Located deep in the Atlantic roughly between Boston and Lisbon, the Azores is a stunning off-the-beaten-path destination. Sometimes awkwardly dubbed ‘the Hawaii of Europe’ or ‘Iceland without the ice’, in truth the archipelago is unlike anywhere else.
Easily reached from both Europe and east-coast North America, the Azores’ allure lies in its incredible volcanic geography, its many outdoor activities, and a lack of mass tourism.
The islands are a real gem — and I’m excited to tell you all about it!
In this Azores travel guide, I’ll share with you all the essential travel tips, where it’s best to go, and how to move between the islands.
So far, I’ve been on the Azores on three trips of 9 days each, covering 5 of the 9 islands — and I’m sure I’ll be coming back for more.
Where are the Azores Islands?
Even some devoted globe-trotters might struggle to pinpoint it precisely on a map, as the islands are but little dots in a vast ocean. Roughly speaking, the Azores are somewhere between the US and Europe.
The Azores archipelago is about a 3-hour flight from Lisbon in mainland Portugal, and roughly 5 to 6 hours from Boston or Toronto.
While belonging to Portugal, the Azores have their own identity, as well as historical connections with (and a large diaspora in) the USA and Canada.
Good to know: the 9 Azores islands are not all close to each other. There are three island groups each approximately a 1-hour flight apart. If you want to go island hopping, it’s easiest within the central island group (Terceira, São Jorge, Faial, and Pico) as these are all bunched together.
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Why visit the Azores archipelago?
Once you make it to this outermost point of Europe, you will be rewarded with some amazing opportunities for hiking, caving, scuba diving, canyoning, whale watching, and many more adventure activities.
The Azores is truly an adventure travel paradise!
Equally, it’s a great place for a relaxing rural holiday.
One thing I love is that it’s free from big exclusive resorts or large-scale tourism developments. The local authorities have capped the total number of hotel beds, committing themselves to sustainable tourism.
The Azores is not a party destination nor a typical sun-and-sand vacation place (due to the climate and relatively few beaches). Nevertheless, there are small beaches and natural pools to enjoy during your trip.
You can see volcanic craters, drive along meandering coastal roads, go dolpin- and whale watching, gorge on fresh seafood, and go hiking all over the Azores.
If you’re looking for an original destination with incredible nature and a genuine atmosphere, then you may have just found the perfect place.
Best time to visit Azores, Portugal
The best time to visit the Azores is from June to September.
It’s not a tropical destination but is mild and sunny during summer.
As everywhere in Europe, you may wish to avoid August, as this is consistently the busiest month of the year. The weather is fantastic during August, but the crowds and prices may be less than optimal. If you don’t need to travel in August, consider one of the other summer months. Otherwise, book early.
I’ve also spent some time in the Azores in winter. This was fine for some hiking or enjoying the hot springs on São Miguel, but the temperature and rainfall didn’t make it an ideal time to visit for many other activities. You can still have a good time, but it will be different.
How to get to the Azores
The Azores are remote, but they are pretty easy to fly to. The biggest airport is on the island of São Miguel, followed by the airport of Terceira.
From Europe: Budget carriers Ryanair and Easyjet began flying directly to São Miguel and Terceira a few years ago. You can fly direct from places such as London, Munich, Frankfurt, Lisbon and Porto. There are also seasonal direct flights to Amsterdam, Geneva, and Brussels.
From North America: There are direct flights to Boston, Toronto, and seasonally to Oakland and Montréal. They are mainly run by Azores Airlines.
Stopover on the Azores: If you’re traveling between North America and Europe, consider making a stopover on the Azores. Much like Iceland does, the Azores promotes itself as a layover between Europe and North America. Azores Airlines has promotions for Azores stopovers.
Island hopping by plane
If you want to see multiple islands on your trip, the easiest way is to fly between the island groups. The local carrier SATA provides the inter-island flight services. All islands have air connections.
It’s easy to travel between the islands by air, but it can be pricey. SATA is not a budget carrier, so if you’re making many hops, it will quickly add up. If you’re on a budget, then ferries are the better option.
Island hopping by ferry
All ferries on the Azores are run by the same company. It’s easy to book ferry tickets online through FerriesDirect.com.
Ferries are the easiest way to hop between islands that are close together. In the central island group, islands like Pico and São Jorge are just short (30-60 min) ferry rides away. These ferries also operate year-round.
There are also ferries taking to the open seas between the three island groups, but they are limited. They run only from May to September and don’t run every day. Some legs can take many hours, so some travelers choose to take the overnight ferry and sleep on board. Flights are easier for these longer distances.
Do you need a car on the Azores?
It’s very strongly recommended to have your own transportation. Either rent a car or, on the smaller islands, a scooter or small motorbike. That way you’ll have full freedom to explore.
Don’t count on being able to explore easily by public transport. This is only vaguely practical on São Miguel, but even there the network does not support independent travel very easily. If you absolutely can’t rent your own car, you can alternatively stay in the island’s capitals and use organized day trips with tour companies to go sightseeing.
It’s important to book your rental car early as they can run out in the peak tourist months. Most cars are manual, which is something to keep in mind for US travelers accustomed to automatic (but if you book in time you can possibly still find an automatic).
You can search at Discovercars.com for price and availability for cheap car rentals on the Azores, which checks with all major rental companies.
Best islands to visit in Azores
There are 9 islands on the Azores, ranging in size from São Miguel (140,000 inhabitants) all the way to the remote island of Corvo (population just 430). Each island is different and worth discovering in its own right.
To help you choose the islands for your trip, I’ll give them an overview here, focusing on the three major island groups of the Azores. Note that the distances between the island groups have been reduced on the above map, just to fit them all in one image.
Best for: a great introduction to the Azores
Around two-thirds of tourists who come to the archipelago visit São Miguel. It makes sense as it’s the easiest island to reach internationally and, being the largest island, it also has by far the most things to see and do.
If it’s your first time to the Azores, then São Miguel is a great place to start. It’s one of the best islands for hiking — because of the varied and lush landscapes, but also because of the number of hikes available. It’s the only island to have lots of volcanic steam vents and hot springs. I created a dedicated travel guide to São Miguel that will fill you in on everything else you can experience there.
I should also mention that São Miguel is the most developed island. It’s the only one to have 2-lane highways and the capital of Ponta Delgada is a small but busy commercial center. A couple of the viewpoints are well-known ‘Instagram spots’ and the island does get busy in summer. That said, if you rent a car, then it’s easy to visit São Miguel’s more remote and charming villages. My favorite parts of São Miguel are the far west and far east.
I love São Miguel and it’s probably the right island for most first-time visitors, especially if you’re on a budget as hopping between many islands can be costly. If you’re after something a bit more remote and smaller-scale, then the other islands might be more your style.
You can spend about 3 days on São Miguel to see the top sights, or 7+ days if you love to hike a lot or want to swim at all the different beaches and pools.
If you’re not able to rent a car, you can see São Miguel using organized trips. For example, this Lagoa do Fogo Hiking Trip with pickup from your hotel.
Central Island Group
Best for: a more varied island-hopping itinerary
If you want to island-hop on the Azores, this is where I recommend going. Ferries between the central islands take never more than an hour or so.
Taken together, these central islands have as much to see and do as the biggest island São Miguel — perhaps even more. Since they’re a bit less visited, exploring them can make for a more unique trip. Let me introduce you to each island.
Pico is geologically younger than the other islands, so the landscapes can sometimes be darker and rockier. Pico is known mainly for its unique vineyard culture; you’ll see many landscapes checkered with little walls made from volcanic rocks, there to protect the vines against the harsh elements—it’s a typical feature that earned parts of the island UNESCO world heritage status. Don’t miss going on a wine tasting tour when you’re on Pico.
Besides this, the one question you should expect to hear on Pico is “will you do the climb?”. Its big conical volcano peak can be seen easily from other islands and beckons to be hiked. At 2351m tall the climb is a stiff one, but it also makes Pico the perfect island for an adventure trip.
Pico island is also home to numerous lava tube caves. One of them can be visited without a guide, while others are completely undeveloped and can be explored on a guided tour. I’ve now visited Pico on two occasions and created this guide to Pico Island to tell you about all there is to see. There’s enough to fill 2 to 3 days of activities.
This small island is one not to miss! The main town of Horta is surely one of the Azores’ prettiest capitals; it’s built on hills beside a pretty sailing harbor, with several old church towers poking up from different parts of town. The adjacent bay of Pim is known as one of the best snorkeling spots in the archipelago.
Faial is also legendary among sailors. It’s the one place where recreational sailors crossing the Atlantic like to make a stopover. This gives the island a lively atmosphere during summer. All along the harbor barriers, you’ll find colorful paintings left there by sailors to commemorate their journey, while Peter Sport Cafe serves as the most important meeting spot where you can gawk at years and years of sailing memorabilia.
The island has some great volcanic landscapes, especially its lush green central Caldeira, and the eruption site of Capelinhas — where a volcano erupted in 1958. Walking around the grey and dusty landscape here will make you feel like you’ve landed on the moon. These are easily some of the most impressive landscapes in the Azores.
There’s also a cultural element to Faial, with several museums providing interesting insights into its whaling history, as well as it’s one-time status at an important transatlantic node for the early telephone and telegraph lines.
Faial is a small island so although it has some truly great things to see, you need at most 2 or 3 days.
If you like going a bit off the usual trail (and you love to hike), then this might just be the best central island for you. If you can appreciate some stunning nature on an island without any tourism frills, then you owe it to yourself to visit São Jorge.
A central mountain range runs along almost the entire length of the island, forming more or less an elongated plateau. Down the shoreside cliffs are so-called fajãs, which are small plains once formed by lava flows or landslides. At these fajãs, you’ll find tiny villages that can be reached only by windy roads or sometimes by walking trail only.
These thin strips of flat coastal land backed by huge cliffs are the most common on São Jorge. There are over 40 of these fajãs on São Jorge, while the other islands have just 1 or 2.
Whatever you do, do not miss the Caldeira de Santo Cristo hike. It goes through some lush valleys on São Jorge, past several waterfalls, and through two of the fajãs.
São Jorge doesn’t have that many restaurants or typical tourist attractions, but it’s the Azorean island I might be most fond of. I think it’s an underappreciated gem that will reward explorers.
Terceira is the second most populated island after São Miguel and is home to a US Air Force Base, playing an important economic role in the Azores.
I had the fortune of staying with a friend’s family on Terceira and also visiting during the annual summer festivities, where I could witness the traditional Tourada à Corda bull run (this is all in good fun – they don’t hurt the bulls). Because of this, I absolutely loved my time on Terceira, though I must admit it might not have as much to see and do as the other islands.
The Algar do Carvão is the biggest and most impressive cave on the Azores. It’s also fun to take a boat ride to the small Ilhéus das Cabras (Goat Islands). Besides this, I think there’s maybe more to see and do elsewhere. That’s not saying Terceira isn’t as beautiful as the other islands, just that the others might be more convenient for tourists.
Definitely give Terceira a day or two if it’s already on your route, as then it will be highly worth it. If you’re not renting a car, consider booking this tour of Terceira island. Otherwise, I think it’s great to check out Pico, Faial, and São Jorge first — though this is entirely my subjective opinion!
Flores & Corvo
Best for: remote hiking trails and bird-watching
These two islands form the westernmost group. Located far away, they are best reached by plane. Flores is among the smallest islands with just under 4,000 inhabitants, while Corvo has only one small settlement with a few hundred people.
Flores (meaning flowers) is known as the greenest of all the islands and features epic cliffs with numerous waterfalls, making it one of the top places to go hiking on the Azores. Although Flores doesn’t have a huge amount of accommodation or restaurants, dedicated travelers make their way here for its raw beauty and remote edge-of-the-world feel.
The nearby crater island of Corvo (meaning crow) is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It’s tiny (just 17 square kilometers) and doesn’t feature on the usual Azores itinerary, receiving only about 1,000 visits per year. However, it’s known by birdwatchers as an excellent place to spot both many endemic and migratory species. While I’ve yet to visit, one guide told me Corvo gets booked out as much as a year in advance, due to its reputation as a birdwatching paradise.
How many days in Azores?
As you can tell, there is a lot to explore on the Azores!
And I have only mentioned the islands that are most commonly visited.
You might wonder just how much time you need to see the Azores, but it’s hard to give a precise answer to this. It always depends on your travel style, your interests, and how much time you can spare for your trip.
In general, most islands on the Azores take about two or three days to see the highlights. One exception is the largest island, São Miguel, where you can easily spend a whole week, as it just has so much to see and do.
If you like to hike a lot or explore cute rural areas, then you can spend more days on each island.
Some Azores itinerary ideas:
- 3 days on São Miguel. Good for a weekend trip from mainland Portugal or for a layover, though you’ll only have time for some of the highlights.
- 7 days on Faial, Pico & São Jorge. Fun island-hopping itinerary including some of the best of the Azores! It takes a bit more planning than just staying on São Miguel but it’ll be highly rewarding. Fly in and out of Terceira.
- 7 days on São Miguel. Perfect if you love to hike a lot, swim, and see São Miguel in depth. Consider staying in two different parts on the island and renting a car to explore far and wide.
- 2 weeks or more on the Azores. Start in São Miguel or Terceira and then see as much as you want!
There is too much to share about the Azores to fit into a single guide, so don’t miss my other posts about these beautiful islands: