As a volcanic, verdant wonderland for the adventure traveler, the Azores could be described as a hybrid of Iceland and Hawaii. But these nine Portuguese islands also have an intriguing culture, delectable cuisine, and an irresistible, smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-the-Atlantic spirit all their own.
A 4-day weekend in São Miguel, the archipelago’s largest and most populated island, is an ideal introduction to the Azores. Uncrowded and with exceptional infrastructure, the island is ripe for exploring by car, especially given the short distances between attractions. Expect jaw-dropping landscapes, friendly locals, and lots of memorable meals, just a short five-hour flight from the East Coast.
Pro tip: Always pack a swimsuit—there’s bound to be a hot spring, beach, or waterfall around every corner.
Where to Stay
If you rent a car (which we highly recommend), your choice of accommodation won’t be a limiting factor during a weekend’s exploration; it all depends on your interests.
For a lively stay in Ponta Delgada, the centrally located capital, check into Azor Hotel, a member of Design Hotels. All rooms in the marina-front property have ocean views, include a spectacular breakfast buffet, and access to the heated rooftop pool.
Those who prefer a more exclusive retreat should book at Santa Barbara Eco-Beach Resort on the island’s north shore. Style-forward studios and villas look out to the black sands of Santa Barbara Beach—just a few steps away if you can pry yourself from the incredibly plush beds.
Spa seekers: Your best bet is the Furnas Boutique Hotel in the geothermal town of Furnas. With nature-inspired design, indoor/outdoor thermal pools, and an extensive wellness program, self-pampering is top of mind upon check-in.
A former Franciscan convent built in the 17th century, Convento do São Francisco was converted into the ultimate Azorean hotel for history buffs. A combination of storied antiques and modern art mingle within the cloisters’ walls, located in São Miguel’s former capital Vila Franca do Campo.
Afternoon: Your flight will most likely be a red-eye, so spend the morning recharging your energy. For the rest of your day, discover the capital city, Ponta Delgada, by foot. Supremely walkable and surprisingly lively, Ponta Delgada charms with its cobblestone avenues and unique colonial architecture. Splashes of pastel exteriors point to traditional design of mainland Portugal, while the occasional black and white facade are distinctly Azorean. The black accents are made from local volcanic basalt, and indicate a structure of importance, like the iconic Portas da Cidade (Gates of the City) at the entrance to Gonçalo Velho Cabral Square. After wandering the square, visit the Museu Carlos Machado (another black and white building) for a comprehensive history on The Azores, from geology to religion. Enjoy a late afternoon caffeine pep at Cafe Central, a landmark establishment in front of the Matriz de São Sebastião Church. Another great option is Louvre Michaelense, a café-cum-gift shop with delicious tarts and artisanal handicrafts.
Evening: Even prior to your arrival in São Miguel, be sure to make reservations at A Tasca, arguably Ponta Delgada’s most popular restaurant. It’s an ideal introduction to local specialties like grilled lapas (a mussel-like shellfish), bifhana (pork sandwiches), and bolo de ananás (Azorean pineapple cake), all in a family-style environment. Roll your overstuffed self out of the restaurant and get a good night’s rest.
Morning: Have an early breakfast at your hotel, then hit the road toward the north-westerly tip of São Miguel. Destination: Termas de Ferraria. As you reach the final stretch, don’t get distracted by the dramatic landscape—the road is incredibly steep. Park at the spa and walk along the black volcanic rocks toward the ocean, where you can experience a boiling geothermal current gush into the chilly Atlantic waters. As the ocean waves roll into the natural cove, hold on tight to the ropes hung crosswise, and enjoy the sensation of hot and cold water swirling around you.
Afternoon: Make your way to Lagoa das Sete Cidades, a set of lakes at the bottom of a massive volcanic caldera (don’t worry, it’s extinct). Of the multiple hikes around the elevated rim, Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth) offers the most jaw-dropping miradouro, or viewpoint, down into the crater below. For an even greater thrill, drive about 10 minutes west to the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel for a self-guided exploration into the eerie, graffiti-covered interior, and more incredible views of the caldera.
Evening: After a brief post-hike siesta, you’ll want the serene dining experience found at Quinta dos Sabores in Rabo de Peixe. With a homegrown, six-course menu of locally sourced ingredients, owners Paulo Decq and Inês Sá da Bandeira serve their interpretation of seasonal farm-to-table cuisine, Azorean-style, within their converted farmhouse. The produce comes from the garden right outside the window, while the fish and meats are sourced from local vendors.
Morning: Head straight to Vila Franca do Campo, which served as capital of the archipelago until a devastating earthquake leveled the entire area in 1522. About a 20-minute drive from Ponta Delgada, this seaside town evokes a Mediterranean landscape with its white-washed buildings and red-tiled roofs. Induce a morning sugar rush at Queijadas da Vila do Morgado, the original bakers of palm-sized queijadas, São Miguel’s signature cake. Next stop: the Vila Franca Islet, an offshore paradise known for its circular natural pool formed by an underwater volcanic explosion. The photogenic islet can be reached by an hourly ferry connection from the Vila Franca do Campo marina, and tickets can be purchased in advance to avoid lines.
Afternoon: For lunch, drive east to Caloura, a beach town popular among locals for its stone pier and reputably sunnier climate. Jot down your name on the chalk board at Bar Caloura, the best seafood restaurant in town, and request a table closest to the water on its swoon-worthy outdoor patio. After ordering a glass of local Frei Gigante white wine, you’ll be led to the bounty of fresh-caught fish. Choose what you want grilled to perfection, but don’t pass on the prawns with tomato garlic sauce. For dessert, fan a towel over the stone pier steps away from the restaurant and drink in some vitamin D like it’s sweet wine.
Evening: Return to Ponta Delgada for a Saturday night on the town, starting with dinner at Tasquinha Vieira. Chic, yet unpretentious, this small restaurant excels at elevating Azorean delicacies with an ever-changing menu that highlights the freshest ingredients of the moment. On a warm night, the back courtyard is a prime spot for enjoying stewed rice with sausage and shrimp or a zesty tuna ceviche. Migrate to the Portas do Mar marina for an al fresco cocktail at Bar do Pi, where a playlist from Portuguese ballads to house music stretches the seaside party until 4 a.m.
Morning: Skip your morning coffee and opt for a cup of tea at Europe’s oldest—and only—tea plantation. The family-owned Gorreana Tea Plantation has been producing some of the finest green and black tea since 1883, a decade after tea cultivation was introduced to the island by Chinese traders. Tour the 1840s-era Marshalls machinery that’s still used to process the tea plants, which thrive in the volcanic soil.
Afternoon: Drive farther into São Miguel’s lush interior to reach Furnas, a town unlike any other in the world. Established on top of an active volcanic crater, Furnas’ center is scattered with bubbling geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs. Expect wafts of musty sulfur gas seeping from the Earth’s core to greet your nostrils. Once you’ve developed a healthy appetite, lead your growling stomach to the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel for a plate of cozido, Furnas’ traditional stew of meat and vegetables boiled inside the steaming geysers. Since you’ll already be inside the elegantly manicured Terra Nostra Botanical Garden, it’s time to boil yourself like a potato in the therapeutic hot spring—just don’t wear your favorite bathing suit. The sulphuric orange residue tends to stain.
Evening: Kick off your last evening on São Miguel with an enchanting sunset on Fogo Beach, a 15-minute cruise from Furnas. After an active weekend, comfort those weary feet in the black sand, still warm from the afternoon sun’s rays. And for your last meal? You’re on an island in the middle of the Atlantic; it’s gotta be seafood. And Ponta do Garajau in Ribeira Quente has the best, accompanied by friendly, attentive service. Without hesitation, order a sizzling griddle of garlic lapas, spicy peel-your-own shrimp, and crispy fried mackerel, then have your server recommend the freshest fish of the day. Just like your first trip to São Miguel, it’s guaranteed to impress.