How to plan the perfect holiday to the Azores

There’s no doubt about it, the Azores are the next big thing in travel. These nine Portuguse islands sit in the middle of the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, volcanic islands created millions of years ago. Home to Mount Pico, the highest mountain in Portugal, lake-filled caldera, apple-green pastures and bright blue hydrangeas, the cinematic landscapes are simply magical.

The Azores have long been a popular holiday destination for mainland Portuguese but it’s only in the last few years that they’ve started to attract larger international crowds. This has largely been down to an increasing number of direct flights between Europe, America and the Azores islands.

If you are considering a holiday in the Azores then this guide tells you everything you need to know from the best time to visit and which islands to visit, to travelling to the Azores with kids and tips on the best way to book a holiday.

Disclosure: I was a guest of EPIC Travel for the purpose of producing this guide. See our full disclosure policy for more details.

Azores Travel Guide
Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeirões on Sao Miguel

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Are the Azores Island worth it?

The Azores are an exciting place to visit and I would recommend visiting them now before everyone else does. Although tourism infrastructure is well established, it’s very much on a small scale. Yes, there are tour buses touring the island of Sao Miguel but not many. And yes, you do see tourists at all the main sights but again, the island is not busy.

That said, the tourism industry is evolving rapidly. Direct flights from the United States to Sao Miguel is only going to increase the number of visitors coming to the Azores. Similarly, Ryanair, which has serviced Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel for a number of years now flies to the island of Terceira as well. New boutique hotels are springing up and tour operators are capitalising on the increased demand for adventure activities – which the Azores can offer in spades.

Getting to the Azores

The Azores is one of two autonomous regions of Portugal (the other is Maderia). The islands sit 1,400km (870 mi) west of Lisbon, 1,500km (930 mi) northwest of Morocco and 1,930km (1,200 mi) southeast of Newfoundland, Canada.

The main international airport for the Azores is João Paulo II Airport (PDL) at Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel island, which is the largest island in the archipelago. The islands of Terceira, Faial, Santa Maria and Pico also boast international airports.

From the UK

Ryanair operates a direct flight from Stansted to Sao Miguel every Saturday and from Manchester to Sao Miguel on Fridays during the summer months.

During the summer months British Airways operates direct flights form Heathrow to Sao Miguel on Saturdays and to Terceira on Sundays.

At other times of the year flying from the UK you will have to fly via Lisbon, the capital of mainland Portugal. TAP Air Portugal, the national carrier, operates daily flights from Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow. You can also fly from Edinburgh, Bristol and Luton airports on selected days.

I flew TAP from London to Lisbon and then onto Sao Miguel (disclosure: my flights were complimentary as part of a media trip) and it was efficient and easy.

From the USA and Canada

There is a direct daily flight from Boston to Sao Miguel on Azores Airlines, which takes less than 5 hours. Azores Airlines also runs daily direct flights from Toronto to Sao Miguel. In May 2022, United Airlines plans to introduce daily nonstop flights between the New York area and Sao Miguel. 

Azores Travel Guide
There’s a reason why Sao Miguel is called the ‘Green Island’

When to visit the Azores Islands

The Azores are not the place to come if you’re looking for a Caribbean escape or beaches like in Barbados. Rather, the weather in the Azores is very unpredictable with rain frequent throughout the year (there’s a reason why the islands are so green!). That said, the location of the archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic also means that it never gets too hot or too cold.

The summer months of June to August are the best time to visit when rainfall is less likely and the days are clearer. This is, however, also peak season for the Azores and everything – accommodation, activities and transport – gets booked up well in advance. This is one good reason why it helps to plan a trip to the Azores with a travel operator – see below for more details.

Other good times to visit include September and October when visitor numbers are down and the weather will still be warm (highs/lows of 16C – 24C). The chance of rain during these months, however, is higher. We visited during October and enjoyed warm days with hardly any rain.

April and May also see relatively few crowds. These months are a good time to see the flowers start to bloom across the islands and for whale watching; blue, sei and fin whales pass through at this time on their yearly migrations. Temperatures during these months range from 12C to 17C.

It’s worth noting that the unpredictable weather can play havoc with itineraries; heavy rain might curtail planned walking days and cloudy days will make island views from the many viewpoints harder to come by.

Azores Travel Guide
Caldoura village on Sao Miguel Island

Which islands in the Azores to visit

Unless you have a lot of time, it’s unlikely that you’ll get to visit all nine of the Azores islands in one visit, especially because they are not located particularly close to one another. During this trip to the Azores I only had time to visit Sao Miguel. However, my partner tour operator Epic Travel, know the islands very well and can help to plan a multi-island trip.

Here’s what the various islands have to offer:

Sao Miguel

Also known as the ‘green island’, Sao Miguel is the biggest of the islands of the Azores. Its capital, Ponta Delgada, is a popular stop for cruises on transatlantic crossings. Although the capital is not the most lively of destinations, the rest of the islands is beautiful. Highlights include the twin crater lakes of Sete Cidades, the fumaroles and hot springs of Furnas and Lagoa do Fogo.

See my guide to visiting the island of Sao Miguel for more details on the best things to do, getting around, where to stay and more.

One option is to combine a trip to Sao Miguel with visits to Pico and Sao Jorge islands.

Pico Island

The small island of Pico is best known for its unique viticulture where vines are grown along the surface of the island’s volcanic rock and protected from the strong Atlantic winds by dry stone walls, known as curls. The vineyards are a protected UNESCO World Heritage site

Pico, along with the neighbouring islands of São Jorge and Faial, form the ‘Ilhas Triangulo’, a ‘triangle’ of islands and daily ferries run between the three islands during the summer months. Pico is also the original home of whale watching in the Azores.

Faial

The island of Faial is one of the best places for whale and dolphin watching in Europe. Historically, the island played a crucial role as a supply point for Portuguese traders transporting Brazilian gold during the the 16ht and 17th centuries. It was also a communications hub during the 1944 battle of Normandy, connecting the D-Day landing beaches to the United States.

Sao Jorge

Sao Jorge is known for its long, slim shape, which is completely unique in the Azores archipelago – at its widest point the island is only 7km (4 mi) wide! Sao Jorge is popular for walkers who come to explore the fajas, coastal plateaus formed by ancient lava flows or landslides.

Terceira

This is the third largest island in the Azores (Terceira means ‘third’) and is home to the oldest city in the archipelago, Angra do Heroismo. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site. Terceira is home to sandy beaches, an extinct volcano that you can walk inside, lots of mystical walking trails and some fabulous viewpoints. Like Pico, Terceira also produces wine.

The island is home to an international airport. 

Santa Maria

The most southern of the Azores islands, Santa Maria is also the sunniest. This is where Christopher Columbus stopped and attended mass on his return voyage from the Americas. The island is best known for its handicraft, its wines and sweet liqueurs and for its mountain biking opportunities. The Santa Maria Grande Trilhos is a circular hiking route around the island.

Graciosa

Laidback and low-key, the small island of Graciosa is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Highlights include the Furna do Enxofre, an enormous lava cave that can only be accessed by a stone spiral staircase with 183 steps.

Corvo

Corvo is the most northerly islands of the Azores and, along with Flores and Graciosa, is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Its a popular spot for birdwatching.

Flores

Largely thought to be the most beautiful of the Azores islands, vibrant Flores is bursting with beautiful places from majestic waterfalls and natural swimming pools to dramatic sea cliffs and rolling emerald hills.

Azores Travel Guide
Geothermal activity at Furnas on Sao Miguel Island in the Azores

How long to spend in the Azores

As long as you can! I had four days and three nights in Sao Miguel and managed to see most of the island, however, I didn’t have much time for activities. If you would like to take part in any of the outdoor activities offered – from whale watching to walking – then you should allow at least a week on Sao Miguel. The other islands can be enjoyed in 2 – 3 days.

Azores Travel Guide
Hydrangeas line the roads in Sao Miguel

Visiting the Azores islands with kids

Can you visit the Azores with kids? In a word, yes! These beautiful islands are a great place for families to explore.

This is, however, a destination for more adventurous families. There are some beautiful and very family-friendly properties on the islands (the ones I stayed in on Sao Miguel were excellent) but this is not the place to come for an all-inclusive beach break. Instead, the Azores is the destination to choose if you’re looking for spellbinding scenery, amazing wildlife and some exciting outdoor adventures.

The Azores are also easy to travel around. Once you arrive on your chosen island, the best way to get around is by car (either self-drive or with a guide and driver). None of the islands are large meaning no long car journeys and the roads are really well maintained.

There is no perfect age to visit the Azores with kids but older children will definitely get a lot more out of the trip. There are some truly thrilling adventures to enjoy on the islands from surfing and snorkelling to coasteering, hiking and swimming in waterfalls.

Planning a trip to the Azores

Planning a simple trip to the Azores is not difficult in terms of deciding where you want to and want you want to do. The complicated part of booking a holiday in the Azores is availability. The islands are small and the tourism infrastructure is still evolving.

Hiring a car during the summer months, for example, can be complicated owing lack of availability. Similarly, the number of really good hotels on offer is limited, which means that you need to know the best times to book.

I almost always travel independently but sometimes I find that working with an agency really brings great benefits. One such agency is EPIC Travel. In full candour, I was hosted by EPIC Travel for my trip to the Azores and it was by spending time with them that I really got to understand how they operate and what benefits they can bring travellers.

EPIC Travel is a boutique annecy that creates made-to-measure travel experiences in Morocco and Portugal. Their travel experts live in-country allowing them to establish proper connections with hotels, drivers and operators. Their bespoke travel itineraries include what you want to do and are tailored to your interests and they arrange experiences that you might not discover on your own (or if you did, it would take a lot of time to find them).

In the Azores these experiences could include a day cooking and eating a traditional cozido, a Portuguese stew that is cooked underground in Furnas on Sao Miguel. Similarly, they can point out the best fish restaurant on the entire island and the whale watching companies that really are truly sustainable.

EPIC are also experts when it comes to hotels and pride themselves on working with interesting and unique hotels rather than cookie-cutter chains. They work with clients to find the right accommodation according to taste, interest and budget. Because of their close relationships with hotel owners and management (and the fact that they have visited all the hotels that they work with), they can personally recommend the best rooms for you and you family.

If you would like to talk to EPIC about planning your trip to the Azores (or Portugal or Morocco) then do get in touch with EPIC Travel. Let them know that you heard about them through globetotting and you will receive a VIP Welcome Gift as a thank you.

Azores Travel Guide
The Santa Barbara Eco Beach Resort

Getting around the Azores

The two easiest ways to get around the Azores islands are by hiring a rental car or by organising a car and driver. Public transport is not the islands’ strong point.

Car hire in the Azores

Hiring a rental car gives you the freedom to explore on your own schedule. The islands are all impeccably maintained – at times Sao Miguel looked more like a giant manicured park than a wild volcanic island – and this goes for its roads as well. The roads are in excellent condition and there is not much traffic.

You should be aware, however, that some of the roads are very small and narrow so if you’re not comfortable driving on roads like this then you might want to hire a car and driver.

Note that hire cars get booked up well in advance so you will want to book very early. Remember that they drive on the right side in the Azores.

Hiring a car and driver

Hiring a car and driver takes all the hassle out of getting around. We had a van and guide who drove us around Sao Miguel and he was great at pointing out things to see and varying our itinerary according to the weather. He was also very good at navigating the narrow lanes! EPIC Travel can also help with a car and driver.

Travel between the Azores islands

Travel between the islands can be time-consuming; ferries connect the islands but not all routes run year-round. Similarly, not all routes run daily. Atlanticoline is the one ferry company that shuttles between the entire archipelago, allowing visitors to go island hopping. Flying between the islands is quicker but can also be costly.

The good news, however, is that if you plan to visit the ‘Triangle’ of islands, which consists of Faial, Pico, and São Jorge, you can hop on a ferry for a day trip year-round. Tickets can be bought online or at the ferry terminal the day before or the day of departure.

What to pack for the Azores

The Azores enjoy a mild climate throughout the year; the average air temperature ranges between 13C and 22C throughout the year. Rain is a possibility at any time of year so it’s worth packing accordingly!

I have a detailed packing list for the Azores here but some of the most important things to pack include:

  • Sturdy, waterproof shoes
  • A good waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof trousers if you plan on doing some longer hikes
  • A good backpack
  • An umbrella
  • Comfortable and breathable hiking socks
  • A sun hat
  • A swimsuit
  • Jelly shoes for wearing at some of the coastal swimming pools

Azores Travel Restrictions

If you are travelling to Portugal from the US, UK or an EU country then you do not require a visa to enter for tourism purposes. A full list of those countries that do require a visa can be found here.

Due to the ongoing global pandemic, additional requirements are needed in order to enter Portugal and the Azores. At the time of writing, EU, British and USA citizens (among others) must complete an online passenger locator form prior to travel and be prepared to show a negative COVID-19 test result certificate (except children aged 11 or under). This can be an antigen test taken within 48 hours of departure or a RT-PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure.

When you arrive in mainland Portugal visitors are subject to a health screening (temperature check); if your temperature is 38C or over, or you show signs of being unwell, you might be required to take a COVID-19 test at the airport and stay there until the results come back. You may also be asked to show your vaccine certificate or a negative COVID-19 test at border control. My vaccine certificate was checked upon arrival.

Flying to the Azores, who have done a very good job at keeping COIVD-19 under control, requires an additional test. All visitor travelling to the islands must take a RT-PCR test within 72 hours of departure or an antigen test taken within 48 hours of departure. You will also have to fill out a passenger locator form.

After collecting our luggage at João Paulo II Airport on Sao Miguel, we were ushered into a very efficient line where all passengers had their COVID certificate checked as well as their antigen or RT-PCR test results. If you do not have these certificates then you will be required to take a test upon arrival.

To check what is required before returning to the UK, take a look at the government website. As you are probably well aware, the requirements are constantly changing.

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