The Azores, scattered 1500km west of Portugal’s capital Lisbon, is an archipelago 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 this volcanic Portuguese archipelago has built a reputation with discerning walkers and wildlife watchers. Many Azoreans used to earn a living from hunting whales, but now the central cluster of islands has reinvented itself as one of the best places in the world to see both whales and dolphins. Find out more in our Azores travel guide.
Our top Azores vacations
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Dolphins, whales and explore fiery volcanic islands!
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Best time to go to the Azores
The islands of the Azores enjoy a mild breezy climate, with daytime temperatures rarely dipping below 14°C in winter or rising above 25°C in July, making them a good choice for an outdoorsy break in any season. Whales and dolphins can be seen at any time of year but summer is the best time to visit the Azores for boat tours, when conditions are calmest and warmest. Spring vacations, however, when the Azores are less busy, coincide with the April, May and June migrations of baleen whales, including the mighty blue whale – the largest animal on the planet.
Map & highlightsThe largest of the Azores, São Miguel, is known as ‘the green island’. It’s fantastic for walking, with tea and pineapple plantations and hot springs to explore, as well as the historic maritime city of Ponta Delgada, which offers a distinctly Portuguese atmosphere. Their deep waters rich in nutrients, both Pico and Faial are exceptional for whale and dolphin watching. A short ferry journey away, São Jorge boasts diverse scenery beloved by hikers, mountain bikers and canoeists alike. Blue whales migrate along a channel between São Jorge and Terceira, where caves, lava tubes and fumaroles make it another tantalising prospect for walkers.
Faial is a yachting, boating, whale watching and dolphin watching hub with a buzzing marina in its main town, Horta. Sailors consider it bad luck to leave without painting their insignia onto the breakwater, a huge, evolving mural that’s like a seadog’s visitors’ book. Inland there are surreal volcanic landscapes to explore by 4x4 and tidal pools for a refreshing wild swim.
At 250,000 years old, Pico is a youngster. It’s dominated by a single volcano whose frozen lava reaches right down to the sea. A third of Pico, including the mountain, is a nature reserve. But it’s not all about that whopping volcano – Pico also has caves, heritage-listed vineyards and lanes lined with ancient heathers, ferns and hydrangeas. Whales cruise offshore; this was once the hub of the whaling industry, today replaced by whale watching.
3. Ponta Delgada
With cruise ships docking and yachts nipping in and out, Ponta Delgada is a busy maritime city with a historic center that’s refreshingly walkable. The heart of the city was laid out in the 19th century and has a distinctively Portuguese feel, with red roofs, cobblestone mosaics and attractive, whitewashed buildings edged with dark lava stone.
4. São Jorge
Scenically diverse, São Jorge shakes up mountains, ravines, cliffs, lakes and fajãs (coastal plains formed by lava flows or landslides) into a cocktail that appeals to fans of hiking, mountain biking, canyoning, canoeing and caving. It’s also home to peaceful pastures – dairy farming is a time-honoured tradition on São Jorge and the locals make delicious, strong unpasteurised cheese.
5. São Miguel
The largest island in the Azores has enough to keep you busy for an entire trip. Beyond the appealing city of Ponta Delgada, there’s plenty to do and see inland, from exploring plantations of tea and pineapple to mountain biking past bubbling hot springs. Offshore, there are whale watching, dolphin watching, and glass-bottomed boat trips to enjoy.
Terceira has the second largest population after São Miguel, but make your way inland and you’ll find solitude in quiet meadows and ancient forests that hide caves, lava tubes, volcanic chimneys and fumaroles. The deep channel between Terceira and São Jorge lies on the migration routes of blue whales, making these waters exciting to explore in spring, summer and autumn.
They may not have the sunshine or golden beaches of the Algarve, but the Azores make an excellent family vacation destination. Best suited to older, active kids – and especially those enthusiastic about wildlife – the main focus of family vacations in the Azores are the boat trips to see whales and dolphins, skippered by experts in marine life. On land, meanwhile, families can hike and mountain bike through rugged volcanic landscapes, pausing for a dip in a geothermal hot spring or forest pool whenever the mood takes them.
Swimming with dolphins
Admiring dolphins from the boat is one thing; actually being in the water alongside them is a different experience altogether. The best time to swim with dolphins in the Azores is between May and September, when the sea is warmer and calmer, although you will still need a wetsuit. Large pods of common dolphins congregate here, as well as bottlenose, Risso’s and striped dolphins. Your crew will brief you very clearly on behaviour in the water. Responsible dolphin watching is strictly adhered to in the Azores, and whether you go in or not will always be the skipper’s decision.
More vacation ideas
From US $2790 to US $309014 days ex flights
An easy walking vacation on the Azores
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From £1145 to £12258 days ex flights
Snorkelling with dolphins on São Miguel Island, The Azores
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More about the Azores
The Azores are one of the best places in the world for whale watching, and between April and June large numbers of baleen whales, including huge blue whales, can be seen in these deep, dark waters rich in krill and plankton. Whale watching tours by boat have replaced the historic, bloody whaling industry that was once the major economy in the Azores. And in case you were wondering, viewing success rates are very high. Skippers – experts in marine life as well as minimising their impact on the whales – are guided by spotters in the vigia towers that stud the islands’ coasts.
Types of vacations
When we talk about wildlife vacations in the Azores, we’re talking about cetaceans. This remote Portuguese archipelago is surrounded by waters of such depth and nutrients that whales and dolphins are in their element, thankfully now protected rather than hunted. It’s possible, though rare, to see whales while walking in the Azores, but travel on two feet is still highly recommended. Vineyards, hot springs, crater lakes, hills hazy with hydrangeas and smoky volcanic fumaroles are all part of the attraction. Active adventure vacations will likely feature a mix of whale and dolphin watching and hikes, along with mountain biking, kayaking and canyoning.