São Jorge, The Brown Island of Azores

Written By Lara Silva

Known as the Brown Island of the Azores, São Jorge, is a volcanic island that features astonishing views of Pico and Faial island, as well as green landscapes and a dark blue ocean. Around 9,000 people live on the island that spans 243.9 sq. km. A part of the “triangle islands” with Faial and Pico, this island features fajãs that make up quaint villages and natural pools.

São Jorge is said to have been discovered in the 1400s, but the exact date remains a mystery. Thousands now travel to this island every year to enjoy the activities, culture, and cuisine of the island. São Jorge, like most Azorean islands, is a place of tradition. Every year, the locals celebrate the festivals of Espírito Santo with religious processions and parties. A culture week occurs every summer in Velas, the main village of the island where local traditions and cultures are celebrated with local concerts and bullfights.

What to do in São Jorge?

1. Discover Velas

Velas is a municipality in São Jorge where around 6,000 people live, meaning that most people on the island live in this village. Velas translates to sails and is rumored to pay homage to the sailing ships that have passed through the municipality. This village is a great place to explore. Visit the sports marina that features a Sea Gate created in 1799. There are also many churches to explore such as São Jorge Church, a 16th-century building, and Conceição church, located in a convent. Velas also features a large Cultural Center, a modern building with an auditorium, a cinema, and a library.

2. Explore the fajãs

It’s relatively common for Azorean islands to have a few fajãs, usually a maximum of two in a single one. São Jorge tops any other island, feature more than 40 of these! If you are wondering what these are, Fajãs are small plains located at sea level which were once created by lava flows. You must visit our favorite fajã, Fajã do Ouvidor, the one that locals go to the most. It’s home to the Poça Simão Dias, the most amazing swimming hole on the island. The water is clear and you can even jump from low rocks.

Photo by Karim Sakhibgareev (Unsplash)

3. Visit the Coffee Plantation

São Jorge is the home of the only coffee plantation in Europe. Located in Fajã dos Vimes,  you must try the coffee at Cafe Nunes, owned by a family who opened the cafe at the plantation in 1997. Coffee is not naturally grown in the Azores. The locals believe that someone who visited Brazil brought back some coffee beans in the late 18th century. Since then, this family has been growing their own coffee plants and making a richly flavored coffee that is a must-try. You can buy bags of coffee to take home, as well as visit the artisanal shop that sells handmade tapestries and carpets.

4. Cheese Factory

Founded in 1927, the cheese factory in São Jorge is actually the oldest factory in all of Portugal. The local cheese drives the island’s economy and is known all around the world. You can visit this factory, although there is now a new one where the cheese is produced. However, you will still learn more about how the local cheese is made and can even try some samples.

5. Hike the Island’s Trails

São Jorge has some of the best hiking trails in the Azores. Exploring some of the island’s 10 hiking trails is a great experience for nature lovers. Make sure to hike on “official” trails that are taken care of by the Azores Tourism Broad. These are properly maintained and signed with hiking markers throughout so people do not get lost. You can look up the official hike trails here.

Our favorite hike takes you to the Caldeira do Santo Cristo and is 9.5 km long, perfect for a morning activity. We also recommend the following hike trails: Serra do Topo (5.5 KM, 2h30) and Fajã de Além (4.7 KM, 3H).

Day trips from São Jorge

São Jorge is part of the “Triangle Islands” with Pico and Faial. You’re so close so make sure to cross the sea to visit these two neighboring islands. These three islands are completely different from one another and each one has a unique culture.

How to travel between the triangle islands of São Jorge, Faial, and Pico? Atlanticoline has a ferry service that functions all year. These ferries are an easy way to travel between the islands, and you can even take your car. You also get to witness the islands from the ocean with amazing views. The ferry from São Jorge (Calheta) to Faial (Horta) takes around 2h30m and costs around €20. São Jorge (Calheta) to Pico (Madalena) only takes 1h45m minutes and costs around €15.

We have selected a list of the best things to do on your day trips to Pico and Faial. We also suggest renting a car to be able to travel freely around the island.

Faial

  1. Hike the caldeira, a volcanic crater: We recommend booking this hike with a professional to go down the caldeira for €65. You can also walk around the crater which will take around 2 hours. In fact, Faial has a lot of beautiful trails to hike such as this 10 Volcano trail that you can book here.
  2. Explore Horta: Visit the city of Horta and discover the quaint churches. The Horta marina has a large mural where sailors from around the world paint a section to symbolize their voyage. Also, head to Peter Cafe Sport, an emblematic cafe on the island that thousands have passed through.
  3. Visit the Capelinhos: The Capelinhos is a volcano that erupted in 1958 on the western side of the island. This section of the island was only created 60 years ago after the eruption.
  4. Dolphin and Whale watching: Faial is a great island to spot some whales and dolphins. The best seasons to spot some whales and dolphins are between April and October.

View Tours & Activities in Faial

Photo by Paul Taton (Unsplash)

Pico

  1. Swim in a natural pool: Pico has some of the nicest seawater natural pools. We recommend the Poço da Maré do Verdugo, Ponta do Admoiro, as well as the classic Lajes do Pico Natural and São Roque do Pico pools.
  2. Whale-watching: Pico island is famous for whale watching. You can book a dolphin and whale guided tour with a biologist here.
  3. Visit the whaler’s museum: Known as Museu dos Baleeiros in Portuguese, the Whalers Museum is a must-see, close to Lajes Port. The museum is situated in three boathouses from the 19th century.
  4. Go on a hike: The best hiking trails in Pico are Caminho das Lagoas (22 KM, 7 hours), Calheta do Nesquim (8.6 KM, 2h30), and Prainha do Norte (7.8 KM, 2h30). We also recommend hiking up Mount Pico, the highest mountain in all of Portugal, if you are up for it. You can book a guided hike here where you will also learn about the geology, fauna, and flora of the mount.

View Tours & Activities in Pico

Photo by David Magalhães (Unsplash)

5 Best Restaurants in São Jorge: Where to eat in São Jorge?

São Jorge features innovative cuisine, made from local dairy, vegetable, and meat products. Before we get into the 5 best restaurants, here are the best foods to try on the island of São Jorge.

  • São Jorge clams
  • São Jorge cheese
  • Espécies de São Jorge (Local biscuit)
  • Lapas (Limpets)
  • Cataplana (Fish dish)
  • Meat dishes

1. Fornos de Lava

Located in the Os Moinhos Hotel, Fornos de Lava is 4 km away from Velas. This restaurant takes the top spot due to its high-quality food and environment. The restaurant was opened in 2003 by chef Joaquin Alvarez and is built of black stone and wood, providing an Azorean feel. You will enjoy a meal here in a circular room with large windows that features beautiful views of Pico and Faial. The Azorean and Galician dishes are produced from local products of the island. We recommend seafood dishes such as the Lapas and Catapalanas. You can get a meal here for less than 20.

2. O Branquinho 

O Branquinho has a stunning view of Mount Pico and has some of the best Azorean dishes on the island. The cozy restaurant only uses local products and is particularly known for its desserts such as the local biscuit. We also recommend trying their pork meat, octopus, steak, and Azorean soups. You can have a meal here for less than €15.

3. Restaurante Velense

Restaurante Velense will make you feel like you’re getting a home-cooked meal at an Azorean family’s home. The interior is rustic and traditional, the perfect spot to get to know the local cuisine. We recommend trying the lapas, shrimp with fries, and their variety of soups. You can get a meal here for €10.

4. O Caseiro

O Caseiro offers delicious dishes at cheap prices and features a terrace, perfect to enjoy a beer or glass of wine. This family-run restaurant has a relaxed atmosphere and sells regional dishes. O Caseiro also has a smaller snack bar for cheaper and faster meals. We recommend their pork meat, caldo verde soup, and codfish. You can have a meal here for €10.

5. Restaurante Amilcar

Restaurante Amilcar is located in Fajã do Ouvidor in Velas. This restaurant features local Azorean dishes and is known by the locals as one of the best. It’s also within walking distance from Poça Simão Dias so it’s perfect for lunch after a nice swim. We recommend trying their seafood dishes as these are their specialty. This place offers full menus with a starter, main meal, and dessert for 15.

Transportation: How can you get around the island of São Jorge?

Finding public transportation in São Jorge is difficult as buses are hard to find. The bus systems are not designed to get to the best tourist spots and are made to fit the daily lives of the locals.

If you can, definitely rent a car. You can pick up a rental car from the airport and return it when you are flying back. We recommend renting a car in advance because especially in the summer months, these run out fast. You can rent a manual car starting at €60 a day.

5 Best Places to Stay in São Jorge: Where to stay in São Jorge?

1. Cabanas da Viscondessa

Cabanas da Viscondessa offers private wooden cabins with a view of the ocean and Pico Island. A luxurious experience, each cabin has been decorated in an elevated style by a renowned interior designer and a private terrace with a garden view. Each unit also comes with a modern kitchen, dining area, and bathroom. This property has a restaurant, bar, and a shared garden, as well as an outdoor terrace where you can enjoy a meal or drink. Every morning, a continental breakfast is served from local products. The studio cabins cost between  80 and  100 a night depending on the season.

2. Quinta da Magnólia

Quinta da Magnólia is a farm-like property covered in stone that features a shared lounge, garden, and a gorgeous infinity pool. Located in Urzelina, every room on this farm features a flat-screen TV, a private bathroom, and a seating area. Prices depend on the variety of rooms available. A superior room with a large double bed and ocean view costs 132, with breakfast included. A larger deluxe room costs 144 a night.

3. Intact Farm Resort

This bungalow resort experience in Velas is an affordable accommodation option, as well as an incredible stay. Intact Farm Resort is great for nature lovers, close to fishing and hiking spots, as well as the ferry pier for connecting to other islands. Each room has a flat-screen TV and a private bathroom, while some have a terrace. A bungalow for two people with a sea view costs 45, while one for 5 people with a sea view costs 65.

4. Blue Planet

Blue Planet offers modern beachy apartments that feature a kitchen, private bathroom, and dining area. The center of Velas is just a 5-minute walk away and the ferry station is only 1 km away. The apartments have large windows that show a gorgeous view of the sea. You can get a 58 m² one-bedroom house for 120 and a 120 m² one-bedroom apartment for 135.

5. Cantinho das Buganvilias

Cantinho das Buganvilias offers a luxurious experience in the mountains of São Jorge Island. This collection of modern apartments provides a stunning contrast with the natural feel of the island. Each apartment has an air-conditioner and comes with a private patio with a view of Pico mountain. Some even have large windows so that you can enjoy the view from your bed. The property has an infinity pool and hot tub, as well as a well-known restaurant. A one-bedroom apartment costs 75 and a two-bedroom apartment costs 85.

Final Thoughts

São Jorge, the Brown island of the Azores is a must-visit in the archipelago. The island’s tourism industry has been booming in the past decade due to its stunning landscapes, as well as its close location to Faial and Pico. From discovering Velas to hiking wonderful trails and exploring the only coffee plantation in Europe, this island has so much to offer. This guide has everything you need to prepare for your trip to São Jorge. Time to pack your bags!

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