The Azores—a nine-island archipelago in the northern Atlantic Ocean that is an autonomous region of Portugal—was once such a secret destination that even mainland Portuguese mostly didn’t visit. That’s all changed in recent years, however, as more travelers are discovering the islands’ unique natural beauty, especially that of São Miguel, the largest of the nine. Named the Green Island for its lush landscape, which has been likened to equally jaw-dropping locales such as Hawaii and Scotland, São Miguel has always combined rugged adventure and clever ingenuity (the Azoreans somehow managed to harvest tea here), and these days locals are beginning to layer on cool experiences and warm hospitality to create one of the most exciting islands to visit in the world.
The Azores venues featured here have been neatly collected for you to download and keep forever on the free Urbaniser app, a platform for collecting, organizing, and sharing all the places you need and love in any city in the world.
Ceramics, thermal power, and the secret to a perfect cozido
On São Miguel, every day should begin with pineapple. These spiky tropical treats first landed here in the 19th century as an ornamental plant, but today they’re one of the island’s most important and lucrative agricultural outputs. The climate and location make this a place you wouldn’t think to find the fruit, but an army of 6,000 greenhouse plantations—one of which is at my accommodations, Senhora da Rosa Tradition & Nature Hotel—makes the impossible possible.
Joana Damião Melo opened Senhora da Rosa just outside the capital city of Ponta Delgada in 2021, but the land has been in her family for 200 years. Only one of her two greenhouses is used for pineapples; the other is a vegetable garden. The fruit is a cash crop, fetching around $3.50 per pound from wholesalers, but that’s not the objective here. “Pineapple takes two years to grow, and we manage to have about 600 of them every two years, but we don’t sell them,” Damião Melo says. “We use everything in our restaurant.”
After eating my weight in pineapple chunks, I’m ready to do some exploring. My first stop is Fábrica da Cerâmica Vieira, a family-owned pottery factory that dates back to 1862. Many of the numbered tile house markers you see around the island were manufactured here. I pick up the ceramic numbers for my parents’ address back home as a gift. Anything else will weigh me down on my planned hike this afternoon.
From here, I call a taxi to take me to Furnas—the land of hot springs. You smell it before you see it. The drive is like a journey through a garden; the closer we get to Furnas, the lusher the vegetation. Hydrangeas line the highway in clusters of blue, pink, purple, and then a patch of white that makes it look like the road is buffered with giant cotton balls. I spot black-and-white cows grazing lazily as the path curves dramatically around voluptuous mountains. The driver? Unfazed and hurried. Me? Dizzy and needing to stop taking pictures through the car window.
Finally, the taxi drops me at À Terra, the main restaurant at Octant Hotels Furnas. It turns out Furnas’s thermal energy is a multipurpose natural amenity. Cozido das Furnas, a hearty stew cooked underground using thermal heat, is a local delicacy, and I’ve signed up for a cooking class with chef Henrique Mouro. While I help cut up some root vegetables and cabbage, Mouro organizes a dozen cuts of meat (beef brisket and chuck, a whole chicken, pork belly, pig’s head and ears, blood sausage), telling me that he sticks pretty close to the traditional way of preparing cozido, albeit with a couple of his own twists. “I like to use rosemary, thyme, and mint [for depth of flavor],” he says. “That is the only difference.”
When we finish in the kitchen, we head to the little park right next to Furnas Lake to lower our pot into the ground. Plumes of steam are wafting up from the earth, which is covered with labels indicating dedicated slots for various restaurants. The sulfur smell is overwhelming. Between carrying the heavy pot, trying to hold my breath, and giving the tourists taking pictures of us my better angles, this turns out to be more taxing than I’d anticipated.
Some families slow-cook their stews underground overnight, but Mouro says six to eight hours will do the job. I bid him farewell for now and head to A Quinta, a restaurant with a pretty outdoor garden, to grab a lunch of fish and chips that will hopefully fortify me for what’s next on my agenda. Not far from where my cozido is stewing is the trailhead for a 40-minute hike up to Pico do Ferro, one of the better known miradouros, or viewpoints, around Furnas. The weather has been wet recently, so the trail is slippery and muddy. Dark and dense tropical canopies give way to pretty meadows and wide-open farms, and finally I make it to the viewpoint. From up here, it’s clear why São Miguel is called the Green Island. Nearly everything is green—even the water.
On the trek down, I try to stay light on my feet so as not to sink into the mud. I emerge unscathed and continue to rack up more steps with a 30-minute stroll to Parque Terra Nostra, an expansive garden and thermal spa in the center of Furnas. This is one of the most popular attractions on the island, and, as I expected, it’s mobbed. We’ve all come for the nearly orange geothermal pool that’s filled with mineral-rich water steaming up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a lot of iron in the water, meaning most bathing suits will end up with orange stains. Even with the crowd, it’s a relaxing soak, especially after that hike.
Things get even better when I head to the spa at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel for a facial featuring products from local skincare brand Ignae, which uses São Miguel’s thermal water, camellia seed extract, and spirulina, an anti-aging algae that can be found in the pools around the property. Lying there having someone rub my face with potions that smell faintly like the island is a nice way to end a pretty jam-packed afternoon.
But it’s not over yet: It’s finally time for dinner. Mouro and I unearth our pot from its burial site and head back to À Terra. I take a seat, and Mouro soon arrives at my tableside with a small ceramic pot that I think can’t possibly contain the farm’s worth of meat we prepared earlier. He explains that to elevate the dining experience, the restaurant replates the stew. I serve myself a hefty portion—a piece of blood sausage, some steak, a pork rib, potatoes, a few scoops of rice—and Mouro pours some broth over it. After one bite, it’s clear the cozido was worth the wait. It’s juicy, earthy, and absolutely delicious.
When I get in the taxi to head back to Senhora da Rosa, I briefly lament cleaning my plate—the ride on the winding mountain roads is no joke—but I close my eyes and trust that the senhor taxi driver will get us where we need to go.
A socially conscious farm, natural sparkling water, and taxidermy
I’m up early, and after last night’s feast all I need to get me going is a bit of coffee. Also, I’m meeting up with João Couto, who leads culinary tours of São Miguel with The Art of Tasting Portugal, so I know eating is on the agenda. Our first stop is a produce farm, to meet with Raquel Vargas, the director of Bio Kairós, an agricultural and social cooperative that’s trying to find out what produce will thrive here while at the same time providing work to residents struggling with mental health issues. “Our team has grown by leaps since starting on the farm in 2022,” Vargas says. “They love working on the farm, but they love being interviewed for local broadcasts even more.” In addition to packing up carrots, chard, beets, microgreens, and basil for our lunch later, Couto leads me around the certified organic farm in search of what’s left of their berries. “During the summer, they get the best strawberries here,” he tells me.
Next, Couto drives us to Ribeira Grande, on the island’s northern coast. Dense foliage cloaks the undulating roads and darkens the way. Eventually, we reach a thermal pit on a raised platform surrounded by hiking trails. Some sort of athletic event seems to be taking place, as groups of people in numbered tank tops make their way to a water station not 50 feet from where we meet Cláudio Pontes, a local chef who works with The Art of Tasting Portugal. Never did I think you could make bread by steaming it underground, but, well, here it is: a rye that’s moist, pillowy, a little sweet, and goes great with passion fruit jam and cheeses from São Miguel’s happy cows. While we eat, Pontes tells me that he brought the dough out here in the middle of the night. “After baking for 12 to 14 hours, you can taste the magic of the volcanic earth,” he says. Couto hands off the produce we collected earlier to Pontes and then leads me in search of some sparkling water.
Not far from our breakfast spot is Vale das Lombadas, which used to be a sparkling water bottling factory. It’s now abandoned, so we have to walk a bit to find it, including hopping on stones to cross a not-so-narrow stream. We then reach a roofless stone structure, inside of which is a free-flowing faucet emitting fizzy água. We drink some with our hands before Couto fills up a water bottle. “We’re gonna use this for lunch,” he says, adding that while a lot of people hike around this area, many of them don’t know of the faucet. I don’t know when prime hiking time is, but this morning, we have the place to ourselves.
It’s not quite lunchtime yet, so Couto and I make for an iconic landmark: the Gorreana Tea Factory. Amazingly, São Miguel is the only place in Europe where scalable tea production exists. Portuguese entrepreneurs brought tea to the islands in the 19th century, along with experts from China to help locals make sense of the crop. There’s another tea factory, Porto Formoso, just down the road, but Chá Gorreana gets most of the attention because of its stunning views of maze-like plantation rows framed by the ocean, a picturesque calling card for São Miguel. I enjoy that vista from the factory’s new outdoor terrace, with a piping hot cup of fragrant orange pekoe in my hand.
Now, it’s time for lunch, at Herdade do Ananás, a guesthouse and pineapple farm just outside Ponta Delgada, where Pontes is cooking over an open fire just behind one of the greenhouses. To create a unique hospitality experience, the property owner installed a heated pool in a greenhouse so guests can soak surrounded by pineapple plants. I’m intrigued, but I’m also starving, so I proceed directly to a multicourse lunch that includes seared tuna with sliced zucchini from Bio Kairós and smoked pork belly with bok choy, sweet potatoes, and roasted pumpkin. Pontes tries to seduce me with dessert—a sweet-corn porridge with smoked pineapple—but I know that would push me over the edge.
Couto drops me off at Sul Villas & Spa, a whitewashed cliffside hotel in Lagoa, where I check in and take a power nap before heading out to explore Ponta Delgada. The pre-dinner scene is lively, with lots of people out shopping or having drinks at outdoor tables. Like many of Portugal’s urban centers—if you can even call this that—Ponta Delgada is a collection of cobblestones, azulejo tiles, and hills (although, admittedly and thankfully, these hills aren’t as intense as what you get in Lisbon or Porto). First on my agenda is the Carlos Machado Museum, which opened in 1880 in an old convent building. I focus mostly on the eight-gallery natural history collection, which includes taxidermy birds, white sharks, and whales. I can see why this is a popular fixture on the school-field-trip circuit.
A block away, I pop into Casa da Galeria, a small space that champions works by emerging Portuguese artists and is curated in partnership with Fonseca Macedo–Contemporary Art.
I continue around the corner to check out the atelier of designer Sara França, where I’m greeted by two very excited dogs. Because this is her workspace, too, França is here to break down the pieces for guests. “I like to represent independent, powerful women through unisex, no-gender clothing,” she explains as I peruse oversize plaid trench coats, colorblock zip-up tracksuits, and a pair of wide-leg pleated chinos that I briefly consider buying, before remembering that I have no space in my luggage.
I didn’t make reservations for dinner, which turns out to have been a big mistake: Everywhere I go either turns me away or tells me it’ll be up to an hour’s wait for a table—a sign of just how popular this island has become. I eventually secure a seat at Louvre Michaelense, a lively gastropub in the heart of downtown. There’s a decidedly nightlife vibe to the place, with its low-lit interiors and tables-for-two populated by young couples. The menu is globally influenced (samosas, avocado toasts, pastas), but I settle on a Portuguese specialty: soupy octopus-loaded rice topped with a chunky piece of barracuda. When the waiter clears away my empty plate, I can’t help but feel grateful that I hadn’t made a reservation somewhere else after all.
Mollusks in garlic butter, the drama of Sete Cidades, and Europe’s largest gin collection
Today starts with an early wakeup call. Thomas, my guide from Futurismo Azores Adventures, takes me straight to the parish of Vila Franca do Campo for breakfast at Queijadas da Vila do Morgado, which has been making one of the island’s historic treats, the queijada, since 1961. The bakery churns out about 23,000 of these egg yolk–rich, palm-size cakes every week. From behind glass windows, I watch an all-female team prepare today’s treats, from cracking eggs all the way to dusting the freshly baked final product with powdered sugar.
We were supposed to go whale-watching today, but high winds are creating massive swells in the ocean that would make a sail in search of gentle giants impossible. Instead, we’re off to the Centro Cultural da Caloura, an art gallery set on land that was once planted with vineyards. As Thomas drives west along the sea, I watch enormous waves pound the coastline. I believe there’s an age-old saying: When the weather is questionable, go to a museum.
The Centro Cultural’s collection is largely composed of works by Portuguese artists, such as acrylic installations by Thomaz de Borba Vieira and mid-century watercolors by João Abel Manta. The tranquil back garden has a spectacular sense of place: Behind a bronze Helena Gonçalves sculpture of hands grasping each other as if in prayer stands a wall of dark bricks, likely built to protect grapes from the elements during the vineyard days. Just beyond, some visibility: The bruma (mist) is lifting.
I don’t feel as if I’m going to be snatched by an angry tempest anymore, but we need the conditions to continue to improve if I’m to kayak a lake. We bide our time at Bar Caloura, a beloved restaurant atop a seawall. I know exactly what I want: a giant platter of grilled, garlic butter–soaked lapas (limpets). An Azorean delicacy, lapas look like clams but are much chewier. Sitting outside with a glass of ice-cold Sagres beer, I squeeze lime over the glistening mollusks and go to town. Really, they remind me more of snails; I’m not sure if I like them because of what they are or because of the artery-clogging sauce they’re drenched in.
The weather is finally good enough for Thomas and I to make our way to Sete Cidades, a two-tone lake in a volcanic crater that’s probably São Miguel’s most emblematic sight. Here, I’m passed off to fellow guide Nuno. We start our paddle by discussing the mythology of the lake. “There are a lot of legends about Sete Cidades,” Nuno says, as I struggle to keep pace with him. “They usually somehow involve tears.” The most enduring tale is about a star-crossed couple—a princess and a shepherd—whose forbidden love led to so much crying that their tears created two lakes. Her blue eyes birthed the blue water, his green eyes the green.
Now, I don’t know how to swim, so a conversation about a love that dares not speak its name is a welcome distraction. Of course, the scientific explanation for the variation in color is much simpler—one side of the lake is deeper, and therefore reflects the color of the sky, while the shallower end reflects the lush plant life in and around it—but science, schmience: I prefer the love story.
Before Nuno drives me back into town, we head up to the rim of the caldera to take some photos from the Vista do Rei viewpoint, which is stunning not only because of the scenery, but also because it’s home to the forest-eaten relic of the Monte Palace Hotel, which looks as if it were pulled from some dystopian nightmare. The property closed more than 30 years ago, only about 18 months after it had opened to much fanfare as one of the true five-star properties in the Azores. “There’s always a rumor that new ownership will reopen the hotel, but nothing ever happens,” Nuno says. “Maybe it’s cursed.”
We have a bit more free time, so on the way back we stop by the natural rock pools of Mosteiros. Like most rock pools, they get filled in as the tide rises, so you can’t be sure of how deep or how cold the water is. A dozen or so people are excitedly swimming, but, fearing hypothermia, I merely dip my toes in. One guy screams out that I’ll be fine if I jump in. I’m from Southeast Asia, and, again, I don’t know how to swim. I won’t be doing that.
Anyway, it’s time for happy hour. Nuno drops me at The Gin Library, a reservations-required spot just outside Ponta Delgada. How do you establish the world’s second-largest gin collection? Owner Ali Bullock came up with a trick: He tells visitors that if they bring a bottle he doesn’t already have, he’ll give them a bottle of his own seaweed-laced Baleia gin. This policy has allowed him to grow his collection to around 1,000 varieties from 48 countries. “Bottles have come from as far away as Brazil and Taiwan,” he tells me as I scan the shelves, Baleia gin and tonic in hand. “India is our newest country.”
Bullock and his partner, Caroline Sprod, honeymooned in the Azores in 2006 and moved to São Miguel in 2018. They’re now at work on a luxury guesthouse they’re hoping to open sometime this summer on the same estate as The Gin Library. Until then, they’re hosting pop-up sushi dinners at a new speakeasy section of the Library, in collaboration with chef Joana Nunes, who is sustainably sourcing Azorean fish such as tuna, horse mackerel, and kingfish.
Gorging on sushi wasn’t on my Azores bingo card, but it’s just fish and rice—how is that any different from most of my meals these last few days?—so I dig in. After a while, I ask Bullock for another G&T. I tell him he can surprise me with the provenance of the gin, and he nods knowingly. He and Sprod might not be from the Azores, but they’ve captured the islands’ easy, generous hospitality. I take a sip of the mystery-gin drink he hands me. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s delicious.
Plan for Portugal: United has more flights to Portugal than any other U.S. airline and is the only U.S. airline to fly nonstop from the New York area to the Azores. Flights operate daily in July and August and five times a week in June and September.