Ever heard of the Azore Islands? You're likely not alone if you said no. The Azores are a lush and remote volcanic archipelago (group of islands) in the North Atlantic. For decades, transatlantic flights have stopped to refuel here on their way to more popular European destinations. Now, the formerly obscure but remarkable islands are a growing tourist haven.
Situated in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 1,000 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal, the nine volcanic islands are a relaxing retreat for travelers and nature lovers seeking fantastic views and a slower pace of life. Gulf Stream waters give the Azores a mild climate with average highs in the 60s and 70s year-round, with some humidity. Its pleasant climate, natural setting, and gorgeous volcanic landscapes make it the perfect getaway for outdoor activities including hiking, geological tourism, and water sports.
The Portuguese colonized these uninhabited islands in the mid-15th century. The population has since remained modest, with only about 250,000 current residents. Isolation has kept the Azores in near-pristine condition. Horse-and-donkey-drawn carts are still common here. Traffic jams are more often caused by free-roaming livestock than vehicles in this largely agricultural setting.
Sightseeing in the City
The more metropolitan traveler may prefer Ponta Delgada, capital of the Azores. Home to about 70,000 people, Ponta Delgada is located on São Miguel, the largest and most populous island. Ponta Delgada is a charming and walkable city. Take in the historic shops and Manueline-style buildings around the white-trimmed square of São Sebastião in the baixa (city center). Walk the cobblestones of Gonçalo Velho Cabral Square (Praça Gonçalo Velho), a square dedicated to the discoverer of the islands.
Take a selfie at the Portas da Cidade (Gates to the City), three 18th Century arches marking the historical entrance to the city. Go window shopping, get a bite to eat, and take a stroll along the Portas do Mar (Gates of the Sea), a lively waterfront area near the cruise ship harbor and marina, or hunt for seaside souvenirs at the new SolMar Avenida Center mall.
While there are several historic churches and chapels in the city, be sure to stop at the church of Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião, the main church of Ponta Delgada. This 16th Century building is centrally located near the Portas da Cidade and easy to find by its high tower – the only one in the city. While most of the area's churches look similar on the outside, Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião has one of the most beautiful and peaceful interiors. You'll also want to visit the Castle of São Bras (Saint Blaise), a 16th Century fort built to defend the city against pirates. The Theatre Micalense (formerly the Convent of Saint John) is another historical landmark. John Wayne even paid a visit here in 1963.
Religion of the Islands
You can get the most out of your stay by visiting the fifth week after Easter. During this time, travelers can observe the Cult of the Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles (Culto do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres), the largest and oldest religious event in Portugal. Festivals honoring Santo Cristo dos Milagres begin on the fifth Sunday after Easter, when a wooden statue of Jesus of Nazareth is paraded through the streets of Ponta Delgada.
Worshippers adorn the icon with flowers and jewelry, and line the procession's route with colorful mats of flowers. Some of the faithful follow the icon on their knees. The festivals continue through the week to Ascension Thursday. If your visit doesn't coincide with the event, you can still visit the statue at the city's Sanctuary of the Lord Holy Christ, in the Convent of Our Lady of Hope.
Azorean cuisine has something for everyone, including the adventurous eater. Expect to see rich dairy products like yogurt, butter, and cheeses. Seafood is also common in the islands. Dried salted cod, or Bacalhau, is a specialty. Locals often rehydrate and shred the dried fish, then mix it into a variety of dishes. Meat is also available; carnivores can pick up a bifana (hot meat sandwich). For a truly unique Azorean dinner try Cozida, a one-pot meal cooked in a hole in the ground near the caldeiras (hot geysers) of Furnas.
Pair your meal with Vinho Verde (“green” or “young” wine), a well-regarded Portuguese wine meant to be opened within a year after bottling. While it's made in the Minho region of north-western Portugal, it's available in the Azores. Be sure to try it here if you're not heading to the mainland. Beer drinkers may prefer Especial, the local Azorian beer. After dinner, indulge in locally grown fresh pineapple for dessert.
If you're an active person looking for an amazing new playground, the Azores are for you. With magnificient views, mountains, volcanoes, and near-endless activities, the islands truly offer the “great outdoors” (without the crowds).
Water-loving tourists can go swimming, surfing, scuba diving, kayaking, canoeing, sport-fishing, or boat touring. The town of Mosteiros at the northwest edge of São Miguel Island has a small, but beautiful, black-sand beach. You can even go swimming in the natural seaside hot springs at Ponta da Ferraria, but keep in mind the area is only accessible by car. Had enough of the water? Try golfing, horseback riding, or paragliding. Go hiking to take in the geological wonders and gorgeous landscapes; there are 43 walking trails distributed across eight islands.
Two of the most spectacular sights are parts of the municipality of Ponta Delgada.
The Sete Cidades (Seven Cities) Massif is a must. Its volcanic caldera holds four lakes, including the stunning twin Green and Blue Lakes. It's also home to about 800 people.
In the center of the island, you'll have breathtaking views of Lagoa do Fogo, a stunning crater lake inside the ancient volcano Água de Pau Massif.
The village of Furnas is the best place to experience the islands' volcanic activity close-up. The town's crowd of fumaroles, hot springs, and swimmable thermal pools make it a must-see. Don't forget to try the volcano-cooked Cozida while you're here.
Highlights of the Other Islands
Seen it all on São Miguel? History buffs may want to explore the city of Angra do Heroismo on Terceira, the Azores' second most populous island. The historically significant port of Angra was a stop for ships from Africa and the Indies from the 15th-19th centuries. The port set the stage for the mingling of farflung cultures from Africa, Asia, America, and Europe for hundreds of years. Angra's port was sited for natural shelter from prevailing winds, and protected by the fortresses of São Sebastião and São João Baptista. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Some adventurers stop off at Pico Island to climb Montanha do Pico. The peak of this stratovolcano is the highest point of the Azores. Give yourself a good two to three hours of an afternoon for the climb; it will be worth the effort when you take in the gorgeous sunset.
Getting There, Staying There, and Getting Around
The Azores are about a five hour flight from Boston. You'll find a variety of comfortable accomodations there including hotels, hostels, and camping. While the official language is Portuguese, most people in the tourism industry can speak enough English to communicate with travelers.
Local airline SATA provides service between islands, and there's also weekly ferry service. Most islands have bus services connecting towns, but if you want to get outdoors and see the Azores' magnificent landscapes, you'll need to rent a car. Car rentals are available on most islands.