If you’re coming to São Miguel – the largest island in the Azorean archipelago – you will undoubtedly end up spending some time in its capital city, Ponta Delgada. It’s where Sao Miguel’s airport is located and the majority of its budget accommodation.
For this reason we decided to base ourselves in Ponta Delgada for the duration of our week-long trip. We found a private room (with shared bathroom) in a newly-opened, centrally located hostel for just £218 (€245) for seven nights. This price also included breakfast, which made it fantastic value for money. In fact the whole holiday cost us just £149 (€168) per person (including return flights from London and seven nights accommodation).
We had plans to hire a car in order to explore the rest of the island but we wanted the chance to have a good look around Ponta Delgada before we did so. And one of the best ways to explore a new city?
On foot, of course!
We found a self-guided walking tour in our Bradt guidebook to the Azores, and decided to follow it. I always find that walking tours – whether they’re organised walking tours with a knowledgeable local guide or self-guided versions – are a great way of orienting yourself with a new city. They tend to take you past all the major sights of interest, and give you a chance to discover all the spots you’d like to return to later on.
Of course, when you embark on a self-guided walking tour, you can choose to linger around the parts that you like, and to take little diversions if something catches your eye, whilst you’re on the actual tour.
And so it was that Bradt’s self-guided walking tour that was only supposed to take two hours, actually ended up taking us all day.
Here’s a run down of what you’ll see if you follow the same route (and I can thoroughly recommend that you pick up a copy of their guidebook if you’re visiting the Azores; unlike Lonely Planet’s it focuses solely on the archipelago, rather than simply including limited coverage of the islands in their Portugal guide), and a few little extra bits that we discovered along the way.
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Ponta Delgada Walking Tour
Praça Gonçalo Velho Cabral and the gates to the city
The tour starts at the tourist information office on the main promenade; the perfect place to gather some helpful advice and information for the remainder of your trip. Once you’re done having a chat to the friendly staff, picking up leaflets and maps and jotting down notes, head around the corner to one of the city’s most significant squares.
The three arches you see in the Praça de Gonçalo Velho are part of the original (1783) gates to the city, which once stood by the old harbour wall. The statue is of the man after whom the square is named – supposedly the discoverer of both São Miguel and Santa Maria.
The church you can see in the photos above is the Church of St. Sebastian. Originally built as a very small chapel in the 18th century, it’s since been added to in Baroque style. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t on the front of the building when we visited in the morning, so we had a quick peek inside (the interior is decorated with some beautifully-ornate wood carvings) and then returned later on in the afternoon for some photos of the exterior.
Facing the right and side of the church (on the street you can see in the photo above) is a tiny, unassuming entrance to Mascote. We probably wouldn’t have even noticed it was a café, let alone decided that it was somewhere we wanted to stop for coffee, had our guidebook not suggested it. But if you walk past the counter and continue through to the seated area at the back, you’ll find yourself in the original part of the building.
Beneath the arched stone roof you’ll see blue and white tiled murals, and once-upon-a-time – before land reclamation work pushed the sea back and the new promenade road was built – you would’ve been treated to sea views whilst sipping on your café garoto (that’s a strong coffee served with milk, by the way).
If you walk around the back of Café Mascote (the side that used to face the harbour), you’ll see the building’s arched windows and decoratively-tiled facade.
Past the church in the opposite direction is the Câmara Municipal – originally the residence of one of the city’s wealthy families and converted at the beginning of the 20th century. Its claim to fame is that its bell tower houses the oldest bell in the Azores, dating from the 16th century.
From here our walk took us along the harbour’s edge to Forte de Sao Bras. I started to notice a theme that would run through our entire Azores trip: the presence of Bird of Paradise flowers everywhere. Bird of Paradise are one of my favourite flowers so I was overjoyed to find so many of them around.
On a Summer’s evening I can imagine the café above being a lovely spot at which to grab a cocktail and watch the sun go down. Whilst the weather was a lot warmer during the daytime than we ever expected it to be in January, the temperatures did drop a lot at night.
Praça 5 Outubro
Opposite the Forte de São Brás is Praca 5 Outubro – a large square, featuring lines of pollarded trees, that’s often used for festivals. At its core is a huge 140-year old tree that’s been imported from Australia, its branches propped up with steel supports. Apart from the fact that the city’s drunks seem to hang around here, it’s a lovely spot to sit and relax and socialise.
It’s also overlooked by a former Franciscan monastery, Santuário de Nosso Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, completed in 1541.
As I stopped to admire the monastery and to take this photo I was starting to regret putting so many layers on when I left the hostel. The clouds had pretty much all cleared and underneath a padded coat, an alpaca wool jumper and a merino wool t-shirt, I was really starting to cook. I hadn’t planned for it to be this dry, let alone this warm. But I definitely wasn’t complaining.
However I did decide to risk internal combustion for a little longer. At least until we found a lunch spot.
Alongside the monastery a cobbled, semi-pedestrianised street leads off the northeastern corner of the square. We followed it past traditional shops, hotels and restaurants until we reached Jardim Padre Senas Freitas.
Jardim Padre Senas Freitas
This attractive, colourful and well-maintained garden was one of the prettiest parts of the city in my opinion. It’s also where you’ll find one of Ponta Delgada’s most interesting pieces of street art and this eye-catching blue building.
[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]If you’d like to find out how I discovered all the best photo spots on São Miguel (including a few in Ponta Delgada) then have a read of this post.[/box]
Our walk took us via the lovely peaceful and shaded Largo Mártires da Pátria (Martyr’s Square) and on through the network of streets surrounding our hostel. Not only are the roads narrow around this part of the city, but the pavements are too, so if you happen to hear a car behind you, you might have to stand with your back to the building beside you, to let it pass.
We stumbled upon some more street art and Stu spotted one of the tiniest lizards I’ve ever seen (and managed to pick it up in his hands)
The next landmark we arrived at was the stunning 17th century Baroque College Jesuit Church, which now houses a museum of sacred art. I’m not really one for religious paintings and sculptures, and our stomach’s were reminding us that it was definitely lunchtime by this stage.
So we started to check the map for somewhere to eat nearby, whilst at the same time continuing on to our next stop – the Nucleo De Santa Barbara (which was closed even though it shouldn’t have been according to the opening times listed on the gate).
We made a longer diversion than intended, in an attempt to find one of our guidebook recommendations for lunch. Mané Cigano was heralded as a Ponta Delgada institution – family-run, packed with locals and cheap.
However unfortunately we can’t speak from personal experience because we arrived ten minutes after it closed. So we ended up stopping at Bagga instead, which turned out to be a really good call. We got a croissant filled with cheese, a panini filled with chorizo, two pastéis de nata (Portuguese egg custard tarts that I first tried in Lisbon) and two coffees, all for just €4.30!
Núcleo de Santa Bárbara
Sufficiently fed and watered we returned to the Núcleo de Santa Bárbara, which was, as luck would have it, now open. This building houses an art gallery containing mainly temporary exhibitions, alongside a permanent display of sculptures by one of the Azores’ great artists, Ernesto Canto da Maia.
Although many his sculptures were religious (and those that weren’t were self portraits) and I’m not normally into religious art, I did love this one of Adam and Eve, in both bronze and terracotta.
But the temporary exhibitions were my favourite, with the following weird and wonderful pieces.
Good to know: the gallery is free on a Sunday (when we visited, yay!) and your ticket includes entry to a few other sights in the city.
Upon leaving the gallery, we passed the Teatro Micaelense and the Grace Market (which, incidentally, is closed on a Sunday afternoon; Saturday morning is meant to be the best time to visit), and after a couple more street art sightings, we reached our final destination of the day – the St. Peter’s Parish Church.
We finished up our walk by strolling along the promenade and returning to the Parish Church of São Sebastião, to photograph its facade bathed in the late afternoon sunlight.
And that concluded our self-guided walking tour around Ponta Delgada. If we’d had more time we’d have liked to have made it out to the city’s botanical garden (Jardim António Borges), but we considered that in January there probably wasn’t much in bloom anyway. So we were happy that we’d made the decision to pick up the car the following day and start exploring the rest of the island.
One day had been a sufficient amount of time to explore the centre of the city at least, and we’d have the next seven evenings available to sample Ponta Delgada’s culinary delights.
If, like us, you’re basing yourself in Ponta Delgada but not hiring a car, you can always jump on one of the following tours, in order to explore some more of the island.
Where to eat and drink in Ponta Delgada
One important fact to note before heading out to eat is that were turned away from three different restaurants, on two separate nights, because they were full. So, if you have a particular place in mind that you want to dine at, and you don’t want to risk not being able to eat there, I’d advise that you book in advance. Also important to note its that this happened in low season!
- Taberna Acor. In terms of ambience, friendly, welcoming staff and great service, this was probably my favourite place to eat and drink. I say both eat and drink because Ponta Delgada is distinctly lacking in drinking haunts, so we came here on a couple of evenings solely to grab a couple of beers at the bar. And they do serve great beers here. The food is tapas style, which you can either order at your table or stood up at the bar, and is great value for money, with most dishes being either €4 or €5. We had a selection of local cheeses, some delicious spicy prawns, a smoked salmon salad and some clams in a creamy sauce. A word of warning though: although “octopus on a roof tile” (I mainly ordered it just for the name) is listed under starters, it’s the size of a main course – for two people!
- A Tasca. Set in a beautiful old stone building with wooden beamed ceilings, A Tasca has quite a spacious dining area, but is always full. It’s got a pretty extensive menu (including a wine list as long as your arm) and is also great value for money. I had the tuna steak cooked in a soy and ginger sauce and coated with sesame seeds and it was gorgeous! It also cost just €10.
- Calçada do Cais. Although I didn’t rate the ambience in this place and it was a little on the expensive side, the octopus with pesto couscous and tzatziki was out of this world! I’d go back just to eat that again.
- Rotas da Ilha Verde. This is Ponta Delgado’s only vegetarian restaurant and it was located literally 30 seconds from our hostel. It’s also rated the number 1 restaurant in the city on Trip Advisor. So how could we not eat there? I loved the ambience and I loved the starters (try the mushrooms with spicy vegetarian sausage and the tapioca), but neither of us really rated our mains. Maybe we just chose badly?
Where to stay in Ponta Delgada
I’ve already mentioned our hostel earlier on in this post, but if you’re looking for clean, modern budget accommodation in a central location with an inclusive breakfast and super helpful staff then I can totally recommend checking in to The Nook Hostel. We paid just €245 (£218) for seven nights for two of us, So that’s only £109 each for a week’s accommodation.
Have you visited Ponta Delgada? If so, share some of your favourite places/experiences with me below. If not, what do you think of the city after reading my post?
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