By Emma Marshall
Have you heard of the Azores and wondered where they were? Wondered how easy it was to get to them, or why people seem to love their time there? Or whether it’s possible to visit for just a short break? If so, then this post is for you.
Below you will find information on the Azores, along with an itinerary setting out what to see and do in 3 days on Sao Miguel island.
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What are the Azores?
The Azores is an archipelago of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean belonging to Portugal.
The largest island is Sao Miguel, at just under 300 square miles. The remaining eight islands are Terceira, Flores, Corvo, Santa Maria, Sao Jorge, Pico, Graciosa and Faial, all of varying sizes (the smallest, Corvo, is just 7 square miles).
All are volcanic and Pico island has Portugal’s highest point, Mount Pico, which rises to almost 8,000 feet.
Just saying that the islands are volcanic should give a hint at the type of stunning landscapes you can experience on an Azores getaway. However, the islands are a relatively undiscovered destination as far as tourism is concerned.
Although the number of visitors is gradually increasing, far fewer people opt for an Azores island holiday than any other destination in Portugal. Only just over a quarter of a million tourists visit the Azores annually (compared to almost 4.5 million for Lisbon alone).
Where are the Azores?
The smaller number of people opting for an Azores getaway, as opposed to one in mainland Portugal, is likely to be because of its location. It’s just over 1,000 miles west of Lisbon in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean and a third of the way to America. There is therefore a perception that it’s not an easy place to get to.
But this is not the case, even for a short trip – it’s entirely possible to dip your toe into the waters of the Azores with a few days on the archipelago’s main island, Sao Miguel, and to see the amazing sights which make a visit here so special.
Here are my suggestions for 3 days in the Azores, and an itinerary focusing on the main island, Sao Miguel.
3 days in the Azores: A Sao Miguel itinerary
Day 1 of your Sao Miguel itinerary: focus on the capital, Ponta Delgada
In order to make the most of a short visit to the Azores, I’d recommend staying in Sao Miguel’s capital, Ponta Delgada, and day-tripping from here for your second two days.
It’s a charming place that is easy to walk around in a day, with a variety of things that you can do and see. These could include the following:
A wander around Ponta Delgada centre
Ponta Delgada is quite a small place so it’s an ideal place for a leisurely wander. You’ll get to see an array of pretty streets, where you can take in the distinctive Portuguese black and white architecture.
I particularly liked the Portas de Cidade in the centre: three arches that once served as the city gates.
A stroll around the Jardim do Palacio de Sant’Ana
It’s also worth strolling around the Jardim do Palacio de Sant’Ana. This is a tranquil botanical garden with a colourful house in the middle, and only a 15-minute walk north from Portas de Cidade.
On a sunny day this is a great place to spend some time. Entry is 2 euros.
A trip to the only place in the world where pineapples are grown in greenhouses
If you have time, I would recommend heading out to the Arruda Acores Pineapple Plantation. This is the only place in the world where pineapples are grown in greenhouses.
You can stroll in and out of the greenhouses and see the fruit in different stages of development. Afterwards pop to the gift shop for a free taster of their pineapple liqueur.
The plantation is free to visit and there is also a nice café here if you need a break.
A visit to the largest lava cave in the Azores
Alternatively, you could head to the Gruta do Carvao. At over 1900m long, this is the largest of all the lava caves in the Azores. It’s also a reminder of how volcanic activity has shaped the geography and history of the islands and a flavour of what is to come in the remainder of your days in the Azores.
Entrance to the cave is 5 euros for adults and it is open from 10am-12.30pm and then in the afternoon from 2pm to 6pm. You can also pre-book tours (there are two different tours, based on length and level of difficulty).
Seeing the whales and dolphins that swim in Azorean waters
You could also book onto one of the dolphin and whale watching boat trips that leave the harbour twice a day.
The Azores is well-known for its wildlife and so this would be a good opportunity to try and get a glimpse of some of the creatures that inhabit the local waters.
We were told that, on average, between one and three species are spotted on these trips. We were lucky and saw bottlenose and common dolphins and a group of beaked whales.
However, note that the boat trips are around three and a half hours in duration, so you would need to plan this carefully into your itinerary if this is something that interests you.
We paid 55 euros each for a whale watching tour with Futurismo. There are also other companies offering similar experiences, including swimming with dolphins; take a walk along the docks to decide which is best for you.
Companies such as GetYourGuide also offer tours: for example, the Azores Whale Watching Expedition and Islet Boat Tour and the Fogo Lake and Whale Watching tour.
Tasting some of the Azorean cuisine
Ponta Delgada has a range of places for drinks, snacks or meals.
For a welcome day-time refreshment break, I’d highly recommend the Louvre de Michaelense, a wonderful café set out as an old-fashioned apothecary.
This is just off the main square and serves light lunches, teas and coffees, the islands’ traditional liquors and a large selection of cakes.
If you like pineapple (and your visit to the Arruda Acores plantation has given you a taste for it), you definitely need to sample their delicious sponge cake. This is probably one of the best cakes I have ever tasted.
Whatever you decide to do during the day, make sure you finish with some of the excellent Azorean food, either in the streets around the main square or in one of the quayside restaurants.
Seafood is a specialty (in particular grilled limpets – Lapas Grelhadas – and octopus stew – Polvo Guisado), and there is a lot of pork on the menus.
You might also wish to try the Caldeirada de Peixe (fish and seafood stew) and Alcatra (a steak stew cooked and served in a large clay pot).
Day 2 of your Sao Miguel itinerary: Head out to the west of the island
Day 2 on Sao Miguel island provides a chance to experience some of the wonderful volcanic landscape that the Azores is so famous for. We drove, but you may prefer to book an organised tour for this.
The Caldeira das Setes Cicades
Head out to the west of the island and visit one of the most iconic sights in the Azores – the Caldeira das Setes Cicades.
Less than an hour’s drive from Ponta Delgada, the iconic landmark is a seven mile round volcanic crater housing two lakes: one green and one blue.
There are several viewpoints on the way up where you can get out and wander around part of the upper rim.
You must do this and look out into this breathtaking natural wonder. To say it is stunning is an understatement. On a clear day you really can see the different colours that define the two lakes.
Travel to Setes Cidades and along the coast road
After soaking in the dramatic views, the road descends towards the small village of Setes Cidades. You’ll get amazing views of the countryside during this drive.
There are rolling hills and lush vegetation with country lanes that are lined with thick bushes of blue, pink and cream coloured hydrangeas. The Azores is full of these flowers which can be seen throughout most of the year.
Once you reach Sete Cidades it’s worth a quick stop to see the small church here with its almost mystical tree lined path leading up to it.
From here, it’s an easy hop to the coastal road, where you pass small picturesque towns and villages. There are plenty of spots to stop off as and when you fancy.
Visit Rebeira Grande
If you have time, I’d highly recommend taking in Rebeira Grande. This is the island’s second largest town on the northern coast, around an hour from Sete Cidades.
I loved this picturesque little place with its charming small square, arched bridge, and one of the prettiest churches I have ever seen. If I returned to the island, I think I would try to spend more time here.
On the waterfront there is also a public lido if you fancy a quick dip after a long hot drive. Unfortunately we forgot our costumes…
You can get back to Ponta Delgada by car in less than an hour; you’re crossing the island here and get more good views en route.
Day 3 of your Sao Miguel itinerary: Head out to the east of the island
On your final day on Sao Miguel island, you should head east from Ponta Delgada along the south coast. Again, if you’d prefer not to drive yourself, you can book a tour to take you out to this side of the island.
Lagoa do Fogo
Less than an hour away from Ponta Delgada is another amazing volcanic lake – Lagoa do Fogo.
We hadn’t originally planned to visit but missed our turn off and decided to drive on – we weren’t disappointed. The Lagoa do Fogo, in my opinion, equally matches the Caldeira de Sete Cidades and if you see one, you should try to see both.
Again, there are a variety of viewing platforms all the way up the mountain where you can stop off and take in the wonderful scenery.
Fabrica de Cha Gorreana
From here, move on to the Fabrica de Cha Gorreana (about 30 minutes away), a tea plantation located towards the northern shores.
A visit here is a great way of using your Azores getaway to visit the only tea plantation in Europe. You’ll be able to learn about the process of making tea here as well as sample some of the locally grown crop.
This is a perfect place for a short pitstop (but note that if you are travelling by car, the turn off is poorly signposted so you’ll need to pay some attention getting here).
Vale das Furnas
Heading south (about 20 minutes away) is the Vale das Furnas and its famous hot sulphur springs. You approach this area via yet more steep and windy roads, and really just need to head for the smell!
In Furnas town centre there are signs for the caldeira and here you’ll find a series of hot, steamy, noisy springs bubbling up from between the rocks.
Then if this has got you in the mood for hot springs and spas, you should visit Poca da Dona Beja to experience them first hand. There are five small pools, one that is 28 degrees centigrade, with the remainder at 39 degrees…
This is a relaxing way to spend some down time on what is essentially quite a packed Azores trip, so take your swimming costumes with you (towels can be hired).
A visit to the hot springs in Poca da Dona Beja is 6 euros, with 1 euro for towel hire and 1 euro for a hot shower at the end.
Afterwards, head back to Ponta Delgada, via your third lake – the Lagoa das Furnas – for your final evening meal.
I hope this gives a flavour of just how varied Sao Miguel island is – and how much you can pack into a short Azores trip. Its location really should not exclude it from anyone’s list of travel on a time budget trips.
Having said this, there are nine islands in the archipelago, so this is really just a taster – but one that will no doubt leave you wanting to come back again and again….
Read on for more information on how to reach the Azores and how to get around Sao Miguel island.
Getting to Sao Miguel island
We flew directly to Ponta Delgada from London Gatwick with Sata Airlines in 3.5 hours and back with TAP Airlines, via Lisbon. You can also connect via Lisbon with Tap Air Portugal or a combination of airlines.
You can also fly between Ponta Delgada and Porto on the mainland, as well as other Azorean islands and Madeira.
There are also direct flights between Brussels, New York, Boston and Cape Verde.
Getting around Sao Miguel island
We hired a car when we were exploring the island on days 2 and 3 of our Sao Miguel itinerary.
However, there are also trips that can be booked that will take you out into the countryside to see the main sights – for example GetYourGuide’s Hidden Gems of Sao Miguel tour, the Sete Cidades Village and Lakes Half-Day tour, the Furnas Hot Springs Night Tour with Dinner, and the São Miguel Island: Full Day All-in-One Tour.
There are also hop on and hop off buses that go to various places on the island.
I also spent a short time on Terceira island travelling around more of the volcanic landscape of the Azores. See my post for more information.
If Portugal is a country you like, you might also be interested in my other posts: