A visit to the stunning, nine-island archipelago of the Azores feels like you’ve stumbled upon a true travel find. It’s a diverse natural paradise where you can hike into a volcanic caldera, swim in natural pools along the coast, sip the only tea grown in Europe, indulge in fresh seafood, and stay in affordable ecolodges—all in a remote part of the Atlantic Ocean.
But don’t assume its middle-of-nowhere location makes it a difficult travel destination—far from it. As an autonomous region of Portugal, Portuguese is the official language (though English is widely spoken), currency is in euros, there are direct flights from the United States and Europe, and good infrastructure makes it relatively easy to get around. These factors, alongside the unique and varied natural landscapes and distinctly Azorean culture, makes it feel both far-flung and familiar.
Here’s why you should visit the Azores, and some of the top things to do once you’re there.
Where are the Azores?
The Azores are located in the northern Atlantic Ocean, roughly 2,400 miles east of the U.S. and 930 miles west of Lisbon, making them the closest European land to the United States. The archipelago is made up of nine volcanic islands spread across 400 miles, which are divided into three island clusters: eastern (São Miguel and Santa Maria islands), central (Terceira, São Jorge, Pico, Graciosa, and Faial), and western (Flores and Corvo).
Visit one (or more) of nine different Azorean islands—each with a distinct feel
Most international tourists land in São Miguel and visit two or three islands during their stay. São Miguel, the largest island, is home to the lively city of Ponta Delgada, which is framed by 18th-century arched gates, as well as crater lakes, volcanic peaks, geothermal pools in Furnas, and the only tea plantations in Europe. Though locals are quick to point out that it’s the busiest of the nine islands (especially in the summer), it’s still worth starting your trip with a few days here.
In addition to São Miguel, the other eight islands in the Azores include:
- Terceira, whose main town, Angra do Heroísmo, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, has an extensive network of lava caves visitors can explore.
- Pico, which has Portugal’s highest mountain (Mount Pico), is known for its (mostly white) wines grown in volcanic soil.
- Faial is notable for its yacht harbor, painted tile–lined churches, and caldera-containing Faial Nature Park.
- Corvo, the smallest island at seven square miles, offers a caldera lake and unparalleled bird-watching each October.
- Flores, a lesser-visited island, is known for its spectacular hydrangea flower blooms in the summer, waterfalls, natural pools, and lakes.
- São Jorge has scenic views of nearby Pico and Faial, natural swimming pools, an artisanal coffee plantation, and a cheese factory.
- Graciosa, nicknamed “the White Island” for its white rocks, hills, and architecture, includes a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve with unique volcanic landscapes, thermal baths, and distinct architectural heritage.
- Santa Maria, the warmest and most southern of the nine islands, is the best for swimming on sandy (as opposed to rocky) beaches and waterfall hikes.
Explore ancient volcanic calderas, chimneys, and lava caves
With its volcanic splendor and great swaths of undeveloped land, the Azores are a paradise for the outdoorsy and adventurous. On Terceira, the Algar do Carvão Natural Reserve is one of the few places on the planet where you can descend into an ancient volcanic chimney and lava chambers (via stairs and tunnels) to explore the caves, formations, and a rainwater lake inside.
On São Miguel, the lakes above the small town of Sete Cidades sit in a cluster of inactive, ancient volcano calderas. If you’re only able to visit one, go to Miradouro da Boca do Inferno, which is accessible by an easy, 1.5-mile in-and-out hike.
On Faial (where the islands’ most recent volcanic eruption occurred in 1957 to 1958), the Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Center offers an informative overview of the archipelago’s topography and volcanic history; afterward, climb up the lighthouse or ascend the adjacent ridge for sweeping views of the volcanic landscape.
Swim, surf, snorkel, or dive at one of the islands’ many beaches
There are many lovely beaches and coves on the islands—wide, sandy Porto Pim on Faial, for example, is popular with families, while Ponta da Ferraria in São Miguel is dramatically lined with black volcanic rock. And with Gulf Stream air currents resulting in warm water temps from May until as late as December, the best way to enjoy the water is to get out on (or in) it. In addition to swimming, there are plenty of opportunities for snorkeling to glimpse the rich underwater flora and fauna. Or book a guided dive to explore underwater caves and shipwrecks at one of more than 50 dive sites around the archipelago.
Surfing is also popular, particularly in São Miguel, where several outfitters, like Santa Barbara Surf School, offer lessons and equipment (Santa Barbara Beach is a great spot for beginners).
Try your hand at deep-sea fishing
Among deep-sea fishers, the Azores are world-renowned for their enormous tuna and marlins. August and September are ideal times to try your hand at fishing, and several outfitters can arrange for day trips out on the water for amateur and expert anglers alike. If you’re (extra) lucky, you might even spot a few whales or dolphins while you’re out on the water.
Soak in a geothermal pool
In the winter months (when it’s just a tad too cold to swim in the ocean), you’ll still want to pack your swimsuit. The town of Furnas in São Miguel is home to several naturally heated geothermal pools and hot springs, such as the pool in Parque Terra Nostra—a park with a large botanical garden and geothermal pool—and the nearby Poça da Dona Beija, which features a series of five steamy pools you can swim in.
Snack on local cheese and ice cream
The Azores’ culinary traditions go beyond Portugal’s essential dishes. On some islands, there are either as many—or more—cows than humans. Left free to graze through green meadows and natural springs, the happy bovines produce high-quality milk that’s enjoyed as is, in ice cream, or as cheese. Dating back to the 15th century, the Azorean dairy industry is so intrinsic to its heritage that the cows have become the islands’ unofficial mascots, adorning postcards and all manner of souvenirs.
With all this abundance, you’ll find cheese on every menu, starting with breakfast and ending with dessert. In fact, each island has its own signature cheese, so there are lots to sample. Favorites include the semi-hard, yellow-rind, spicy-and-salty variety from São Jorge (the so-called land of cheese) and the Pico island soft cheese that packs a strong bite. Don’t miss the ice cream, either: On Terceira, stop by Quinta dos Açores to savor unique flavors, like D. Amélia, which is inspired by a type of local cake.
Hike Portugal’s tallest peak, Mount Pico
One of the top adventure activities on the islands is a climb up Pico island’s Mount Pico, which at 7,713 feet above sea level is the highest mountain in Portugal. Going up this active volcano, which last erupted in 1720, is not your average hike—the rocky, moon-like “trail” is challenging and requires a fair amount of scrambling as you follow a series of markers (rather than a cleared path) to the top. Once at the caldera (which you can camp in overnight), the views of the clouds and island below are hard to beat.
Taste wine grown in volcanic soil
Wine has been produced in the Azores for at least five centuries, but the industry was only revived in the 1940s and ’50s, following a major outbreak of vine-destroying phylloxera in the late 1800s. In 1961, Pico established a co-op for growers and winemakers—an organization that’s now the hub of the local wine scene and an excellent place for winetasting (reservations recommended). Nearby, visit the Museu do Vinho for an overview of the unique local topography, soil, and grape varietals. Then, round things out with a decadent six- or seven-course dinner paired with local wines at Azores Wine Company, a vineyard with a hotel and restaurant overlooking Pico’s north coast.
If you can’t make it to Pico, some top Azores labels to look for on local restaurant menus to try include Terras de Lava, Curral Atlantis, Azores Wine Company, and Frei Gigante. The latter turns out wines made with the “forbidden grape,” Isabella, which was banned in much of Europe long ago after U.S. varieties brought an outbreak of rot.
Try local Azorean foods
Fresh seafood, rich cheeses, spicy stews, and a different signature bread on each island—all these help make the Azores a foodie wonderland. Given the location, seafood is predictably plentiful and goes well beyond lobster and fish. Terceira, for example, is famous for its cracas, or barnacles, which are boiled in seawater, while residents of São Jorge prefer to enjoy their limpets raw (elsewhere, they are typically grilled and sauced with spicy red pepper and garlic).
Meanwhile, visitors to São Miguel should seek out the cozido meat stew, which is traditionally simmered in geothermal holes in the ground and accompanied by veggies and homemade bread. Terceira’s signature dish, alcatra, is made of beef rump that’s slow-cooked with red wine, allspice, and black peppercorns.
And then there are the carbs: Traditional breads include São Miguel’s bolo lêvedo (mini English-muffin-style breads), sweet breads like the fluffy massa sovada (an favorite during Easter), and Pico’s round rosquilhas (a marriage between a doughnut and a bagel). Terceira’s O Forno bakery is a great place to sample away, as well as to try the islands’ specialty Dona Amélia cakes, made with raisins, molasses, corn flour, and lots of powdered sugar.
For those who want to get the lay of the culinary landscape, local tour company Hungry Whales organizes several informative, small group food tours in Ponta Delgada.
Where to stay in the Azores: forts, farmhouses, and eco-resorts
The Azores are blissfully free (for now) from humdrum international chain hotels. Instead, expect to find locally owned hotels in refurbished farmhouses, like the relatively new Sensi Hotel & Spa (São Miguel) and Pico da Vigia (Terceira); eco-resorts designed to fit the landscape, such as Santa Barbara Eco Beach Resort (São Miguel); family-friendly stone cottages in the shadow of Mount Pico at Lava Homes (Pico); and even a 16th-century fort-turned-inn at Pousada Forte Angra do Heroísmo (Terceira).
How to get to the Azores
Currently, United Airlines offers direct flights from New York City to Ponta Delgada (around six hours) and Azores Airlines has direct flights from Boston (around five hours). If you’re coming from Lisbon, TAP Portugal, RyanAir, and Azores Airlines all offer direct flights that are just a little over two hours.
At the time of publication, travelers to the Azores from outside of Portugal are required to provide either proof of vaccination from COVID-19 or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of the flight (if unvaccinated).
This article was originally published in 2018 and updated on April 29, 2022, to include current information. Jessie Beck contributed to the reporting of this story.