The Azores (Açores in Portuguese) is an autonomous region of Portugal and consists of nine islands, the largest of which is São Miguel. The islands of Pico, Terceira, São Jorge, Faial, Flores, Santa Maria, Graciosa, and Corvo are nearby, accessible by either ferry or small plane, but they require time and advance planning to get to. Here are some recommendations for three days-full of activities that will have you covering most of the island, exploring the area, and sampling some of its prime offerings. This should help you prioritize what you don’t want to miss, what you feel okay skipping, and how you want to re-arrange your plans if the weather isn’t cooperating.
Average temperatures range between 12C (54F) in the winter and 25C (77F) in the summer, but as these are islands in the middle of the Atlantic, after all, there’s always a hint of mist and fog scattered throughout, so it’s advisable to pack a light rain jacket year-round. The drier months are between April and October, but again, better to be prepared.
Renting a car is also a must when visiting any of the islands, as public transportation is scarce outside of São Miguel’s major urban area and the capital of the Açores Ponta Delgada. Sure, the island only takes about an hour and a half to drive through end-to-end, but in order to explore the wealth of beauty this island has to offer, you’ll need your own wheels or a spot on a tour that provides transportation. In general, this island, otherwise known as the “green island” is known for its endless pastures and, in turn, its high-quality dairy products that come from some of the happiest cows on the planet. You’ll likely see a fair few of them throughout your travels, sometimes in the middle of a small road, so drive carefully.
We all have our own particular set of standards and must-sees when we travel, so the below list of sights are just our “top” recommendations. The order of how you choose to enjoy them is entirely up to you, but you will also have to take the weather into consideration, as some miradouros (viewpoints) could be shrouded in clouds and would therefore be rather pointless of course.
Ponta Delgada: Ponta Delgada is where the airport is located, and it makes sense to start your trip from here. If you prefer a more urban environment this might also be the place to book your accommodation and base yourself. For those seeking a refined spot with access to the city, renting a villa like this one is highly advised, especially as it is only 6km from Ponta Delgada city center. Not only it is spacious and ideal for a family or group of friends, it enjoys full concierge services, a heated pool, and a kids’ playground to boot. The city center is easily navigable on foot and there are loads of restaurants, cafes, and bars to choose from if cooking at your residence isn’t on your to-do list. It should also be noted that the Ponta Delgada market is particularly worth seeing. Be sure to check out some examples of the artisanal handmade wicker baskets famous in the region and sample the incredible dairy products native to São Miguel and its exotic fruits like pineapple, bananas, and passion fruit that thrive in this fertile land.
Take a walk along the colourful harbour that is full of graffiti rendered by passing-by sailors and you can also book a whale watching tour there. These usually take only a few hours and are easy to combine with a bit of downtown exploring. If you plan to head to Pico, however, this experience might be best saved for that island as it is well-known for offering some of the best whale-watching in the Açores!
Start out of the city by taking R 1-1 road, a spectacular coastal road that winds eastward from Ponta Delgada to Agua de Alto. Along the way are charming villages, breathtaking views of the Atlantic, and vistas perfect for the odd photo-op. Build in some time to stop and explore as the notion strikes. One such spot is Caloura Bay, a harbour that is seemingly frozen in time and welcomes local fishermen to try their luck along the pier.
Head north on EN 1-1 to start a 4 to 5-hour hike to Lagoa do Fogo. It’s a relatively steep climb but the trails are well-marked and well-maintained and the difficulty level is low, though you’ll need to wear proper shoes. You’ll walk along a moss-covered water channel that welcomes lovely birds in for their daily bath, find a pristine waterfall, and top out to incredible views of the Lagoa (lagoon) below.
Setting out from Ponta Delgada again, the second day should be reserved to explore the West side of the island and loop back via the central Northern town of Ribeira Grande.
Take the coastal road EN1-1A and head out toward Sete Cidades, arguably the most visited place in the Azores due to its unbelievable views over Lagoa Verde (green lagoon) and Lagoa Azul (blue lagoon) aptly named for their vibrant contrasts in colouring, said to be filled with the tears of a green-eyed princess and a blue-eyed shepherd boy respectively, when they found their love could never be realised. On the way, you’ll pass the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel, which you can (and should!) enter at your own risk. Once you finally arrive at the Lagoas, check out one of the many hiking trails in the area here.
Head out on the R 1-1 ring road along the westernmost side of the island and curve up all the way to Ribeira Grande. The views are stunning, and you’ll catch a glimpse of the now-closed old ring road below covered in decaying arches and getting ever closer to water level. Make sure to stop at the lovely little villages of Ajuda da Bretanha and Remédios, time permitting.
Ribeira Grande is home to lots of historic buildings and one of the oldest churches of the Azores. Strolling through the village and enjoying their culinary delights is a must. Note: seafood lovers will not want to leave until their plate is clean. Definitely make it a point to try the giant squid, lapas (limpets) and, of course, the world-famous tuna.
On your way back to Ponta Delgada, you’ll pass through Caldeira Velha, a natural hot spring set in the middle of a lush forest where you should plan to take a little soak for a nominal fee. There are showers and dressing rooms on-site, should you want to freshen up afterwards. You’ll also have the opportunity to check out Lagoa do Fogo again, this time by car. This 950-meter-high pass offers splendid views over Lagoa do Fogo, but please drive carefully as this road is windy and narrow.
Last but certainly not least, day three will have you exploring the east side of the island, a favorite way to end a visit to the island of São Miguel.
Start off by taking a short walk around Lagoa das Furnas’ south side where you can snap some shots of the ruins of an abandoned church. Continue into town for a chance to snack on the regional delicacy, a warm bolo levedo (sweet flatbread), typically eaten with butter or jam. Paired with a cup of coffee and a drip or two of Azorean fresh milk, you’ll be ready to roll on towards the main attraction of the area: the caldeiras.
Furnas is a town full of thermal activity: piping hot sulfuric water springs forth from the ground, making it the perfect place for local restaurants to boil their bags full of cozido a Portuguesa (cabbage-based stew with bits of pork and beef fat for flavouring). There are also a few spots where you can enter the caldeiras for a sulfuric soak of your own, like the one in the Romantic-style Terra Nostra botanical garden that was built in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s famous for its thermal spa, attracting many who come to bathe in the geothermal swimming pool, as well as marvel at the magnificent views and exotic vegetation. To finish your Furnas experience, don’t miss trying the cozido you saw bubbling in the calderas at one of the local restaurants.
After you’ve soaked and fed at Furnas, check out the southeastern town of Povoação, a car-free village centre with beautiful cobbled streets and plenty of nooks and crannies to discover. Then, try to stop over at the Chá Gorreana, the only remaining tea factory on the islands and Europe at large. You can go on one of their tours of the plantation, or settle for a taste inside their charming tea room. This is an excellent spot to load up on souvenir tea for your friends and family.