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Our Travel Guide to the Açores
The best things we did, our favorite foods, and what to know before you go to São Miguel and Terceira
The internet has made it easier than ever to find information about a new place before you visit. You can explore a city on an interactive map, take a vicarious tour of landmarks through strangers’ pictures and videos, and find the best places to eat according to both local foodies and aggregated tourist rankings. The problem is, sorting through and synthesizing advice from so many different sources can be overwhelming. It would be a lot more convenient if you could find essential travel tips and curated recommendations for wherever you’re going all in one place!
My wife Lizzie and I recently returned from an amazing two-week honeymoon in Portugal. Partly because we wanted to have well-organized advice on hand for anyone who followed in our traveling footsteps, and partly to help ourselves remember all the amazing things we did, we decided to write a travel guide for each facet of our trip. Starting with the greater Lisbon area, then Porto, and finally concluding today with the Açores.
We are neither travel agents nor experts in Portuguese culture, and make no claims to be the authoritative source on anything herein. But, if I do say so myself, we’re pretty darn good at planning vacations. So consider this the equivalent of what we would tell you if you called us to say you were going to the Açores, but in rough essay form. We hope future travelers find this helpful, and almost as importantly, that people who like reading about new places will get some vicarious joy from scrolling through it.
Note: Instead of repeatedly linking to my essay Ten Things I (Re)Learned in Portugal every time I allude to an idea I wrote about there, I’m going to mention it once and say that it helps contextualize many of the thoughts and recommendations below. Please give it a read!
Basics and Logistics
The Açores (also commonly anglicized as Azores) are a group of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic. About a quarter-million people live in the archipelago, a majority of whom reside in São Miguel, which is both the biggest island and home to its largest city. Each island has its own distinct character, but the general vibe of the two we went to — São Miguel and Terceira — was like a combination of Portugal and Iceland: Iberian culture and customs with an aura of remoteness and dramatic geological features.
We stayed six nights in the Açores out of our 14-day trip: five in Furnas, São Miguel and one in Angra do Heroísmo in Terceira. We certainly weren’t bored during our time in São Miguel, and being in one place for almost a week (it was the longest leg of our trip) meant we had time to actually relax instead of packing every moment with an essential activity. But I would have happily traded some of our time there to spend more than a day in Terceira — giving ourselves fewer than 24 hours there was our biggest mistake of the trip — or to experience one of the other islands.
Traveling to and from the Açores
We arrived in São Miguel via a flight from Porto, and departed from Terceira to Lisbon. Each flight to or from the mainland was easy and took only about two hours. While a majority of flights in and out of these airports are domestic, you can also fly in directly from other countries, including nonstops from Boston and New York.
Getting around the Açores
The options for moving around the archipelago depend on the time of year and which islands you are traveling between. When we were there in early May, our only option to get from São Miguel to Terceira was a puddle-jumper flight, where we spent less time in the air than we did boarding and deplaning. Next time I would love to be able to take the ferry.
After extolling the virtues of not driving in Lisbon and Porto, I have to concede that when you get to the Açores it’s nice to have a car. You’ll navigate winding roads, thick fog, and even herds of cattle walking down the street, but it’s worth it to be able to explore the majesty of the islands.
Reserving a rental car can be a headache, though. Supplies are limited, especially if (like me) you can’t drive a stickshift. As in Iceland, travel forums are full of horror stories of tourists being charged exorbitant fees for normal island-road wear and tear. Be prepared to either pay through the nose in insurance or put down a large security deposit. Your mileage may vary (pun intended) on what level of risk you’re comfortable with, but many credit cards include built-in collision insurance that makes the base package redundant, albeit probably not the additional coverages. Whatever you decide, be sure to read the fine print, and anytime I rent a car that isn’t pristine I get video documentation as the rental agent walks us through the existing damage. We ended up having a very good experience with 3Rent in São Miguel, and a cromulent one with Autalantis in Terceira.
Where we stayed
In São Miguel we stayed at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, in the small civil parish of Furnas. Apparently it is the place to vacation on the island — locals raised their eyebrows whenever we told them we were staying there. But whether we got a good deal or it’s just that things are less expensive in Portugal, it wasn’t exorbitantly expensive. If you’re looking for a lively atmosphere I would recommend going to Ponta Delgada instead of Furnas, but we would happily stay there again, especially because guests have free 24-hour access to Parque Terra Nostra (see below).
In Terceira we stayed at the Pousada Forte in Angra do Heroísmo, a literal 16th-century fortress that’s been turned into a hotel. At this point the historic structure is merely a façade housing modern hallways and fairly uncomfortable beds. But the location is great, the coastal view is incredible, and you get to say you stayed in an almost-500-year-old castle!
If you’re reading this post, you probably speak English, which means you will have no trouble communicating with the locals. At least where were in the Açores (admittedly tourist-catering), almost every single waiter, shopkeeper, and receptionist we talked to spoke English. People didn’t quite default to English with us the way they did on the mainland, but I could count the number of times that the language barrier created even the slightest inconvenience on one hand. In fact, speaking English from the get-go usually made things easier. While were quickly recognized as tourists in Lisbon no matter what language we spoke, walking into a café in the Açores and not just saying hello I am an American and I want a coffee was often enough to make them think we were locals. At least until we awkwardly confessed that bom dia was pretty much the extent of our Portuguese.
Do and See
Driving around the Açores is an adventure in and of itself. You could easily make a day out of cruising around an island and pulling over every time you see a breathtaking miradouro (lookout spot). But if you’re reading this essay you probably want more specifics than that, so here are some suggestions for your itinerary:
Algar do Carvão (Terceira)
I have a pretty short attention span for natural beauty. I go somewhere, I look for a few minutes, and then I’m ready for the next adventure. There are only a few places I’ve been in my life where I’ve been truly in awe of what I am looking at. Algar do Carvão, or Cavern of Coal, is one of them.
The descent alone — a surreal stairway down a verdant chasm into a cavernous lava tube — is worth the visit. Then you get into the cave and it's simply overwhelming. The textures, the colors, the simple awe of considering how they were all created and molded over millennia of volcanic activity. Technically you can see the whole thing in 20 minutes, but I could have stared slack-jawed inside the cave for hours. It’s open for only a few hours a day because artificial light can damage the colorful rocks, so plan your afternoon around their opening hours.
Parque Terra Nostra (São Miguel)
In the 18th and 19th centuries, a series of eccentric aristocrats built out an increasingly expansive, anachronistic garden amidst the unique volcanic climate. The result is a marvelous maze of creative landscaping and international horticulture that you have to see to believe. Stroll along (and off) the walking trail, then take a dip in the orange mineral-water pool or the naturally warmed hot tubs. (Having free, all-hours access is a major perk of staying at the adjoining hotel.)
Monte Brasil (Terceira)
A mountainous peninsula overlooking Angra do Heroísmo. You can either hike or drive (if you’re confident in your rental car’s insurance coverage) up its winding paths for gorgeous views of both the island and the ocean. There’s a particularly breathtaking vantage point at the top.
Lagoa das Furnas (São Miguel)
If you have time for an easy but long hike, Lagoa das Furnas is a great place to do it. It took us about two and a half hours to circumnavigate the scenic crater lake, though we went at a leisurely pace and stopped to take in the scenery, the whimsical animal sculptures, and the famous volcanic cooking holes where local restaurants prepare the night’s menu. (There’s also a steeper hiking trail to the top of Pico do Ferro that we did not attempt.)
Gruta do Natal (Terceira)
Algar do Carvão’s sister site, Gruta do Natal — or Christmas Cave, because of the holiday masses celebrated in its cramped quarters — is much more intimate. Its floors and walls showcase the myriad patterns of lava flows, and it’s about as close as a layperson can get to being inside a volcano. It’s a really cool experience, but it takes good balance and flexibility to navigate its narrow crevasses, and there isn’t much to see because it’s so dark. It shares the same limited hours as its more-famous counterpart; if you want to do both, I recommend going here first, then making the short drive to Algar do Carvão so you can spend as much time there as possible.
Açorean Active Blueberry Canyoning Adventure (São Miguel)
Talk about an adventure! We spent a day climbing, hiking, jumping, sliding, ziplining, and rappelling down a canyon, decked out in provided gear and guided by a pair of knowledgable experts who knew every ledge and rock. It was unlike anything we'd ever done before.
Thanks to the constant assurance and obvious competency of our guides, we never felt like we were in any danger despite doing things that I would have been terrified to try on my own. Nor did we find it extremely demanding from an exercise/stamina standpoint — I got more winded from walking up the hills of Lisbon than this. But as people who aren't used to such adventuring, we definitely felt the toll of bumps and bruises that we weren't accustomed to, and had a couple moments where the activities we were doing were physically unpleasant. We're both very glad we did it, but be prepared for it to kick your ass a little bit.
Miradouros (São Miguel)
On the one hand, I wish we had kept better track of all the obscenely gorgeous lookout spots we came across in São Miguel. On the other hand, you won’t have much trouble finding plenty of them on your own. We particularly loved Pico do Ferro (Iron Peak) in Furnas, Vista do Rei (King’s View) above the Sete Cidades twin lakes, and Ponta do Escalvado (Tip of the Scalp) on the island’s western coast.
Eat and Drink
You’re going to eat well in the Açores. The unique combination of the tropical climate, sea breezes, and volcanic soil — not to mention a greater emphasis on freshness and local sourcing than we’re used to at home — make for a special agricultural environment. An inexhaustive list of foods that we were told are not just better but different in the Açores includes beef (freer-range), cheese (a special variety from each island), pineapple (sweeter than what’s grown elsewhere), fish, coffee, tea, honey, oranges, bananas, tomatoes, flowers (including a commonly found species that inexplicably tastes like garlic) and even the mineral-enriched water. And honestly, they really were.
The signature dish of São Miguel is cozido, a hearty stew of meats, root vegetables, and savory broth slow-cooked in the caldeiras (volcanic hot spring cooking holes) of Furnas. You can find it at most restaurants in Furnas, but many places recommend or even require reservations for it — they assemble it the day before and let it steam underground overnight, so they can’t just whip up another portion. And the portions are enormous. As one waiter explained to us, if you make cozido at home, you use only your favorite ingredients, but without knowing the customer’s tastes they try to give you a couple pieces of everything. Each one-person portion of cozido we ordered was easily enough for two people.
Come hungry and plan your trip around going to…
Chalet da Tia Mercês (São Miguel)
I'm torn about what to write about our Geothermal Brunch at the Chalet. On the one hand, I want to effuse about the flavors, the colors, and the awe you feel throughout your immersive culinary tour of the Açores. On the other hand, I don't want to risk dampening your eventual sense of wonder by giving you too many specifics to anticipate. Suffice to say you should make your reservation as soon as you book your trip — the chalet is booked for one party at a time, so there aren’t many openings in the schedule — and let expert host Paula guide you through the best of the island’s harvests and geothermal cooking techniques. [Facebook]
O Cachalote (Terceira)
Have you ever grilled your own steak at your table on a scalding stone? I hadn't, but even if you have, I bet it wasn't as delicious as this Terceiran beef, nor served by a host as welcoming as Frank. If you can find the stomach space, the chouriço is terrific and the deep-fried ice cream dessert is to die for. It's an experience you have to try if you're on the island! [Facebook]
Sure, the bread and cheese are really good, and the chouriço might have been the best we had in whole our time in Portugal. But you're coming to Caneta for the steak. We both got the Bifé a Casa, and even the relatively plain cuts of meat were out-of-this-world delicious. I'm not sure I've ever had higher-quality beef than I did here. The island’s free-ranging cows — we literally got stuck in traffic behind a herd strolling down the road on the way to lunch — have a gaminess to them unlike any beef I'd ever tried, almost reminiscent of lamb. This unassuming restaurant is a true gem of a steakhouse and a must-visit if you're in Terceira. [Website]
Ramires (São Miguel)
We were sitting outdoors with our drinks by the docks at Restaurante Ramires when we took our first bites of their marinated green olives. We looked at each other and couldn't help bursting out laughing at how delicious they were. Then we tried the São Jorge cheese platter, served with a pineapple jam so delicious that for the first time I realized I liked pineapple…and it was so amazing that for a few minutes we forgot about the olives. If the relaxing vibe and the best hors d'oeuvres we had in Portugal aren’t enough of a draw, the Ramires family also claim to be the inventors of piri-piri chicken. [Facebook]
If you can get there, you'll be glad you made time for…
The Gardener Bar & Terrace (São Miguel)
Yes, The Gardener is a glorified hotel bar at the Terra Nostra Garden, where we stayed. But it’s open to anyone who visits the eponymous horticultural site, and it wasn’t just convenience that brought us there almost every day we were in São Miguel. Soak in a beautiful view with a side of gelato or an inventive cocktail accompanied by live music. [Website]
Restaurante Caldeiras (São Miguel)
At our guides’ recommendation, we stopped at here after our canyoning adventure for some much-needed comfort food — and boy, did it deliver. We had the absurdly good alcatra (Portuguese pot roast with bacon, served with sweet toast) and a bacalhau puff pastry with caramelized applesauce. For those who are concerned about catching COVID while traveling, Caldeiras was also the most-vigilant restaurant we visited in terms of social-distancing and staff masking. [Facebook]
Caldeiras e Vulcões (São Miguel)
If you’re looking to try cozido, Caldeiras e Vulcões’ was our favorite by far. The two things that stood out to us compared to the others we tried were the broth, which was particularly rich and flavorful; and the pork belly, which was almost inedibly fatty elsewhere but was melt-in-your-mouth decadent here. Make sure to reserve it in advance, and order one portion for every two people in your party. [Website]
Restaurante Tony’s (São Miguel)
A homey restaurant in the heart of Furnas. Their cozido is also quite good; they say to reserve it the day before, but we went one day after the lunch rush and they had extra portions left. We also really liked their pasta with mushrooms and creamy São Jorge cheese, and their chicken and chouriço mixed grill with some of the best black beans we've ever had. It has a chill but cozy vibe, the kind of place you can easily imagine going to multiple times while you're on vacation there (as we did). [Website]
Associação Agrícola da Ilha de São Miguel (São Miguel)
When you go to the restaurant run by the agricultural association of an island known for its beef, you're going to get a good steak. We got the traditional lombo cuts, one with a cheesy cream sauce and one with their specialty preparation: garlic, pepper, wine, and a fried egg. If you’re going to Terceira, you’ll get better steak there, but this may be the best you’ll find in São Miguel. [Website]
Don’t go too far out of your way, but we can vouch for these places if you’re specifically looking for…
A snack in Sete Cidades
At O Poejo, a tea house attached to a quaint hotel, the huge menu covers everything from local-cheese sandwiches to cakes to gelato. Make sure to try a cup of their special white herbal tea.
A fancy dinner
The formal-ish hotel restaurant at the Terra Nostra (distinct from The Gardener described above) is open to the public for dinner. The tuna was quite good, though the cozido was our least-favorite of the three we tried, and it was one of the priciest meals we had in our whole time in Portugal. (Hotel guests also get a good free breakfast here every morning — fresh bread, cheese, fruit, and both a savory and sweet dish each day.)
Late-night food in Furnas
A downside of staying in a quaint island town is that there aren’t many dinner options open late — one way in which Açorean culture differs from that on the mainland. One evening, we started strolling through Furnas around 9:15 and were repeatedly turned away for dinner service until we came upon A Quinta. Our sandwiches (a respectable burger and a decent lombo) were fine, but the highlights were the tasty chip-shaped fries and the interestingly translated "olives and old cheese" couvert.
You can see exactly where all these places are — as well as everywhere else we went that isn’t highlighted here — on our heavily annotated Google Map!
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