Were you always a fan of exotic and beautiful places? Have you always wanted to go to Hawaii, but in the end it didn’t happen because it is too far and too expensive? If yes, then the Azores is a perfect destination for you.
A common nickname for these beautiful islands is the European Hawaii. With its mountains, incredibly green rainforests, gorgeous flowers, and breathtaking viewpoints over the Atlantic Ocean, Azores is one of the most unique travel destinations in Europe.
Azores is one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal (besides Madeira), located ~1500 km west from continental Portugal and ~4100 km east from the USA. The archipelago of the Azores consists of 3 groups of islands:
Western Group: Corvo & Flores
Central Group: Pico & Terceira & São Jorge & Faial & Graciosa
Eastern group: São Miguel & Santa Maria
The capital of Azores is Ponta Delgada, which is located on the biggest island, São Miguel, also called: "The Green Island”, or the "Island of the Cows".
When to visit the Azores
Thanks to its subtropical oceanic climate, the temperature doesn’t get lower than ~10 °C and doesn’t get higher than ~25 °C throughout the whole year. However, from the precipitation’s point of view, the best time to visit the Azores is March-September, because these months have the lowest number of rainy days.
There are other factors, which also recommend this time for the visit:
March is the month when the whales start to pass by the shores of Azores:
The always beautiful green nature gets more colors with beautiful flowers like: cala, rhododendron, hydrangea, and other beautiful flowers.
The hydrangea’s saison starts from mid-May and lasts even until August. This is truly a beautiful experience, because they are really all over the island. That is why May and the summer months are the most popular times of the year to visit the Azores. Be aware, that because of this, the places to visit can be full with tourists, and therefore the prices are also significantly higher during this period.
BUT if you find a cheap flight in the low season, don’t hesitate to buy it. Azores is always really beautiful, and if the weather is not so nice, you can still spend your days in the amazing natural hot springs of the island.
What TO DO and what NOT TO DO before arriving to the islands:
Collect the places and sights you want to visit, BUT don’t book any trips earlier than a few days in advance, because the weather changes all the time.
Rent a car - Renting a car is essential for discovering São Miguel and it is cheaper to rent in advance, plus you can make sure, that you will have the type of car you need. Because in the high season, when many tourists are coming, there can be a shortage of available rental cars. I recommend the smaller rental companies. They are really flexible, affordable, and friendly. We rented a car with GoRentaCar, with full insurance, so they didn’t need a deposit at all. They are very reliable, can only recommend them.
Prepare for rain, take umbrellas or raincoats with you!
Book your accommodation If you stay for more than 4-5 days, then I recommend 2 locations for your stays → one around Ponta Delgada, and another more to the East, and this way You can decrease your traveling time, and you have more time to enjoy the places and the sights.
Calculate in a half-day for a whale watching tour in your itinerary!
Download the offline map of the island from Google Maps, because sometimes in the mountains there is no service and 4G!
Do not do:
Don’t book any day-trip a lot in advance, because you should decide on the daily activity based on the current weather. → So have everything in mind, that you want to do during your visit, but make sure, that your itinerary is flexible enough, so swap the days, and go to the natural hot springs on a cloudy and rainy day, and whenever the weather is sunny, go to Miradouro da Grota do Inferno and Lagoa Azul (because you never know, if there is gonna be any other sunny day during your visit).
If you have only a few-day holiday, don’t plan to visit more than one island, because all of them has a lot to offer, and it is better to really get to know one of them, instead of wasting your time with travelling from one island to the other.
Do not miss the natural hot springs. They are one of the greatest places, and to be honest in my opinion the most unique places of São Miguel.
Must-visit sights on São Miguel:
Miradouro da Grota do Inferno
This is one of the most famous viewpoints of Azores, probably it is on one of the first few photos that you see about São Miguel island. To reach this viewpoint, you have to take the dirt road on the right hand-side at the Canary’s lagoon and drive until the end of the road. There you can park the car. (If you go in the high season, the parking slots can be quite busy - in this case, it might be a good idea to park the car at the parking place by the main road. Once you get to the end of the dirt road, you have to climb a few steps, and a smaller uphill, and soon you reach a point from where you have a panoramic view.
On the right hand-side you walk up next to a precipice. Make sure that you don’t lean on the wooden fence, because when I was there, a man was leaning on the fence, to take a photo, and it broke under him. Fortunately, he didn’t injure himself, but having this type of accident next to the deepness is not so lucky.
Once you get to the top of the uphill part, you need to follow the track forward (a bit to the right) in order to reach the Miradouro da Grota do Inferno, from where you have a stunning view on the Lagoa de Santiago and behind that, the beautiful Lagoa Azul. After admiring the beautiful scenery, on the way back to the car, before the downhill, take the small path to the right, which leads you to another viewpoint (No fences or real path - just grass → so probably visited only by few % of the tourists). But make sure that you don’t miss it because from here you get an even nicer view of the whole North-West corner of the island.
Miradouro da Vista do Rei
If not Miradouro da Grota do Inferno was on the first photo of the Azores you have seen, then it is for sure that you saw one taken from Miradouro da Vista do Rei. This is the other most popular viewpoint of the island. And maybe even more crowded, because this is easily accessible by car without walking at all. The good weather is a crucial point at the visit of these two viewpoints. And if you are lucky, then you will see something like this :)
And a few meters away from the viewpoint, you can climb the abandoned hotel if you are adventurous enough. Which will probably be one of the most absurd experiences of your trip. A massive building, totally destroyed, at one of the most beautiful places in the whole of Europe. But I am pretty sure, that it doesn’t take long, until a big investor buys this abandoned hotel, and will recreate probably one of the best hotels in the world, with such an amazing view.
After driving down from the beautiful Vista do Rei observation deck, take the right from Sete Cidades, and stay on the road right next to the lake. The road ends at the Hidraulic Tunnel of Sete Cidades, and you can park your car and have a little picnic at this calm and hidden clearing.
This hidden gem was my favorite on the whole island. This is a must-visit place for all the tourists. These are natural hot spring pools in the middle of the evergreen rainforest. There are 3 different pools in Caldeira Velha where you can swim. The top one has a waterfall and you can climb under it. This pool is a bit colder, but once you go to the two other pools below, you can chill in the warm water while enjoying the stunning view and the unique tree-ferns all around.
With the entrance ticket you can stay only for a limited time, however no one really checked it for us (Probably in the low-season when the pools are not crowded, they are not strict about it.)
At Caldeira Velha, you can find a few changing rooms next to the path, and if you pay deposit, you can also get lockers, BUT the number of the lockers, and also their size is limited. So I would recommend taking only the essential thighs with you: towel, slippers, swimsuits and the rest leave it in the car.
Before or after your bath take a walk in this tiny natural reserve (you can also buy tickets just to walk around the park without swimming) and check out the small natural hot spring where the boiling hot water rises to the surface, creating bubbles in the mud.
Poça da Dona Beija
If you loved the Caldeira Velha hot springs, then also try the one in Furnas: Poça da Dona Beija. This is also a super cool program in my opinion. However, it is in the middle of Furnas, so looks less natural compared to Caldeira Velha, which is in the middle of the forest. But still, amazing experience, and a good choice on a rainy day.
Lagoa do Fogo
Lagoa do Fogo was not an easy catch for us. We drove by 2 times on the day when we visited Caldeira Velha, but both times, we could barely see the street because of the huge thick clouds, because the viewpoint of Lagoa de Fogo is on top of a hill. The following days, we were checking the weather forecast, but we were not lucky either. But on the last day we gave another try. When we arrived everything was white again, but the weather was super windy, and some people were still standing in the clouds. So we followed them, and like a miracle from one second to another the lake became visible because the very strong wind blew away the clouds. And then all white again → Incredible how fast can clouds clear up and then cover everything again. It worthed the last try, and we were lucky.
When the weather is sunny, it is recommended to walk down on a longer track to the shore of the lake and then hike back to the parking slot. It is a beautiful track, however not an easy one. But the beautiful scenery definitely compensated the effort.
Here you can check the details of the tracks in Azores: www.trails.visitazores.com
Gorreana Tea Plantation & Tea Porto Formoso
The Azores is the only place in Europe where you can find tea plantations. This is also a must-visit place on São Miguel. At Gorreana Tea plantation you can visit a small exhibition area, where the devices and processes of tea production are presented. You can follow the journey of the tea leaves from the tea bush until the packaged tea filters that you can buy in the shop.
Once you had a nice walk among the tea plants you can try the original Azorean green and black tea, grown at the plantation you have just visited.
To the start of the Poço Azul track, there is a small hidden dirt road you have to take. There is a sign, showing the Poço Azul, but it is misleading, and Google Maps doesn’t help either.
So at the end of Rua Dierita at the Padrao Historico Christ statue you have to take the small road on the right side of the monument → But park your car before somewhere on the street. (Pay attention to the signs, because You can’t park everywhere.) After a short asphalt road you reach a dirt road. There are no signs, but continue, and when you arrive at an area with grass and trees, you soon reach the beginning of the stairs downhill. That is the actual start of the track. I would recommend calculating at least an hour for visiting Poço Azul, because the way back (upwards) is really steep. This is a challenging hike, therefore I don’t recommend this track for older people. For them, in this case, I think it is better to wait for the others at the top of the staircase, and admire the view from there.
Lagoa das Furnas Hotsprings
The Lagoa das Furnas Hotsprings is one of the most unique places on the Azores. This natural volcanic geyser-area is dotted with hot springs, fumaroles and bubbling mud pots. Thanks to the high concentrate of Sulfur coming up to the ground, you can smell the characteristic odor from the distance already. What is even more special at this place, is that the famous traditional dish from the Azores, the “Cozido das Furnas” is “cooked in the ground by the volcano”.
It can be unbelievable for the first time hearing it, but it is true. So how it actually works, is that local restaurants have their own holes in the ground in the hotsprings area and early in the morning they bring huge pots filled with raw meat and vegetables - then cover the pots properly. And finally, they put them in the holes and cover the holes with ground. Then the food is cooked in the own juices and liquids of the ingredients slowly (~5 hours) by the volcanic steam.
Make sure, to visit the Hotsprings before noon (~at 11-12 am), because this is the time when the restaurants come with their wagoners, and long metal hooks and take the huge pots out of the ground and take them back to the restaurants to serve it as lunch, and later for dinner.
Seeing this process and then eating the delicious Cozido (especially if you eat exactly that what you have seen taken out of the ground) is truly a unique experience. The food is really delicious. But make sure, that you order half as many servings as you are, because the portions are huge, and one is definitely enough for 2 people.
Another tip: Order “Kima” as your drinks. This is a local passion fruit flavored fizzy drink and absolutely delicious. :)
The entrance to the hot springs is ~3 Euro/adult and free for the children.
Miradouro do Pico do Ferro
Miradouro do Pico do Ferro is a breathtaking viewpoint on top of the hill above the Furnas Hotsprings. If you are lucky with the weather, don’t miss it, because the view is absolutely gorgeous with the lake and the steam of the hot springs in the foreground, the ocean in the background and grazing cows all around.
If You enjoyed the visit to the hotsprings then Caldeiras Vulcânicas is a must-visit place as well. It is very close, just on the other side of Furnas. This is again a natural geyser-area flooded with sulfur-steam and people can walk around the hotsprings among the beautiful flowers. Here you don’t have to pay any entrance fee, and you also have a nice park nearby.
And if you are in Furnas, check out the upside-down house!
However, I would still recommend to not only visit these hotsprings, but also the ones at the Furnas lake too - especially during that time, when the restaurants come to take out their pots from the ground.
Ponta da Galera viewpoint of the Lagoon
On the way back to Ponta Delgada take a small bypass and go down to the ocean shore to the Ponta da Galera viewpoint of the Lagoon. It is a nice place to have a picnic while admiring the Atlantic Ocean and walking around the rocks.
Whale- and Dolphin watching tour & Islet of Vila Franca do Campo
As I already mentioned at the beginning of the article, going on a whale-watching tour is a great possibility on the Azores. And each time of the year is different from this sense. From March until the summer you have higher chances to see whales (even blue whales), but of course, there is a chance, that you won’t see any whales, because we just can’t influence their behaviour, and don't even want to.
You have to scan the horizont, and look for whale spouts - which looks like a water fountain. This you can see when they are coming up to the surface of the ocean and blow out the air from their lungs. If you are the first to spot it, then tell it to the tour guide, and the boat will go in that direction as close as it is not inconvenient for the whale. If you are lucky you might see their fins and if you are super lucky you might even see a jump.
But even if you are not lucky with whale-watching, it is almost 100% that you will see a lot of dolphins swimming, and jumping around the speedboat. This time, we only saw the spouts, but on the other hand, we saw hundreds of dolphins, which was also a super experience.