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Our island-by-island guide to the Azores


The lush volcanic islands of the Azores are a wonderland of forested mountains, deep blue lakes and bubbling hot springs. With a perfectly temperate climate, nature here is alive and blooming, and the islands are rich with tropical fruits and flowers. Visit the Azores to hike through luxurious landscapes, dive into waterfall pools and walk barefoot across pristine gold- and black-sand beaches. 

This distant outpost of Portugal (over 900 mi west of Lisbon) is an archipelago of nine main islands scattered across the mid-Atlantic like jewels. The islands of the Azores span around 370 mi, so you are unlikely to see them all in one go. To help you choose your slice of paradise (for this trip, at least), we’ve created this detailed island-by-island guide to the Azores – and while you’re planning, also check out our practical guide to the Azores for tips to get you organized.

sunset over the mountains

São Miguel: coastal hot springs, hiking and sophisticated dining

The Azores’ largest island is nicknamed Ilha Verde, meaning the green island, and in an archipelago of verdant isles, that’s saying something. The sweeping mountains and valleys here come in full technicolor, with swathes of emerald forest, lemon-green grassland and vivid veridian crater lakes. The mountain roads and pathways are festooned with blush-pink hydrangeas, and in the valleys, delicate waterfalls plume into fern-lined pools.    

São Miguel is excellent for hiking, with the Sete Cidades trails being the most breathtakingly scenic. Sete Cidades means Seven Cities, but this is a landscape of glorious crater lagoons backed by the ocean. For swimming, there are the bracing waters of river pools, and along the coast, you can swim in thermally heated ocean waters.

The island is also the center of the Azores’ dining scene, with its coastal capital, Ponta Delgada, home to several fine restaurants. From abundant seafood to the sweetest pineapples, passion fruit and guava, the local produce in the Azores is fresh and bountiful. 

volcanic crater in ocean

Santa Maria: glorious beaches, a red desert and diving the deep

Along with São Miguel, Santa Maria is part of the Eastern Azores. Set slightly further south, it has a sunny and dry climate and is favored for its beaches and diving. The marine reserve of the Formigas islets and the Dollabarat Reef are stand-out dive spots in Europe and offer the chance to see manta rays and Galapagos sharks.

Santa Maria is only 11 miles across, and beyond its golden beaches lies a green interior dotted with pretty villages. The houses here are whitewashed with distinctive conical chimneys typical of the Algarve. This was the first island of the archipelago to be discovered and settled by the Portuguese in the 1400s. Another feature that sets the island apart is the Barreiro da Faneca, a mini desert landscape in a startling red hue.

lighthouse on a cliff

Graciosa: volcanic landscapes and your new favorite Portuguese custard tart

Moving to the Central Azores, Graciosa is the northernmost island in a cluster of five. Cool and calm, it has been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve because of its unique geological characteristics. Here you can walk through lava tubes, descend into an impressive volcanic cave, and swim in gorgeous natural hot spring pools at the ocean’s edge.  

Besides this, there are island trails to wander, tranquil towns and a countryside dotted with brightly-painted red windmills. The island is famous for its characterful dwarf donkeys and delicious star-shaped custard pastries, queijadas da Graciosa. Fans of the Portuguese custard tart, take note.

waves crashing against cliffs

São Jorge: dramatic views and outdoor adventures

Long and slim with dizzyingly high cliffs tailing off into flat coastal lava plains, São Jorge has been dubbed ‘The Dragon’. Criss-crossed by walking trails, it is very popular with hikers. Set your sights on the top of Ponta dos Rosais on a clear day, and you should be able to see all four neighboring islands in the Central Azores.

São Jorge is very popular for outdoor sports such as surfing, hiking, canoeing and canyoning. With all this outward bounding, you’ll need plenty of protein, so it’s a good job São Jorge produces a famous raw milk cheese and is home to the Azores’ prime tuna canning factory, Santa Catarina.

rock formation in the sea

Terceira: frivolity, festivities and farming

With a large, flat central plateau and fertile land, Terceira is ideal for agriculture. The center of the island is mainly farmland, much of it grazed by dairy cattle. Head to the top of the Serra do Cume on a clear day to see a patchwork quilt of fields laid out before you. The soil here is also ideal for wine-growing, and there are several vineyards to visit.

This is the most populated island in the Central Azores, and aside from farming and viniculture, it is known as the Azores’ party island. We’re not talking Ibiza by any stretch, but some lively festivals and street parties are held here. The beach bars and cafes at Praia da Vitória can get busy, and there is an American air base on the island, so expect hot dogs, hamburgers and some jovial off-duty officers. You can also wander the cobbled streets of the UNESCO-recognized capital, Angra do Heroísmo, a strategic stop-off point between Europe, Africa and the Americas for hundreds of years.  

sunset over island

Pico: viniculture and the Azores’ highest peak

The rugged island of Pico is the most ostentatiously volcanic of the Azores, with black lava rock all around and some 200 (now dormant) volcanoes (and just one active one). It is a relatively large island with a tiny population of under 20,000. One of the main reasons people visit is to make the challenging acsent of Pico’s eponymous peak. At 2,350 m, it’s quite a climb and scramble towards the top with loose, volcanic scree to negotiate.

The second reason is wine. Wine making is an old tradition here, and Azorean wine was an important export in the 18th century. Sadly, in the 19th century, a devastating fungus all but wiped out the industry. In recent years wine-making has been making a comeback using the distinctive volcanic rock corals of yesteryear. This winemaking infrastructure is UNESCO-recognized for its unique cultural importance. Visit Picowines and the Azores Wine Company to sip on the bright minerally-white wines unique to these islands.

view from a mountain

Faial: discovering new land and going whale-watching

The last of the Central Azores, little Faial is the site of the last volcanic eruption on the island chain in 1957-8. Over the course of a year, two eruptions created around 2 km² of new land to the western end of the island. The nearby interpretation center has fascinating exhibits all about it.

While this new land is deep red, burnt orange and lava black, the rest of the island is beautifully green. Right at the opposite end, the harbor town of Horta is popular with passing yachts and as a jumping-off point for whale- and dolphin-watching excursions.

volcanic land

Flores: pirate stories and natural treasures

Skipping well over 100 mi west, we come to the beautiful island of Flores – the island of flowers. Lush and green with glorious blooms, waterfalls and crater lakes, Flores is magnificent for hiking. Along its hills and cliffs, there are also many exceptional viewpoints that you can drive to.

Back in the age of discovery, pirates set up camp on Flores to lay in wait for passing ships laden with treasure from the Americas. The Museu das Flores in Santa Cruz details this murky past.

pirate ship in bay

Corvo: birdwatching and remote island life

Tiny Corvo is formed from the blown top of a marine volcano, and is home to just 400 inhabitants living in its one town. Here you can hike or take a tour of the extinct volcano crater, and enjoy the serenity of this unique place on earth. Corvo is also known for its birdwatching credentials, with some 400 species either in residence or stopping off here on their migratory journeys.

natural bowl

Make it happen

For more on the Azores and to start plotting your next trip, chat with a local expert today. They’ll help you find just the right mix of islands and activities to get you and your travel companions counting down the days.

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