Azores Islands, a Paradise for Nature and Culture Lovers
The best things to do on the Azores islands? Connect with the cultural landscape of this chain of spectacularly beautiful islands. Each member of this archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic has a distinctive culture shaped by its remote location. The architecture, cuisine, customs and spiritual practices of the Azores islands also reflect the islands' volcanic origins.
Believe it or not, fiery eruptions here millions of years ago created an eco-paradise. Just a few of the sights to behold on the Azores islands are emerald fields lined with blue hydrangea bushes, azure lakes surrounded by a ring of verdant mountains, thermal pools hidden in the jungle, and vast vineyards.
Each of the Azores islands has its own distinct personality. I’ll give you my take on the scenic attractions and cultural highlights of:
- Sao Miguel, the biggest Azores island, and site of the capital, Ponta Delgada;
- Terceira, with the oldest city of the Azores island, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and;
- Pico, with its network of historic vineyards, which are also recognized by UNESCO.
And you'll want to be sure to get offshore on the Atlantic for some up-close whale watching!
Azores Islands At A Glance
Sustainable tourism has long been a hallmark of this archipelago of nine Azores islands. Thanks to conservative tourism policies, the Azores Islands have remained off-the-beaten-path, despite a location in the North Atlantic between the U.S. and Europe.
The Azores are an autonomous region of Portugal, but the islands draw settlers from a wide range of cultures including Flemish, Jewish, Italians, Scots, English, and Bretons.
The Azores Islands first appear in the historical record in the 14th century, in Italian and Spanish maps. It's believed that the islands of Santa Maria and São Miguel were discovered in 1427 by Portuguese navigator Diogo de Silves. Colonization of the Azores Islands began in the mid-15th century by settlers from Portugal, Spain, Northern France and Flanders. Santa Maria was the first to be settled, followed by São Miguel and then Terceria whose name literally means "third island."
Azores Islands Location, Weather and When to Go
The Azores islands are a destination for a romantic getaway, while also offering plenty for a vacation with the kids. This eco paradise is located about 2,400 miles from Boston in the U.S. and about 1,000 miles from mainland Portugal. Flights from Boston to the main city of Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel take four hours and 45 minutes. The journey from London to the Azores takes about three hours.
The location of the Azores islands means the climate is temperate and not tropical. The best months to visit are May through October. The temperature during these months will be in the 70s, which may sound rather low, but the humidity makes it feel hotter. During my two weeks on the Azores islands in late July and early August, we experienced occasional showers and mistiness. But by and large, it was all sunny skies.
The Azores islands have a rich culture accessible by attending one of the many festivals held over the summer. With a Portuguese heritage rooted in the Catholic faith, most of the celebrations are associated with religious holidays. Not surprisingly, there are also many fetes that honor the sea, as well as more mainstream music events.
We visited at the height of the summer season and at no time experienced crowds. In fact, we often felt like we had incredibly magical places entirely to ourselves. Even when attending the Bom Jesus Festival on Pico, navigating the crowd of locals was easily manageable.
The Lay of the Land and Suggested Itinerary
The location of the Azores means it's a short trip for both Americans and Europeans. Azores Airlines (previously known as SATA) has direct flights from Boston in the U.S., as well as from Toronto and Montreal. TAP also flies direct from Boston. A growing number of European cities offer direct flights, including Brussels (TUI Fly); Frankfort (Azores Airlines, Ryanair); Lisbon (Azores Airlines, TAP and Ryanair); and London (Azores Airlines, Ryanair).
The Azores' nine islands are grouped into three clusters: Flores and Corvo to the west; Graciosa, Terceira, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial in the middle; and Sao Miguel, Santa Maria and Formigas to the east.
Sao Miguel is the main island where the primary airport serving the Azores is located, making a logical starting point. We went from there to Terceira and then on to Pico and lastly Faial.
Once you reach the Azores, if you plan to do some island-hopping, you are likely going to need to get on a puddle-jumper or two. There is a ferry service but it's a long journey on the water between some of the more popular islands.
For example, there is currently just one ferry route running between Sao Miguel and Terceira operated by 1 ferry company – Atlanticoline. The Ponta Delgada to Praia da Vitoria ferry crossing operates weekly with a scheduled sailing duration from about 4 hours 30 minutes.
The exception is if you are going from Pico to Faial these islands are very close together. Atlanticoline conducts this crossing operates up to 56 times each week with sailing durations from around 30 minutes, departing from the town of Madalena on the west coast.
Inter-island flights are available only on SATA/Azores Airlines. A flight from Sao Miguel to Terceira takes about 40 minutes.
Where to stay on the Azore Islands
In Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, we found the Hotel Marina Atlantico, a gleaming glass landmark located across from the harborfront promenade and marina to be the perfect base—and where I enjoyed quite possibly the best massage I’ve ever had!
On Terceira, the 16th century Forte de Sao Sebastiao is now a luxury retreat, part of Portugal’s pousada system—historic hotels housed in former castles, convents, palaces and fortresses.
Ensconced between a swath of luxuriant vineyards and the aquamarine surf of a dramatic shoreline is guest house Pocinho Bay, the labor of love of two former sociology professors from Lisbon. This exclusive sanctuary of six suites opened 12 years ago after an extensive renovation of the former winery’s seven basalt structures, each exquisitely decorated with exotic art from the proprietors’ own travels to locales ranging from Guatemala to Malaysia.
The whole of Sao Miguel is like one big nature conservatory. At a mere forty miles long and ten miles wide, the island is small enough that its sights are within easy reach of the capital of Ponta Delgada, a small modern city on the southern coast. All within a short walk of each other are sights such as the charming Campo do São Francisco square, the historic Church of Sao Jose, and the 16th-century Forte de São Brás.
Lagoa Das Sete Cidades
Lagoa das Sete Cidades, or “Lagoon of the Seven Cities” is just one of Sao Miguel’s many geomorphic gems. It's a forty-minute drive east from Ponta Delgada, through hills of pastures seamed by rows of brilliant blue hydrangea bushes. I let out a gasp as I crested a hill and caught sight of adjoining lakes at the bottom of the crater below, one a brilliant jade, the other a translucent azure. A trail runs along the crater’s perimeter for those seeking a 360-degree perspective; hiking the circumference takes about three hours, and is one of the most beautiful vistas you’ll encounter during your Azores Islands travel.
In the opposite direction from Ponta Delgada is Caldeira Velha. Located near the small city of Ribeira Grande, this secluded thermal pool beneath a cascading waterfall, reached by a path through a deep forest of cedar and laurel. Beneath a cascading waterfall and amidst prehistoric-looking vegetation, you can bath in steaming waters made rust-colored by iron-rich minerals.
Unique Traditions of Furnas in Azores Islands
A day trip to the enchanting village of Furnas is one of the best things to do in the Azores. About a 40-minute drive east of Ponta Delgada, this picturesque town offers a chance to get up close and personal with the active geology of the Azores. Furnas is located in a verdant valley, which is actually the mouth of an active volcano. While that sounds scary, the last eruption was in 1630. The ambiance is lush, serene and highly instructive on how to co-exist with Mother Nature. It's fascinating to see how the Azoreans have harnessed the volcanic energy for cooking, healing and leisure.
As you arrive in the area, stop first at Lagoa das Furnas, a mystical crater lake. The Furnas Lake is the second largest lake on the Azores, containing more than 264,000 cubic gallons of water. If you want to stretch your legs, there is a six-mile trail that starts in the village and circles the lake, which will take about two hours.
Alongside the lake is the Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitórias, an intriguing neo-Gothic chapel. Created by a 19th-century gentleman farmer in memory of his beloved wife, the project took almost 20 years to complete.
From the lake, as you head to the village, take another short detour off to the right and up a winding road to a belvedere. From this vantage point, there is an incredible view of Furnas, with its whitewashed and red-roofed splayed out across the brilliant green landscape.
Further down the ribbon of road is a lunar landscape where muddy holes in the scorched earth belch plumes of smoke, and scores of men with hoes tend anthill-shaped mounds. At 12:30 pm sharp, pairs of the men tunnel through the piles of dirt to extract huge covered metal pots buried below; each duo carries off their bounty to a cheering crowd. The scene seems an unlikely setting for preparation of a cultural and gastronomic treat but no visit to Furnas is complete without savoring a lunch of Cozido das Furnas, a traditional Azores stew cooked underground for eight hours with volcanic heat.
Minutes from these subterranean ovens, the elegant dining room of Terra Nostra Garden Hotel provides a refined atmosphere to enjoy the earthy local dish of pork, beef, cabbage, kale, potatoes, carrots, chicken and chouriço sausage; the Art Deco gourmet restaurant also offers other fare from an eclectic menu.
Terra Nostra Gardens
After a leisurely lunch being pampered by the attentive wait staff, I walked off the calories with a long stroll through the adjacent botanical park. Terra Nostra Gardens was founded in the 18th century by Bostonian and American consul Thomas Hickling, who built his home “Yankee Hall” alongside a thermal spring.
Today, bathers young and old enjoy the warm waters of the expanded pool that is the park’s frontispiece. The Garden’s magical 30-acres teem with indigenous plant life as well as thousands of exotic species from all over the world, woven together with serpentine water canals, mysterious grottoes and a whimsical lily pond.
The island of Terceira, a half-hour hop from Sao Miguel by plane, lays claim to being home to the oldest settlement of the Azores. Terceira is about 18 miles long and ten miles wide at its widest point. Its capital is Angra do Heroismo, which is located in the center of the southern coast. One of the biggest of the Azores islands, Terceira is also one of the most populated, with communities based mostly around the perimeter of the island. Inland is a quilt of verdant pasture lands that is quite beautiful to behold.
Historic Angra Do Heroismo
Angra Do Heroismo is a cool small city, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Center in 1983. The enclave, which was founded in 1478, was a wealthy port during centuries of trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Angra was also the scene of more than its share of power struggles. It's name means "Bay of Heroes", in commemoration of its citizen’s successful defense against attack in 1829. Today, the area around its harbor is vibrant with brightly colored buildings in architectural styles that span from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Baroque.
Forte de São Sebastião
Military commanders once kept a watchful eye on the horizon from Forte de Sao Sebastiao, a 16th century fortress that dominates the cliff tops above Angra do Heroismo. Today, the ancient fort is a pousada, which means "inn" in Portuguese. The term has been trademarked by a group who has converted historic properties such as castles, convents and monasteries into accommodations that showcase authentic Portuguese cultural landmarks. I've stayed in a few, including Sao Sebastiao and I have always found them to be elegant, very-well managed...and amazingly well-priced!
Murals of Angra do Heroisimo
Are you an aficionado of street art? Then you'll love all the imaginative murals that adorn many of the buildings in Angra's historic district.
Jardim Duque da Terceira
In the center of Angra is a lush, manicured botanical garden teeming with exotic plants. Many of these plants made their way to the Azores via the explorers commissioned by Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator. The green space was created in the late 19th century and occupies land that was once part of the Jesuit College and the Convent of São Francisco. There's no admission to visit Jardim Duque da Terceira and it's a pleasant spot to take a break from sightseeing. The Garden features an arbor-covered walkway, lined by sidewalks inlaid with mosaic designs. Its ascending levels up 250 steps to the mirador offer a bird's eye view of Angra.
Admire the View from Monte Brasile
Across the Bay of Angra is Monte Brasile, a two-mile wide peninsula that is about seven stories above sea level. This promontory, which is volcanic in origin, makes for fantastic views of the city of Angra do Heroísmo to the east and the Bay of Fanal to the west. On particularly clear days, it is possible to view São Jorge and Pico. We drove through the Fortress of São João Baptista and along a curving and narrow one-way road and pulled off at various points to admire the vistas. For those who prefer to hike, plan on at least a half day.
Lava Beach Of Biscoitos
In Terceira’s village of Biscoitos, lush green hills roll gently down to an other-worldly beach where visitors can bath in pools of aquamarine water surrounded by strange rock formations of black lava. The Azores’ volcanic origins means white sand beaches are virtually non-existent but the fantastical geology makes for memorable swims.
Algar Do Carvao
In the center of Terceira, it’s possible to get up close and personal with an extinct volcano by descending into the belly of Algar do Carvao, a cave that is more than 425 feet deep and features a massive "cathedral" dome, a subterranean lake and artistic patterns on the wall created by ancient gases.
Pay Homage to the Imperios
Across Terceira there are about 70 small chapels known as “impérios”, which translates as "empires". These are built by brotherhoods of the Empire of the Divine Holy Spirit, an Azorean Catholic religious organization inspired originally by an Italian theologian in the beginning of the 13th century. Two centuries later, his beliefs were brought to the Azores by the Franciscan who were early colonizers. The central tenets of the Empire of the Holy Spirit are hope; faith in the divine; egalitarianism; solidarity and charity; and autonomy from the church.
In the latter part of the 19th century the elaborate “impérios” came into popularity, funded in large part by members of the diaspora. The impérios architectural design evolved from the faithful's rituals and the distinctive, brightly colored facades are part of Terceira'’s identity.
Soak up the Sun at Praia de Vitoria
Praia de Vitoria is the second biggest city on Terceira, encompassing about 62 square miles on the island's northeast. It's about 12 miles from Angra, and has the only big sand beach on Terceira.
Experience Authentic Fishing Village of São Mateus da Calheta
Just 2.5 miles west of Angra is the old fishing village of São Mateus da Calheta. The harbor is well worth a visit as you get a real sense of community watching the fisherman mend their nets and kids doing cannonballs off the pier. We noticed several religious niches along the waterfront bearing testimony to the active faith that is part of daily life for Azoreans, especially those who earn their living on the often perilous ocean.
Chill at Mata da Serreta Nature Park
Mata da Serreta Nature Park is about a half hour's drive from Angra do Heroismo. This forest of cedar, laurel and eucalyptus trees is part of the Nature Park of Terceira. Established in 2011, the Park is a protected area that encompasses about 22% of the island. The Park has picnic areas with elaborate fountains of carved stone and trails through slopes of Serra de Santa Barbara. This mountain is another inactive volcano, and at 3,349 feet in height, is the island's highest point. We practically had the place to ourselves and it was a rather magical experience meandering through giant ferns lit by shafts of light filtering through the thick canopy.
Witness Tourada à Corda
Tourada à corda means "bullfight by rope" and it is a pastime that has been celebrated on Terceira since at least 1622. We had noticed small stone bullrings in a few places as we traveled around Terceira but Tourada à corda is an event that is typically held in the center of a village along a designated road. The bull fights are held between May 1 and October 15, usually between 4:00 - 6:30 p.m. We learned of one being held in a village not far from Angra and decided to attend, as we were assured no harm came to the bulls. The popularity of the occasion was clear by the massive number of cars lining the road into the small town and throngs of revelers streaming down the main street.
The bull was controlled by a rope around its neck and herded by four "shepherds", men who wear black felt hats, white sweaters and gray pants. The bull's horns are capped to minimize the risk of anyone being gored. Spectators crowded behind existing stone walls or barricades that were erected along the street. The atmosphere was of a block party hordes of people had barbecues going and enjoyed refreshments. It appeared that anyone who felt like it could run into the street and get within close proximity to the bull. This was invariably done by young men who likely had consumed some liquid courage. All in all, the Tourada à corda we saw was relatively tame. There were a few moments when the bull gave a snort and made a bit of a charge. However, it generally seemed to be patiently enduring the antics of testosterone-fueled daredevils.
Another puddle-jump away is Pico. The island is named for the enormous volcanic cone in its center, which dominates the skyline. Pico is the second largest of the Azores islands and is 28 miles long and about ten miles wide. While it's a compact size, we spent four days here and could have stayed longer!
World Heritage Vineyards of Azores Islands
The fertility of the black earth here was cultivated to grow grapes centuries ago—the viticulture proved so distinctive that Pico's vineyards were designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2004.
The intensity of the magnificent black crusty soil gives birth to life and the recognition that with enough time, scorching fires yield abundance. Vivid green growth emerges from cracks and crevices, and luxuriant vineyards sprawl across the island.
Santo Amaro Craft School
In the tiny village of Santo Amaro, that connection is shared by twin sisters Consaysons and Alzira Neves, who founded the Santo Amaro Craft School in 1986. A loving homage to Pico's legacy of centuries-old craft traditions, the school overflows with the bounty of the sister's creativity. Their work on display includes embroidery, lacework, flowers made from fish scales, straw dolls, and traditional costumes, all handmade.
Alzira invited us into her home next door to the museum and shared with us her personal collection of pieces she has made over the years. The extent of Alzira's creativity was astonishing, invigorating and inspiring.
Bom Jesus Festival
The awe-inspiring forces that made all that rich, hard black lava rock are unpredictable, and so on Pico, most people seek a connection with a comforting, protective divinity...and with each other. At the Bom Jesus festival, held in the village of Sao Mateaus each August 6, you sense the profound faith and spirit of community that is part of life on Pico.
Whale Watching in the Azores Islands
Once an epicenter of the whaling industry, Pico is now a base for eco-tours that hunt whales for communal rather than combative purposes. Espaço Talassa in the tiny village Lajes about 40 minutes west of Pocinho Bay offers excursions on 29-foot, Zodiac-style vessels a far more intimate experience than the large vessels used for such excursions in the U.S. The company offers excursions on a 29-foot Zodiac for a far more intimate experience than the large vessels used in the U.S. The company was founded in 1989 by a former whaler and French sailor after the whaling trade went extinct.
Be prepared for a wild ride. After receiving word from a spotter stationed high in the hills along the coast, our skipper made a beeline four or five miles out to sea at high speed. The bouncy ride atop the waves was well worth it—eventually, the engines were cut and we drifted alongside a pod of more than a dozen female sperm whales, which each average 50 feet in length and weigh about 20 tons. For twenty minutes or so, we rocked in reverent silence, feeling privileged to be in the company of these peaceful giants.
Whether you need to decompress or rev up your energy level, there are different kinds of Azores islands experiences to replenish your spirit.
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