For your next European getaway, why not try the Azores? The North Atlantic archipelago of nine volcanic islands offers a whirlwind of adventures involving both its exotic terrain and Old World culture. Forged 36 million years ago in a surge of volcanic activity, the islands are replete with caldera, hot springs, lava tubes, and fields. Wildly verdant landscapes overlay the rugged ground while centuries of European history infuse its mountainside villages and towns. Sound exciting? We thought so. Check out our top six things to do in the Azores below, one of Europe’s most exciting hidden gems.
A bit of background
The Azores are arranged in three island clusters moving from northwest to southeast across 370 miles, about 900 miles east of Lisbon. Ponta Delgada on São Miguel island is the Azorean capital and houses about 30% of the 250,000 people who live on the island chain. The area’s main airport, João Paulo II Airport, is just outside Ponta Delgada and is the preferred gateway to (or from) the U.S. or Europe.
While you can travel between islands by ferry, the ocean is often rough, making ferry travel — especially longer treks — unpredictable and uncomfortable. We recommend traveling by air between island groups and by ferry for short hops within an island group. Thanks to the flow of warm gulfstream waters, weather in the Azores is moderate throughout the year, rarely budging from its 61 – 77-degree range.
Though the islands comprise an Autonomous Region of Portugal (Madeira is the other one), culture, cuisine, and customs lean on Spanish influences. This is due to the centuries-long struggle for island control between the two colonial powers. These days, the battle for dominion is over and the Azoreans (mostly of Portuguese heritage) now busy themselves with agriculture, dairy and livestock farming, fishing, and tourism.
Here’s how you can busy yourself when you get there:
1: Tour the twin crater lakes at Sete Cidades, São Miguel.
Forget Ireland. Once you see São Miguel, green will never look the same. Known as the “Green Island,” São Miguel unfolds in a lush, verdurous carpet across dramatic volcanic terrain. In the midst of it all are the blue-green twin lakes of Sete Cidades, set in the center of a forested caldera about 40 minutes outside of Ponta Delgada. Let’s be clear here: remarkably, one lake is blue and the other is green, which makes viewing them from above an incongruous and heady thrill. For the full monty, go for a guided tour around the lakes by ATV quadbike. This takes about half a day on a path that is mostly flat; fees run about $67.
One blue, one green, the twin lakes of Sete Cidades are truly dazzling. (Source: Shutterstock / UschiDaschi)
2: Explore historic port town Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira.
Your next stop could be Terceira, the “Purple” Island, so named thanks to its exquisite lavender sunsets. Here you will also discover Angra do Heroísmo, the Azores’s oldest and arguably most beautiful city, also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1478, the city was the political and ecclesiastical capitol of the islands for centuries. It earned its moniker, “do Heroismo” (“heroic”) thanks to the citizens’ successful resistance against an attack from Portuguese monarchists during the Portuguese Civil War of the early 19th century. Legend has it that the islanders, liberalists who were in favor of a more constitutional form of government, overwhelmed the invaders by unleashing herds of half-wild bulls.
Meander through the city’s cobblestone lanes, past whitewashed cottages with terracotta roofs. The central zone includes the cathedral of Santíssimo Salvador da Sé, and cornflower blue church of the Misericórdia, two exquisite examples of Baroque architecture featured prominently throughout the central city district. Just outside the city, don’t miss the Fortress of São João Baptista, a majestic 16th-century stronghold, built to defend the Azores from seaborne enemy attacks.
Angra do Heroismo (Source: Shutterstock / HelenaH)
3: Go for the cheese in São Jorge.
Adjacent to Terceira, São Jorge’s spiny volcanic ridge stretches into the sea, much like a dragon’s back and tail – or so someone thought. Fittingly, then, this island is named after the mythic English dragon slayer St George. (Yes, at one point the English, too, briefly laid claim to the Azores.)
Thanks also to its rich brown and umber colored cliffs, São Jorge is also known as the “Brown Island.” Rich volcanic soil makes for lush pastures and outstanding fodder for the abundance of cattle that make São Jorge their home. This is good news because the cattle produce a rich milk which is the basis for Queijo São Jorge, a world-renowned, DOP-protected, cheese similar to a mellow Parmigiano-Reggiano and unique to the Azores. While you’re here, go for a tour of a cheese cooperative. Tours generally include discussion, delicious tastings, and an opportunity to purchase a yummy wheel or two for the folks back home. Admission is a very reasonable $8.
4: Climb Mount Pico, Pico.
Mount Pico is Portugal’s tallest mountain and the massive stratovolcano that dominates Pico, the “Grey Island” (It’s the soil color thing again.) At 7,700 feet tall, it makes for an exciting, if ambitious, hike up. We recommend a guided climb (which includes lunch) for about $80. Expect a six-to-eight hour hike up and back, including a walk around the crater rim, stunning views of the islands, and a glance at actual volcanic activity.
If you’ve still got some energy after your descent, head over to the Gruta das Torres, a cave and lava tunnel stretching nearly three miles underground formed from an eruption on the island’s Cabeço Bravo parasitic cone some 1,500 years ago.
5: Try the local wine in Pico.
If climbing volcanoes isn’t your thing, how about wine tasting? Centuries ago, Franciscan friars figured out that Pico’s rich volcanic soil would be perfect for growing the Verdelho grape. The rest, as they say, is history.
Many of the vineyards here are surrounded by stone walls, built by the Franciscans; this unique history has earned them UNESCO World Heritage Site status. This ingenious design is still in use today, in fact; not only do the walls form a barrier against offshore winds, but the stone itself absorbs heat from the sun for thermal insulation.
Wine tasting tours go for about $86 and include visits to vineyards, tours of winepresses, lunch, a stop at the local wine museum, and lots of tasting. Be sure and try the Frei Gigante, a delicately fragrant wine with fruity flavors and shades of honey, unique to the Azores.
6: Tour the Capelinhos, Faial.
Faial is referred to as the “Blue Island” thanks to the wealth of blue hydrangea — brought by early Flemish settlers — that grows wildly throughout the island. While the flower can be seen throughout the Azores, Faial enjoys more than its share, and is a veritable sea of blues when they bloom.
Faial’s hydrangea (Source: iStock / EdoMor)Once you get over the hydrangea, check out the Capelinhos volcano and the remains of its last major eruption (actually a series of intermittent eruptions) in 1957. While there were no fatalities, local villages were covered in ash and pumice stone. A guided tour of the island (about $100) includes the ridge line of village roofs peeking through the hardened lava, a partially-buried lighthouse, a stop at the Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Center, and lunch.
Before you leave Faial, stop by Peter’s Café Sport, an historic bar in Horta known for its décor of yacht flags and postcards, not to mention wicked gin and tonics.
We’ve only scratched the surface of things to do in the Azores. For more information, visit the Azores tourism board online.