and pineapple mousse, which gave the meal an even greater local flair.

Terceira

In Terceira, we found fewer restaurants to try, especially since our visit also coincided with a public holiday (May Day) when many restaurants were closed. 

We tried A Oficina, a restaurant located inside the Shipyard Hotel in Angra do Heroísmo. We ordered a variety of dishes, including vegetable soup, grilled pitcher fish, and white bean stew. All paired perfectly with Magma Terceira white wine. 

Bottles of Magma wine from Terceira Island in the Azores

Grilled fish and side dishes at A Oficina at the Shipyard Hotel on Terceira Island in the Azores

We also tried local favorites like alcatra, a clay pot roast for two, served with a bottle of Azorean red wine at Tasca das Tias.

Alcatra with french fries in Angra do Heroismo on Terceira Island in the Azores

Although Pico is the Azorean island most associated with wine cultivation, visitors can still find a decent selection of Azorean wines at Quinta dos Açores, a restaurant and shop located just outside Angra do Heroísmo. 

Bottles of Azorean wine at the shop at Quina dos Açores on Terceira Island in the Azores

Quinta dos Açores specializes in Azorean dairy products. In addition to this factory store along the highway, visitors can also enjoy ice cream at the location of Quinta das Açores located on the harbor in Angra do Heroísmo. We tried flavors like queijada de Graciosa and chocolate with hazelnut and marshmallows.

Cup of ice cream on the harbor in Angra do Heroismo on Terceira Island in the Azores

Winner? Choose Terceira if you like dairy. Choose São Miguel for pineapple-focused dishes. Overall, São Miguel has a wider range of food options and restaurants to consider.

São Miguel or Terceira? The Verdict

As you can see, both São Miguel and Terceira have much to offer. I definitely recommend trying to make time for both islands since they are well-connected via Azores Airlines. 

If you have to choose, based on my personal experience, I'd recommend picking Terceira if you enjoy quieter places filled with history, culture, and photo opportunities. 

Views of Angra do Heroismo from the viewpoint at Memória a D. Pedro IV on Terceira Island in the Azores

Choose São Miguel island if you enjoy hiking, scenic landscapes, and unique geothermal features. 

Whichever island you choose, you are sure to have a memorable vacation in the Azores!

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: Sao Miguel or Terceira: Which is the Best Island to Visit in the Azores?
Sao Miguel or Terceira: Which is the Best Island to Visit in the Azores?
The Azores are comprised of 9 islands. This post shares pros and cons of visiting Sao Miguel vs Terceira. Which is the best island to visit?
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