UPDATED Summer 2023. For such a tiny island nation, there’s a surprising amount of fun things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe. From canoeing down hidden mangrove rivers and exploring crumbling cocoa plantations, to tucking into remote beach picnics and snorkelling from boats in secluded bays, day trips on São Tomé and Príncipe are all about nature immersion, pure and simple. We spent 10 days exploring these equatorial islands, so did extensive first-hand research into the top places to visit in São Tomé and Príncipe. This isn’t just some standard round-up list, it’s been written from personal experience.
So, if you’re thinking of heading to the islands and wondering what to do in São Tomé and Príncipe, and want to know all about the best São Tomé and Príncipe attractions, then this one’s for you, to help start planning that dream trip! We’ve also written reviews of the best hotels in São Tomé and Príncipe, also from our own personal experience – there’s everything from pristine beach lodges with swaying palm trees to atmospheric plantation manor houses to choose from.
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TOP THINGS TO DO IN SÃO TOMÉ
The slightly larger of the two islands, São Tomé is where you’ll arrive when flying in from abroad. Most people spend a few days on São Tomé before heading to Príncipe, and although it is more populated than its sister island, there are enough day trips on São Tomé to keep you busy for a couple of weeks at least! Sao Tome and Principe tourism is still in its infancy, so you know that you’ll be experiencing the real deal as you travel around the most exotic islands in Africa.
Here are the best places to visit on São Tomé:
This place is really cool, and one of the best beaches on São Tomé. Located pretty much on the southern tip of the island, it does take a while to reach the beach, but when combined with a day trip on São Tomé visiting other sights along the way, this is a must-see! Praia Piscina is named after the crystal clear rock pools sheltered from the waves that make excellent swimming pools, and are perfect for cooling off on a hot afternoon. There’s also a blow hole for fun photographs!
There is a sandy beach here too, although we found the volcanic rocky shore more mesmerising. The beach is fringed with palm trees and rainforest, and there are a few rustic wooden benches for sitting in the shade beneath the trees. We were the only ones there when we visited!
If you’re wondering which beaches to visit on São Tomé then make this one of your priorities! Tucked away on the south-eastern tip of the island, not far from Praia Piscina, Jalé Beach has that quintessential Robinson Crusoe castaway feel, with long stretches of deserted golden sand, leaning coconut palms, and often not a soul in sight. It’s easy to see why Praia Jale has been hailed as one of the main São Tomé and Príncipe tourist attractions.
This is also the place to come if you want to know where to watch turtle nesting and hatching on São Tomé. Between October and January Hawksbill, Leatherback, Olive Ridley and Green Turtles all come to lay their eggs on these shores at night. If you’re on the island between February and April you might be lucky enough to see the turtles hatching and making their first mad dash down to the sea.
The best way to see the sea turtles on São Tomé is to spend the night here at the superbly-positioned rustic eco-lodge right on Praia Jalé, where staff will wake you up when the action begins so you can tiptoe out onto the sand to witness this incredible natural spectacle.
Malanza Mangroves Canoe Tour
Well and truly off the beaten track is a relaxing canoe ride on the Malanza River through the mangrove forest in the south of São Tomé. The Malanza estuary leads into the biggest mangrove forest on the islands, which is home to numerous bird and monkey species.
Tours in traditional canoes (expertly paddled by a local boatman) through the mangroves are a real contrast to the other island sights, with excursions lasting around 2 hours as you glide silently on a circular route through the slightly eerie forest. We saw several endemic birds, monkeys and even a pig! It’s certainly one of the more unusual things to do on São Tomé and Príncipe.
The mangroves are more spectacular during the dry season when water levels are low, exposing the tangled mass of roots (the picture below was taken when we were there in September, at the end of the dry season).
Obô National Park
Just half an hour from São Tomé City, Obô National Park is a great place for walking trails and pristine nature. It’s one of the main São Tomé and Príncipe attractions for wildlife lovers and hikers. There are more than 700 plant species and 143 different types of birds, some of which are endemic to the islands. This protected reserve covers around 60% of Sao Tome island, with impenetrable forests, cascading waterfalls and dramatic volcanic landscapes to discover. The highest point in the park is Pico de São Tomé, which at over 2000 metres high can be seen from many parts of the island.
There are several circular walks in Obô National Park, with one of the most popular being to Lagoa Amelia – a 4-5 hour trek to a volcanic crater with spectacular views of the lagoon. Your hotel will arrange a guide if required. There are also multi-day hikes with overnight stays in rocas (old plantations), for example the 2-day hike from Bom Successo to Roca São Joao dos Angolares.
It is possible to climb Pico de São Tomé, although a decent level of fitness and some experience is advised. The climb takes 2 days, and you’ll spend the night camping before ascending on the second day. Be prepared for around 8 hours trekking each day.
Read More: When to visit Sao Tome and Principe
Pico Cão Grande
One of the best things to see in Obô National Park is Pico Cão Grande, a needle-shaped volcanic plug towering 370 metres above the steaming tropical forest. Often surrounded by swirling mists, this precipitous peak is one of the top sights on São Tomé. It’s rare to see the peak without the cloud, which just makes it all the more mysterious.
Experienced climbers can attempt to climb to the peak (although beware of crumbling rock, intense heat and snakes!), but for the rest of us, this is the view from the main (and only!) road south! There’s a stretch of really straight road surrounded by plantations and forests with the spire of Pico Cão Grande dead ahead, and guides are always happy to stop for photo opportunities. You can’t miss it, it’s one of the most iconic things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Roça São João dos Angolares
Located in the east of São Tomé just outside the fishing community of São João dos Angolares, this old plantation house has been lovingly resorted into a restaurant and eco-tourism venture with guest rooms. The working plantation makes a great lunch stop on a São Tomé day tour, serving some of the best food on the island.
Dishes are inventive, using fresh local ingredients, with lots of fish, herbs, and tropical fruits. Lunch here is one of the most popular activities on São Tomé – it’s a 7-course tasting menu so make sure you set enough time aside to enjoy it properly!
Eating at tables on the wide balcony that runs around the house is a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon, with views out over the forest towards the bay, surrounded by vocal bird life and sheltered from the sporadic downpours that keep this part of the world so lush.
You can stay at the roça and enjoy cooking classes from highly-trained chefs, as well as exploring the local nature trails, if you want to do more than just have lunch. Rated as one of the top Sao Tome and Principe attractions, Roça São João dos Angolares is a must if you’re interested in leaning about island cuisine.
Read More: Where to Stay on Sao Tome
Roça Água Izé
If you only visit one plantation on São Tomé, make sure it’s this one! It was one of our favourite things to see in São Tomé and Príncipe. Back in the mid 19th century, Roça Água Izé was one of the largest cocoa plantations on the island, with 50 kms of railway track and around 2000 Angolan contract workers. This was where the cocoa industry in São Tomé and Príncipe began!
Half an hour’s drive south of São Tomé City, Roça Água Izé is included on many island day tours. Today the decaying buildings are slowly being taken back by the forest, and are home to several families originally from Cape Verde who have no-where else to go since full-scale production ceased after the island’s independence in 1975. The old hospital building which dates back to 1928 is one of the top places to visit on São Tomé for photography.
Boca do Inferno
Boca do Inferno, or Hell’s Mouth, is a blowhole along the southern coast of São Tomé just a few kilometres south of town and not far from Água Izé village. It’s an easy addition to a road trip on this side of the island and is quite spectacular when water rushes up through the rocky basalt inlets and spouts high above your head.
São Tomé City
The tiny capital of São Tomé is home to some wonderful Portuguese colonial architecture, and it’s well worth spending a couple of hours strolling around, exploring the streets and chatting to the friendly locals. São Tomé City is home to the national museum, presidential palace, Independence Square, and a cathedral. Many São Tomé day trips include a stop in the city to visit these sights, and have lunch at a local restaurant.
The economic decline of the islands since they gained independence can be seen all across the city, where beautiful buildings have been left to decay, and streets remain in a state of disrepair. Life here is super chilled and no-one is in a hurry to change anything, and whilst it’s probably not classed as one of the best things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe, the welcoming atmosphere and huge contrast to other capital cities of the world makes it a worthy stop on a day trip.
Handy hint – Sao Tome is often the answer to that popular pub quiz question “which countries have the same name as their capitals”! You never know when you might need to know that!
There’s not much to actually do as a visitor in this sleepy fishing village, but it’s often included as a brief stop on the way to Praia Jalé during São Tomé day tours. Interesting decaying buildings like the old army barracks make for good photo opportunities, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into what life is like here on the islands for these coastal communities.
Monte Café Plantation
If you’re wondering where to go on São Tomé for your coffee fix, we recommend Monte Café. Established in 1850, Monte Café was the largest and most prosperous coffee and cocoa plantation in São Tomé and Príncipe, with the coffee produced here being exported worldwide. Today, you can explore the faded beauty of the colonial buildings, and visit the National Coffee Museum to learn about coffee production. Of course there is the opportunity to taste the end product before you leave.
Continuing on from Monte Café, a forested trail leads to the spectacular 20-metre high São Nicolau waterfall, a great place to cool off after a jungle hike, surrounded by nature. The falls are one of the most celebrated Sao Tome and Principe points of interest for nature lovers and walkers.
Ilhéu das Rolas and the Equator
The tiny islet of Ilhéu das Rolas off the southern tip of São Tomé is the place to go if you want to stand with a foot either side of the Equator line. You can visit the island for lunch on a day trip, taking the boat service from Ponte Balei on the main island. For longer stays to enjoy diving and snorkelling, island walks and beach relaxation, a stay at the Pestana Equador hotel is recommended.
A short uphill stroll from the village will bring you to a colourful world mosaic on the ground which marks the spot where the Equator passes through the islands. A great photo opportunity, and no-one back home needs to know that the real Equator mark is actually back nearer the village according to modern GPS readings.
BEST THINGS TO DO PRÍNCIPE
Principe is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and feels even more remote and pristine than its sister island. At just 142 km2 with only 7,000 inhabitants, Príncipe is a favourite for naturalists, adventurers and conservationists. There are plenty of things to do on Príncipe to suit all types of traveller, including boat trips, snorkelling and plantation visits. The island lies a short flight north of São Tomé, and is the highlight for most visitors to the archipelago.
Here are the top places to visit on Príncipe:
Praia Banana, Praia Boi and Praia Macaco
Often touted as one of the best beaches on Príncipe, Praia Banana is a perfect slice of sand, once used to film a Bacardi advert in the 90s. We’re often asked about what to do on Príncipe, and this is always a favourite. You can reach the beach on a Príncipe boat trip, or by 4×4 down the forest trail on the Belo Monte Estate. The iconic view below is taken from the viewpoint at Belo Monte, which visitors are allowed to access even if they’re not staying at the plantation hotel here.
The beach itself actually seems a bit smaller when you’re standing on it, and isn’t quite as remote as you’d imagine, with a few wooden tables and a rustic café set back in the coconut glade. We visited Príncipe in September for a beach picnic, and there were only two other people there. So yes, it still felt like an adventure and we agree that coming to Banana Beach is probably one of the top things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Just around the headland from Praia Banana you’ll find Praia Macaco and Praia Boi, locally known as the most beautiful beaches on Príncipe. The best way to see them is to go on a beach-hopping boat trip combined with a visit to Praia Banana.
Roça Belo Monte
If you’re not staying at this tastefully restored boutique plantation hotel, the main reason for visiting the Belo Monte estate is to access Praia Banana, either from the viewpoint or by driving down the forest trail to the shore. But a stroll around the hotel grounds is very pleasant, and the views of Bom Bom and Santa Rita bay from the main house terrace are stunning. And if you fancy staying in a Sao Tome Principe plantation hotel, this one is a good bet.
There’s also a small museum on site which has informative displays charting both the natural and social history of Príncipe. It’s actually pretty interesting so definitely worth 20 minutes of your time if you’re in the area. There are several hiking trails around the plantation as well as the opportunity for quad bike excursions, although it’s best to do that when it’s not been raining too much!
The Bay of Needles
The only way to reach the spectacular Baía das Agulhas (Bay of Needles) on the west coast is on a Príncipe boat trip, and ours was arranged by Sundy Praia where we were staying for a few days of luxury at the end of our holiday. It was probably one of our favourite things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe, thanks to the sense of adventure it inspired.
Approaching from the water you’ll see the dramatic phonolite towers looming out of the mist creating a spectacular skyline above a tiny remote settlement. The sight is like something out of a Jurassic world, taking on a journey back in time.
Surrounding the bay there are several tiny deserted beaches to explore, and snorkelling from the boat is one of the most popular activities on Príncipe. There’s no coral, but the fish are vibrant, the water is warm, and you’ll have it all to yourself!
One of the top things to do in Príncipe is to visit a cocoa plantation. These rocas (plantations) on São Tomé and Príncipe were once one of the biggest cocoa producers in the world, which gave the islands the name ‘The Chocolate Islands‘. Wherever you’re staying, just ask the staff to arrange a tour for you.
The visit will start with a walk through the plantation, meeting workers and learning about the different plant species, both culinary and medicinal. Then you’ll get to see parts of the production process, including the old dryers and of course tasting the chocolate at the end!
There aren’t many capital cities where you encounter only two other vehicles, and can drive through it in less than a couple minutes. There also aren’t many people who can say they’ve visited the smallest capital city in the world, but if you head to Santo António in the east of Príncipe, you’ll be one of them!
Santo António is the main settlement on the island, and a quick stop here is included on many Príncipe day tours. There’s very little to do except stroll along the Papagaio River (Parrot River) which runs through town, and perhaps sample some local African dishes at one of the homely ‘restaurants’. Once again the ambience is that of decaying houses, faded pastel colours and a languid vibe, although the church and central market are both worth a quick look.
There are several biosphere hiking trails through primeval rainforests and around ancient volcanic mountains, most of which require a guide with local knowledge to make sure you don’t get lost!
One of the principal volcanic peaks on the islands, Pico Papagaio, or Parrot Mountain, can be seen from Santo Antonio and is home to one of the best walks on Principe. Climbing this peak is one of the best things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe for adventurous souls and keen hikers.
At 700 metres Pico Papagaio emerges majestically from the tropical forest of the surrounding national park. Along the trail you might spot monkeys, orchids and endemic birds, and the panoramic views from the summit are stunning.
Nova Estrela Viewpoint
Continuing along the road from Santo Antonio, you’ll come across one of the most iconic views on Príncipe, which lies at almost the most southerly points you can reach by road on the island. It really does feel like standing on the edge of the world, and is undoubtedly one of the best things to see in Príncipe!
From the viewpoint at Nova Estrela you can gaze out at the island called Bone do Joquei (Jockey’s Cap), and the forest of tropical almond trees. Listen out for African parrots which can often be heard up in the canopy.
Terreiro Velho is a tiny village in the south east of Príncipe, just 1 km further on from the Nova Estrela viewpoint. It’s here that you’ll find an abandoned cocoa plantation which was purchased by famous Italian entrepreneur Claudio Corallo, who restored it during the 1990s. The plantation now produces some of the best chocolate in the world, and you can visit the chocolate factory in São Tomé city to see the process in action.
On the surface to untrained eyes, the plantation still feels deserted and we didn’t see another soul during our visit. You can wander around the grounds, enjoying the tropical views and giant foliage.
O Qué Pipi Waterfall
A short but steep walking trail through the forest leads to one of the most beautiful waterfalls on Príncipe, and the pool at the bottom is a great place for cooling off after the humid 45 minute hike. With nature all around, you’re likely to see monkeys jumping through the trees as well as plenty of local bird and plant life. The walk can be included on most day trips in Príncipe, just make sure you take some sturdy hiking shoes with you.
Also located on the road south from Santo António, this old plantation house was deserted by the European colonists when the islands gained independence in 1975, and has been left for nature to take over. Along the walking trails to the Roça Infante Don Henriques estate, keep an eye out for medicinal plants, orchids, native birds, monkeys and unusual basalt rock formations. You can walk all the way to Praia Seca on the southern tip of the island if you’re feeling energetic.
Much of what you’ll come across on the islands is produced right here, as exports are expensive and less environmentally sustainable. If you’re interested in learning about the processes and origins behind the products in your hotel, a tour of Roça Paciência is a super interesting way to spend a couple of hours on an excursion in Príncipe.
This organic plantation is owned by HBD, the trail-blazing company behind the Bom Bom, Roca Sundy and Sundy Praia hotels. From planting and nurturing to cultivating and drying, you’ll see the many production stages involved in producing everything from the soaps and shampoos you use in your bathroom, to the muesli and jams you eat at breakfast. We found it one of the most insightful things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe and highly recommend a visit.
Praia Bom Bom Beach and Praia Santa Rita
Although there are no private beaches on Príncipe, these two are only really accessible if you’re staying at the gorgeous Bom Bom resort (which we highly recommend), and we thought they were even more impressive than Praia Banana! With hardly a soul in sight, these long expanses of golden sand and gently lapping sea are perfect for sunset walks, afternoon swimming and picnics.
One of the more unusual things to do in Príncipe is visit the ancient long-lost settlement of Ribeira Ize. A hiking trail from Bom Bom through the forest leads to the ruins of Ribeira Ize, the former capital of the island. You’ll see the remains of the first church to be established on the islands, as well as the house that once belonged to Maria Correia, a black princess of local notoriety. It’s a mysterious site enshrouded in myth and legend, so best visited in daylight!
Visit Roça Sundy to see where Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was proven in 1919 by Sir Arthur Eddington. Even better, stay a couple of nights in the restored governor’s house, and explore the beautiful abandoned buildings on the plantation, as well as checking out the information boards that explain how Sir Arthur demonstrated gravity during a solar eclipse. This plantation is the biggest on the island, and the only one that produced coffee.
Praia Grande Sea Turtles
Wondering where to see sea turtles on Príncipe? For your own slice of sea turtle action, head over to Praia Grande in the north east of Príncipe between September and April to monitor sea turtles as they prepare to lay their eggs on the beach at night. Learn about the conversation of this endangered species, and you might even see some of the turtles hatching and making their first journey down to the sea.
Praia Grande is Príncipe’s largest beach and the location of the sea turtle conservation project, it’s the best place to see turtles on Príncipe.
This traditional fishing village on the far eastern tip of Príncipe is a great place to chat to the locals and watch as the fishermen bring in their daily catches whilst the children play on the beach.
The village is one of the poorest on the island, yet we found the locals curious and friendly. Tourism is so new here that as outsiders we weren’t yet viewed as money making opportunities, like in so many other countries. It was refreshing, and allowed us to feel comfortable interacting, so we stopped and chatted to some fishermen on the beach who were getting ready to head out to sea that evening.
Diving and Snorkelling on Príncipe
Snorkelling is possible off most of the beaches on Príncipe, as well as during boat trips around the island. If you want to go diving in São Tomé and Príncipe, we recommend the PADI dive centre at Bom Bom resort on the northern tip of the Príncipe. Marine life here is abundant and colourful – keep an eye out for parrot fish, trigger fish, barracuda, and turtles.
The best time to go diving on São Tomé and Príncipe is between December and March when visibility is at its best, although this is a year-round activity.
Whale Watching on Príncipe
If you’re on Príncipe between June and September there’s a good chance you’ll spot humpback whales as they migrate past the island to their calving grounds. Whale watching trips in Príncipe can be organised through your hotel, or if you’re lucky you might spot them from the shore from Bom Bom! It’s one of the most popular things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe. Dolphins are present all year round so you might see these on any boat trip around the island.
Bird Watching on Príncipe
Bird watching in São Tomé and Príncipe is incredible, with over 143 species (including 21/30 endemics). The isolation of these islands has allowed the evolution of unique species, including the often-spotted Príncipe kingfisher as well as the Príncipe sunbird and velvet-mantled drongo.
Auto de Floripes
If you’re visiting Príncipe during August, be sure to check out this colourful annual street festival, the Feast of St Lawrence. It’s the biggest cultural attraction on São Tomé and Principe, where locals gather to re-enact a battle between Christians and Moors, where the former are trying to retrieve holy relics stolen by the latter and convert them to Christianity. The scenes are acted out over 3 days, and draw in visitors from far and wide.
Waste Recycling Centre
Sounds like a bit of an unusual thing to do on Príncipe, right? Well this is a recycling centre with a difference. Set up in 2016, the centre transforms glass into jewellery, and turns organic waste into compost, making sure development here is as sustainable as possible. You can visit the inspiring ladies who founded the initiative, giving themselves financial independence and creating treasures from rubbish. It’s a great place to buy your holiday souvenirs too!
Having seen all these incredible places and activities, you’ll probably be wondering why does Sao Tome and Principe get so few visitors. We’re slightly baffled too, since the islands really are as stunning as they appear. Yet the remote location and undeveloped nature of the country means that for now, at least, Sao Tome and Principe remain the domain of adventurous travellers, and of course the wonderful locals. Go now, before that all changes.
We hope you’ve found our round-up of all the best things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe useful. There’s still lots more to see and do on the islands, so we’ll report back after our next trip!