A World Heritage town on the Azorean island of Terceira, Angra do Heroísmo has ruled the archipelago since the Age of Discovery. Thanks to this mid-Atlantic setting it looks like few other European towns, and the many historic fortifications are proof of Angra’s role in trade and conquest from the 15th century on.
The period churches, palaces, forts and convents will keep you rapt for days, while the natural scenery add real drama. On a peninsula next to Angra do Heroísmo is the Monte do Brasil, an extinct volcano with a clear cone shape, and one of many volcanic wonders to awaiting you on Terceira.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Angra do Heroísmo:
1. Palácio dos Capitães-Generais
Built by the Jesuits at the end of the 16th century, this deceptively large building became the seat of the archipelago’s first unified government (Capitania Geral) after the Jesuit order was expelled in the 1700s.
Later it was a royal palace for Peter IV and Carlos I of Portugal, and now the complex is the official residence of the President of the Regional Government.
When you come you’ll be given a personal guided tour, bringing you up to speed on Terceira and the Azores’ eventful history.
You’ll step through sumptuously decorated rooms and halls with paintings, coffered ceilings and period carpets and furniture.
2. Museu de Angra do Heroísmo
Since the 60s the town’s museum has been housed in the Convento de São Francisco, which dates to the 17th century and has a cloister and church of serious scale.
And as for the collection, this is both big and diverse, and centred on Angra do Heroísmo’s early settlement, military history, folk traditions, religious congregations and trade.
There are weapons, uniforms, horse-drawn carriages, coins, toys, furniture and other applied arts, paintings and sculpture.
You’ll come away a lot more informed about the Azores and Portuguese colonial history with the help of the museum’s timelines and audioguide.
3. Monte Brasil
Ever present to the south of the city is the vestiges of a cone created after the ancient eruption of the Guilherme Moniz volcano.
This is at the end of an isthmus protected by the Fort and Church of São João Baptista.
If you have a car you can get to the top in a matter of minutes, but a lot of people choose to walk from the town.
Even if the climb can be a bit onerous it’s worth every step for the awesome panoramas, various fortifications, drystone walls, deer grazing by the path, laurel, heather, juniper and boxwood vegetation.
At the highest point there’s a column with a Maltese cross, commemorating the Portuguese occupation of the Azores in the Age of Discovery.
4. Cathedral of Angra do Heroísmo
The largest religious building in the Azores, Angra’s cathedral goes back to the century the archipelago was discovered.
It is a 16th and 17th-century building constructed over a primitive church founded by the explorer Álvaro Martins in the 1460s.
The facade has a campanile flanked by two bell towers that are crowned with pointed roofs that have monochrome tiles in a diamond pattern.
In the three cavernous central nave your eye will be drawn to the retable, which has a magnificent silver-plated altar.
The sacristy is open to visitors and has brazilwood furniture, vestments and liturgical artefacts like a Roman Pontifical donated by King John V in the 18th century.
5. Duke of Terceira Garden
This botanic garden is bordered by the Convento de São Francisco and was landscaped in the 1880s in the Portuguese Romantic style.
It is actuall the convent’s old grounds, and a few vestiges from its religious days like the azulejo panels depicting the prodigal son, and the Tanque do Preto water tank hark back to this time.
At the garden’s lower level, around the bandstand, are the traces of the original French-style parterre.
The remainder has a more natural style and is loved for the astonishing variety of plants and trees.
Among them are laurel, eucalyptus, magnolia, camellias, hibiscus, a strawberry tree, various palms and two immense Norfolk island pines.
6. Alto da Memória
As you pause on the upper level of the Duke of Terceira you might see a stairway leading to somewhere out of view.
This is quite a stiff slope and there are a lot of steps, but it rewards the extra effort.
The stairs eventually lead to the Alto da Memória, an obelisk with Masonic symbolism laid in 1856 on the site of Terceira’s first fortification (built in 1474). The monument was erected to honour the visit of Pedro IV, who came to the island during the Portuguese Civil War.
You’ll know why you made the climb when you see the sweeping view of Angra and its bay as well as the forts and mountains.
7. Praça Velha
The main and oldest civic meeting space in Angra was drawn up in the 1500s and is bounded by genteel old buildings, whitewashed or painted in bright colours.
The grandest is the stone facade of the Neoclassical town hall, also containing the Azorean Supreme Court.
Despite this being a functioning municipal building you can normally enter and take a quick self-guided tour with the permission of the receptionist.
You can browse the courtroom when it’s not in session, and there are ceremonial halls adorned with chandeliers and paintings, and some wonderful stained glass windows.
8. Igreja da Misericórdia
This regal church, painted sky blue is on the waterfront by the harbour and has been receiving freshly landed sailors since the 1700s.
It is where Terceira’s first hospital used to be, and was the institution’s church until it was moved to the outskirts of the town in the 19th century.
The highpoint is the scene of the church by the water, fronting a square paved with typical calçada portuguesa and with two arches beckoning you down to the water.
You can go inside where there’s one spacious nave with chapels enriched with gilded woodwork and statues, and tile panels recording scenes from the island’s history.
9. Fortaleza de São João Baptista
From 1581 to 1650 Spain controlled Portugal, and it was in that Philippine era that this fort was built.
Its job was to protect the increasing ocean traffic between Iberia and the Americas, and it’s a huge structure, larger than any other Philippine fort.
There are five kilometres of walls, and the building will delight anyone with an eye for the complex artillery defences of the period.
The entrance couldn’t be grander, with an ornately carved portal at the end of a bridge crossing a moat with stone pits.
This opens onto the Praça de Armas, which has the Governor’s Palace, a church and chapel, all from the same era.
10. Rua da Sé
This beautiful street sums up Angra, and leads you down past the cathedral from the town’s higher western quarter.
Rua da Sé radiates charm, as almost every house has whitewashed walls and wrought iron balconies, while the borders and window frames are painted in cheerful colours.
The road is cobblestone, despite being quite a busy thoroughfare, while the pavement has calçada portuguesa mosaics with filigrees and Greek-style patterns.
It’s a street for taking slowly, especially if you’re going uphill, and has bakeries, restaurants, boutiques and tasteful artisan shops.
11. Convento e Igreja de São Gonçalo
Those who know agree that this convent is the finest piece of Baroque architecture in the whole of the Azores . It was established in 1542 and at its peak in the 17th and 18th centuries had hundreds of nuns and was famed as a place of culture, where painting, textile design and music were all taught.
So it follows that the church should be replete with the decoration that was in style at the time: There’s daintily-carved, gilded woodwork that frames paintings from the 18th century, and masterful blue and white tiles depicting episodes from the bible like the life of Joseph.
12. Whale Watching
Located at the marina are a host of companies embarking on memorable nature cruises.
The ocean around the Azores is inhabited by all sorts of cetaceans throughout the year.
Bottlenose, common and Risso’s dolphins never leave these waters, while sperm whales are perennial too.
Most other whales tend to call in during their migrations, so if you’d like to catch sight of blue whales, fin whales, sei whales or pilot whales, you’ll have a better chance between March and June.
The skippers know the ocean well, and many are confident enough that they’ll offer a money back guarantee that you’ll see dolphins or whales on your short voyage.
13. Algar do Carvão
There aren’t many people who can say that they’ve climbed into the centre of a volcano.
But that’s precisely what you’ll do here at Terceira’s top natural sight, around 15 minutes on the road from Angra.
You’ll go down into the cone, which was only properly explored in the 1930s and will have unearthly photo opportunities at every turn.
Put that down to the shaft of light that enters through the Boca do Alcar (Mouth of the Cavern), which is lined with ferns and moss.
Further down the unusual conditions allow strange cavern spiders, springtails and centipedes to thrive, and there are also bizarre stalactite deeper in the cave.
14. Outdoor Pursuits
It only takes 20 minutes to reach the north coast of Terceira from Angra, so you could fit the entire island into your plans.
And the only way to experience the volcanic peaks, rugged coastline, craggy rivers, natural rock lagoons and rich forest and meadows is by getting stuck in.
You can hike, paddleboard, snorkel, dive, kayak, go on horseback rides and do a lot more besides.
There’s also canyoning, which entails leaping into ravines and rockpools or sliding down cascades while wearing a neoprene suit and helmet.
15. Food and Drink
If you want to be really authentic in Angra you have to order an Alcatra.
This is a slow-cooked pot roast, normally using beef, but also made with fish, chicken, octopus or rabbit.
The meat is cooked in a special clay pot and allowed to thicken in a sauce with bacon, bay leaves and garlic over several hours.
Wherever Portuguese convents are present, you’re also sure to find confectionery: Bolos Dona Amélia are traditional cakes spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, and invented to commemorate Amélie of Orléans’ tour around the Azores in the 19th century.
Finally, Chico Maria is a sweet fortified wine made in Biscoitos on the north coast of Terceira and taken as an aperitif.