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11 things to see and do when you visit the Azores

May 19, 2022
9 min read
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Now that United Airlines has launched a nonstop flight between Newark and Ponta Delgada in the Azores, people might wonder what there is to see and do in the nine-island chain scattered across the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Azores are an autonomous region of Portugal, and the islands are about 1,000 miles west of Lisbon and 2,400 miles away from North America, making it a fairly quick and easy flight to the largest and most populated island, São Miguel, and its capital city, Ponta Delgada.

The archipelago has volcanic origins, although some islands have had no recorded activity in centuries.

The Portuguese settled on the islands in the 15th century, planting crops, grapevines and other plants. They also brought domesticated animals like chickens, sheep and cattle. Today, the islands are responsible for at least 50% of Portugal’s cheese production.

Extending across 370 miles, the islands are divided into three groups (Eastern, Central and Western). Most visitors make it to one or two islands, with Sao Miguel, Terceira and Pico being the most popular.

Each island has its own characteristics and attractions, and all are worth exploring — at the very least for their unique cheeses, wines and pastries.

Here are some of our favorite experiences on these accessible Atlantic Ocean islands.

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Spot whales and dolphins

Whale watching in the Azores. (Photo by Freder/Getty Images)

Once on the islands, taking a whale-watching boat tour is a must. The surrounding Atlantic waters teem with sea life, and many whale species migrate through these waters at various times. You can see resident sperm whales year-round and larger species like blue, fin and sei whales in April and May. Humpbacks pass by in October.

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There are always lots of dolphins to see, too. Marina Ponta Delgada is lined with companies that offer three-hour whale and dolphin spotting excursions.

Take a dip in thermal waters

Sao Miguel is one of the most active volcanic islands in the chain and is blanketed with geysers, hot springs and fumaroles. The island is marked by three volcanic cones: Fogo, Sete Cidades and Furnas. The town of Furnas is named after the volcano, now known as Lagoa Furnas because its caldera is filled with water.

Head to the town of Furnas to see bubbling underground cauldrons that locals sometimes boil corn in, (heed the signs about keeping your distance, as they are dangerous to touch), as well as spigots and springs touting various minerals and their health benefits.

If you want to take a dip, go to Terra Nostra, which is home to a well-known hotel and restaurant, lush gardens and a thermal pool with temperatures hovering around 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Take note: light-colored bathing suits and towels may get stained from the water's high iron content.

Try stew cooked in a volcano

Azoreans make good use of their volcanic activity. Aside from cooking corn and other items in the boiling waters, locals also make a stew called cozido. It's made with beef, Azorean wine and vegetables, then buried underground, usually in the volcanic sand surrounding Furnas Lake — behind a roped-off area, where dozens of buried pots bubble in underground pits. The volcanic steam slowly cooks the stew for at least six hours. You can sample some at the Terra Nostra restaurant.

Related: Azores vs. Madeira: Pick your perfect Portuguese vacation island

Eat all the cheese

Dairy is a major component of the local diet and Azoreans pride themselves on their “happy cows,” which can be seen grazing across the islands, all year long. Cows outnumber people in the Azores (as everyone loves to share) and they are all grass-fed.

Each island has produced its own variety of cheese since the 15th century, and many have Protected Geographical Status (DOP) certification thanks to the islands' unique topography and climate.

The volcanic, nutrient-rich soil lends a distinct terroir to each cheese (queijo in Portuguese), which comes in soft and hard varieties and ranges from mild to tangy. Try Queijo São Jorge (named for the island where it’s produced). It's a semi-hard raw cow’s milk cheese that’s a little spicy and nutty, but with a buttery core. You should also sample the semi-soft Queijo Vaquinha made on Terceira. You really can’t go wrong with any cheese plate you order, though.

Drink some volcanic wine

A Pico island vineyard. (Photo by wildestanimal/Getty Images)

Wine is produced on nearly every island, and in a unique way. Instead of the typical trellises, the vines in the Azores run along the ground, on top of small black rocks, which retain heat for the cold nights. And, the vines are restricted to small square parcels with black basalt stone walls surrounding them.

The wine region of Pico nestles in the shadow of a large volcano and it's known for producing some of the best Azorean wine. The method is so distinctive on Pico that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Visit wineries like Cooperativa Vitivinicola Da Ilha Do Pico on Pico, Adega Simas (adega means “wine cellar” in Portuguese) on Terceira and Quinta da Jardinete winery on São Miguel. When dining out, explore the wine list for bottles from across the archipelago.

See spectacular views

All of the islands are filled with dramatic viewpoints (called miradouros in Portuguese) that take in striking volcanoes, colorful wildflowers, turquoise lakes and crashing ocean waves. These panoramas are worth the trip alone.

One of Sao Miguel’s most popular scenic overlooks is Sete Cidades (meaning “Seven Cities”), which is a small town on the island's western end. The sparkling Lagoa Azul (Blue Lake) is on one side and the gorgeous Lagoa Verde (Green Lake) is on the other.

Stop at the lofty Miradouro da Vista do Rei and Miradouro da Boca do Inferno viewpoints above Sete Cidades for sweeping panoramas before heading down to the town itself where you can take a boat to one of the lakes. Along the way, you’ll see hundreds of bright blue hydrangea bushes alongside the roads, making any drive or walk a beautiful experience.

Related: 6 off-the-beaten-path places to see in Europe

Stand on the island that was once all of Portugal

The Azores’ second UNESCO Heritage Site is the capital city of Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira, which has the second-largest population after Sao Miguel.

This city was the site of a major moment in Portugal’s history: In 1581, after the Spaniards conquered mainland Portugal, they sailed to the Azores, conquering many of the islands. However, when they got to Terceira, the residents surprised the Spanish with a well-orchestrated counterattack which involved releasing a thousand bulls (really) that held them off. For two years, the entire country of Portugal was Terceira (even the king lived there), until they too finally succumbed to the Spanish in 1583.

Swim in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean

Located in the middle of the ocean, the beaches of the Azores are often rocky and rugged with chilly water. However, Azoreans still love to swim in them, as evidenced by the ones on Terceira that are full of people on summer afternoons, especially its most popular one, called Biscoitos. There’s no sand, but there are concrete platforms for sunbathing and rocks that protect the swimming area so the water there is a bit calmer — albeit still frigid.

Walk inside a volcano, or climb one

The entrance of the Algar do Carvão. (Photo by Alf/Getty Images)

Terceira is home to Algar do Carvão, one of the only volcanoes in the world that you can go down into, and it’s well worth checking out. Looking up from inside the now-dormant volcano’s chimney, you’ll see the lush, plant-lined cone, proving how fertile volcanic soil is. At the bottom, there’s a clear rainwater lake surrounded by dramatic stalactites and stalagmites. Also on Terceira is Gruta do Natal, a dark and narrow lava tube that you can walk through and explore.

On Pico, the dormant stratovolcano Mount Pico towers over everything else. It's Portugal's highest peak – an extremely steep 7,713 feet tall. If you want to hike it, summer is the best season. You should either start early in the morning, or in the middle of the night to reach the top at sunrise. The hike takes about six to eight hours and it’s recommended to go with a guide.

Take a scenic hike

Hundreds of hiking trails crisscross the islands and are full of gorgeous scenery. A good place to start is Ribeira dos Caldeiroes Natural Park on Sao Miguel, which has a photogenic waterfall and five water mills along with a variety of flora and fauna.

On Terceira, walk the 4.6-mile Monte Brasil trial, which skirts the Bay of Angra and the Bay of Fanal and has fantastic viewpoints at Pico do Facho, Vigia da Baleia and Pico das Cruzinhas. It culminates with a panoramic view over the city of Angra do Heroismo.

On Faial, the most popular activity is hiking the Caldeira Faial, a 1.25-mile diameter volcanic crater, which is extremely lush. The hike is fairly easy and the full trail is 4.3 miles.

Related: From Crete to Croatia: 11 best hiking spots in Europe

Sample delicious pastries

Much like the cheeses of the Azores, most islands also have a signature pastry, and many of the delicate baked goods are delicious and unique. One of the most famous is Terceira’s legendary Dona Amelia cake. It was created in 1901 when Portugal’s Queen Amelia and King Carlos visited the island. The chewy pastry is laced with spices like cinnamon, which came to the islands on Portuguese boats that stopped en route to India and the Far East.

Sao Jorge’s most famous pastry is the horseshoe-shaped Especies cookies, which are filled with fennel, black pepper, cinnamon and lemon. If you spot a star-shaped pastry, that’s a Queijada da Graciosa, from the island of Graciosa. It has a texture similar to pecan pie, but with an intense cinnamon flavor.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

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