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Your Azores Vacation: a Guide to São Miguel and Beyond

Azores Insider Guides Beaches and Islands
by Peter Jones May 21, 2023

Most people think traveling from the US to Europe means crossing the Atlantic Ocean, usually on a six-plus-hour flight. However, there’s a whole other part of Europe smack in the middle of the ocean that melds the green, rocky hillsides of the UK with the Mediterranean vibes and culture of Portugal.

Sometimes called the “Hawaii of Europe,” an Azores vacation is a beautiful break from the cold winters of the northern hemisphere and a beachy adventure during the warmer summer months. The islands are part of Portugal but sit 930 miles west of the mainland. They’re divided into three main groups: the Eastern Group (São Miguel and Santa Maria islands), the Central Group (Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial islands), and the Western Group (Flores and Corvo islands).

people paddleboarding in the azores

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The Azores are known for their stunning natural landscapes, including volcanic craters, lakes, hot springs, and rugged coastlines, which means activities vary from hiking and swimming in waterfalls to scuba diving and whale watching (and tasting plenty of Portuguese wine, of course).

How to get to the Azores

azores vacation - sao miguel island

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São Miguel is the largest and most inhabited of the nine islands in the Azores archipelago, making it the one most tourists visit. Pico and Terceria are also larger islands that attract a lot of visitors. Many islands have direct flights from Lisbon and Porto in Portugal, and some connect with other European cities. São Miguel and Terceira even offer direct service from North American cities like New York, Boston, and Toronto, meaning an Azores vacation is less than a five-hour flight for most East Coasters.

If you want to check out the Azores as part of a more extensive Europe trip, take advantage of the stopover option from Azores Airlines. You can book a flight between North America and Europe and add a stop of up to seven days in the Azores at no extra cost.

If you’re coming from mainland Portugal, the flight to the Azores will take only about two hours. Budget carriers like TAP Portugal and SATA have affordable prices throughout the year. As of June 2023, flights from Lisbon on RyanAir start at $55.

There are also flights between the different islands of the Azores and an easy-to-use ferry system during the summer if you have the time to travel by sea.

What to do on an Azores vacation

Angra-do-Heroísmo azores vacation aerial view

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The islands all share a common language and a more-or-less warm climate, but they each have their unique landmarks and charms. All islands offer the chance to dine on freshly caught seafood, relax against a backdrop of coastal views, and hike through generally lush green landscapes. However, the islands each also have their own draws:

  • São Miguel is known for thermal springs and whale watching. The best time of year to see the whales are April through October. Terra Azul offers whale-watching trips and other ocean-based trips, like snorkeling tours or visits to protected marine reserves.
  • On the island of Pico, you can hike to the top of Mount Pico (four miles, 3,500-foot elevation gain) or tour Gruta das Torres, a massive system of lava tubes. Guided tours start from the nearby visitors center. Tickets tend to book in advance, so give the visitors center a call (or email) a week or so before your trip to ensure your space on the tour.
  • On Terceira, you can visit the Azores’ oldest city, Angra do Heroísmo. It’s a UNESCO-protected site and a well-preserved example of traditional 16th-century architecture, with grand palaces, churches, and forts. “Angra Bay,” the historical center, is characterized by its cobblestone streets and colorful buildings. It’s an ideal place for a day of wandering and sightseeing.
  • If you like wine, you’ll want to visit Pico or Terceira, both of which have many wineries. More than 30 types of grapes grow in the Azores, many of which have a distinct flavor profile as they’re grown in volcanic soil. You’ll find the most wineries on Pico and in Terceria’s Biscoitos region. Of course, you can taste the wines on any island, even if they don’t have actual wineries.

A driving tour of São Miguel

You can drive around the entirety of São Miguel in just a couple of hours, but it may be easier to break an island tour up into two or three days. If you don’t want to drive yourself, it’s easy to book various island tours on platforms like Airbnb Experiences or Viator.

On the island’s west side, the twin lakes of Lagoa das Sete Cidades are the postcard-worthy, must-see site. Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul sit beside each other, divided by a narrow road. From the miradouros (lookout points), you’ll have the best view of the lakes’ vibrant colors.

Miradouro da Vista do Rei and Miradouro do Cerrado das Freiras offer views of the lakes with no walking. But if you want a very easy stroll, take the 15-minute walk to the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno for a high-elevation view. Be patient, as rain and clouds can obscure the perfect view. But having flexibility about timing (or even circling back to lookout points at different times of day) can help you get the perfect shot.

twin lakes in sao miguel

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The town of Sete Cidades sits on the shores of both lakes and is a great spot for lunch, coffee, or waiting for a rain shower to pass.

Very close to there is Termas da Ferraria, thermal baths on the shore of the Atlantic ocean. The formal pool for the baths closes in winter, but the area is still accessible and is a lovely place for a stroll along the dark basalt rocks. Go during low tide for the best experience. From there, head to the lookout points around Farol do Cintrão for great photos and options for nearby restaurants.

Next, make the 20-minute drive to the Gorreana Tea Factory, Europe’s oldest and only tea plantation. Sitting on the northern coast, it has a self-guided plantation tour and a pretty tea room that makes a great place to stop after driving around all day.

From there, if it’s more thermal hot springs you’re after on your Azores vacation, visit the town of Caldeiras. You’ll know you’re in the right spot from the smell of sulfur and the visible vapor seeping from the ground. To take a dip in the springs, head to Parque Terra Nostra. It’s one of the most popular places on the island and a true can’t-miss during an Azores vacation.

azores vacation - hot springs park

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Caldeiras is also where you’ll find excellent restaurants serving Azorean cuisine, including dishes like cozido das furnas (a meat stew). It’s cooked underground for hours using thermal heat. Several restaurants in Caldeiras offer the dish, but call ahead in the morning to make a reservation to ensure the chefs have enough – when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Also near here is Caldeira Velha, a spring that stays open into the night. It’s a good place to relax in the waters under the stars.

The far east of São Miguel is typically the least visited part of the island; however, it has several gorgeous miradouros from which you can catch the islands’ best sunrises. (Miradouro Despe-te que Suas and Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego are two of the best.) Also on the eastern side is Farol do Arnel, a functioning lighthouse next to several cute seaside houses. It’s a beautiful photography spot, but be careful driving down the steep, narrow road. It’s also a tough climb back up.

prego waterfall sao miguel

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For some cardio activity in the area, head out on the 2.5 mile/750-foot elevation gain Salto do Prego Waterfall trail, or add the Salto do Cagarrão waterfall to make it into a 4.5-mile/1,555-foot elevation gain route.

When to take an Azores vacation

beaches on an azores trip

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The high season for visiting the Azores is the late summer when the weather isn’t rainy, and the ocean is warm enough for swimming. Unfortunately, late summer also brings higher accommodation prices and a scarcity of car rentals, so book early. And when you’re booking your car, book from a company away from the airport. They’re almost always cheaper and usually offer free shuttle service to the pickup location.

Spring and fall Azores vacations are more relaxed as the crowds are smaller. The off-season still sees tourists, but they’re fewer, probably because the weather can be rainier. However, temperatures are still warm and somewhat humid, so it’s still a welcome break from the cold of mainland Europe or the US. You can still enjoy all activities on the island, minus swimming.

Where to stay in the Azores

One of the best things about the Azores is that the islands are small, so no matter what town you base yourself in for an Azores vacation, you won’t be far from anything you want to do (provided you’re on the right island, naturally).

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.

Octant Hotels Furnas

azores vacation - sao maiguel hotel

Photo: Expedia

If you’re most interested in São Miguel’s hot springs, book a room at Octant Hotels Furnas. It’s a hotel close to several springs with a focus on nature and outdoor activities. It has an on-site spa around the hot spring and can arrange everything from mountain biking tours to whale watching trips. The hotel’s restaurant is also very highly rated. Rooms start around $176 a night but can get closer to $500 in the summer.

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Terceira Mar Hotel

Terceira Mar Hotel azores deck

Photo: Expedia

Terceira Mar Hotel is on Terceira and is bright and colorful, with bold colors in the rooms, bright blue pools, and a pastel-pink deck overlooking the ocean. It’s a three-minute walk to the beach and in Angra do Heroísmo, which means you can walk to plenty of great restaurants. Rooms start around $103 per night.

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Pedras do Mar Resort and Spa

azores hotel on sao miguel

Photo: Expedia

Pedras do Mar Resort and Spa is a five-star hotel on the beach on São Miguel, with natural architectural elements, an infinity pool, and easy access to the viewpoints and beaches on the island’s north shore. Rooms start around $179 per night.

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