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As a writer traveling at least 50 percent of the time, the Azores have been on my bucket list for years. When I can, I often plan my travels around places ideal for whale watching (and other wildlife) or other interests like rich culture and history. Of course, spectacular scenery is always a plus. That made the nine idyllic islands located 948 miles from the Portugal mainland a must. The archipelago is filled with stunning natural beauty and offers a wealth of outdoor adventure along with a rich and intriguing culture. And, the whale watching is out of this world.
São Miguel is the largest and most populated in the archipelago, known as “The Green Island of the Azores.” It’s an endless landscape of surreal lakes tucked within volcanic craters, while the emerald hills and mountains are strewn with colorful wildflowers, including everything from vivid blue hydrangeas to delicate calla lilies. The island is also a geothermal hotspot with natural springs to soak in, while its main town boasts cobbled streets and a thriving culinary scene.
While visiting this paradise, you might want to just relax and take it all in, I found a wide range of things to do you might want to consider as well, including these top activities and attractions.
Hike the Famous Praia-Lagoa do Fogo Trail
What Is It? The Praia-Lagoa do Fogo trail is a true bucket-list hike, an 8-mile trek offering epic views of Vila Franca do Campo and Ribeira da Praia along the way to its culmination along the banks of Lagoa do Fogo, otherwise known as the Lake of Fire which sits inside the Agua de Pau stratovolcano.
Why Do It? It’s one of the world’s most scenic hiking trails on an island filled with lagoons, volcano craters, streams, and waterfalls that are only accessible on foot.
Good to Know: After working up a sweat, jump into the waters for a refreshing dip. There are 20 official trails on São Miguel, making it easy to fill your time with multiple treks.
Go Whale Watching
What Is It? The Azore Islands are renowned as one of the best destinations for whale watching in the world, with whale-watching boat tours available from Ponta Delgada in São Miguel to bring you out for a closer look.
Why Do It? Many different types of whale species live in the Azores permanently or are here temporarily on their migration route. One-third of all known marine mammals have been recorded here, including blue whales, sperm whales, baleen whales, fin whales, Sei whales, humpbacks, and orcas, with the odds of seeing either dolphins or whales at around 98 percent.
Good to Know: The best way to spot whales is by boat, as they’re typically too far from shore to see with the naked eye. As weather conditions can change at a moment’s notice in the Azores, try to book your tour early on in your trip so you can reschedule just in case inclement weather hits.
Pedal Around a Volcanic Crater
What Is It? Guided and self-guided tours are available that allow you to pedal around the rim of extinct volcanic craters while enjoying breathtaking views of the incredibly lush scenery, including the Sete Cidades lakes.
Why Do It? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with jaw-dropping views you’ll never forget.
Good to Know: At the end of the journey, you can enjoy a swim in a magnificent pool with waters heated to 82 degrees by the sea thanks to an underground volcanic crack at Ponta da Ferraria.
Soak in a Hot Spring
What Is It? The Azores Islands of Portugal are some of the most unique and diverse in the world. Due to geothermal activity they offer many hot springs that provide the chance to soak in naturally warm waters, with most found on São Miguel Island.
Why Do It? It’s an incredibly relaxing experience that’s sure to melt all stress away.
Good to Know: Poça da Dona Beija in the town of Furnas is one of the best, offering five different thermal pools surrounded by lush greenery. All are have varying depths and temperatures, with the one at the far end the coolest.
Tour and Taste Pineapple at the Azorean Pineapple Plantation
What Is It? The Azorean Pineapple is a Protected Designation of Origin fruit produced exclusively on the Island of São Miguel. It’s the only place in the world where pineapples are grown in greenhouses, and although there are over 6,000 pineapple plantations on the island, only a few are open to the public.
Why Do It? The Azorean Pineapple Plantation is only a few minutes from the center of the main town, Ponta Delgada, and offers free tours, tastings, and products for sale, including Azorean pineapples, pineapple delicacies, and a variety of local items.
Good to Know: The highlight is the bar, where you can enjoy all sorts of items with the Azorean Pineapple as the main ingredient, from juices and cocktails to artisanal ice creams and chocolate fondue. Plus, all visitors get free tastings of 1864 pineapple jam and 1864 pineapple liqueur.
Get a Natural Massage Under a Hot Waterfall at Caldeira Velha
What Is It? Caldeira Velha is a nature reserve filled with trees, plants, and gorgeous flowers along with lesser-known hot springs.
What Do It? What makes Caldeira Velha unique is that it has an 86-degree waterfall that spills out of the forest into a bathing pool below.
Good to Know: This is a great place for a picnic and at the Interpretation Centre, visitors can learn more about the volcanic origins of the Azores along with the remarkable biodiversity the area has to offer.
Explore the Archipelago's Biggest City, Ponta Delgada
What Is It? Ponta Delgada is the largest city on São Miguel and the entire Azore Islands.
Why Do It? Exploring Ponta Delgada is a great way to get a glimpse of life on the islands in the 16th century, complete with cobbled streets, historic churches, and whitewashed homes. While it started out as a small fishing community, it soon became a busy port and supply station for ships en route from mainland Portugal and Africa that were heading to the West Indies and the Americas.
Good to Know: One of the best things to do is enjoy an evening stroll along the coastal promenade. You’ll enjoy a magnificent view of the city and the sea in addition to passing the 16th-century Forte de Sao Bras.
View From the Miradouros: Miradouro da Boca do Inferno
What Is It? There are many miradouros across São Miguel and the Azores, which simply means viewpoint. Well-marked, keep an eye out for them and you’ll be able to gaze out at some of the most magnificent scenery. Miradouro da Boca do Inferno is one you’ll want to seek out as the most iconic in São Miguel.
Why Do It? It’s located over 3,000 feet above sea level and offers jaw-dropping views that include Lagoa de Santiago, the Sete Cidades lakes, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Good to Know: Miradouro da Boca do Inferno can be reached with about a 15-minute walk from the Miradouro da Lagoa do Canário parking area. If you want to drive straight to an incredible view, head to Miradouro da Vista do Rei, which overlooks Sete Cidades lakes from the top of the mountain.
Explore the Lava Tunnels: Gruta do Carvao
What Is It? Gruta do Carvao is the island’s largest accessible lava tunnel. It was formed around 12,000 years ago during a major eruption of the Sete Cidades caldera.
Why Do It? It’s a fascinating look at the geology, bringing the opportunity to admire stalactites, stalagmites, and other remarkable formations that originated with the lava flow.
Good to Know: The lava tunnel can only be explored on a guided tour, with two options available. Most take the short, easy tour designed for the general public, which travels about 656 feet into the cave. The longer tour will take you over 3,280 feet in and is directed toward those with an interest in speleology.
Dig Into a Unique Meal Cooked in Hot Springs
What Is It? Enjoy a unique, traditional meal that’s a signature dish in São Miguel. A longstanding local tradition, it’s a Portuguese stew made with a variety of meats and cooked in holes called fumaroles which are dug out of the hot volcanic soil in Furnas.
Why Do It? One of the best things to do when exploring any new city is to try the local cuisine, and a meal basically cooked in the hot springs is one to remember.
Good to Know: One of the best places to try it is the restaurant at Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in Furnas which offers a fabulous fine-dining setting with exceptional service, yet it’s fine to go post-hike.
Explore Azorean Art at Centro de Artes
What Is It? An art center housed in a volcanic stone building that’s had several incarnations: once a distillery, tobacco factory, and military barracks. It was created to promote Azorean art and to create connections between international artists and the islands.
Why Do It? The architecture makes it worth a visit on its own, with the building truly spectacular. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture and see some fabulous local art, typically through exhibitions by artists with artistic residencies.
Good to Know: There’s a shop with many interesting items that would make for good souvenirs. Programs and a calendar of events can be found on the center’s website.
Visit the Museu Municipal de Vila Franca Do Campo
What Is It? A museum along the south coast of the island that focuses on São Miguel’s popular culture displaying items from day-to-day life, particularly the pottery works that have a time-honored tradition here.
Why Do It? Although small, the Museu Municipal de Vila Franca Do Campo museum is very interesting and informative, well-worth visiting if you want to learn more about the cultural history of the Azores and many of the archipelago’s lost handicrafts.
Good to Know: Admission is free and the friendly staff will be happy to provide a personal tour.