The nine islands that make up the archipelago of the Azores are like no other place on Earth. An antonymous region of Portugal, the islands are not what you would call a bustling tourist destination. They are mostly frequented by visitors from mainland Portugal. Arguably, most Americans don’t even know that the islands exist! This makes the Azores a perfect destination for the traveler looking for an experience beyond crowded bus tours and tourist traps.
Staying in the Azores is a different experience than what you might expect. There are not many hotels, except for the largest island of São Miguel, and in the cities. Most travelers stay in rooms in private homes. Families of the islands rent out rooms to travelers and you can enjoy good company, food, and wine. Hostels are also occasionally an option, but staying in a family home is a great way to fully experience the Azores.
São Miguel Island
São Miguel by Feliciano Guimarães
This is the largest and most popular island of the Azores. Most of the inhabitants of the Azores live here, and it is home to the archipelago’s largest city, Ponta Delgada.
Take your time walking through the streets of Ponta Delgada, home to beautiful architecture and churches. Stand in front of the huge Gates to the City and then continue your journey throughout the rest of the island.
Other highlights include Furnas, a hotbed of volcanic activity where you can see geysers and soak in hot springs, and the Parque Terra Nostra. This is a botanic garden that was established in 1780 where you can enjoy the quiet surroundings of lush nature. Visit the stunning Sete Cidades to view a huge crater with twin lakes.
A visit to the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Paz, located high above the town of Villa Franca, is well worth the trip. You can drive to the chapel, but the real treat is to climb a series of platforms decorated with blue and white tile mosaics. Make sure to sample some of the sweet, locally-grown pineapples while on the island. The island is home to lush vegetation and volcanic beaches filled with secluded coves.
West of São Miguel, Terceira is the second most travelled island of the Azores. Spotted with lagoons, Terceira is the perfect destination for those seeking to get a little closer to nature. Terceira is dominated by forests on the western section of the island, and also features many caves that are sure to be a treat for nature buffs and amateur geologists.
The Algar do Carvão is located in the center of the island. It is a volcanic vent that looks like an ancient well, since it is vertical, rather than a cave, and is filled with stalactites. The town of Angra do Heroísmo is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the former capital of the Azores. Finally, while on Terceira, see one of the popular Portuguese bullfights.
Faial Island by Guillaume Baviere
Faial is part of the central cluster of islands and forms a triangle with Pico and São Jorge. You must see the Caldeira on Faial. It is an enormous volcanic crater over 2 kilometers in diameter, filled with diverse vegetation and marshes. The winding drive up the caldera is itself worth the treat, lined with flowers.
Visit the Marina of Horta, where you can see boats from all over the world making port, as well as signs and artwork left by sailors. Visit the Capelinhos, the site of huge volcanic eruption in 1957-8, and home to stunning volcanic landscapes.
Pico Island by Andres Rueda
A quick ferry ride away from Faial waits Pico. Pico is named after the huge volcano, Ponta do Pico, which dominates the island and is the highest point in the Azores and Portugal. Visit Pico for a crowd-free experience.
Lajes is a small whaling town where you can enjoy coastal views, delicious seafood, and see homes built of black volcanic rock. There, you can plan a whale watching trip. If you are lucky, you will spot dolphins that play off of the coast!
Plan to hike Pico Mountain, which is a challenge even for the fit traveler. But the views of the other islands, and nature and wild life are well worth it, especially at sunset! Pico is also a great place to enjoy some snorkeling.
São Jorge Island
São Jorge Island by Guillaume Baviere
Part of the central group of islands, São Jorge is a long, thin island dominated by lush hills and valleys. The island is home to rich folk art and a sharp cheese (aptly named São Jorge cheese) that is shipped around the world.
A haven for hikers, Algar do Montoso and Furnas da Pombas are the sites of stunning rock formations. The island is spotted with coves and islets off of the coast are home to seabirds. Visit the Church of St. Barbara, which is an 18th century church filled with painted tiles. It is a shining example of the beautiful and ornate Baroque architecture.
São Jorge is also home to a unique geological feature called fajãs. Fajãs are formed when cliffs by the sea collapse and form flat natural platforms with fertile soil. Visit the tiny village of Ribeira Seca to see a particularly stunning fajã with an underwater cave.
Santa Maria Island
Santa Maria is located in the east group of islands, and is south of São Miguel. It is a quick plane ride away from the largest island, or you can take a ferry and arrive in about five hours. It has two widely different geographies, the western two-thirds of the island are mostly made up of flat clay planes, and the eastern section is home to rolling hills. The east side is dotted with villages and vibrant green fields.
Go to the Praia Formosa and try windsurfing, or simply lay out on the yellow sand. Yellow sand is a bit of a rarity in these volcanic islands! The town of Anjos was the spot where Christopher Columbus first touched ground in the Azores, and is now home to some of the best surfing in the archipelago. Visit the village of São Lourenço and take in the sights of the islet off the coast, with its stunning green cliffs.
Graciosa is located in the central section of the archipelago, above São Jorge. It is filled with vineyards and white-washed windmills that stand as a stark contrast to the blue sky. You will enjoy a sense of calm in this quiet island of only 4,000 inhabitants.
A must-see destination is the Furna do Enxofre, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This destination is located in the middle of the island’s imposing caldera and is a huge subterranean grotto. Climb down a 100 meter deep tunnel via a winding staircase to reach the huge sulfurous underground lake. The view is ambient, and even eerie. Try to go around noon, where the most sunlight reaches the caverns. Also, visit the village of Carapacho to enjoy thermal baths and mineral-filled water said to have healing properties. Sample some of the local wine, as wine production is still an important part of the island’s economy and heritage.
“Flores” means “flowers” in Portuguese. You won’t wonder why this island is called Flores once you catch sight of the landscape! It is the western most island and is nearly covered in flowers. Thousands of hydrangeas spot the island, and hydrangea hedges are even used to separate fields between property owners. Flores is also home to stunning lakes and waterfalls.
Fajã Grande, the westernmost village in all of Europe, is lively in the summertime. Or, if you prefer the quiet, this is a nice place to go to for some wintertime serenity. Go there to see a breathtaking waterfall. The water drops to Poço do Bacalhau, a crystal-clear pool where you can enjoy a swim.
Visit the small town of Santa Cruz to see beautiful churches and stroll around the seven lakes in the interior of the island. And, no trip to Flores is complete without a visit to the Rocha dos Bordões. This is a stunning geological phenomenon. It is a huge mound of rocks that formed when lava dried into vertical column-like shapes. Truly a sight to be seen!
Corvo Island by Manuel Garcia
Finally, the smallest island of the Azores is Corvo. This island is the most northern of the islands, located above Flores. Spanning just seven square miles and with only about 400 inhabitants, Corvo is arguably Europe’s most isolated place.
There is only one settlement on the island, called Vila do Corvo. Mostly residential houses and small business, sample some of the local dining here, which include cheeses, cornbread, and kale dishes.
The coasts are spotted with black stone windmills and triangular cloth sails spin in the breeze. Hike up Monte Grosso, the highest point of the island at about 770 meters high. From there, look down into the deep Caldeirao. This is the caldera of the volcano which formed the island of Corvo, one of the many volcanoes that are the heats of these islands. The walls of the caldera are a beautiful patchwork quilt of greenery. In the center you will find two lakes separated by lush green hills.
This is just a taste of what the islands of the Azores have to offer. All of the islands have histories rich in folklore and religion, and unique cuisine and crafts. A trip to the Azores is simply a travelers dream!