The best things to do in the Azores
Volcanoes and the Azores go hand-in hand: nearly every volcano to be found on Portuguese soil is set on these islands. There are spectacular clues to their power at a peninsula on Faial that was formed in the 1950s, or in the geothermal activity around the town of Furnas on São Miguel where local chefs use the heat to cook food. Also on São Miguel are peacefully dormant calderas that have become lakes with ferns, juniper bushes and conifers lining their craters. With all this natural splendour, and a mild subtropical climate, the Azores are an awesome place to be outdoors, hiking, diving or watching the many whale species that congregate offshore. Lets explore the best things to do in the Azores:
Sete Cidades Caldera
Nothing can prepare you for the majesty of the Sete Cidades Massif on the west side of São Miguel Island. Here twin green and blue lakes are ensconced in evergreen vegetation and shielded by a massive volcanic crater that rises like ramparts. This landscape has been shaped by successive volcanic events over the last 38.000 years. The last eruption might have been as recent as the 1400s, just before the island was colonised. There’s no lack of vantage points for astonishing views, but make a note of the Vista do Rei lookout on the southern rim next to the abandoned Monte Palace hotel.
Islet of Vila Franca do Campo
Not many people can say that they’ve sunbathed on the slopes of an ancient caldera and gone swimming in its crater (picture on top). But this is exactly what you can do on this tiny island a kilometre off the coast of São Miguel. There’s a boat service from the pier at Vila Franca do Campo for the short crossing. What you’ll encounter on arrival is a partially submerged cone with rich vegetation on its walls. There’s a lagoon in the middle fed by the ocean on the landward side, and so completely shielded from the ocean currents. It’s a strange, beautiful spot that fills up quickly on sunny days.
From September 1957 to October 1958 the profile of Faial Island changed forever when the Capelinhos volcano erupted. This gave birth to a whole new island, which then became linked to Faial by an isthmus. Also, the damage forced 1.800 people to emigrate permanently to the USA, even though there were no casualties. It’s a bit of a rush to be able to stand on a piece of land where there was just ocean 60 years ago, or see roofs submerged in ash. Photographs don’t give you a true impression of the awesome dimensions of this new patch of black volcanic desert. Check out the ruined lighthouse, which has been incorporated into a museum about the volcano.
You’ll realise how the landscapes in the Azores are in a constant state of flux at this stunning caldera in the middle of Faial. Before the eruption to the east at Capelinhos in the 1950s this was a lake like the kind you’ll see on São Miguel. Now the crater, almost 1.5 kilometres in diameter, is mostly dry, but teems with plant-life and the tone of the greenery changes according to the light and time of day. The rim of the crater is 400 metres up and can be reached on an eight kilometre trail that is challenging but never arduous if you have the right gear.
Angra do Heroísmo
It wasn’t until the steam age arrived in the 19th century that transatlantic traffic could bypass this essential harbour on the Island of Terceira. In the 15th and 16th centuries in particular it was a stepping stone for expeditions to the New World. Angra do Heroísmo is a lovely, animated city with architecture mostly from the 1700s. Rua da Sé is a treat, with its mosaic pavements and traditional houses with door and window frames painted in bright colours. Pause for a photo of the cathedral, mill around the shops and get in touch with the rich history at the city’s museum.
Marina da Horta
On Faial Island is the Azores’ main recreational harbour. This is a crucial staging post for transatlantic regattas as well as amateur sailors crossing the ocean, so you may be surprised how busy it can get. People from all over the world end up here, and super yachts are moored across the harbour from tiny craft that can fit one or two. But what they all share is a sense of superstition: The walls and ground of the quays, docks and breakwaters are plastered with paintings made by almost every captain to pass through, telling you the name of the vessel and date of the voyage.
Montanha do Pico
On Pico island is the highest point in all of Portugal, the Montanha do Pico at 2.351 metres. Often seen disappearing into the clouds this stratovolcano can look threatening, and its most recent eruption happened in 1718. But what you might not realise at first glance is that it’s not too difficult to scale, and doesn’t require advanced equipment other than good hiking gear. You have to sign in at the visitor centre before setting off, and the entire route to the summit is marked by wooden poles every 50 metres or so telling you the elevation. If you’re fortunate enough to make the ascent on a clear day there’s a clear view of the islands of Graciosa, Faial, Terceira and São Jorge.
Lagoa do Fogo
Also on São Miguel Island is another stupendous crater lake that is one of the largest bodies of water in the Azores. Given the tranquillity of this scene, with endemic Azorean flora on the sharp slopes around, it seems impossible that the most recent eruption only took place in 1563. There’s a natural reserve to maintain the unspoiled atmosphere of the lake. You’ll start by driving up to the rim, which is an adventure of its own around hairpin turns. And then stop for photos and inch your way down to the shore. Keep an eye on the weather forecast and try to time your visit for a clear day because the crater is often shrouded in mist.
Washed by the full force of the Atlantic and with waves sculpted by the volcanic seabed, the Azores are a surfer’s paradise. There are point breaks, reef breaks and beach breaks, and healthy swells generated by tropical storms that miss this archipelago by several hundred kilometres to the south. Every island has a few great spots, but the one with the most, and the best infrastructure is probably São Miguel. On the north shore, the beautiful volcanic beach Praia de Santa Barbara is served by a handful of surf schools and has hosted World Surf League events since 2010.
Fortress of São João Baptista
This mass jutting into the ocean to the south of Angra do Heroísmo is the remains of another volcanic cone. Given its setting between the city’s Fanal and Angra bays it was just the place for fortifications. The Fortress of São João Baptista dates to 1567 and is reinforced at the isthmus by five bastions. Since the 1960s it’s been repurposed as a Pousada de Portugal (a luxury hotel). If you’re up for the walk to the summit you can join the trail directly from Angra do Heroísmo and it won’t take more than an hour. At the top there’s a monument to Portuguese occupation, gun emplacements from the World Wars and a view of the city to cherish.
Whale and Dolphin Watching
In the not so distant past whaling was a source of many livelihoods in the Azores. And some 25 kinds of cetaceans, both resident and migratory, are happy visitors to these waters. You can even base a whole holiday around nature spotting as there are expeditions available at every marina, and your chances of seeing something amazing are high. There are whales and dolphins around the Azores at all times of the year, but some species are seasonal. In spring sei, blue and fin whales pass through the area, while sperm whales tend to be more visible in the summer.
Algar do Carvão
In the centre of Terceira you can descend 100 metres into an ancient lava tube. You’ll be able to enter the magma chamber of a real extinct volcano, and it’s a surreal experience, when you look up and see the sky through the cone high overhead. The geology of the volcano and the protection of these chambers from the elements have allowed mosses and ferns to give a beautiful green hue to the upper parts of the cave. Further down the walls are coated with silica stalactites and at the bottom is a huge lake with clear waters.
Lagoa das Furnas
The third lake on São Miguel also has something special to help it stand out, as there are obvious signs of volcanic activity on the northwest shore. On a raised boardwalk you’ll get a good view of the pools and small calderas belching steam. These small craters are even used by restaurant chefs in the town of Furnas who bring their pots of cozido (meat and vegetable stew) and let them simmer in the hot ground. If you come around midday you’ll get to see them fishing them out of the calderas. And after that you may be enticed to head to town to taste traditional food cooked with volcanic activity.
Given the latitude of the Azores, diving isn’t a year-round pursuit. But when the water temperatures are higher, from June to October, that volcanic geology and the staggering ecological diversity allow for once-in-a-lifetime dives. Each island brings something different to the table: Near the old port of Angra do Heroísmo in Terceira there’s an underwater anchor graveyard, while the awesome topography of Pico Island continues beneath the waves with sheer volcanic cliffs. Off São Miguel there are volcanic canyons at low depth, providing a habitat for octopuses and triggerfish.
Poça da Dona Beija
No matter the weather you’ll have a blissful time soaking at this hot spring complex near Furnas on São Miguel. The pools are fed by a hot spring which emerges in a cave with a temperature of 40°C. Originally people bathed in the cave until it became safer to funnel the water flow into man-made pools, each with a different temperature. Furnas has made a name from its hot spring, which helps to cultivate the local yam farms. The pool complex has been updated recently and is fringed by tropical vegetation.