Island Hopping on the Azores: A Complete Guide

September 19, 2018

When you search for Azores travel blogs you’ll probably quickly notice something odd: most of them only talk about São Miguel!

This is simply the largest island and the most touristy one, but there are in fact 9 islands in the archipelago—and each of them has something different to offer.

I spent nearly four weeks on the Azores on two trips in 2016 and 2018. I visited not only São Miguel but also Pico, São Jorge, Faial, and Terceira, so I can give you a few tips on where it’s good.

I’ll also share with you some little-known travel hacks that can get you discounted ferries and even free flights.

If you’re looking for a complete guide to the Azores (okay, well… almost complete), then you’ve come to the right page.

Me at a miradouro on Sao Miguel Island during my Azores travel blog trip

The north coast of São Miguel

In this Azores travel guide:

 

Why you should visit the Azores

If you don’t yet know much about this far-flung Atlantian archipelago, then you don’t need to feel too embarrassed. Even devoted globe-trotters might struggle to pinpoint the Azores precisely on a map — though it’s slowly become a bit better known in recent years.

Situated in the middle of the ocean far off the coast of Portugal, the Azores have an edge-of-the-world feel.

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.

It also has a wonderful local culture that’s proudly different from the mainland of Portugal—and it has some interesting historical connections with the United States as well (you’ll see many homes with both a Portuguese and American flag outside).

We’ll talk about each island in a moment, but here are what I think are some of the top reasons to visit the Azores.

Volcanoes galore

The Caldeira on Faial

Since the Azores are right at the fault lines between three tectonic plates, they have more volcanoes, calderas, steam vents, and lava tube caves than you can shake a stick at. These volcanic features turn the islands into a playground for cavers, bicyclers, and climbers.

Don’t miss the eruption site of Capelinhas on Faial, the Sete Cidades caldeira on São Miguel, or the 2351m tall cone of Pico on the island of Pico.

So many cute rural places

But not all places on the Azores are epic. Most will simply make you go “awww, that’s so nice”.

There are so many cute towns with traditionally black-and-white painted houses (or black-and-red in the case of Pico), pastures on gently rolling hills, meandering coastal roads, and mini-lagoons along the shore where many locals come to take a dive in the summer.

Since there aren’t any white sand beaches and since the climate is somewhat unpredictable, the Azores have mostly been spared from any mass tourism. It’s a gentle and tranquil place.

Dolphins and whales!

The Azores once supported itself in part through its whaling industry. While this practice stopped a few decades ago, you can now take a boat tour from pretty much any island to see the whales up-close.

I was lucky to see several sperm whales on my tour. Seeing their tales stick out of the water just before a deep dive was a pretty magical sight.

There are also numerous dolphins around the Azores throughout the year—at one point I found myself surrounded by a pod of at least 150 of them, which was epic AF.

The awesome locally-sourced food

Limpets with local cheese and honey

You can expect plenty of culinary delights on the Azores. The dishes are not necessarily extremely unique, but the ingredients used are often insanely fresh and high-quality.

The fish is expectedly great, but so is the meat. Locally sourced beef tastes amazing as the Azores has just small-scale production with happy cows. The many micro-climates also make the Azores suitable for growing a wide range of products from both temperate and tropical climates, so most things you eat there are probably grown locally. Wine, coffee, and tea are all produced on the archipelago as well.

Digging into a delicious shrimp cataplana

Don’t miss the chance to sample the seafood; besides many types of fish there’s clams, limpets, squid, and much more to choose from. I had my first-ever barnacles on Terceira, a weird but fun experience that has you using a little specialized hook to get the meat out.

On São Miguel, try the furnas de caldas. It’s a hearty stew cooked in a volcanic vent!

The outdoors and adventure activities

Exploring some undeveloped caves in Pico

Like to get active? Well, tou won’t have any excuse to sit still on the Azores. Apart from numerous fantastic hiking trails, you can also go canyoning, paragliding, swimming, cliff diving, scuba diving, kayaking, surfing (particularly on São Miguel and São Jorge), spelunking, and so much more.

Loads of places around the shore become swimming holes in summer

 

Azores islands at a glance

The above map will give you some idea of the location of each island. Keep in mind it’s not to scale and there is quite a bit of distance between the three island groups.

It can make sense to pick one island group and to stick with it, as to minimize your time spent traveling between them.

These are the islands I visited (in no particular order):

Pico

The 2,351m tall volcanic peak of Pico on Pico Island

The dark volcanic island of Pico is one of my favorites in the Azores. It’s blessed with picturesque landscapes and plenty of interesting things to do, but without being quite as touristy as São Miguel.

The one question you should expect to hear whenever mentioning Pico is “will you do the climb”. Its big conical volcano peak (its namesake) can be seen easily from other nearby islands and makes for an obvious target for an epic hike. At 2351m tall the climb will be a stiff one. Clouds can obscure the views at the top on a bad day, so make sure you go when the skies are clear.

Besides its volcano, Pico is also known for its wineries and vineyards. You’ll see little walls of volcanic rock protect the vines against the harsh elements—a typical feature that earned parts of the island UNESCO world heritage status. You’ll also find several fantastic caves to explore, a whaler’s museum, many cute villages, and some great walking trails past higgity-piggity pastures and through mossy forests.

Read More: Wine, Culture & Adventure on Pico Island

 

São Jorge

If you like going a bit off the usual trail, this might just be the best island for you. It has the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen on the Azores. If you’re someone who can appreciate some beautiful nature and cute villages, then you owe it to yourself to visit São Jorge—it’s seriously gorgeous.

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.

Whatever you do, do not miss the Caldeira de Santo Cristo hike. It’s amazing! You can read more about it in my story on São Jorge.

São Jorge doesn’t have that many restaurants or typical tourist attractions as some of the others, but it’s the Azorean island I personally most fell in love with. I think it’s an underappreciated gem.

Read More: Here’s Why You Should Visit São Jorge Island

 

Faial

There are several very cool things about Faial that make it a must-visit if you’re in the central island group.

Firstly, it has might just be the prettiest town on the islands, as Horta is situated on some lovely hills besides a pretty sailing harbor, with several old church towers poking up from different parts of town.

Secondly, it’s the place where recreational sailors crossing the Atlantic like to make a stopover. This gives the island a lively atmosphere during summer. 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.

Capelinhas on Faial

Thirdly, Faial has some great volcanic landscapes, notably its lush green central Caldeira, and the eruption site of Capelinhas — where a volcano erupted in [   ]. Walking around the grey and dusty landscape here will make you feel like you’ve landed on the moon.

I think Faial has some of the most interesting sights of the central islands, but it’s also fairly small. You might want to spend two days or so here, before taking the 30-minute ferry to Pico where there are more vineyards, museums, and other smaller sights to visit.

Read More: 10 Fantastic Things to do on Faial Island

 

Terceira

 

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. It has a several great things to see, most notably the Algar do Carvão lava tube cave, which is hugely impressive and bigger than the Gruta das Torres on Pico. The fort at the main town of Angra is also of great historical importance, as it’s the only place that held out against the Spanish invasion of 1583.

But Terceira mostly has the reputation of being a bit of a party island in summer. Mind you, not in the sense of this being Ibiza, because it’s a gentle rural island. Terceira is merely where the most village parties and festivities take place in the summer, making it the perfect place to have some fun and rub shoulders with the locals.

I loved witnessing the tradition of Tourada à Corda, where bulls are let loose on the streets, giving chase to locals while kept on a long leash by a team of shepherds. People will spectate from balconies and garden walls, chatting and drinking while occasionally watching a bull rumbling past. (They are not bull fights, by the way. It’s just a good natured game where the bulls get egged on a bit and then everyone runs away.)

Just off the southern coast are the Ilhéus das Cabras (or Goat Islands), which look like two parts of a rocky island that’s been cracked open. You can get a boat out to these islands, enter some of the caves, and jump off the boat for a refreshing swim.

While São Jorge and Pico are my personal favorite islands, I think it’s worth checking out Terceira as well during the party season, especially if this is where you’ll be flying from (its airport is the second most connected after São Miguel).

 

São Miguel

Salto do Cabrito waterfall on Sao Miguel island

Salto do Cabrito waterfall on Sao Miguel island

Last but not least, there is São Miguel. As the largest and most populated island, it benefits from having more accommodation options and facilities. Since São Miguel is the easiest to reach by plane, many Azores trips focus only on this island, making it the most touristy destination.

If you limit yourself to São Miguel, you’ll be missing out on some other great islands. But to be honest, São Miguel is a great place to go! It has an amazing variety of sights and activities in a relatively compact area.

You’ll find some epic volcanic caldeiras at Sete Cidades and Furnas. I recommend not just stopping here briefly for a quick photo; I loved hiking around Furnas lake, and renting bicycles to ride around Sete Cidades. Trust me, it’s worth it! You’ll get a much better feel for the place.

São Miguel has by far the most secondary volcanic activity of any of the islands — in other words, things bubble, boil and steam around here! This means it’s also the perfect place to take a relaxing bath in some hot springs. The town of Furnas even has so many volcanic vents that you’ll see loads of steam stacks billowing from places all around. In some places, you can smell the sulfur in the air. It’s probably why some guides have called Azores the Iceland of the south.

São Miguel is awesome, but it can get super busy in August. Locals have complained about tourists leaving trash along the beaches and pools, or overcrowding certain locations, so be a respectful visitor and try to visit in the shoulder season if you can.

Read More: Crater Lakes and Thermal Baths on São Miguel Island

 

Other islands

I haven’t yet visited Corvo, Graciosa, or Santa Marta — though these are very small and locals tell me aren’t the most interesting (but who knows!).

The one island I still desperately want to visit is Flores. It can be a pain to get to as ferries take a long time and it has only a tiny airport. I tried to go there but then my flight got cancelled due to strong winds.

Flores is known for being the greenest island with the most spectacular waterfalls, and while it’s not as accessible as the others, I’ve got a feeling it might just be the most beautiful one. Next time I’ll go the Azores this is where I’ll be heading!

 

Flying to the Azores

Flying in: The Azores have become much more accessible in recent years, especially since Ryanair and Easyjet began flying directly to São Miguel and Terceira from various places in Europe.

SATA (also known as Azores Airlines) costs a bit more than the budget carriers but provides many more connections internationally. Within Europe, they fly directly from London, Munich, Frankfurt, Lisbon and Porto. And thanks to the Azores’ historical ties with the US there are also many direct flights from North America, including from Boston, Oakland, Toronto and Montreal.

Visiting on a stopover from US: since Azores is about midway between the US and Europe, it can be a great stopover place. Azores Airlines in fact promotes this possibility, letting you add several days on the islands with no increase in airfare. Azores Airlines has information on stopovers, and I also wrote an article about planning a stopover.

Money Saving Tip: you can get free transfers from São Miguel to other islands!

Free inter-island flights on the Azores: yes, you read that right… you can get certain flights entirely for free on the Azores. If you fly in to São Miguel on any carrier, you can get a free onwards flight with Azores Airlines to another island. The catch is that you have to fly in from the Portuguese mainland. You also can’t stay on São Miguel for longer than 24 hours — it truly has to be a transit there and not your final destination. You can book a free inter-island connecting flights on the SATA website.

 

Getting around on the Azores

In some cases, flying might be the best way to go. Most islands have small airports that let you hop between the island groups pretty easily by air.

There are also ferries between all the islands, though not all are necessarily connected on direct routes. Island hopping is easiest between the central islands of Pico, Faial, and São Jorge — as they are all relatively close by (about 30 to 90 minutes apart) and you can easily take ferries between these islands year-round.

There are also ferry services between the larger island groups, but these can take a while and only run from May 3 until September 29. To give you an idea of the journey times, here are a few of the longer trips:

  • São Miguel to Terceira approx 5 hours
  • Terceira to Faial approx 8 hours
  • Faial to Flores approx 9 hours

You can find more schedule information at Atlantico Line, which is the only company operating on these routes.

Some of the scheduled ferries go at night so some passengers will bring sleeping bags and sleep on the chairs. Much comfier 1st class rooms are also available upstairs; you can check for upgrades to these at the reception desk inside the ferry. (I paid about 30 EUR for a private room with ensuite from Faial to Terceira, which I think wasn’t too bad for the excellent sleep I got.)

Money Saving Tip: under 30? You can save a lot of money on ferries by getting an Azores InterYouth Card. Either buy one at a sale point, or use the app to get one. For 40 euro you’ll get unlimited ferry travel (a few limitations apply).

 

Transportation within the islands

Using public transportation is just about do-able on the biggest island of São Miguel, but remember that it is still a small island where services are infrequent.

The best way to get around anywhere on the Azores is to have your own transportation. Renting a car will give you the most freedom to go as you please. There were also bike and scooter rentals on all the islands I visited.

There are some taxis on the islands but not very many; it’s worth collecting the phone numbers of taxi companies so that you can call one, as only the major towns might have any taxi ranks.

Don’t make the mistake of relying on public transportation—unless maybe you absolutely have to—as this will make things very challenging.

 

Travel costs on the Azores

Opinion differ on the travel costs, but let the numbers speak for themselves.

  • Decent hotel room, guesthouse or budget Airbnb: about 30 to 40 EUR a night
  • Renting a compact car: 20 EUR a day
  • Lunch: 7 to 10 EUR
  • Dinner with wine: 14 to 20 EUR

I’d say that’s good value by northern European standards, though I suppose these are not quite rock-bottom prices. Costs increase quickly when moving between the islands, as ferries and inter-island flights do add up.

If you’re a budget traveler your best bet to keep costs down is to share an apartment and car rental with a group of friends. If you’re the backpacker type, you’ll find that only São Miguel has real backpacker hostels. A dorm bed there costs about 15 EUR a night on average.

 

No, the weather isn’t always perfect!

Some blogs claim that the Azores has perfect weather year-round, but that’s a bit of a misconception. Locals will actually often say that you can experience all four seasons in one day.

Be sure to always pack both sunscreen and a rain jacket!

Thanks to its location in the middle of the ocean, the weather can change completely at just a snap of the finger. Sometimes the weather can be totally different just depending on which side of the island you are, as clouds can get trapped behind mountains.

Weather reports aren’t always so useful, but a great way to check the live weather situation all over the Azores is to view the webcams using the SpotAzores app (Android, iOS) .

There is still quite distinct seasons though. When I went in August, the weather was ten times better than when I went in February. Compared to year-round sunny destinations like Madeira or the Canary Islands, the Azores are still at a fairly high latitude leading to mild temperatures and pretty changeable weather, so make sure you pack for different types of weather no matter what time of year you go.

Disclosure: my first visit to the Azores was with assistance from the local tourism board. (I traveled independently on my second visit.)

 

9 comments

  1. Nicola Reply September 25, 2018 at 12:49 pm

    Hello Marek! I love reading your blog and the travel guides. I was curious about which tools you use to draw the maps you use in your posts: where you take the maps and how you customize them.

    • Marek Reply September 25, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      Hey Nicola. I get maps from sites like freevectormaps.com and manually edit them using software called Figma. 🙂 Unfortunately I don’t know of an app that lets you do this easily…

  2. Kelsey Reply August 6, 2018 at 7:07 pm

    Planning a trip to the Azores in September! We are planning on flying into Terceira and spending two days there and then going to Faial for 3 days (hopefully with a day tour of Pico from there) and then to Sao Miguel for 4.5 days. Given your experience, does this seem reasonable or does it seem like too much?

    I also noticed in one of your replies you mentioned a cancelled flight between the islands – does this happen frequently?

    Thanks!

    • Marek Reply August 6, 2018 at 10:52 pm

      Hi Kelsey. I don’t know about Terceira yet (but I’m going to be traveling there in a few weeks). I wouldn’t worry too much about the flights though. The one that was canceled for me was a flight to Flores which is known to be difficult to get to (as it’s the outermost island) and it was in winter with bad weather too. You’re going to the central islands and in summer and I believe problems are not common in this case.

      Timing seems reasonable. 3 days on Faial might be a bit much… I don’t think the island is quite as scenic or interesting as some of the others, it felt more like a daytrip kind of island to me. I got a bit bored on Faial after the first day but that might be totally subjective. I’d definitely try to do the Pico tour… very scenic island.

  3. Ben Reply March 21, 2018 at 12:38 am

    We are planning a stop in the Azores for seven days while on our honeymoon this coming August. Would you recommend going to multiple islands? We are intending to do Sao Miguel, but then we are unsure if we want to do a second island or if Sao Miguel will have enough to do and see for 7 days. If you would recommend seeing a different island, which for hiking landscapes and relaxing?

    • Marek Reply March 25, 2018 at 2:10 pm

      Sao Miguel has plenty to do for a week, but I’d maybe add a couple days on another island for variety. I think Pico is really nice for its landscapes. I haven’t made it to Flores (my flight was canceled) but that island has some of the most beautiful hiking trails.

  4. Janet Reply July 2, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    Went to the Azores (Sao Miguel) a few years ago and absolutely loved it! Delicious seafood, friendly people, and lush scenery combined with few tourists make it a place I want to keep for myself.

  5. Lessons Learned Abroad Reply April 11, 2017 at 4:36 pm

    Heading there on Sunday for 5 days, though just to Sao Miguel. Any must-do hikes or outdoor activities? I’ll likely rent a car now, since you suggested it! 🙂

    • Marek Reply April 12, 2017 at 9:30 am

      Walking/cycling around the Sete Cidades crater lake is good, and climbing up to the rim of the Lake Furnas crater. Several people told me the Faial da Terra hike is great, though I didn’t have time to do it 🙂

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