The capital of the Azores is on the south coast of São Miguel, aptly nicknamed the “Green Island”. There’s plenty to get up to on the city, at postcard monuments, cute old churches, a 16th-century fort and a museum documenting the Azores’ intriguing natural history.
At the harbour you can embark on a mini-expedition to catch sight of the whales and dolphins that gather in the archipelago’s waters.
And for days out, the landscapes of São Miguel island are famously breathtaking: There are ancient volcanic craters that are now filled by lakes with wildflowers and lush woodland on their shores.
Lets explore the best things to do in Ponta Delgada:
1. Lagoa das Sete Cidades
Arguably the greatest wonder of the Azores is only 15 kilometres up the road.
The Lagoa das Sete Cidades is a twin lake in a volcanic caldera, the walls of which rise steeply around the shore and are rich with conifers and ferns.
There’s a divide between the two water bodies, and you can drive down on the 9-1 for stunning photos.
Pick a clear day and head for the Miradouro do Rei, high on the south side of the caldera.
The view is all-encompassing up here, next to the shell of the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel.
2. Convento de Nossa Senhora da Esperança
Spiritually, this convent from 1545 is one of the most important, not just in the Azores but all of Portugal as well.
For that you can thank the statue of Santo Cristo dos Milagres, which was gifted to the founders of the convent by Pope Paul III in the first decades of the 16th century.
In April or May this statue is the star of the Santo Cristo celebrations.
The building is something to behold too, with an odd quadrangular tower that has three tiers of windows.
In the church there’s a Baroque altar with gilded woodwork and beautiful tile panels.
3. Portas da Cidade
Close to the water in the São Sebastião parish, this three-arched gate is Ponta Delgada’s postcard image, and appears on the city’s coat of arms.
It is part of the old defences and dates to 1783. The gate used to be on the quayside, but was moved to Gonçalo Velho Cabral Square to stand as a monument when the waterfront avenue was built in the 1940s and 50s.
The gate is made from regional volcanic stone and has whitewashed masonry.
The square in front is laid with calçada portuguesa (Portuguese mosaic pavement) in an ornamental pattern.
4. Gruta do Carvão
Barely outside the city is another of São Miguel’s volcanic wonders.
This is the largest lava tunnel on the island, ploughing underground for more than 1.6 kilometres.
If you’re interested in the island’s geology this is not to be missed, as inside the cave are bizarre concretions, like stalactites and stalagmites in a reddish brown colour.
The basalt on the walls is also oxidised in places, giving it a strange yellowy lustre.
There’s a video before the tour, after which you’ll have to crawl through some tight spaces so dress as you would for a hike.
5. Igreja de São José
On the same square as the Convento de Nossa Senhora da Esperança, this sizable church once belonged to the long dissolved Convent of St Francis.
It was started in 1709 has many of the hallmarks of colonial Portuguese architecture, as well as the Baroque exuberance that was in fashion at the time.
The interior is immense, with three naves arriving at three chapels loaded with gilded woodwork.
The blue and white tiles coating the walls, the statues from the 1600s and 1700s and furniture carved from jacaranda wood all merit a few minutes of your time.
6. Museu Carlos Machado
In the old Santo André Convent and founded way back in 1876, this is the oldest museum in the Azores.
The founder, Carlos Machado was a 19th-century naturalist, working when the Azores attracted great interest following Darwin’s theory of evolution.
So you’ll be presented with a satisfying summary of Azorean natural history, with displays on geology and mineralogy, as well as many plant and animal specimens to peruse (many tagged by Machado himself). This being a former convent there’s also some liturgical art at the adjacent Jesuit college, with paintings, silverwork and azulejos.
7. Forte de São Bras
Begun in 1552, this fortress guards the western end of Ponta Delgada’s port and continues to be used as a base by the Portuguese Navy.
Despite going through major changes in the 1800s it’s still an absorbing relic from colonial days when Ponta Delgada was under the constant threat of pirate raids.
You can go onto the upper platforms which are still equipped with cannons and more modern artillery, while in the bowels of the fort there’s a small military museum with heavy guns, vehicles, uniforms and models spanning almost 500 years.
8. Pico do Carvão
Ten kilometres from Ponta Delgada is a summit blessed with a complete view of the western side of São Miguel.
The scenery is both pastoral and spectacular, as there are verdant hillsides are speckled with cows and coated with coniferous woodland, but you’ll also become aware of the sheer number of volcanic cones on the island.
From this one spot you can also see both the north and south coasts, and the many lakes in the region sheltered in craters.
Things get really dramatic to the east where the Água de Pau Massif stratovolcano rises to almost 1,000 metres.
9. Lagoa Empadadas
Just downwind from the Pico do Carvão is one of those majestic craters, and it warrants a detour on the way to Sete Cidades.
If you catch a break with the weather this is a heavenly place for a picnic, receiving fewer visitors than São Miguel’s more famous lakes.
It’s the seclusion that will win you over: Until you get into the crater the water is completely obscured by cedar forest.
If you’re here in the spring months the scene is especially lovely as the pink azaleas on the shore will be in bloom.
10. Pinhal da Paz
A few minutes up from Ponta Delgada is an exquisite park that was planted in the early 20th century.
This used to be private property, and the original owner grew exotic species like the Japanese sugi pine, eucalyptus and bamboo amid 49 hectares of rugged volcanic terrain.
The plantation was abandoned by the 1990s before being restored and turned into a public park.
Mingling with the pines are hydrangeas and azaleas, and there are also lots of facilities now, like paddocks with guinea fowl and tear in the undergrowth, a hedge maze and picnic areas.
11. Dolphin and Whale Watching
This is one of those energising, once-in-a-lifetime activities that you simply have to do.
As a crucial whale reserve there’s activity around the Azores throughout the year, and bottlenose dolphins, sperm whales, common dolphins and Risso’s dolphins are all resident species so can be seen in any season.
But the ideal time to spot whales is April and May, when pilot whales, sei whales, fin whales and even titanic blue whales all pass through.
Whenever you come chances are high you’ll have some kind of encounter with a cetacean.
12. Lagoa do Fogo
You can get to this fantasy-like setting within half an hour of Ponta Delgada, and along with the Sete Cidades Lake it’s one of São Miguel’s indispensable natural wonders.
This is a magisterial lake filling a caldera created by an eruption in 1563, explaining the name “Lake of Fire”. The cobalt lake, measuring one by two kilometres, is in a crucible of green basalt mountains and the highest on the island.
If you can spare the time it makes sense to save this hike for a day when there’s no cloud cover, as this will obscure your view of the lake at this high elevation.
13. Quinta Augusto Arruda
On those days when Sete Cidades and the Lago do Fogo are shrouded in fog you could head off in search of another São Miguel trademark: Namely, pineapples! The island’s volcanic soil is ideal for this fruit, but the only drawback is the inconsistent sun.
And that’s why there are an estimated 6,000 greenhouses, growing the Azorean pineapple, which has a small crown and intensely sweet flesh.
Quinta Augusto Arruda is the most convenient from Ponta Delgada, and you’re free to enter these balmy greenhouses that raise pineapples from flower to fruit in just two years.
You’ll be handed a leaflet explaining the history and process, and can visit the shop, which has pineapple jam and liqueurs.
14. Santo Cristo
On the fifth Sunday after Easter the statue of Santo Cristo dos Milagres emerges from its chapel in the convent to go on a procession around the churches in Ponta Delgada.
This ritual began in 1700 and came about when the statue was credited with halting tremors after being passed around Ponta Delgada’s various churches and convents.
For the celebration the Convento de Nossa Senhora da Esperança is illuminated with thousands of little bulbs, and the route of the procession along the city’s main artery is laid with a patterned carpet of flowers.
15. Sports and Activities
São Miguel’s lush greenery is ready to be explored in almost any way you can imagine, all catered by companies based in Ponta Delgada.
You can ride around the calderas and lakes on horseback or by mountain bike.
For thrills there are 4X4s, quad bikes or aerial paragliding escapades filmed with a GoPro to give you a lasting keepsake.
You can take kayak and canoe trips on the surface of the lakes, while the north coast of São Miguel is trimmed with beaches that get consistent waves for surfing.