Our top 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites
19 June 2023
Rising dramatically from the depths of the Atlantic, the Azores are an archipelago of 9 beautiful islands and scattered islets that have generally flown completely under the radar of most travellers and are still relatively off the beaten track of tourism.
Abundant marine life, stunning and varied scenery, epic hiking trails, bubbling hot springs hidden deep in jungle-like forests and fantastic fresh food, some of which is cooked using the heat from the belly of the Earth itself… These are just a few of the draws to this Portuguese outpost. We would be here all day if we were to tell you absolutely everything that is great about these islands (we’ll leave that to our local experts when they plan your trip!), so instead here are our top 5 things to do on holiday in the Azores.
Animal lovers will be blown away by the abundance of marine wildlife to be found in the crystal clear waters around the Azores. There’s no such thing as a boring boat journey. Bottlenose, Atlantic spotted and common dolphins race and dance alongside the vessels that head out to sea to find the whales spotted from old whaling lookouts scattered along the shore. You’ll be pleased to hear that no whales have been hunted here since 1984 and the oceans are subsequently teeming with these beautiful behemoths of the deep. Sperm whales are the archipelago’s resident species, lingering in the surrounding waters and hunting giant squid in the Atlantic depths, but you can also spot blue, fin and sei whales in April and May, and sometimes humpbacks in October time.
If you’re an active sort, you might find yourself going on a scuba or snorkeling excursion whilst holidaying here. We were recently filming our new TV advert in the Azores, and whilst chatting with a local guide, team member Huw heard all about how just the day before, a group of scuba divers spotted a huge squadron of manta rays soaring through the crystal clear waters – truly magical. For those sticking closer to shore there’s still lots to see – shoals of shimmering fish and scuttling crustaceans can keep snorkelers young and old entertained for hours.
On a slight side note, the birdlife here is also wonderful. Simply mention to our local experts if you’re a keen birdwatcher and they will incorporate trips to the right places into your itinerary.
The Azores archipelago straddles the great Atlantic rift and is built from millennia of volcanic activity. This has resulted in some fantastic topography with cliff-top trails, forest paths and intensive mountain hiking routes all on offer.
If your trip isn’t taking you beyond the most populous island of São Miguel, then it’s worth hiking the there-and-back-again Pico da Vara trail which covers 14km and offers lovely views from the island’s highest point. Whilst you walk, you’ll take in the beauty of the Pico da Vara Nature Reserve which encircles the peak and protects the precious laurisilva forests, and you should keep your eyes peeled for the endemic Azores bullfinch. A trip to São Miguel is also not complete without a visit to the iconic Sete Cidades – a spectacular crater lake surrounded by seven peaks and with stunning views from all around. There are multiple trails to explore (ask your local expert which is the best for you) and don’t forget to explore the picturesque village on the lakeshore.
Experienced hikers tend to gravitate towards the island of Pico and the mountain that is its namesake. This is the toughest trail on offer in the Azores, and is in fact the highest peak in all of Portuguese territory, dwindling to a perfect conical point at 2,351 metres above sea level. While you are provided with a GPS and the way is well marked, our experts still highly recommend taking a local guide who can not only regale you with interesting information, but can keep you safe on the trails despite the changeable weather that comes hand-in-hand with scaling a mountain in the middle of the ocean.
There are plenty of other trails through national parks and around crater lakes that cater to those of us who don’t consider ourselves mountaineers. A family friendly option is the Agrião Trail – lovely views and 7.6km but over easy ground. Simply make your requests to your local expert and they will be happy to plan your trip according to your desires and abilities.
Whilst you don’t visit the Azores for Michelin-starred cuisine, the food is nonetheless delicious and you will not go hungry whilst holidaying here. With the surrounding oceans teeming with fish, and the fertile volcanic soil providing ample nourishment for crops and fruits, the food is packed full of flavour and some of the freshest you can get. It is all based on hearty peasant cuisine, and in most places this has been elevated beyond its very basic routes.
A speciality that many people try is the ‘lapas’ (limpets), traditionally grilled with garlic, butter and spicy pepper sauce – or you can try them raw with just a squeeze of lemon in a similar way to eating an oyster, the limpet’s fancier cousin. If shellfish aren’t your thing then don’t worry – the rest of the seafood on offer is equally delicious. The tuna fished in Azorian waters is so well renowned that it is regularly shipped to the famous fish markets in Japan, and other fish that you will find on the menus include the fabulously named jack-guelly, grouper and forkbeards, amongst more familiar varieties like mackerel and octopus.
But the local diet isn’t limited to seafood. Try the ‘morcela’ (a Portuguese black pudding) with spicy pineapple, or ‘alcatra’ – a delicious stew of beef rump slow roasted with red wine, garlic and lots of pepper. And of course the most iconic food to be found in the Azores is the ‘Cozido das Furnas’ – a hearty stew of mixed meats, sausages and vegetables cooked in a hole known as a ‘fumarole’ next to Lake Furnas, where the natural heat of the earth cooks everything perfectly. Whilst this is a more touristy thing to do, our local experts assure us that it’s well worth it and you’d be missing out if you didn’t try it. How often can you say you’ve had dinner cooked by geothermal heat?
And the sweet-toothed-traveller will not be disappointed. ‘Malassadas’ – little sugary donuts – can be found all over the islands or head to Graciosa for their signature queijadas which are dinky star-shaped milky tartlets. Once you feel you’ve had your fill on rich little pastries, try the pineapples or the passion fruit – equally delicious and arguably healthier.
The Azores are famous for their hot springs. Being on a faultline, the islands and surrounding seas are alive with volcanic activity (though pleasingly placid for those who are a little nervous of these things!) None of the volcanoes are spitting lava or ash, but instead the forests and lands are peppered with bubbling hot springs perfect for lounging in to ease aching muscles or relaxing whilst catching up with friends.
Indeed, some of the spring sites have had man-made pools built in order to make them even more of a venue. If you fancy sampling a bit of an alternative to your usual nightlife, then head to Poca Da Dona Beija Thermal Baths. They’re open from 0700 til 2300 and they come alive in the evenings when locals arrive to chat and unwind in the hot springs. There are several pools and a hot river runs through the middle.
A less lively pool can be found at Terra Nostra Park. It’s perfect for a day out, being surrounded by botanical gardens, though make sure to wear a dark bathing suit as the golden waters have a tendency to stain the paler colours!
If you’re a keen sea swimmer then you definitely need to give one of the coastal hot springs a go! All around the coast, the black rocks that define the shoreline have been tamed by walkways and ladders, providing easy access into the little inlets crisscrossed by ropes so you can hang on in the waves, enjoying the combination of cool sea water and hot spring swirling around you as it bubbles up from below the surface. Ask your local expert about which spots they’d recommend the most.
Nature lovers and foodies are covered – what about the culture vultures? Well, you won’t be disappointed. Despite being small, the Azores are home to not one but two UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The first is Angra do Heroísmo, the capital of Terceira Island. Sweeping streets of whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs, cleverly laid out with the prevailing winds in mind, make for a picturesque stroll. Take a guided tour to learn all about the town’s history – as a key stop off for ships crossing the Atlantic, there are a lot of tales to tell.
The second incredible site that UNESCO have recognised will have any oenophiles dancing for joy: the vineyards of Pico Island. Dating all the way back to the 15th Century, this patchwork of remarkable landscaping is the best preserved example of what was once a widespread technique for producing wine. Rather than the open fields of vines that you typically see on mainland Europe and in the New World winelands, the Azorian winemakers built hundreds of rectangular plots known as ‘currais’ in which to cultivate their vines.
They turned the rocky but fertile land to their advantage, using the stone to form the walls that protected the plants from the adverse conditions brought about by being surrounded by a temperamental ocean. The wine has historically been the choice of European nobles and even Russian Tzars, and you can sample it too on a wine tasting tour if that is your wish! Simply let your local expert know when planning your trip.
Make it happen
If you’re already mentally packing for your holiday, then our local experts would love to hear from you. They’re perfectly positioned to plan your ideal trip, and we can’t wait to hear how you found it.