Faial might just be one of the prettiest islands on the Azores. Its main town of Horta rests partially on several hills that look out on a beautiful harbor, while the island interior is home to some dramatic volcanic landscapes that will make you feel like you’ve landed on the Moon.
I loved my time on Faial, though if you’re there just to see the sights it can be a short but sweet experience. It’s relatively small, and many travelers say they needed only a day or two to see it. Fortunately, the island of Pico is just a 30-minute ferry away, and it has a lot of caves, vineyards, museums and other sights that can keep you busy for longer.
I visited Faial twice (in 2016 and 2018) and can highly recommend the following places and experiences.
See the caldeira
The central volcanic crater will easily give you the most stunning views on Faial, though you have to be a bit lucky with the weather. Cloud cover can easily often spoil the fun (even in summer), but go on a clear day and you’ll definitely be rewarded. You might even see Mount Pico off in the distance.
You can hike around the entire crater edge, which will take about 2 hours and isn’t too difficult. A local told me there have been a few nasty accidents; avoid doing this trail on rainy or muddy days.
Tip: this sight is very weather-dependent. Go when there aren’t many clouds!
Learn about Faial’s history
Like the comings and goings of the tide, Failal has seen many industries come and go. It used to be an important whaling base, until the practice of whaling came to an end in the 1970s. It was also once a key strategic location for telegraph companies, whose undersea cables required a relay station on the Azores to connect the European mainland and the US. That, of course, eventually came to end as well.
A couple of small museums near the town of Horta give you insight into these histories. The Porto Pim Whale Factory Museum is especially interesting, as it shows you the particular ways in which whaling took place back in the day. The whalers didn’t use guns or harpoons as a point of honor, chasing whales in small boats and attacking them from within arm’s reach.
These days the whales around Faial are fortunately hunted only with cameras by tourists; don’t miss going on a whale watching tour while you’re on the Azores.
Go for a swim at Praia
On such a small island I guess you don’t have to get too creative with naming different places; Faial’s main beach is simply called Praia or “Beach”.
It’s one of the few spots on the Azores where you can enjoy some sandy shores, albeit with dark volcanic sand that contrasts wonderfully against the bright blue sea. You’ll find changing rooms and showers on site to help you wash away the dark grit.
Explore Horta town and marina
Horta is a wonderfully picturesque town with several old churches poking up from its quayside roofscape. In summer, yachts from all over the world make anchor in the marina, taking a break from their travels across the Atlantic.
Don’t miss a stroll past the harbor barriers, which are completely covered in colorful paintings. These were all left there by sailors passing through believing the murals will bring good luck to their voyage. You’ll see many flags and team names originating from all over the world.
Grab a gin at Peter Sports Cafe
Peter Sports Cafe is a bit of an institution on Faial, as it is the meeting spot for sailors on a break from sailing the Atlantic ocean.
The cafe is filled wall to wall with sailing memorabilia, numerous flags left by sailing crews, and historical photos. Take a look at the wooden panel above the bar as well, as you’re sure to find tons of notes left by captains looking for crews or vice versa. “Sicilian chef looks for a boat to join trip to anywhere”, a note said when I visited. “Couple from Germany for Cape Verde or Flores – leaving Friday”, said another.
Peter Sports is quiet in winter but abuzz with activity during the summer season, even extending onto a large patio along the harbor. You can have a meal here or enjoy their fantastic homemade gin while gawking at the years and years of sailing paraphernalia that covers every wall and ceiling.
Take a hike around Capelinhos
At Capelinhos on the western coast a whole new part of the island emerged after a volcanic eruption in 1957. The nearby lighthouse became submerged in layers upon layers of dust and rock, with only the top of its tower ultimately still standing above ground. This lighthouse has been turned into a museum that covers the events of the eruption as well as the formation of the Azores islands in general.
Be sure to hike to the top of the crater rim for some gorgeous views of the bays and the Moon-like landscapes of rock and dust. You can also climb to the top of the lighthouse for a panoramic view of the barren rocks and swirls of hardened lava.
Visit a commercial aquarium
Near Horta you’ll also find the Porto Pim Aquarium, which is a little different from your usual aquariums. The tanks are owned by a company specializing in collecting fish specimen for aquariums around the world (one of the few such companies in the world). They also manage a submersible used by marine biologists as well as documentarians from the BBC and National Geographic.
The facilities may seem uninviting at first as this is very much a working aquarium, but ask for a tour from one of the staff and you may learn a few fascinating things about the marine life around the Azores, or the elaborate airlift operations required to deliver fishes and sharks to some of the world’s most famous aquariums.
Go whale or dolphin watching
As with pretty much all the Azores islands, you can embark on a whale or dolphin-watching tour from Faial. In high season a half-day safari should cost around 60 EUR per person. The tours are all well-regulated and responsible, ensuring they won’t disturb the wildlife.
When I went on a whale watching tour we were able to spot numerous sperm whales, observing them as they went for shallow and deep dives only to resurface at set intervals. We also encountered a sea turtle along the way, and were joined by an enormous pod of bottlenose dolphins (our guide estimated our boat was surrounded by at least a hundred of them, and I could easily believe this). It’s a magical experience and not to miss!
Snorkel at Praia do Porto Pim
Okay, so Praia is actually not the only beach around here. Another great beach to hang out is Praia do Porto Pim, which sits along the cove just south of Horta. There’s a lifeguard and changing facilities, and restaurants nearby.
A nice reason to go to this beach is that there’s some decent snorkeling to be had, especially along the side of Monte de Guia (the volcanic cone adjacent to the bay).
Go scuba diving
Failal becomes a key departure point in summer for scuba divers looking for sharks and other pelagic species. While there are not so many typical reefs around, the volcanic islands tend to be great places to encounter oceanic fishes that would otherwise not be found as close to shore. June to August are best for spotting many migrating creatures as well as offering the best visibility and water temperatures.
Travel tips for visiting Faial
- Spring and summer are great times to visit as Faial becomes a key port of call for recreational sailors on their way to cross the Atlantic, creating a lively atmosphere in Horta in particular.
- You could see a lot on Faial as part of an organized tour, but I think it’s nicer to do things at your own pace and renting your own vehicle. There are very few taxis on the island and barely any public transportation, so it’s best not too rely on these too much!
- There are several car rentals on the island, but be sure to book ahead when in high season. Faial Scooters, which is next to the tourist information office in Horta, lets you easily rent motorbikes.
- Keep in mind the weather changes constantly on the Azores no matter what time of year you visit. Pack sun cream and a rain poncho.