Urban landscapes are not what you fly to the Azores for. The towns are small and charming, but it won’t take more than half a day to explore them. Nevertheless, it is worth seeing “bustling” Ponta Delgada and hometown Ribeira Grande. Today we will describe these two, very different localities.
We could probably describe all the cities on Sao Miguel in one entry (unfortunately, we haven’t been to all of them so we won’t take on that challenge ;-)). Don’t expect cities with UNESCO World Heritage sites, tumultuous history, the most interesting exhibits in crowded museums (although one city is on the UNESCO list – Angra do Herosom, on the island of Terceira).
Life seems to go slower here…. Residents always have time to take a look at one of the many bars, stopping to say a warm hello to friends and exchange a few words or feast together over dinner. However, the locals seem to be a little less loud, more quiet than those in mainland Portugal. There are, of course, a great many differences, but we also find similarities, such as meal times. As on the mainland, here too, restaurants are open until 2:00 or 3:00 p.m., and then serve food only from 6:00-7:00 p.m. This is worth knowing if you plan to go to any of the cities (although there are exceptions, some typically touristy restaurants are open all the time).
In this post, we will focus on the two largest cities on São Miguel: Ponta Delgada and Ribeira Grande.
Table of contents
It is the largest city on the island and is now the administrative center of the entire archipelago. Most of the buildings here date back to the early 19th century, but you’ll also find newer buildings that make up the modern, office district, as well as older ones that are also worth seeing.
As you might expect, parking lots in the city are charged, but we happened to be on a Sunday, so we did not pay for parking. All in all, it may not be so obvious, since it is a tiny town, but it is worth pointing out :)
Tourist information and first steps
Our first steps were to the Tourist Information Center, where we were given a map of the village, information on attractions throughout the island and restaurant recommendations. This point is located between Praça de Gonçalo Velh and Praça Vasco da Gama. It is a good starting point for exploring the city (if you are here in transit).
The focal point is the city gate, the Portas da Cidade, along with the aforementioned Praça de Gonçalo Velho, and the Church of St. Peter behind it. Sebastiana(Igreja Matriz De São Sebastião). The gate was built in the 18th century, but not where it currently stands (it was moved in 1952). On the gate we can see coats of arms: one royal and one municipal. The church is even older – 16th century, and you can see many elements from the Portuguese Manueline style – which runs through the city many times.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t see what it looked like inside because it was closed. Many buildings and churches contain black elements, which are nothing more than unplastered volcanic stone, which is abundant here.
“Throbbing with life” Ponta Delgada?
I make no secret of the fact that our stay in Ponta Delgada was also guided by another goal – we wanted to eat, and friends highly recommended a particular steak restaurant (there will be another time about steaks, because it is almost a national dish!). Of course, with our luck, we started looking for food as it was already after 2:00 pm, so even the pubs that were recommended to us in the tourist information were closed. However, we took the opportunity to make a small round of the city to see how lazily life flows here.
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What were our impressions? A deserted, quiet city. Empty on the streets, stores closed. We couldn’t believe that this is what the most important city in the Azores looks like! So we wandered around the area and came across some interesting buildings, displays of modern art, traditional Portuguese azulejo and brightly painted buildings. Fortunately, we also managed to find something to eat, so we did not fall from hunger (surprisingly, the restaurant evenzła chair for children ;-)).
Is this how we remember the city? Definitely not. We returned here another day, while admiring the pineapple plantation (there will be more about pineapples too, but another time). We were both in the center and in the newer district and got to know the city anew.
The fact that it was a completely different hour, but there were more people and cars on the streets, it was bustling, noisy, and we managed to get to the steaks as well. No, they were not the best steaks we ate. We stillzłwait a few days for them….
What else is worth seeing in Ponta Delgada?
The city boasts a recreational and commercial center Portas do Mar:) But not just any center, because it was built right next to the port, like a marina. There are stores, restaurants, but also swimming pools (including a natural ocean pool). If you are more interested in monuments and churches than shopping malls, you can see: Igreja da Mãe de Deus (A church, far from the center, but picturesquely located), Igreja do Senhor Santo Cristo (which houses a wooden statue of Christ that is carried throughout the city during the May procession) or Forte de Sao Bras (A fort that houses a military museum!).
As mentioned in earlier posts, we spent the night in a town 20 minutes away from Ponta Delgada, called Ribeira Grande, which literally means Great River. And indeed, a river flows through the village ;) Ba, this river is not only an attraction, it is the center of life for the locals. Along its final stretch, an interestingly arranged space has been prepared as a garden, with sidewalks, benches, a playground and a band shell. All decorated with flowers and hedges. Impressive.
Right next door is the square with the town hallem(Câmara Municipal Da Ribeira Grande), with a tower that can theoretically be climbed. Theoretically, because when we tried it was closed, even though we were during opening hours ;)
A bigger attraction is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Estrela, located a block east , a church reached by a wide staircase, with its signature feature being a black tower built of volcanic stone. It dates back to the 16th century and is one of the largest in the Azores. It made quite an impression on us :)
The square itself is the focal point of the city, and it is here that social life bustles in the evenings. At the same time, it is a very cool place to sit back, relax for a while and get a feel for what kind of quiet life the islanders have :)
One of the local attractions is the local festivals, which we don’t quite understand so far, but the idea is more or less that the local community (e.g., residents of one street) on one day have a ceremonial march from the cathedral to one of the houses, accompanied by an orchestra. After reaching home, a few more songs are played, and then tables are brought out into the street and traditional soup is served!
We were invited to this event by our landlady, so we had the opportunity to see such a march, and then sat with the residents at a long table. To our surprise, almost everyone spoke English (in general, the level of English surprised us very positively in the Azores).
That day we learned what real Azorean hospitality is :) The hosts treated us to soup, more or less scrumptious drinks and cake. The soup, is a bit like our cabbage soup, very nutritious, although perhaps too heavy for a hot afternoon. It was a very pleasant and unprecedented experience – we were able to talk to the locals, everyone was very helpful and polite.
Often such local festivals are also associated with the laying of flower carpets in the street. We, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to attend one….
What else is there to do in Ribeira Grande?
In Ribeira Grande there is also a beach with black sand (Praia do Monte Verde) – very long and wide, but somehow sunbeds and umbrellas are in short supply ;)
Unfortunately, daredevils to swim also, for that there are more in the pools, in the eastern part of the city. It is an arranged space where you can enjoy swimming pools, an ocean-view restaurant and a viewpoint. Just in time to spend a lazy day in this village.
The village itself is small, everywhere is close. We always walked to the center. The buildings are low-rise, one-story or single-story, and there are many one-way streets and paved roads (often no sidewalks at all).
There are several restaurants or bars here that you should not be afraid to visit. Some of them look like mordant houses from the outside, while inside a nice lady immediately smiles and in beautiful English encourages you to take a seat.
During our stay we had the opportunity to be in both towns several times (okay, in one we stayed overnight ;-)) and see them at different times, which, as it turns out, matter.
Ponta Delgada is a typical big city, with shopping malls, skyscrapers, where life is bustling and Ribeira Grande is a quiet retreat. Of course, Ponta Delgada is a modern and bustling city for Azorean conditions, not typically European ;)
We do not regret that we spent the night in Ribeira Grande, if we were to return to the Azores we would look for accommodation there again, especially since it is a great starting point for exploring the island :)
We wrote about our overnight stay in the Azores here.
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