As I climbed down the steps from the plane onto the tarmac of Sao Miguel’s airport, I was met with a strong salty breeze and the comfort of being on solid ground instead of being bumped around by turbulence in a tin can. The immigration line took longer than expected, but I quickly learned that life on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean moved at pace slower than the typical New England speed that I’m used to in my daily life. I hopped into the bright orange 5 Euro shuttle bus from the airport towards Ponta Delgada. The ride was only about 5 minutes to my hostel.
As we were driving into the outskirts of Ponta Delgada, I was starting to get the butterflies in my tummy that I experienced the first time I hit European tarmac in Venice, Italy in 2006. I was in Europe again. It’s been awhile. As much as I love the Latin American culture and lifestyle, I love the history, architecture, and art of old world Europe. As soon as I checked into my hostel and threw my backpack on my bed, I was off exploring the island of Sao Miguel with my new friends in a tiny red European rental car.
My first day on Sao Miguel was a whirlwind of exploring the northern rocky coast of Sao Miguel, but on my second day I took the afternoon to explore the city of Ponta Delgada. Ponta Delgada is a modern city with old world charm. Much of its present day buildings and homes were built in the 1800s during a large economic boom for the island. Many of the numerous churches throughout Ponta Delgada and the island were originally built in the 1500s!
I honestly don’t know a lot about architecture, but I always enjoy its beauty. Much of Ponta Delgada is built in the Portuguese colonial style that reminds me so much of the Spanish colonial architecture found in Central America, namely Granada, Nicaragua. The streets are narrow. So much so that you wonder if your tiny little European rental car will even fit through the streets without scraping the side of someone’s whitewashed house. They do. And locals drive very fast. The sidewalks are wide in spots, but often become extremely narrow without any warning.
The historic area of Sao Sebastiao is home to most of Ponta Delgada’s historic buildings. The streets are cobble stone and one-way for traffic. The wide sidewalks lined with colorful little mom-and-pop shops are ornate in stunning white and black tiles. Some patterns are simple while others are in shapes of pineapples and fish symbolic to the island’s agricultural and fishery background.
The weather in November is questionable. One second it was windy and drizzling and another second the sun was shining over the horizon creating colorful rainbows over the city. The Marina is large and full of expensive yachts and sailboats of the elites and brightly painted boats of the local fishermen. The salty scent of the sea combined with the delicious scents of markets and cafes can be smelled throughout the city.
Ponta Delgada is home to about 70,000 people making it the largest city in the Azores Islands. It serves as the administrative and economic capital of the small island chain about 900 miles off the coast of Portugal. The name Ponta Delgada is Portuguese for “thin point.” Father Gaspar Frutuoso, a famous Portuguese chronicler said:
“This city of Ponta Delgada is named for its situation located along volcanic lands, thin and not too considerable like on other islands, that lead to the sea…”
The island of Sao Miguel has been populated since 1444. At the beginning, the capital was Vila Franca do Campo on the central-southern coast. However, in 1522 an earthquake and landslide destroyed most of the town and killed many people. The capital was moved to Ponta Delgada because it was the only town on the island with the infrastructure needed to run the government. The small town was elevated to the status of a city in 1546 by King D. Joao III.
During the 1800s, Ponta Delgada and the island of Sao Miguel became an economic powerhouse in Portugal. Sao Miguel produces citrus fruit with the main export being pineapples and is home to the only tea plantation in Europe. Much of these exports made their way to the UK. During this time period, large gardens started to appear within the town. Many famous gardeners have come from Ponta Delgada, including the main gardener for the Green Animals House in Newport, Rhode Island. During this major period of economic growth, Ponta Delgada became the third largest town in Portugal.
The city of Ponta Delgada is actually divided into 3 civil parishes: Sao Pedro, Sao Sebastiao, and Sao Jose. Sao Jose is home to several of Ponta Delgada’s historical buildings, including Campo de Sao Francisco and the sanctuary of the Convent of Esperanca. Sao Pedro is the central parish of the city and is home to the University of the Azores, the Marina, and many hotels and commercial building along the Marina. Sao Sebastiao is home to most of Ponta Delgada’s historical buildings and tourist attractions, such as the Portas da Cidade, Matrix Church, and the Municipal buildings.
A Photo Tour of the City
Forte de Sao Bras and the Military Museum
Located on the western side of Ponta Delgada near the seawall is the 16th century fortress. The Renaissance style fortress was built in 1552 to defend the island against numerous pirate attacks. The Museum is found inside the old stone walls and is filled with war artifacts mostly from the two World Wars. Very little English is found throughout the Museum, but it was fun to walk through the tunnels used by the Portuguese Navy during WWII. Today the fort is home the Portuguese Navy. The fort is open daily (except for Mondays) and costs 3 Euros for adults and 1 Euro for children.
Portas da Cidade
The Portas da Cidade or the City Gates are the most iconic sight in the city. These arches are located at the edge of Praca Goncalo Velho square across from the seafront in the historic center of Ponta Delgada. The gates were originally built as part of a defensive wall in 1783, but were moved to their current location in 1952. During the Christmas season, the gates are lit and surrounded by colorful Christmas decorations. Ponta Delgada has a twin city – the city of Fall Rivers in Massachusetts (USA). A large population of immigrants have moved there over the years and today a replica of the Portas da Cidade is located along the riverbanks in Fall Rivers.
Igreja Matriz de Sao Sebastiao
Sao Sebastiao church is a 16th century church located near Praca Goncalo Velho and Portas da Cidade. The locals often refer to the church just as the “Matriz.” The large church was built between 1531 and 1547 on the site of a small chapel dedicated to the first patron saint of the island. Sao Sebastiao is the only church among many in Ponta Delgada to have a large tower with a clock. The church is constructed in a Gothic and Manueline-style typical for the Portuguese architecture for the time. During the 1700s, the outside of the church underwent some changes in the Baroque style. Two side doors were added and a rosette and four windows were built.
We spent most of our time at a little local bar called Cantinho dos Anjos located on Rua Hintze Riberiro with cheap drinks and a hometown band. The local beer ran about 1-3 Euros and a glass of wine was about 2.5 Euros. One night I got a cheeseburger and 5 beers (Yes, you read that right. This lightweight had about 4.5 beers!) and it only set me back 20 Euros. That’s cheap for European standards. After the local bar closed around 1am, we headed down towards the Marina with our newly made local friends to Baia dos Anjo or Angel’s Bay. The bar is open every day from 10am until 4am. By 1 am, the party scene is hopping amongst the local high school and college students looking to divulge in beer and music.