A little help before you start planning your trip to the Azores
Often referred to as Europe's “Best Kept Secret”, the Azores have become an increasingly popular destination with year-round appeal for travelers. This cluster of nine idyllic islands 900 miles off the coast Portugal is an off-the-beaten path destination packed with natural beauty, striking landscapes, and tangible authenticity.
Though the islands are similar to one another, each has its own distinct set of characteristics that set it apart from the rest. What makes each island unique? And, how do you know which island(s) you'll enjoy visiting the most? We break down each of the 9 islands of the Azores here with this mini guide.
The Eastern Group of the Azores Islands
Nicknamed the "Green Island" for its lush landscapes and rolling hills, the largest of the Azores is also the most visited of the islands. Some of the Azores’ most iconic views and famed crater lakes are found on this island at Sete Cidades and Lagoa do Fogo.
Ponta Delgada, the main city, is not only the hub of the island but the capital of the Azores. Ponta Delgada evokes all the charms of Europe with cobbled streets, sidewalk cafes and a thriving culinary scene.
São Miguel is also a geothermal spot, meaning you can find warm water to swim in year-round in one of the natural spas and hot springs inland or tucked along the rocky coast.
The oldest of the Azores, it’s known as the “mother island” of the archipelago. It’s a bit flatter than the others, which means it’s more of a true beach island, with pale yellow sands and warm water year-round.
Santa Maria attracts divers from all over the world due to its temperate climate, crystal clear waters, high visibility and its strategic location at the doorstep of the natural reserve of Formigas and Dollabarat bank, a rock formation northeast of the island that is considered by many as the best diving location in Europe. Beyond the pastoral landscape, the cities are similar to those found in the Algarve in mainland Portugal with lime-washed houses and lush green forests.
The Central Group of the Azores Islands
With patchwork fields crisscrossing the emerald landscape and a cow population that’s almost double the amount of people, Terceira’s gorgeous scenery is reminiscent of the Irish countryside.
Angra do Heroísmo, the main city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is characterized by Renaissance buildings with colorful facades that line windy cobbled streets.
The island’s interior is home to its most famous site — the Algar do Carvão, an ancient volcanic cave that you can walk inside and home to some of the largest stalactites in the world.
This small island is serene enough to live up to its name, which translates as Enchanting. Graceful white rocks line the coastline, and red-turreted windmills dot the landscape. Graciosa is also home to the famed Azorean dwarf donkeys -- a species on the verge of extinction (there are allegedly only 20 left!) The deep waters around the island also make it one of the best from which to embark on a whale- or dolphin-watching expedition.
São Jorge may be small, but its scenery is dramatic, shouldered with mountains that tumble into deep ravines, rocky cliffs, crater lakes and characteristic fajãs (plains formed by lava flow).
The fertile brown soil and dark rock striations lend it its nickname, and the island is a favorite among outdoor and adventure enthusiasts — you can do everything from mountain biking to canyoning, hiking, canoeing and spelunking.
Of course, no visit to São Jorge is complete without a stop at the island’s cheese factory where they produce the famed Queijo São Jorge, a robust, aged cheese characterized by its spicy, tangy flavor.
Characterized by black volcanic soil, Pico Island is covered with basalt (lava rock) lined vineyards that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Locals have been producing wine here since the 15th century and even have a museum dedicated to its rich history.
Pico’s red and white varietals grow in the shadow of Pico Mountain, the highest point in Portugal, measuring over 7,700 feet. The island also boasts one of the world’s longest lava tubes, where you can see rare stalactites and stalagmites that have been unaffected by outside or artificial light.
Nicknamed the “Blue Island” for its bursting of blue hydrangeas that cover the island in the summer months, Faial is also the site of the most recent volcanic eruption in the Azores which took place along the coast of Capelinhos village in 1958.
Most famous as a port, Faial historically has been (and remains to this day) a popular stopping point for sailors crossing the Atlantic. The main city, Horta, though small, has a cosmopolitan feel, with travelers from all over gathering at the restaurants and bars along the harbor to swap stories and take in views of Pico across the bay.
The Western Group of the Azores Islands
The island gets its name (meaning Flowers) from the luxuriant botanical garden of a landscape covered in goldenrods and pink and blue hydrangeas. It’s one of the few UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in the world, which is a protection given for natural landscapes.
Another island favored by outdoor enthusiasts, Flores gets high annual rainfall, which pays off with an abundance of lagoons, deep blue crater lakes and dozens of waterfalls.
The smallest of the Azores, Corvo island has only one village, which is home to 468 locals — one of the smallest communities in Europe. The properties are divided by the same black basalt rocks that many of the homes are built out of, and locals still speak in a medieval dialect of Portuguese.
Corvo is also a favorite among bird-watchers, as many rare migratory species can be spotted here, and divers who visit for the skylit caves full of submerged lava formations.