How to Plan a Trip to the Azores

How to plan a trip to the Azores

When I told my friends about the trip H and I had planned to the Azores in August, most of them were puzzled, asking questions like “Where is that? What are you going to do there? How did you even hear about this place?” Ever since H went to Cabo Verde for work two years ago, we’ve been talking about visiting the Azores, volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with amazing hiking; European culture; and gorgeous lakes, waterfalls, and beaches. I think the Azores are going to be the next Iceland, so I wanted to go before they become a big tourist destination.

I wrote a summary of our trip here, but I wanted to give more details about where we stayed, how we planned our itinerary, and where we ate. If you’re planning a trip to the Azores and have any questions, feel free to email me! I know there isn’t a ton of information about the Azores online in English.

Getting to the Azores

The climate in the Azores is temperate but rainy, so we decided to go in August for the warmest weather. Since most tourists come to the Azores from Europe, H and I were relieved to find a direct Delta flight from JFK to Ponta Delgada, the major city on Saõ Miguel. We spent eight days on São Miguel, which is the largest of the nine islands that make up the Azores. It was enough time to see the island thoroughly, but not so much that we got tired of it and decided to hop on an inter-island flight to Pico or Faial.

Where We Stayed

Downtown Ponta Delgada
Downtown Ponta Delgada

Staying in Ponta Delgada was a no-brainer, since it’s centrally located on the island, has tons of restaurants, and is absolutely gorgeous, with winding European streets, pastel-colored houses, and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and green mountains on the other. We stayed at the luxurious Hotel Azor for our first weekend in Ponta Delgada, so we could sleep off the jet lag, relax, and explore Ponta Delgada, and then we stayed six nights at Casa Ateneu, which I booked through Airbnb. Here are my pros and cons, if you’re considering either hotel:

Hotel Azor

Pros
– Fluffy robes and an in-room espresso machine—I was in heaven!
– An insane breakfast with fresh tropical fruit, charcuterie, and mimosas
– Two good restaurants on site, À Terra and the Whale Watching Bar
– A beautiful rooftop pool with views of the ocean

Cons
– The bathroom floor would get super slippery, since the whole bathroom was carved from polished obsidian.
– They were sticklers about check-in and check-out times—we got to the hotel just before 10 and couldn’t check in to our room until after 3, and we didn’t have any flexibility to check out later than 11 on Monday morning.

Casa Ateneu

Pros
– Close to the main square and most of the restaurants in Ponta Delgada
– Much more budget friendly than the Hotel Azor
– They delivered breakfast to our door every morning in a basket, which was so cute!

Cons
– The bathroom smelled like the caldeiras at Furnas, although as long as we kept the bathroom door closed, it didn’t affect the room.
– Street parking only
– The sounds from the street could get noisy at night.

Getting Around in the Azores

ALL of the travel tips I read online said to rent a car in the Azores. Every day we had several places on our itinerary, and there wasn’t public transportation or even many taxis. If we hadn’t rented a car, we would have had to book tours every day, which would have been more expensive and trapped us in at someone else’s pace. We rented a tiny VW Up with an automatic transmission, which H drove bravely around São Miguel. While we were staying at Casa Ateneu, we had to park on the street, and although parking spots in downtown Ponta Delgada were plentiful, I was grateful for H’s superior parallel parking skills.

Navigating São Miguel was surprisingly easy—I had splurged on an international phone plan, so I would turn on directions from Google Maps, which were often “get on this road and keep driving until you get to the three places you want to go.” The viewpoints and other tourist destinations were well-marked and easy to find, too. For our waterfall hike on Tuesday, I put the name of the town in Google Maps and once we got there we drove along the main street until it dead-ended at the trailhead!

What to Do in the Azores

I adapted this four-day itinerary to plan our trip, spreading it out over six days to give us more time at each spot. In hindsight, I would have visited a few of the most picturesque viewpoints earlier in the week when we had better weather—the weather in the Azores is “notoriously mercurial” AKA it rained every day for at least a little while. We had also booked a sunset sail, which was cancelled because of bad weather.

Hiking in the Azores

Where to Eat in the Azores

Although I’m definitely not a foodie, we had some great meals on our trip! Most days we ate breakfast at our hotel, had some snacks while we were out exploring, and then went to dinner in Ponta Delgada. We talked about having dinner somewhere besides Ponta Delgada, but every day we wanted to go back to the hotel to shower and change before dinner and we lost any motivation to drive to another town after that, especially considering how many great restaurants were within walking distance.

Here’s a list of the places we ate—although some of them are obvious five-stars-on-Yelp restaurants that will come up as soon as you look up “Restaurants in Ponta Delgada,” we also found a few places that were equally good but not as well known!

Whale Watching Bar at the Hotel Azor:

The Whale Watching Bar is on the top floor of the Hotel Azor beside the rooftop pool, so you can see the ocean to the south and the mountains of Sao Miguel to the north. We were lucky to snag an open table around 7:30, had a few leisurely capirinhas while we enjoyed the live music, and then split a margherita pizza. Outside, it was foggy and rainy, and given the Azores’ whaling history I felt like we could be in the crow’s nest of a ship!

Hotel Azor pool view
The beautiful rooftop pool by the Whale Watching Bar at the Hotel Azor

À Terra Restaurant at the Hotel Azor:

This popular restaurant on the second floor of the Hotel Azor serves dishes that highlight fresh, local ingredients (or at least that’s what I gathered from “reading” the menu, which was in Portuguese). The restaurant has a stunning view over the marina and Atlantic Ocean, like the Whale Watching Bar. We hadn’t made a reservation, but we put our names on the list at 7:30 and came back at 9. The local wine, cheese board with specialties from different islands, incredible entrées, and chocolate-and-Azorean-pineapple cake were worth the wait!

Boca de Cena:

We walked to the well-reviewed Boca de Cena on Monday night, hoping they would have an opening. The restaurant is a one-man operation, so there are only a few tables, but luckily there was a cancellation! I’m still dreaming about this meal—the chef made these amazing vegetables wrapped in pastry, and the chocolate cake I had for dessert was heavenly. We enjoyed Boca de Cena so much we made a reservation to come back on Friday night.

Tasquinha Vieira:

Tuesday night, we tried and failed to get a table/reservation/broom closet at A Tasca, a renowned seafood restaurant steps away from our Airbnb that was booked until 10 PM on Saturday (and made me grumpy every time we walked by it for the rest of the week, which was often). We decided to try Tasquinha Vieira, which I spotted literally next door to our Airbnb. The restaurant is tiny (are you sensing a theme here?) but they squeezed us in. The restaurant started as a wine store, and the wine (and the cheese plate we had as a starter) was incredible.

Pizzaria Donatello

Wednesday night we were ready for a casual dinner, so walked to Pizzaria Donatello, making Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jokes the whole time, for an olive-and-pepperoni pizza. The crust wasn’t too thin or too thick, and the pizza had tons of cheese on it. Dairy farming is one of the biggest industries in the Azores, so cheese features heavily in the regional cuisine.

Restaurante Gastrónomo

I saw this up-and-coming spot on Yelp and knew we had to try it. H asked what kind of restaurant it was and I said “Portuguese food, with an emphasis on fresh seafood,” and we both started laughing because we could describe almost every restaurant we had been to that way! This restaurant was a great pick—they made me a special vegetarian option and they had a whole section of the menu for Vinho Verde, a light, effervescent white wine that H and I love. Restaurante Gastrónomo was further from our hotel than the other places we ate, but still walking distance, and we enjoyed the romantic walk along the ocean back to our Airbnb.

Treze

We went to Treze, a smoothie and juice bar, for a late lunch on Saturday. I had a delicious ginger kale juice, followed by some slightly-less-healthy chocolate chip pancakes. The menu had all sorts of salads and açai bowls, so this would be a good spot for breakfast or lunch any day.

Tã Gente

Our last night in Ponta Delgada, we had tapas at Tã Gente, another restaurant that I spotted near our Airbnb. We soaked up the eclectic art deco meets beach shack décor and had cocktails—mine tasted like a boozy strawberry-kiwi Capri Sun—at the bar while we waited for our table. We weren’t too hungry, so we shared a few tapas and savored our last night in Ponta Delgada!

Drinks at Ta Gente

I’ve never planned an international vacation before, and I’m really pleased with how our trip turned out! The week before the trip, I was panicking because we didn’t have anything nailed down except our hotel and car reservation, but after I read a few guides to Saõ Miguel it all started to click. Once we were in the Azores, I could adjust our itinerary on the fly, knowing that we could skip a viewpoint if we were already tired and sunburned because we would go by it again another day, for example.

Where should we plan our next eco-vacation? Would you ever go to the Azores? Let me know in the comments, and comment or email me if you’re planning a trip there and have questions!

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