Shaped by dramatic landscapes, gleaming green pastures and vibrant blue hydrangeas, the Azores, a remote nine-island archipelago in the mid-Atlantic, is one of the most beautiful destinations the world has to offer. There are nine major Azorean islands and an islet cluster: Flores and Corvo to the west; Graciosa, Terceira, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial in the center; and São Miguel, Santa Maria, and the Formigas Reef to the east. Across the archipelago, there are 26 active volcanoes.
The island of São Miguel (Saint Michael) is the largest and most populated island of the Azores. With plenty to offer to nature lovers and tourists seeking a special but affordable destination, Portugal’s hidden gem is located 2 hours away from Europe and 5 from North America. São Miguel’s delicious cuisine, breathtaking views and crystal blue Atlantic waters will captivate anyone who appreciates the simple things in life.
The Azores is one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal. Portuguese is the official language of Portugal but even if you are fluent in Portuguese, you might have difficulty in understanding the Azoreans’ unique accent. Good news is that most locals speak English and if you stick to English only, you won’t have any problems communicating during your stay.
Flights to the Azores are easy to find. If you are flying from Europe, you should go with a low-cost European airline such as Ryanair. If you are traveling from the U.S., Delta (seasonal flights starting May 2020) or TAP are offering great flights at a fair price; the earlier you book your flight, the more you save. For international flights, you will have to leave from the John F. Kennedy International Airport or Newark Liberty International Airport. The Azorean Airlines, SATA, also offers direct flights from Boston Logan International Airport to the Azores.
Locals say that in Azores, you can experience all 4 seasons in one day. Although the region is characterized by their mild climate throughout the year, you will probably have to deal with a lot of clouds, rain and fog, which can be detrimental to appreciate the views; the weather in the Azores also changes rapidly. Check your weather app and pay attention to your surroundings: if the day turns out to be cloudy or rainy, it might be a good day to explore Ponta Delgada, go shopping or swim in one of the several natural pools throughout the island. If you have a day with clear skies, explore higher grounds so you can fully experience the views.
Rent a car in person, when you arrive. You can save money by renting a car at the airport or at the hotel, and you may use a valid U.S. Driver’s License. There are several models to choose from but if you are on a budget, be prepared to drive a vehicle with manual transmission. Roads are tight, steep, and curvy, and most of the parking available is parallel parking only. You won’t have any problems if you are used to drive in Europe but it can be changeling for someone from North America. If you decide to skip the car rental, there are plenty of tour guides in São Miguel. Several taxi drivers also offer private tours around the island – inquire one of the taxi drivers at the airport and they should be able to help you. Other touring companies can be found at the airport or online.
Eat Like a Local in the Beef Paradise
Food can be very affordable. You can have breakfast for less than 5€ if you stick with local coffee shops – breakfast items can include croissants, sandwiches, pastries, juice, coffee (espresso), etc. Typically, Portuguese don’t eat bacon or eggs for breakfast; they will have cheese or lunch meats in their morning sandwich instead. You can also enjoy an affordable and delicious lunch at these cafés by ordering a simple sandwich or a panini, fried pastries (such as empanadas), and a dessert; try the different queijadas (tarts) the Azores have to offer. Each island appears to have their own version of these tempting little treats but the Queijadas da Graciosa are the best around.
If you decide to visit one of the local restaurants, the check will obviously depend on the type of restaurant – the most expensive meals are usually served in hotels (15€+ per entrée). Other local restaurants can serve full entrées for as low as 7€.
The abundance of sea life in the surrounding Atlantic Ocean makes the fish a delicacy, and the tuna is considered among the best in the world. São Miguel is also home to the Gorreana tea estate, now the oldest and only tea plantation in Europe. But the most exciting culinary treat on this island, a meat and vegetable stew, is cooked underground with natural volcanic heat – to enjoy the Cozido das Furnas (Furnas stew), you must visit Tony’s or Vale Das Furnas restaurant in the village of Furnas. Always call ahead to make a reservation.
Beef is the king here – everywhere you go, there will be cows. Fresh rich dairy products such as local yogurt, butter and cheeses can be purchased in restaurants, cafés or gift shops on the island. One of the best local restaurants, the Associação Agrícola de São Miguel, will impress at first bite – the menu offers a wide selection of mouth-watering steaks from local dairy cattle. Expect a flavorful, tenderloin steak cooked to your taste and the best French fries you will ever have. Everything about this place is grand and the courteous service made this culinary adventure one of my best personal dining experiences.
Octopus stewed in wine, kale soup, fried mackerel, pineapples, and the sweet/spicy Pimenta da terra (cherry-red peppers) are other locally-sourced foods you should try during your stay. The Bolos Lêvedos, and English-muffin-looking bread, are also part of the locals’ diet, and they taste amazing stuffed with cheese or meats.
Day 1 – City of Ponta Delgada
Ponta Delgada, on the São Miguel Island, is the capital of the Azores. If you want to know more about the Azorean culture, history, fauna and flora, this is the best place to start your adventure. The city of Ponta Delgada is also the best place to shop for souvenirs – you will find several small shops in downtown.
As you travel from point A to point B, you will find several lookouts along the way. Some of these are remote but they are worth the drive and the time to explore them. A few of my favorite stops are listed throughout this itinerary.
Founded by naturalist Dr. Carlos Machado in 1876 and originally called the “Azorean Museum”, the Carlos Machado Museum is now located inside the beautiful convent of Saint Andrew. The museum offers several exhibits: Natural History and the Convent Memory exhibits located inside the convent; the Sacred Art exhibit located in the Colégio Church; and the Canto da Maya exhibit at the Santa Bárbara Center. The main exhibit of Natural History, offers visitors the opportunity to know more about the region and its biodiversity, considered to be one of the richest in all Europe.
Tickets are 2€ per exhibit. Seniors (65+) have a 50% discount and children up to 14 years old can visit for free.
The Old City Gates are the most iconic monument of the Azores. Located in the main square of downtown São Miguel, the Old City Gates are surrounded by historic buildings, shops and landmarks. Built in 1783, the three arches are part of the original gates to the city, which once stood by the old harbor wall. The statue of Gonçalo Velho, the island’s discoverer, also proudly stands in the square, welcoming visitors from around the world.
You won’t find large castles in the Azores but there are plenty of forts to explore. The Fort of São Bras, located 5 minutes from the Old City Gates, was built in the 16th century to defend the city from pirates and mercenaries. To this day, the fort is still used by the Portuguese Armed Forces. You can visit most of the property for only 3€ and access the Portuguese Military Museum with exhibits on World War I, World War II, displays, artifacts and military history.
Visit the Village of Capelas during your stay and swim at the Poços Natural Pools. Capelas is 15 minutes North of Ponta Delgada.
Day 2 – Head East for The Volcanic Experience
The Volcanic Complex of Furnas in São Miguel is populated by mud pools, springs and geysers, and it’s considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the archipelago. The Furnas municipality has been around since 1522 and residents are determined to stay – the area was shortly abandoned as the consequence of a volcanic eruption in 1630, but years later and as the land became fertile, locals returned to the valley.
José do Canto, a wealthy Azorean landowner born in 1820, is well known by locals for his contributions to the island’s landscape and architectural treasures. You can find several of his properties throughout the island (including the José do canto Botanical Gardens in Ponta Delgada), but the Our Lady of Victories Chapel on José do Canto Park is by far the most impressive. The French neo-gothic-style chapel was erected in 1882 to serve as a mausoleum for the Canto family. The beautiful gardens surrounding the chapel have hundreds of plants from around the world that were chosen and imported by Mr. Canto himself. José do Canto and his wife, Maria Guilhermina Taveira Brum da Silveira, now rest within this chapel, by the shore of the beautiful Furnas Lake.
You will have to use one of the paid parking lots to visit this park. You can walk in the park and see the outside of the chapel at no charge. If you wish to explore the gardens, you must pay to enter.
This romantic-style botanical garden was built in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Furnas community. The park features beautiful gardens and thermal baths fueled by one of the most active thermal locations on Earth. Built by Thomas Hickling, a wealthy merchant from Boston, the Terra Nostra Park was originally known as the Yankee Hall. The large thermal pool with an island in the center is surrounded by many trees planted by Hickling himself.
The entrance is free for children under 2. Adults pay 8€ but children between 3 and 10 have a 50% discount.
The valley of Furnas is, in fact, a volcanic crater which has been dormant since 1630. Today Furnas is a serene and lush community in the Azores but mother Earth is well alive here – geysers, hot-springs and fumaroles can be found in downtown Furnas, and locals love to cook their meats and vegetables underground, using natural volcanic heat.
On your way to Furnas, stop by the several lookouts and parks in Vila Franca do Campo.
Day 3 – Tales of the West
The western side of São Miguel is as exciting as the volcanoes to the east. The Lagoon of the Seven Cities is one of the main attractions in São Miguel and is located in the caldera of the Sete Cidades Massif, an ancient volcano built on various layers of ash, pyroclasts and trachyte and basaltic lavas.
Before heading to the Seven Cities, make a quick stop on the village of Ginetes. The several lookouts along the western coast of São Miguel offer a different but beautiful perspective of the island. Near Ginetes, you can also access the Ponta da Ferraria Lighthouse by car. Built in 1901, this was the second lighthouse being built in the Azores and is considered one of the most beautiful of the archipelago.
The Lagoon of Seven Cities is actually two different lakes connected by a narrow strait. It is the largest body of water and an important freshwater resource for the whole archipelago. Many myths and legends are associated with this location but the ancient tale of Princess Antília is the most popular among locals:
“The ancient story recounts the tale of a bad-tempered widower King and his daughter in a Kingdom in the Western Sea. He was a King, Lord of Alchemy and sorcerer, who lived exclusively for his daughter, Antília, and who would not let the Princess speak to anyone. Apart from the King, the Princess was raised by an old nurse, after the Queen had died. As the years progressed, the princess grew up to be a beautiful young woman and able to attract the attentions of any boy in the kingdom. However, the King restricted her movements to the castle and garden, and few ever saw her. But, unintimidated by her father, and with the help of the nurse, she escaped to the local hills and valleys, as her father slept after his lunch. During one of her escape adventures, she heard a song: the music was beautiful and enchanted her to follow it to its origins. Hiding from view, the princess found a young shepherd playing a flute, sitting on top of a hill. For weeks she returned, listening to the young shepherd, until she was discovered behind some bushes. The shepherd boy fell in love with the princess, and they continued to meet afterwards, talking, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, until the boy decided to ask the princess in marriage.
Early in the morning, the couple knocked on the door of the Castle, and asked the servants to speak to the King. Very nervous but determined, the shepherd asked the King for his daughter in marriage. Reacting angrily, the King refused and expelled him from the Castle, and forbade his daughter from seeing the young boy. Not wishing more ill feelings, she followed the orders of her father, but met secretly with the shepherd that afternoon in order to tell him that she would never see him again. Antília and the shepherd boy cried all afternoon, embracing, and their tears formed two beautiful lakes, one green, for the Princess’s eyes were green, and the other blue, for the shepherd’s eyes were likewise colored.” – Wikipedia
Bretanha is another charming, small village with beautiful lookouts. Pull over and grab your camera.
Between Ginetes and Seven Cities, stop at this location. You will have access to spectacular views from the mountains and the coast.