Verdent, volcanic, and visually arresting, the Azores are a mind-blowing series of islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. An autonomous region within Portugal, the Azores are remote — no animals lived there until human colonizers brought them along — but are worth the trek.
Known in the summer for whale watching, beach activities, and copious amounts of blooming flowers everywhere, the islands are still breathtaking in the winter as frequent showers make the islands turn emerald green. And for hikers and view point aficionados, the charms of the Azores' topography is just as great in any season.
With giant volcanic crater filled lakes, sheer sea cliff walls, waterfalls, and hot springs, the largest island of the Azores, São Miguel, feels as if someone mixed the English countryside and its associated farms with Iceland. And like Iceland, the best way to explore the island is by renting a car and striking out to see as many corners as possible.
Buses and tours operated out of Ponta Delgada reach most of the main sites on São Miguel Island. But, for convenience, speed, and flexibility, we highly recommend renting a car from the airport. Pickup and delivery of the cars are conveniently located next to the sole terminal, and the roads are extremely well cared for and well signposted.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of locations throughout the island including Airbnbs, hotels, and miniature guest houses. The greatest density of locations will be in Ponta Delgada, but don't feel limited to staying in the capital! The island is small, and even the two furthest corners of the island are under an hour and a half from each other.
We stayed in the cutest Airbnb stone cottage, complete with two dogs and too many chickens to count. With plenty of parking, our own private space, and fresh eggs every morning, we never wanted to wake up anywhere else.
Click here to get $40 off your first Airbnb stay, on us!
You've made it! Welcome to the Azores. You can spend the first portion of the day getting settled into your new surroundings, renting a car, and checking into your lodgings.
We know, the Azores are beautiful and you might be tempted to take it slow to enjoy where you currently are. Don't! Instead, get ready to hop into your car and head out east towards some of the best meat you'll ever have.
Restaurante Tony's & Furnas
Located in Furnas in the eastern half of São Miguel island, the town is home to a number of sulfurous hot springs. While some of these can — and do — smell, as well as producing awesome geothermic activity to watch, the locals have found another use for them: Using the super heated water from the earth for cooking.
And boy, does Restaurante Tony's really exceed at this. By digging into the ground around the hot springs, the restaurant places pots directly into the ground which are then filled up with various meats, chickens, and root vegetables. The restaurant specializes in this kind of stew and, oh my, is it amazing.
The meat will be some of the most succulently soft you will ever have, served right from Mother Earth's own natural slow cooker, and the potatoes and carrots will literally melt in your mouth.
After lunch, you can walk around Furnas to help digest the massive amounts you probably just shoved into your mouth (if our experience is anything to go on). Once you take in the unique charm of this small town, hop into the car for a quick ride to the Lagoa das Furnas.
Lagoa das Furnas
Up and over a small ridge of mountains from Furnas, you reach the massive caldera lake of Lagoa das Furnas. Vast seeming and incredibly peaceful, with a blue to green tint depending upon how the sun plays across the water and the surrounding vegetation, the lake is a restful stop to appreciate the natural beauty of the islands.
To the northern end of the lake is a car park, accessible for a token parking fee, where you can see the Caldeiras Das Furnas. The view of the caldera is largely the same from anywhere else on the lake, but here you can experience the sulfur hot springs first hand as they, like Iceland's bubbling mud pots, force themselves up ground the ground in giant smelly bursts while eating away at the ground beneath.
Also dope is here you can see the various pots restaurants like Tony's place into the earth to get that succulent succulent meat.
While in the eastern half of the island, take the opportunity to drive out to Nordeste at the northeastern tip of São Miguel. One of the less populated and more wild parts of the islands, Nordeste looks out over the Atlantic from its steep and windswept cliffs.
Just outside of Nordeste's city center is the Farol do Arnel lighthouse. Located at the bottom of an extremely steep road, the safest way to the lighthouse without possibly losing a car into the ocean is by walking — but prepare to get winded on the way back up.
Still, the lighthouse is beautiful and the views of the ocean, and the surrounding cliffs and minor waterfalls are stunning.
Restaurante da Associação Agrícola de São Miguel
Did that climb back up from the Farol do Arnel tire you out and make you hungry for something filling — maybe a solid steak or a half chicken? Well, guess what, you're in luck.
The Restaurante da Associação Agrícola de São Miguel is a farmers association restaurant serving up some of the freshest and most delicious local ingredients from around the island. The restaurant is known for its steaks and beef products, but absolutely everything on the meal is worth eating — and probably more than once at that!
Pico da Barrosa
One of the tallest peaks on São Miguel, Pico da Barrosa offers a spectacular view (check out our 360 degree shot) — assuming the weather is clear — of both the island's northern and southern shores. The viewpoint is conveniently located by the Lagoa do Fogo
Miradouro da Lagoa do Fogo
A five minute drive from the Pico da Barrosa is the Miradouro da Lagoa do Fogo, a viewpoint overlook of the Lagoa do Fogo crater lake. An absolutely stunning lake that also acts as a nature reserve on the island, Lagoa do Fogo is green, perfectly still, and the viewpoint offers chances to see both the lake and the ocean beyond.
For those interested, a trail is accessible from the main roadside parking lot that leads all the way down to and around the shores of the lake. The path can be narrow and slippery, but it is generally well preserved and carve into the side of the mountain so that even non-avid hikers can make the trek down and up with relative ease.
The payoff is absolutely worth it, too. The terrain around the lagoa feels completely foreign and unspoiled with the bonus that you will feel like the only person on the island.
Restaurante Cais 20
You must be hungry by this point, as I'm getting hungry again just thinking about that hike. A quick drive back to the south coast will bring you to Restaurante Cais 20, a delicious seafood establishment selling fresh catches from around the island. We definitely recommend the grilled octopus, which was perfectly succulent, in addition to the mussels, which were the largest and juiciest we've ever had.
The restaurant also offers amazing sea views of the rough waves constantly rolling in from the Atlantic to pound São Miguel's shores. A quick five minute walk east of the restaurant brings you to a raised park that offers additional oceanside views of the southern shore along with a wide variety of beautiful flowering plants.
Everything so far has been beautiful and great and exotic, but you're in the Azores to experience something truly different, right? Well, good! There's no better way to let your massive lunch digest than heading towards the Caldeira Velha for a dip in hot springs that feel straight out of Jurassic Park.
Situated in a nature preserve half way up a mountain range, Caldeira Velha is a barebones — read, super cheap — and authentic hot springs experience. A small hike past the entry gate leads through a forest to reach a clearing at the top of which is a waterfall and its cool pool. Feel free to dip in the relatively chilly here and test your metal sitting beneath the waterfall's punishing waters.
Out of the waterfall pool, the water runs along a narrow gorge to reach geothermic vents where the water becomes super heated before flowing into a second pool. You could easily spend hours lounging in this pool as the cooler misty mountain air plays the perfect counterpoint to the warm water around your body.
The surrounding ferns and moss covered trees meanwhile provide the perfect backdrop for a lazy afternoon gently cooking yourself.
Once you've had your fill in the hot springs and start feeling famished, head down to A Tasca in Ponta Delgada. Quaint, friendly, and warm, A Tasca presents the best of local cuisine and alcohol at amazingly affordable prices.
Everything we had was fresh and delicious. Catch varies by season and day, but I managed to snag some of the most succulent octopus I've ever had along with barracuda (I didn't even know you could eat it!) steak, while Jen had mussels perfectly on point.
Don't miss out on the desserts, either! The local pineapple cake is super sweet and perfectly tops off a saltier seafood heavy meal.
Miradouro da Boca do Inferno
Are you ready for some of the grandest views of the island? Because the views from the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno might just be the views of note on São Miguel. An observation deck at the top of a mountain thoroughly off the beaten path, it presents a 360 degree view of the fabled town of Sete Cidades, its two volcanic crater lakes — Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul — as well as, just because this wasn't enough already, views of Lagoa Rasa, Lagoa de Santiago, and glimpses of the Atlantic beyond.
Altogether, the view is stunning and unlike anything else in this world. Your jaw certainly does drop as you look out over all these volcanic crater lakes at once. The richness of the blues against the overwhelming verdure of the island is simply beyond explanation. Good thing Jen was there with her camera!
In the right light and on clear days, the two main lakes outside Sete Cidades (which is actually technically one lake) look blue and green — hence Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul — due to the way light reflects off them and the surroundings.
Beyond the view, a rough trail to the left of the observation deck winds its way around the mountain presenting the opportunity for more views off the beaten path.
The Legend of Sete Cidades
The twin lakes of Sete Cidades, Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde, represent the tears of a legendary princess and her beloved shepherd boy. The princess, Antília, was raised by her widower father, a king and fearsome alchemist. The king, befitting all scary fathers in fairy tales, forbid his ever more lovely daughter from venturing out of the castle grounds for fear that he should lose her like he lost his wife.
One day, with the help of a nun in the castle, Antília escaped and went traveling through the countryside. There, she came across a shepherd boy playing a pan flute. As is always the case, they fell in love immediately and the boy, encouraged by the power of his love, went to the castle to demand the king's blessing.
However, the king, being mean to begin with and also royal, objected to his daughter marrying a random poor shepherd and forbade Antília from ever seeing him again. In response, the poor princess and her love both cried so uncontrollably that their tears filled up the two lakes outside Cete Sidades, giving the lakes their color. For, you see, the princess had green eyes and the shepherd blue ... because that's how it works.
The Abandoned Hotel Monte Palace
Once you can pick your mouth up off the floor and get back into your car, make the quick drive over to to the spooky and decaying ruins of the Hotel Monte Palace. Perfect for ruin porn lovers, the hotel operated for only a year in the late 1980s before the five star resort buckled under its operating costs.
Now fully empty, with squelchy plush carpets, rubbled filled halls, empty elevator shafts, and tumble-down spiral staircases, the hotel is a dream to explore ... in the daylight. Even among the ruins, the hotel still holds its charms.
And, for those adventurous enough to make it to the top, the hotel also offers stunning views of Sete Cidades and the lakes below.
Directly in front of the hotel, facing the lakes, is also the fabled Vista do Rei (View of Kings). Although, you can feel smug knowing you did better than a kings view at Boca do Inferno and at the top of the hotel.
Head on down to the village of Sete Cidades for a quick lunch and a gentle stroll through a smaller Azorean town. The restaurant Green Love, on the banks of Lagao Azul, provides quick sandwiches and burgers on a special local bread (bolo-lêvedo) that is light, fluffy, and slightly sweet.
After lunch, the Sete Cidades village church is a quick walk away. A pure white church tucked into its beautiful grounds, it provides an arresting focal point for the village. Green Love is also located right on the shores of the lakes, where, assuming the weather and season are right, you can rent either kayaks or bikes.
Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado
When your legs are sufficiently stretched, drive over to the Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado on the western coast of the island — and keep your eyes out for sunbathing cows on the side of the road! They're really cute ...
Located high on the island's sea cliffs, Ponta do Escalvado offers views of almost the entire western portion of the island. To the north lies the town of Mosteiros while the thermal pools of Ferraria can be seen on the southern horizon. Like much the rest of the island, the viewpoint here is astoundingly peaceful.
Ponta dos Mosteiros
An oceanic lookout point from the village of Mosteiros, these are also some of the stunning views from the island. Watching the waves beat against the black volcanic rock formations and the black sand beaches is near hypnotizing.
If the weather is warmer and you're up for a swim, natural swimming pools form along Mosteiros' coast as the tidal water fills in the rock basins. Unfortunately the water was too cold while we were there to swim, but had the weather been warmer a dip there would have been legendary.
Visible from the town are the Ilhéu dos Mosteiros (the Monastery Islands, from which the town derives its name). Huge vertical stone structures that were originally part of a volcanic cone, the islands now look like monasteries looming over the town's horizon.
For dinner, head on over to Botequim Açoriano in Rabo de Peixe for another fresh seafood meal. The catch varies by day, but are all delicious. The restaurant also serves up a wide selection of Azorean and Portuguese wines.
Lagoa do Congro
The last lake of the trip, we saved the most inaccessible and truly off the beaten path recommendation for last. The Lagoa do Congro is a perfectly silent lagoon located off a dirt road and down a 15 minute hike through the woods. At the end of the hike is the lake, which is a stunning emerald shade (in the sun) as the water reflects all the light from the towering forests surrounding it.
When we visited, the dirt road to the lake had become impassable in our baby car due to the rains. However, at the start of the dirt road is enough space to pull your car to the side of the road. From the highway to the hiking path through the forest is maybe a 10 minute walk along the dirt road.
The dirt road turnoff can be found off the EN4-2A highway heading east towards Furnas from Villa. There will be a sign labelled "Lagoa do Congro" pointing to a small road off the highway. Take that, and you are on your way to the lake!
Restaurante O Pescador
The final seafood restaurant in the Azores, Restaurante O Pescador is homey and nautical themed. And, of course, it sells amazingly light and delicious seafood. The menu changes, but it has such unique items as moray eel (served fried), offshore rockfish (served as a full fish grilled), and guelly jack (served as a steak).
All non-fried options are served covered in olive oil, fried garlic, and with orange and lemon. My mouth is watering just thinking about that again. If you were to go to any one fish restaurant in the Azores, make it either here or A Tasca.
For all the tea lovers, make your way to the Chá Gorreana tea plantation. Located on the northern shore of the island, it is the only tea plantation in both the Azores and Europe. Focusing on black tea, it also grows a limited amount of green and jasmine teas.
The plantation offers tours of its facilities, as well as the opportunity to walk through its tea rows. A tasting room also serves both its own black and green teas free, in addition to cheap but delicious pastries (1 euro pineapple cake, holla!), and 1 euro shots of various flavored Azorean liqueurs such as pineapple, loquat, blackberry, banana.
The liqueurs pair perfectly with the tea and are just oh so fucking good. And for those absolutely stunned by the experience, you can also buy tea any variety of tea leaf produced on site.
I'm sorry, this discredits the entire guide, I know. But Jen isn't a big seafood fan, and after four days of only fish ... she needed some variety.
Poça da Dona Beija
For your final night in the Azores, after four days of running around exploring, settle into the Poça da Dona Beija hot springs located just outside of Furnas. Whereas the Caldeira Velha springs felt rustic and natural, these springs feel almost more like a club.
Well light and manmade, Poça da Dona Beija is made up of a series of stone tubs fed by the geothermic springs located around Furnas. The various tubs offer differing temperatures that are marked to the degree and the entire area is comfortably mood lit. The water is also more filtered than at Caldeira Velha, which makes the entire affair seem more upscale - but also more artificial.
Personally, we loved Caldeira Velha and found the vibe here to be a little off, though still very enjoyable. But, others we spoke to at Caldeira Velha loved Poça da Dona Beija more. No matter your preference, both are worth visiting and these hot springs are definitely the ideal way to relax before a flight back out of the Azores.
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