Posted on 14/01/2019
The New York Times recently released their 52 Places to Go in 2019, listing the most alluring travel destinations for the coming year. The Azores, a Portuguese archipelago, stands at number nine, and for good reason. Here's your itinerary around this gorgeous, soon-to-be-hip handful of volcanic islands.
Situated in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Azores archipelago is made up of nine major islands and a few islets with volcanic topography. Relatively isolated and boasting pristine scenery, the Portuguese territory is a hidden jewel.
A blend of the Caribbean's lush greenery, Scandinavia's jagged coastlines, New Zealand's relaxed atmosphere, and a little unique otherworldliness, the Azores' landscapes truly are one-of-a-kind. With azure-hued crater lakes, towering volcanic peaks, luxuriant vegetation, bucolic villages, and black sand beaches, you'll never run out of gorgeous sights. Here are the top-tier experiences you can enjoy in the archipelago.
Sete Cidades might be the most jaw-dropping sight of the entire archipelago. Sete Cidades is a caldera, a cauldron-like hollow that appears following the draining of a magma chamber, situated on Sao Miguel. The enormous twin crater lakes that have formed, one emerald-hued and the other azure-colored, are surrounded by verdant slopes covered in a lush mantle of various shades of green. Various walking trails were also incorporated into the landscape, running along cliff sides or leading to the lakes' shores, and they all offer different mesmerizing angles of this singular landscape.
Ponta Delgada, located on the southern coast of Sao Miguel Island, is the archipelago's capital and largest as well as most populous city. Bustling yet serene, rustic yet forward-looking, Ponta Delgada is a must-see while in the Azores. Noteworthy sights include the imposing, three-arched city gates, the peaceful harbor, the St. Sebastian church of Gothic architecture, and the Gruta do Carvao, a monumental lava tube.
Most of the islands offer guided tours to visitors who wish to get closer to the majestic marine creatures that roam this part of the Atlantic, which notably include whales and dolphins. The tour companies are also committed to minimizing disturbances to the animals during these excursions, combining amazing adventure with good conscience. If you're lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of pods of dolphins playfully chasing your boat as you glide across the serene ocean.
Due to their geographic isolation, the Azores have developed their very own culture, which even varies from island to island. This diversity within singularity is translated into the archipelago's cuisine, which is an intriguing and flavorful culinary patchwork. A particularly loved delicacy is lapas, clams caught off the rocks that are enjoyed raw or grilled, accompanied with butter, lemon, and garlic. On Sao Jorge Island you'll also find one of the Azores' most prized specialties, Queijo São Jorge, which is a delicious cheese.
But the one dish that truly is unmissable is cozido. In the village of Furnas, on Sao Miguel Island, a meat and vegetable stew is sunk into the volcanic ground, which will slowly cook the meal for a whole day before it can be enjoyed. Ovens and hobs really can't compete.
If there is one thing the Azores have, it's beaches. Never-ending expanses of pearlescent or charcoal sand belt the edges of all the nine islands, creating endless opportunities for relaxation and a plethora of water sports.
But there are certain beaches that are worth the detour infinitely more than others, and Moisteros is one of them. With dramatic surrounding scenery of mist-shrouded cliffs, onyx-colored sand, and deep blue water gushing on the inky shore, this scenic beach is one of the most dazzling sights you'll encounter on the archipelago. The water's often quite cold, but it is crystal clear and great snorkelling spots can be found in the area.
Crater lakes are quite a common sight in the Azores, but few as are awe-inspiring as Lagoa do Fogo. Located in the center of Sao Miguel, this sapphire-colored lake is the highest of the island and one of the archipelago's largest bodies of water. Nestled in a caldera, the lake is surrounded by luxuriant, forest-covered cliffs that make for challenging yet delightful hikes. Boasting stunning scenery and hosting rich wildlife, Lagoa do Fogo truly is a little piece of heaven.
The Furnas Valley, on Sao Miguel Island, is actually an immense crater filled with streams and geothermal springs. In the midst of this amazing volcanic formation can be found the Terra Nostra gardens, which are as peaceful as botanical parks can possibly get. Brimming with vibrant flowers endemic to the islands as well as plants from various continents which normally thrive in different climates, the gardens offer a wide variety of flora, from delicate azaleas to centenarian trees.
But the main appeal of the gardens might be the thermal pool that is found at the heart of the park's luxuriant vegetation. Many healing properties have been attributed to the pool, but it's also just a great place to relax, surrounded by lush, appeasing greenery.
But the Furnas Valley is not only home to the botanical park, and has a lot more to offer. Around 30 miles away from Ponta Delgada and right by the Terra Nostra gardens you'll find the delightful village of Furnas. If the town itself does not differ greatly from other Portuguese towns, with its serene streets, white buildings, and elegant churches, Furnas however has many other tricks up its sleeve.
Indeed, you'll find scattered around the village a plethora of mini-geysers as well as boiling water and mud springs, called Caldeiras das Furnas. You can also take a dip in the multitude of hot springs dotting the area, which are likely to be less expensive than the ones in Terra Nostra Park.
Also known by its full name as Angra do Heroísmo, Angra is the largest town on the island of Terceira, and probably one of the most charming places you'll ever set eyes on. This UNESCO World Heritage site flaunts a scenery that knows no equal in Europe thanks to its mid-Atlantic landscapes and unique cultural heritage.
Awash with regal churches, rustic convents, austere forts, and stately palaces, Angra's history is made evident by the host of monuments freckling its streets. Add to this diverse, colorful cityscape a sublime dramatic setting, and you'll see why Angra is one of the must-see stops on your itinerary around the islands.
Located on Terceira Island, Furnas do Enxofre, translated as furnace of sulfur, is one of these off-the-beaten-track excursions that give you a glimpse into the unique whimsicality of the Azores. The Funas do Enxofre natural reserve is situated in an area of volcanic activity, where you can observe impressive steam and hydrogen emissions bursting from the ground. Not only is it a peculiar, one-of-a-kind site, but it's also surrounded by delicate flowers that add beauty to the sheer weirdness of the place.
Located on Pico Island, the eponymous dormant volcano is a prime destination for a hike. Not only is it the highest mountain in Portugal, rising to 7,713 feet above sea level, but it also stands against the backdrop of striking, pristine wilderness. Often cloaked in fog, steep, and home to different types of soil, Mount Pico is guaranteed to be a challenging hike, but you'll be rewarded with breathtaking vistas.
The Azores are a place of extremes, and it's on Faial Island that you'll find one of the archipelago's most fascinating oddities. Known as the Blue Island thanks to its hydrangea-covered landscape, Faial is also home to the westernmost point in Europe. The Capelinhos Volcano, situated on the island's western coast, is widely considered to be Europe's westernmost peak. Any trivia that comes with your destination is always welcomed, and this anecdote is guaranteed to do well at dinner parties.
Anywhere in the Azores is a potential canyoning spot, but Flores and Corvo Islands are particularly known to be prime canyoning destinations. Combining water and mountain activities, canyoning is a sport that was seemingly made for the Azores' miscellaneous scenery. With the myriad of massive craters, peaceful lakes, roaring waterfalls, tumultuous streams, and steep slopes found on both Flores and Corvo, both experienced thrill-seekers and enthusiastic amateurs will find the perfect setting for their canyoning adventures.
The Azores are still in Europe after all, and what's more European than vineyards? Graciosa Island, the northernmost of the archipelago, is the Azores' designated wine region. Covering just 24 square miles, this unassuming island is surprising in terms of the oenological treasures it holds in its pocket-sized territory. With wines that could easily compete with those of Madeira, another Portuguese island known for its wine-making tradition, Graciosa is definitely worth a detour for all the epicureans out there.
The southernmost island of Santa Maria is notably home to Praia Formosa, one of the Azores' best beaches. Contrary to the rest of the archipelago's beaches, Praia Formosa flaunts fine, white sand which lends itself better to relaxation than the obsidian-colored, rugged beaches typical of the Azores. Surrounded by awe-inspiring verdant cliffs, the beach's setting only makes it even more appealing.
Moreover, Praia Formosa is considered to be a top-tier watersports spot, where surfing is an absolute must-try. For some more thrills, you can even try paragliding. Carried by the strong oceanic winds, you'll be able to relish the wonderful panoramas of the surrounding wilderness from a completely new, mind-blowing angle.