Azores travel guide

The Azores travel guide


2 minute summary

If you think of an ocean as a desert, then a cluster of islands is an oasis. By catching the rain, they allow plant life to thrive. They also create eddies of nutrient-rich water, providing feeding grounds for marine life and birds. The Azores, scattered 1500 kms west of Portugal's capital, Lisbon, in the North Atlantic, are just such an oasis, attracting travelers of many types – from medieval seafarers to modern-day yachties, and from rare Cory’s shearwaters to mighty blue whales.
Relatively little-known as a vacation destination, in recent years they’ve gradually grown popular with discerning walkers and wildlife-watchers. Many Azoreans used to earn a living from hunting whales, but over the last three decades the central cluster of islands has reinvented itself as one of the world’s best places to see both whales and dolphins.
In landscape, history and atmosphere, the Azores are a little like their Macaronesian neighbours, Madeira, the Canary Islands and Cape Verde. But only a little. Rugged, remote, and environmentally-aware, there’s something very special about this archipelago that makes it totally unique.
The Azores is...

a chance to get back to nature, with wild landscapes, open seas and big skies
The Azores isn't...

for beach lovers. They're mostly edged with cliffs and rocky shores

What we rate & what we don't


Our best & worst of Azores vacations

Underrated

Tidal pools Flores, Corvo and Graciosa Local wine Volcano Interpretation Centre

Tidal pools

For an archipelago with precious few sandy beaches, the Azores is great for anyone who loves swimming. On the coasts of São Miguel, Faial and Pico, the locals have turned natural lava pools into appealing seawater swimming pools by adding walkways and steps, so you don’t have to scramble over the rocks.

Flores, Corvo and Graciosa

The northernmost islands are well off the beaten track, so are perfect places to bond with nature. All three are UNESCO biosphere reserves where seabirds outnumber people – Flores and Graciosa have fewer than 5000 inhabitants each and Corvo, under 500.

Local wine

Little known outside the archipelago, Azorean tipple wine has been produced as long as the island has been settled by Europeans, particularly dry whites and fortified wines. The production is a triumph of problem solving, with neat lava stone walls warming the vines at night and sheltering them from Atlantic winds. The traditional grids of lava currais (enclosures) found in Pico’s winelands, where Verdelho and Lajido wines are produced, are World Heritage listed.

Volcano Interpretation Centre

In the 1950s, a 13-month volcanic eruption destroyed 300 houses, ruined a lighthouse and boosted Faial’s area by 2.4 square kilometres. The lighthouse in Capelinhos is now part of the Centro de Interpretação do Vulcão dos Capelinhos, a volcano museum with a striking, modern design and snazzy multimedia displays.

Rated

Whales and dolphins Volcanic landscapes Walking and cycling trails Historic towns

Whales and dolphins

You can’t really say you’ve been to the Azores until you’ve hung out with the locals – the local cetaceans, that is. You can often catch a glimpse of a fluke or a fin from shore, but heading out by boat is best. Strict guidelines are in place to ensure good practice and sightings are pretty much guaranteed.

Volcanic landscapes

Exploding out of the ocean between 250,000 and 10 million years ago, the Azores have all the hallmarks of a volcanic archipelago – craggy peaks, gaping craters, mysterious lava caves, steaming fumaroles and relaxing thermal pools. With ever-changing light, this is a fascinating location for landscape photography.

Walking and cycling trails

While the classic Azorean hike is the trek to the top of Mount Pico, the massive volcano that’s highest peak on Portuguese territory, there are also many gentler routes to enjoy on two legs or two wheels – along coastal paths, around crater lakes and through cool, mossy laurel forests.

Historic towns

Clustered around busy harbours, the old towns of Ponta Delgada on São Miguel, Angra do Heroísmo (a World Heritage Site) on Terceira and Horta on Faial all brim with Portuguese charm. Decorative cobbles and whitewashed churches trimmed with dark lava stone give their streets and squares an attractive and distinctive character.

Overrated

"Tourist" food Plastic bags

"Tourist" food

All too many Azorean hotels and restaurants have yet to catch up with the global fascination for all things fresh and flavoursome. The best they can offer are dull buffets.

Plastic bags

The Azores are pretty clued-up on sustainability and marine conservation, but plastic shopping bags are a blind spot. A campaign to ban them is underway, but for now, just say no thanks.

Food, shopping & people


Travel like a local on your Azores vacation

Eating & drinking in The Azores


Traditional Azorean cuisine features rustic stews such as caldeirada de peixe made with mackerel, snapper or whatever else the artisan fishermen have brought in.
Dairy farming is big in the Azores: a local hard cheese with bread and pepper sauce is often served as an appetiser. Queijo São Jorge is considered the best.
The Azores is the only place where pineapples are cultivated commercially in greenhouses. Guavas, passionfruit and other tropical fruit are also grown.

People & language


The Azoreans speak Portuguese with an island accent that’s particularly marked on São Miguel. You can generally get by with English – it’s widely used in the tourism industry and kids are taught it in school – but if you greet the locals in their own language it’s appreciated.
Always start with a cheery “Olá” (Hello), “Bom día” (Good morning) or “Boa tarde” (Good afternoon/evening) and “Como esta?” (How are you?).
The word for thank you depends on whether you’re male or female (obrigada).
Say “Saúde” as you raise a glass
Bid farewell with “Adeus” or “Chau”.

Gifts & shopping


Whales, dolphins, volcanoes and botanical motifs appear in all sorts of souvenirs including traditional weaving, pottery, embroidery and lace-making.

Look out for jars of luscious exotic jam made from island-grown tropical fruit.

In the bad old days of whale hunting, Azoreans carved scrimshaw – decorative objects made from sperm whale teeth or bone. Nowadays a few craftsmen carve vegetable ivory or cow bone scrimshaw instead – a much more ethical alternative.

Fast facts


  There are just a handful of tea plantations in Europe, and the Azores has two of them - on São Miguel. A retro-looking packet of the local brew, which is fresh, tasty and low in caffeine, makes an attractive gift.

How much does it cost?


Foot passenger return on the ferry from São Miguel to Santa Maria: £48
Foot passenger return on the ferry from Pico to Faial: £2.75
Guided hike inc. transfers to summit of Pico: £105
Two-course meal for a family of four: £60
Coffee, soft drink or local beer: 80p

A brief history of The Azores


European seafarers first mapped the islands in the 14th century, finding no evidence of any inhabitants.In the 15th century, Portuguese explorers claimed the islands one at a time from east to west, starting with Santa Maria. They introduced farm animals as they went to provide food for future settlers. The first people to make their home here were mostly from southern Portugal, northern France and Flanders, building a well-defended settlement on Terceira’s Bay of Angra, a sheltered anchorage. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Topbox: Guillaume Baviere] [Tidal pools: Mário Diogo] [Flores, Corvo and Graciosa: Don Faulkner] [Local wine: David Stanley] [Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Centre, Faial: putneymark] [Whales and dolphins: flowbadger] [Volcanic landscapes: Guillaume Baviere] [Walking and cycling trails: Guillaume Baviere] [Historic towns: David Stanley] [Traditional food: David Stanley] [Semana dos Baleeiros, Pico: nick fullerton] [Plastic bags: Alex] [Colour coding: Tim Sackton] [Azores Pineapple: David Stanley] [sculptor: Luca Nebuloni] [Orkney and Shetland combined: ] [Beer: edwin]
Written by Emma Gregg
Whale watching in the Azores

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Hot geysirs, rugged volcanoes and a wild natural beauty

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