The 9 islands of the Azores: a brief guide
Nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic promise an experience of Portugal a world away from Lisbon or the Algarve. In the Azores, lush calderas yawn under a turbulent sky, monochrome chapels peer onto pretty cobbled streets, and whales and dolphins arrive to blow off steam. It’s a remote, sparsely populated place, and often flies under the tourist radar – though perhaps not for much longer.
If you’re considering an Azores holiday, you may be wondering where to visit. There is no best Azores island – each has its own attractions, and the archipelago lends itself to an island-hopping adventure. Learn a little about each island, and what to do in the Azores, with this quick island-by-island guide.
The eastern group of islands (Grupo Oriental)
São Miguel is the Azores’ largest island, and makes an excellent, compact base from which to explore the wider archipelago. It is home to the capital city of the Azores, Ponta Delgada, which brims with charming historical buildings, chapels, gardens, restaurants and museums. Also on the island is the parish of Furnas, famous for its geysers, fumaroles and hot springs; and the landmark twin lakes of Lagoa das Sete Cidades, which are enclosed by a vast, verdant crater. In the north, you’ll find one of Europe’s only tea plantations. São Miguel is also one of the best islands in the Azores for whale watching.
Best things to do on São Miguel island: whale watching, hot springs, hiking, mountain biking, city tour, tea tasting.
Best time to visit São Miguel island: spring to summer (April to September) for whale watching and better weather conditions. The fifth Sunday after Easter (typically in May) is The Feast of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres in Ponta Delgada, the Azores’ largest religious event. In February, Mardi Gras celebrations vivify the streets of Ponta Delgada.
São Miguel island’s nickname: the Green Island, in reference to the lush flora here.
Santa Maria is the southernmost island of the Azores. This tranquil, pastoral place is home to more cows than people. The landscape offers up many untamed beauty spots, with striking waterfalls, wave-crashed inlets and wind-ruffled headlands guaranteed to draw your eye. Santa Maria also plays host to Portugal’s oldest music festival, Maré de Agosto, held each August in the parish of Vila do Porto.
Best things to do on Santa Maria island: hiking, mountain biking, music festival.
Best time to visit Santa Maria island: spring to summer (April to September) for the best weather. August for the Maré de Agosto music festival.
Santa Maria island’s nickname: the Yellow Island; or Island of the Sun; names attributed to the golden genista flowers that are a common sight in spring and summer.
This collection of uninhabited outcrops lies 43 kilometres off Santa Maria and 60 kilometres off São Miguel. In English, their name translates to ‘Ant Islets’, coined for their resemblance to a staggered row of ants. The only building here is a lighthouse, which stands proudly atop the largest islet, Formigão (‘Big Ant’).
Best things to do on the Formigas Islets: reef and wreck diving.
Best time to visit the Formigas Islets: July to October for the best diving conditions.
The Formigas Islets’ nickname: The Formigas Bank
The central group of islands (Grupo Central)
Terceira is the second most populous of the Azores islands. It’s best known for its delightful UNESCO-listed capital, Angra do Heroísmo, the oldest city in the Azores. The historical centre of Angra do Heroísmo (‘Cove of the Heroes’) dates back to the 1470s; it scarcely survived a serious earthquake in 1980, but was swiftly restored before achieving World Heritage status. The island is also known for the Algar do Carvao, a natural tunnel strewn with vegetation that leads inside a dormant volcano; and numerous natural beauty spots – ideal for a rewarding hike.
Best things to do on Terceira island: town tours, whale watching, hiking.
Best time to visit Terceira island: spring to summer (April to September) for whale watching and the best weather conditions. June 21-30 is the Sanjoaninas, a 10-day religious celebration held in Angra do Heroísmo.
Terceira island’s nickname: the Lilac Island, in reference to the hue of the flowers commonly seen here.
A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Graciosa offers uncrowded, bucolic beauty and a relaxed pace of life. The second smallest island in the Azores, it is home to a sprinkle of villages, as well as striking natural sights – most notably the 270-metre Caldeira da Graciosa massif. Inside this caldera lies Furna do Enxofre, a vast lava cave with a 50-metre-high ceiling and sulphurous lake. You can visit the cave via a plunging 180-step staircase.
Best things to do on Graciosa island: hiking, caving.
Best time to visit Graciosa island: spring to summer (April to September) for more sunshine and fewer showers.
Graciosa island’s nickname: the White Island, referring to the light shade of the volcanic rocks found here.
Part of the Ilhas Triangulo (‘Island Triangle’) alongside Faial and Pico, São Jorge is an unusually slender island, never exceeding a width of seven kilometres across its 54-kilometre length. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is famous for the Fajãs de São Jorge; fajãs are flat plains formed by lava flows that extend into the ocean. Some of the island’s pretty coastal villages perch atop these fajãs, with the swelling Atlantic before them and plunging promontories behind.
Best things to do on São Jorge island: Hiking, natural pool bathing.
Best time to visit São Jorge island: between spring and summer (April to September) for better weather.
São Jorge island’s nickname: the Brown Island, so named for the earthy hue of the cliffs and fajãs (lava flats).
Rising to 2,351 metres high, Mount Pico dominates the horizon on the island of its namesake. It’s the tallest mountain in Portugal, and visible from the neighbouring islands of Faial and São Jorge. Hike to the top, and you’re rewarded with views across a sea of clouds or glittering waves, depending on the weather. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Pico is also known for its natural swimming pools dotting the coast, some featuring steps and volcanically warmed waters. There is also a wine industry here, unusual for the fact that grape vines are grown along the ground, framed by black rocks to protect them from the elements – not a trellis in sight.
Best things to do on Pico island: Hiking, whale watching, natural pool bathing, wine tasting.
Best time to visit Pico island: between spring and summer (April to September) for better weather and whale watching. June for the Azores Fringe, an annual arts festival.
Pico island’s nickname: the Grey Island, in reference to Mount Pico’s dominant shade, and the basalt rock commonly used throughout the island.
Formerly a centre for whale hunting, Faial is now renowned as one of the best Azores islands for whale watching. Dolphins also frequent the waters around the island, promising nature enthusiasts the thrilling sight of pods diving bow-side. Other natural attractions include the 1.5-kilometre-wide caldera at the heart of the island, carpeted in greenery; the lunar-like slopes of the Capelinhos volcano on the west coast; and the vivid blue hydrangeas that sprinkle the landscape in summer. Faial is also a cultural hub, with museums, an annual sea festival, and handsome churches that typify Azorean architecture.
Best things to do on Faial: whale watching, hiking, volcano drives, town tours, sea festival.
Best time to visit Faial: spring to summer (April to September) for the best weather. August for the week-long Sea Festival.
Faial’s nickname: the Blue Island, a nod to both Faial’s maritime history and its ubiquitous hydrangeas.
The western group of islands (Grupo Ocidental)
On Flores, you’ll find a bounty of alluring miradouros (viewpoints) – such as Poco da Ribeira do Ferreiro, where white waterfalls cascade over impossibly green cliffs into a glassy lake. The landscape is one of flower-speckled hills, cow-grazed pastures, glittering lakes and pretty hamlets. Waterfalls are a particular attraction, here, and the designated hiking trails will take you between the most prominent. Flores is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and also features Europe’s most westerly village, Fajã Grande.
Best things to do on Flores island: hiking, town tours.
Best time to visit Flores island: spring to summer (April to September) for better weather conditions.
Flores island’s nickname: the Pink Island, so named for the pretty azaleas commonly found here.
Around 25 kilometres north of Flores lies Corvo, the smallest of the Azores islands. It covers an area of just 17 square kilometres and is home to fewer than 400 people. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve offers a sense of splendid isolation paired with volcanic vistas. The focal point of Corvo’s scenery is the lush, green caldera at its centre; lakes shimmer on the crater floor, amidst hardy grasses grazed by cows and horses. It’s the highlight of any hike on Corvo. There is also a solitary hamlet, Vila do Porto, which was first settled in the 15th century.
Best things to do on Corvo island: hiking.
Best time to visit Corvo island: between April and August for lower rainfall, greater sunshine, and warmer temperatures. On 15 August, Corvo hosts the Festa de Nossa Senhora dos Milagres in celebration of their saint.
Corvo island’s nickname: the Black Island, referring to both the black volcanic rock here, and its appearance on the horizon when viewed from Flores.
Inspired to take a tour of the Azores? Cox & Kings’ Spotlight on the Azores escorted tour situates you on São Miguel island, with opportunities to explore the wider archipelago.Share: [Sassy_Social_Share]