A transatlantic staging post since the Age of Discovery, Horta is a maritime town on the east coast of Faial in the Azores. The natural harbour has one of the busiest marinas in the world, and every captain to berth here paints a message on the jetty. This has left a big, colourful mosaic beside the water.
Not so long ago, Horta was a haven for whaling ships, and today you set sail to marvel at whales in their habitat rather than hunt them. The island of Faial is small, and can be traversed in around half an hour. If you hire a car you can make trips to a humungous stratovolcano and an entire peninsula born after an eruption in the 1950s.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Horta:
1. Marina da Horta
Yachts and smaller vessels sailing across the Atlantic have called at the harbour in Horta since the Azores were discovered.
In 1986 this was modernised as a marina with 300 berths, all completely out of the wind.
According to some sources it’s the fourth most-visited marina in the world, and is a port of call or final destination for a number of races like Les Sables-Les Açores-Les Sables and ARC Europe.
And if you need proof of the marina’s international clientele you need only look at the jetties and seawall, which are plastered with colourful messages left by the many yachtsmen over the years.
2. Museu da Horta
In a former Jesuit college, this museum near the marina is a repository for Faial’s art heritage and old-time trades.
You’ll get to grips with the ancestral knowhow that goes into the island’s pottery, wool and linen-making.
There are engaging displays devoted to the telegraph stations that opened up transatlantic communications in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as mineralogy, geology and liturgical art from Faial’s convents.
But the must-see here is the assortment of scale models, including caravel ships, painstakingly fashioned from fig kernels (miolo de figueira) and with a curious lucid quality.
3. Peter Café Sport
One of those rituals you have to observe in Horta marina is to stop by this bar next to the water and order a gin and tonic.
It is packed with yachtsmen making merry, and every available surface is festooned with yacht pennants and paraphernalia from around the world.
The bar also hosts the Scrimshaw Museum, which, as the name suggests, has hundreds of pieces of scrimshaw (engraved whale jawbones and teeth). This art-form was introduced to Horta in the 1800s, in the days when American whaling boats would moor at the harbour.
4. Horta Old Town
Thanks to its university Horta is one of the youngest towns in the Azores, which injects more life into its bars and restaurants at night.
In from the waterfront there are cobblestone streets on a slope, flanked by genteel houses and the imposing facades of churches that look out over the ocean.
Occasionally in a break between buildings you’ll get a glimpse of the volcanic peaks that loom behind the town, or Pico Island to the east.
5. Miradouro de Nossa Senhora da Conceição
In a matter of minutes you can drive up to this viewpoint just north of Horta.
The reason this is such a good thing is that the weather can change quickly on the island, and it’s a trip to make when the skies are clear.
When the sun is shining the 360° view is out of this world, comprising all of Horta and its harbour, as well as Monte da Guia, Caldeira and the islands of São Jorge and Pico (dominated by its 2,351-metre volcano).
6. Monte da Guia
Wherever you are in Horta you’ll be able to see the titanic bulk of this volcanic cone emerging from the water and rising to 145 metres.
In the 19th century this was a whaling station, and a few of the buildings by the water go back to those times.
If you’re walking you’ll be able to follow a path that begins on the southern edge of Horta and winds up the slope through heather and Azorean myrica.
This conducts you to the summit where you can contemplate the town, Porto Pim Bay and Faial’s smooth green peaks.
There’s also the hermitage of Nossa Senhora da Guia dating to 1714.
7. Igreja de São Salvador
The Jesuit church beside the former college was started in 1680 in an era when building a church on the archipelago was no small matter: Construction began two years after permission was received to import all the necessary material from Portugal’s mainland.
The building hadn’t yet been completed when the Jesuit order was expelled from Portugal in 1759. But they had already decorated the church before then with radiant gilt-wood in the altar and beautiful azulejos on the walls of the nave.
See also the Senhora da Boa Morte chapel with its sublime oil paintings and, in the choir, the revolving bookcase that has ivory inlays of gospel passages.
8. Fort of Santa Cruz
As a harbour on a remote archipelago Horta fell prey to pirates, privateers and foreign navies.
This was exacerbated by Portugal’s colonial wealth at that time, when ships would arrive in Horta laden with gold and other riches from the New World.
This fortress from 1567 was part of a project to reinforce the Azores’ coastal defences and had a pentagonal plan.
Something interesting things is that it used to be directly on the water, as you can tell from the bulky seawalls, but 450 years later the fort is about 20 metres from the quays on the marina.
A pousada (heritage hotel) has been established in the former barracks but you’re allowed to go in to see the gun positions and cute chapel decorated with tiles.
It doesn’t matter where you are on Faial there are a couple of things you have to do.
And one of these is Caldeira, only 10 kilometres from Horta.
Caldeira is the highest summit on the island at just over 1,000 metres.
Faial owes its existence to this stratovolcano, which gave birth to the island during a series of eruptions starting 410,000 years ago.
Take the trail up to Cabeço Gordo at the highest point of the rim.
From this vantage point you can gauge the true proportions of the crater, more than 400 metres deep from the rim and 1.5 kilometres in diameter.
If you don’t want to leave you can set off on the trail that runs around the perimeter.
At Capelinhos on the moon-like western end of Faial you can tell how volcanic activity is still shaping the island.
An eruption in 1957-58 wiped out villages and a whaling station in one go.
That event also created a new headland, which is joined to Faial by an isthmus.
And to measure the power of the eruption and the amount of lava and ash spewed out, the lighthouse here used to mark Faial’s easternmost point, but is now a few hundred metres short.
The interpretation centre chronicles the eruption in the 1950s and explains the science behind this event.
11. Semana do Mar
If there’s a best time to be in Horta it’s around the second week of August for Semana do Mar (Sea Week). This is Portugal’s biggest nautical festival and has Horta’s harbour as a the perfect stage.
During the day there are sporting events in disciplines like swimming, rowing, water polo, canoeing, sailing and jet-skiing, and on land there are artisan and gastronomic markets.
When the sun goes down Horta paints the town red at concerts and parties, all reaching a climax with a fireworks display over the marina on the final night.
12. Praia de Porto Pim
The Azores aren’t really known for their beaches, but there’s a dreamy one just south of the marina, in the eastern curve of Monte da Gaia’s ancient caldera.
Praia de Porto Pim is the most frequented beach on Faial and has paler sand than the others because of the caldera’s tufa stone.
The beach is a gorgeous arcing bay, lapped by gentle, shallow sea screened by the volcano.
The views of the green slopes and old whaling station are stunning.
As a Blue Flag beach, Praia de Porto Pim has lifeguards, parking and facilities like cafes and showers.
13. Praia do Almoxarife
This natural beach on the other side of Pont da Espalamaca just north of Horta.
It’s a jet black sandy bay, facing east so the waves aren’t quite as fierce.
In summer the beach is watched by lifeguards, and you’ll need to keep an eye on flags to know whether you can swim.
The rest of the year you should still come to admire the black sand contrasting with the greenery of the headland.
There’s a small town behind, with a public park and a regal Baroque church from the 18th century.
14. Jardim Botânico do Faial
In the Flamengo Valley on the way to Caldeira from Horta is the island’s botanical garden.
The attraction’s job is to conserve the island’s native species and highlight the diversity of endemic plant-life on the archipelago.
And to achieve this, the plants and trees are all artfully arranged, on pergolas, in little hollows, flowerbeds, parterres, ponds and rock gardens.
Just by introduction there are laurel trees, ferns, a diversity of herbs and a garden with almost 50 species of orchids.
15. Whale and Dolphin Watching
In Horta whale-watching is done properly and responsibly.
There’s a clutch of companies based at the marina that will put you in the hands of a qualified marine biologist searching for whales and dolphins.
The benefit of this is knowing that you won’t disturb the animals, but will pick up fascinating insights about their behaviour and anatomy.
The peak whale season is roughly from April to July when fin, blue, sei and pilot whales migrate through these waters.
But sperm whales, once hunted in the Azores, are here all year, as are common, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins.
Get in contact with Hortacetáceos and Naturalist – Science & Tourism for more info.