When you look through the airplane window and catch your first glimpse of the Azores, it leaves you speechless. No wonder this Portuguese archipelago is labeled as "The Hawaii of Europe" and the "Islands of Colors".
Set in the middle of the Atlantic, halfway between the United States and continental Portugal, the nine major Azores islands – São Miguel, Santa Maria, Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, Faial, Flores and Corvo – are a love affair waiting to happen.
From the green fields spotted with free-roaming local cattle (locally referred to as "happy cows") to the lagoons set on the mouth of extinct volcanoes; the thermal pools where you can bathe and feel the warmth coming from deep within the earth, and the delicious freshness of the culinary ingredients, this is a must-do vacation that will keep you coming back year after year.
What is the best time to go to the Azores?
The Azores islands are an all-year-round destination – the key considerations are what you want to do and your budget. In the summer, many visitors arrive from the mainland to enjoy the islands' beautiful scenery or visit relatives. This, combined with tourism from other countries, makes it the busiest and more expensive season.
If you're looking for a more relaxed and cheaper adventure, aim for the shoulder seasons, as winter can offer challenging weather. Remember that the islands are set in the middle of the ocean and are more exposed to the winter storms that form in the Atlantic – this often affects crossings (and your plans!).
Either way, whenever you visit, prepare to face all four seasons in one day. You can wake up with sunshine and warm weather, only to take a hike up the mountain and get lower temperatures, rain, and even zero visibility. A raincoat in your backpack can become your best friend.
In the summer, temperatures typically range from about 68°F to 79°F; in the mid-seasons, they usually go from about 60°F to 71°F, and during winter, from about 53°F to 64°F. However, keep in mind that specific temperatures can vary depending on the island and the time of day.
Getting to the Azores
São Miguel is the largest island in the Azores and works as a hub to reach the other eight. The Ponta Delgada airport receives international flights from the United States, Canada, Spain, France, Cape Verde, Germany and Bermuda (seasonal). Terceira also welcomes international flights from the United States and Canada. If you don't come from these destinations, the easiest way to get to the Azores is from Lisbon or Porto, on Portugal's mainland.
From São Miguel, you can get internal flights with the local airline SATA to every island in the Azores. You can also opt for SATA's Azores Air Pass, which allows travelers to visit up to three islands at a special rate.
Another way to get around is by ferry – Atlanticoline links the Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, Faial, Flores and Corvo islands.
Be advised that your plans may change by plane or boat, as the departure schedule can be disrupted by weather and ocean conditions. Being flexible with your itinerary is a good idea if you plan to visit more than one island in the Azores, especially in wintertime.
Moving around the islands
Renting a car is the best way to explore the beautiful Azores islands. With so much to see and do, having the freedom to travel at your own pace and visit more off-the-beaten-track locations is essential to make the most of your trip. Plus, renting a car allows you to easily get around the larger islands, such as São Miguel (287 sq miles), Pico (172 sq miles), or Terceira (154 sq miles).
You can even take your rented car on the ferry between some of the islands, such as the Pico-Faial-São Jorge triangle. Public buses are also available on all islands except Corvo.
Once you reach your desired destination, explore it on foot to fully experience its charm. Walk the dirt paths, immerse yourself in nature and be amazed by the sounds of the birds and running waterfalls, and the smell of flowers and wet vegetation.
Top things to do on the Azores
See how volcanoes have shaped the islands’ landscape and history
The volcanic nature of the Azores is the architect of its appeal and manifests in the dark heart of the stone used in the old buildings and the black sand of the beaches. When visiting São Miguel, you can feel it on your skin. The iron-rich thermal springs provide warmth emanating from the island's inner depths.
The same heat cooks the traditional Cozido dos Açores (Azorean stew) in the Furnas area. This local dish joins vegetables with meat and a smoky touch of sulfur after being under the ground for five to seven hours. Other islands, like Terceira or São Jorge, offer natural pools carved by time in the stone, invaded by the fresh waters of the Atlantic and simultaneously heated by the volcanic rock.
Speaking of volcanoes, it is in Faial that you can find the Vulcão dos Capelinhos. The desolate appearance of this place was caused by the volcanic eruption in the 1950s, which still looms large in the memory of the island's older generations.
Hike for days
The Azores is, without a doubt, a destination for those who want to immerse themselves in nature and experience the rawness of the landscape. All the islands have hiking trails that bring you deep into their wild heart, revealing lagoons formed inside extinct volcanoes or waterfalls that flow from the top of the mountains, as in the case of Flores.
Mt Pico, on the island of the same name, is another must-see place in the Azores. As the highest point in Portugal, it's a challenging climb, but the reward is worth it – on a clear day, you'll be treated to an unforgettable view.
While in Pico, visit the local vineyards that are part of a landscape that's been declared a Unesco world heritage site. Gaze out at the ocean as you enjoy a glass of wine and spot a pod of playful dolphins or nature's giants, the whales.
Combine a whale-watching trip with a visit to a tea factory
You can also go whale watching on São Miguel Island, alongside visiting cheese factories, pineapple plantations or the Gorreana Tea Factory. This is the oldest and currently only tea plantation in Europe. You can visit the factory and museum for free, and see the machines that have produced tea since 1840 –toast your visit with a cup at the end of the tour.
Disconnect from the world
If your goal is to escape and disconnect from the world, you'll find that tranquillity in the Azorean "fajãs" — small coastal villages next to large cliffs.
The Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo, in São Jorge, is the best place to do it. Difficult to access, you can get there on foot by following the Caldeira de Santo Cristo Trail, which starts in Serra do Topo. The descent gradually reveals the small town, its houses, the church, and the large lagoon stretching near the sea.
You can also arrive by quad bike, starting from Fajã dos Cubres; you can pre-arrange a trip with your accommodation.
Once in Fajã de Santo Cristo, cell phone and internet connection are almost non-existent, leaving room to slow down. It's the ideal place to relax, catch up on your reading, discover the lagoon by kayak, or taste the clams served at O Borges, the oldest restaurant in this location.
How much time do I need to visit the Azores?
It all depends on what you want to do! São Miguel is a great option for a first-time visitor. This island provides a wide range of activities, landscapes, and great restaurant and accommodation options. Five days should be enough time to explore it.
But if you want to get a true sense of the richness of this archipelago, set aside two to three weeks to hop between islands and get to know what truly distinguishes them and makes this one of the most beautiful destinations in Europe.
How much money do I need in the Azores?
The Azores is a destination for all types of travelers. You can go from five-star hotels in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, to local accommodations on Flores Island. Depending on your budget, you can easily fit in lodging, food and even some island tours.
Car rental can make or break your budget, especially if you are traveling in high season. Due to increased demand, prices rise and supply goes down, so try to plan ahead and make your reservations as soon as possible. These are the average daily costs you can expect:
- Four-star hotel room for two: from €150
- Dormitory room in a hostel: from €45
- Self-catering apartment: from €100
- Car rental: from €90 for a small car
- Furnas stew for two: €30
- Coffee: €1
- Beer: €1.50
- Bath in the hot springs: €8
Nature calls for safety
Exploring the various volcanic craters and lagoons hidden in the islands' interior is one of the best experiences you can have in the Azores. These are extraordinary natural ecosystems and, as such, should be approached in a mindful way.
Respect the local landscape by exploring in a way that doesn't disturb the animals or damage any plants – the easiest way to do this is by sticking to the marked trails. Many are there to protect vegetation and prevent soil erosion, but also for your safety, as they avoid unstable or slippery ground.
Also, as much as the lagoons seem like the perfect opportunity for a cooling dip, most are unsuitable for bathing or swimming for safety reasons. Always follow the safety signs displayed at each lagoon.
Finally, be aware that weather conditions can change from one moment to the next, especially in higher areas. Check the forecast before venturing out on a long trail to ensure you're not caught in a precarious position mid-hike.
What to pack when visiting the Azores
Besides your everyday clothing, packing some specialist hiking is essential if you plan to fully explore the islands:
- Waterproof trekking boots
- Light rain jacket
- Lightweight and breathable fleece
- Backpack and water bottle
- Trekking poles
- Camera and/or action camera