Things to see & do on Terceira, Azores

Terceira is the third island in the Azores to be settled by Portuguese explorers – hence the name, which means ‘third’. It’s known as the Lilac Isle for the lilacs and hydrangeas found throughout the countryside, as well as the violet-shaded houses of the capital, Angra do Heroismo.

The island’s otherworldly landscapes – smoking fumaroles, vast lava tubes – are the result of ancient volcanic activity, which has also resulted in mineral-rich soil that’s ideal for vineyards and orchards.

Cycling and walking are the best ways to explore Terceira, especially in late spring and early autumn. But as our guide on the things to see and do on Terceira explains, you can combine your exercise with everything from whale watching to swimming in natural pools created by volcanic lava to sampling the island cuisine.

Where is Terceira Island located?

Terceira is in the center of the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic. Located between São Jorge and São Miguel, it is one of the largest and most-populated islands in the group. Roughly circular, and 400 square kilometres in size, Terceira has as its capital the UNESCO-protected town of Angra do Heroismo, on the south coast. Directly above it on the north coast is Biscoitos, famed for its volcanic lava pools, while Praia da Vitoria and Santa Barbara are on the east and west coasts respectively. Terceira’s rugged interior, much of it shaped by volcanic activity, is ideal for cycling and hiking.

How do I get to Terceira Island?

Many vacations in the Azores get underway on Terceira as it has one of the archipelago’s three international airports. From Lisbon to Terceira it takes a little over two hours by air, while during July and August British Airways operates a weekly direct flight from London Heathrow, taking just over four hours. You can also fly direct to Terceira from Boston in the United States in under five hours. Traveling between islands is usually by short internal flights, however there is also a regular ferry service. It is about six hours from Terceira to either São Jorge or São Miguel.

Top things to do on Terceira Island

Cycle around Terceira

Relaxed self guided cycling vacations in Terceira follow a triangular route around the island over a week or so. You can expect to cover between 20km and 45km each day on a high-quality mountain bike. Detailed route notes, as well as a GPS, help you navigate landscapes that are ideal for cycling: green forests and pastures, pretty villages, and dramatic coastal sections where you can hop out of the saddle for a swim. You’ll stay in small, locally owned accommodations, which benefits the regional economy directly and gives you a flavour of island life.

Hike nature reserves & volcanoes

Walking on Terceira is particularly lovely in late spring. The weather is dry and sunny, and the scenery scattered liberally with wildflowers. The wooded Monte Brasil Peninsula is just outside the capital, Angra do Heroismo. Another popular hike takes you through the Serra de Santa Barbara nature reserve and to the highest point of the island formed by the Santa Barbara volcano. The miradouros (viewpoints) here offer panoramas over Terceira’s patchwork interior of hedgerows.

Visit Angra do Heroismo

Angra do Heroismo, on the south coast of Terceira, was the Portuguese capital for a brief period during the Liberal Wars of the 19th century. Its handsome architecture owes much to the style in which Lisbon was rebuilt following the 1755 earthquake, as well as the wealth taken from Portuguese colonies in Asia, Africa and South America. Angra do Heroismo suffered a devastating earthquake of its own in 1980, which destroyed much of the historic architecture in its center, but didn’t stop UNESCO naming the city a World Heritage Site.

Go whale watching

The deep, dark, nutrient-rich waters off the Azores are rich feeding territory for many species of whale. Depending on when you’re visiting Terceira, you can see fin, humpbacks, resident sperm whales or the immense blue whales which pass through in spring. Summer (July and August) tends to be the best time for whale watching in Terceira, though, with the ocean at its calmest. The Azores is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. Responsible boat crews always put the welfare of these incredible animals first while ensuring fantastic sightings.

Base yourself in Praia da Vitoria

Praia da Vitoria is an attractive port town on Terceira’s east coast, with a pale sand beach which is something of a rarity in the Azores. It’s a popular base for guided small group tours spending time on Terceira. Adventure-seekers can go windsurfing and sea kayaking, and peer into volcanic craters.

Walk inside the Algar do Carvão

There are no fewer than four large volcanoes on Terceira – an island of just 4km². The Algar do Carvão, a lava tube created by an ancient eruption, is one of the island’s most well-known natural attractions. You can walk inside this vast cavity near Angra do Heroismo to see stalactites, an underground lake and learn about its formation.

Swim in volcanic lava pools

The Azores is not a beach break destination, but in Biscoitos, on the north coast of Terceira, you’ll find a pretty amazing bathing location. There are a number of natural pools surrounded by black volcanic rock formations, with ladders and boardwalks to help you get in and out. They’re not thermal pools, though, so the water is definitely chilly outside of summer.

Try the seafood & island wine

Seafood is excellent across the Azores, virtually hauled straight out of the ocean and onto your plate. Look out for cracas, a type of barnacle served chilled and tasting deliciously briny, perfectly complimented by an Azorean white wine. You’ll find a lot of beef dishes on Terceira too, as you will throughout the archipelago. The most popular is alcatra, where the meat is slow-cooked for hours with red wine, as well as cloves that hark back to Portugal’s Age of Discovery and its history of colonisation and exploitation in Africa and Asia’s ‘Spice Islands’.

Amelia cakes are also unique to Terceira, named after the last queen of Portugal who once visited the island. These delicious little cakes are made with cinnamon, honey, raisins and ginger, and doused with sugar.

Wander around wine & whale museums

Terceira has a number of small museums that offer a peek into the history and culture of the island, as well as the wider archipelago.

The fertile volcanic soil means that this small cluster of islands manages to have a prestigious wine industry. The Biscoitos Wine Museum is a working Verdelho winery that also exhibits old presses and barrels, illuminating the winemaking process.

Porto de Pescas, east of Angra do Heroismo, is home to the Whaleboat Museum, which explores an industry now thankfully in the past and replaced by more sustainable whales watching tours. In fact, many former whalers now work as whale-watching guides and boat skippers.
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When to visit Terceira Island

The best time to visit Terceira is the spring (April, May and June), when there is pleasant, usually dry weather, especially later in the season. That makes it ideal for walking and cycling on Terceira, but also lines up with the migration of baleen whales passing between Terceira and São Jorge. Summer is also a good time to visit Terceira, with regular direct flights scheduled from London, and warm, sunny skies. July and August are peak season in the Azores, but Terceira is one of the lesser-visited islands in the archipelago so there are few crowds to intrude upon an outdoorsy vacation.

How many days do I need in Terceira Island?

Three to four days is plenty of time to explore Terceira on a guided small group tour taking in the volcanic landscapes and the capital, and hiking in areas such as the Serra de Santa Barbara nature reserve. Traveling by bike on a self-guided cycling vacation, seven days is perfect to really immerse yourself in Terceira’s dramatic island scenery, its lilac hues and geothermal features. A week will also let you take in most of the key destinations around the island such as Angra do Heroismo, Praia da Vitoria and the natural lava pools of Biscoitos. Terceira may not be so well-known or visited as other islands in the Azores, but as you can see from our guide that’s certainly not down to a lack of things to do.

Responsible Travel would like to thank Azores Tourism for their sponsorship of this guide.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Vitor Oliveira] [Intro: Jules Verne Times Two] [Hike nature reserves & volcanoes: Rodrigo Ramos] [Walk inside the Algar do Carvão: Diego Delso ]