Islands of the Azores: where to go

Discover the delights of São Miguel, Santa Maria, Terceira, Faial and Pico – an island archipelago of pristine beauty.

By Lorna Cowan

Published 4 May 2024

Located in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Portugal, the Azores are known for their natural beauty. Nine islands make up the archipelago, and although each has its own unique attractions, they are linked by their volcanic landscapes.

If you're looking for a sunny holiday destination with a historic past and a colourful vibe – and just a four-hour flight from the UK – the Azores is one to consider. Indulge in a spot of island hopping and you'll have an enjoyable break with memories to last a lifetime.

Many visitors start their exploration of the Azores on the largest island, São Miguel. The international airport is based just a mile from Ponta Delgada, the capital and largest town in the archipelago. However, once upon a time, Ponta Delgada was simply a small fishing village clustered around a natural bay. Today, you can still see plenty of traditional whitewashed buildings striped with black basalt standing near the arched city gates. The 16th-century Convent and Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Esperança is particularly impressive.

While on the island of São Miguel, known as the Green Island because of its lush green hilly landscape, don't miss the chance to go to Sete Cidades, one of the seven Natural Wonders of Portugal. Here you'll find a remarkable wide and deep crater, the result of thousands of years of volcanic activity, as well as two lakes – one green and one blue. According to legend, they were formed from the tears of a shepherd and a princess, a couple whose love was forbidden.

Ribeira Grande on the north coast is also worth a visit during your holiday to the Azores. The historic town has fine examples of Portuguese-influenced architecture, manor houses with iron balconies, and an eight-arch bridge. En route, stop off at another mesmerising natural sight – Lagoa do Fogo, the Fire Lake in the crater of an extinct volcano.

Often referred to as the Island of the Sun or Yellow Island, Santa Maria has a warm dry climate with lower levels of rain compared to the other islands in the Azores. It also has unique geological and landscape features. At Barreiro da Faneca, dry clay terrain turns from shades of red to bright orange during the day, while at Pedreira do Campo, volcanic and sedimentary rocks reveal numerous oceanic fossils.

Although much of the island has a jagged coastline, Santa Maria has some of the best swimming locations in the whole of the Azores, with the long narrow beach at Praia Formosa being one of the most popular. Close by, you'll find the ruins of the fort of São João Baptista. The beautiful natural Bay of São Lourenço, situated at the bottom of what looks like an amphitheatre, is equally as inviting. The surrounding green slopes are covered in vineyards.

When Portuguese explorers discovered a third island in the Azores, they changed the name from Jesus Christ Island to Terceira, meaning 'the third' in English. However, Terceira is also fondly known as the Purple Island, so-called because at certain times of the year, purple hortensia (a type of hydrangea) are in full bloom everywhere you look. What's more, in Angra do Heroísm town, façades of buildings are painted in purple shades.

Angra do Heroísm is certainly worth a look, and not just because of its colourful streets. A town of significant importance due to it once being an obligatory port of call for fleets in the mid-Atlantic, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1983. Make sure your itinerary includes a wander around the City Hall and Cathedral, considered to be the biggest temple of the archipelago.

Want to explore deep inside a volcanic cavern? Then head to the Algar do Carvão Nature Reserve. After descending a considerable number of steps (don't think about the climb back up), you'll be rewarded with a most memorable sight – stalagmites, stalactites and a crystal-clear underground lake.

Faial, nicknamed the Azores' Blue Island because of the many hydrangeas bordering the roads and framing the houses, is the third most populous. It's also the island to spend time on if you're interested in marine life. Humpback, pilot, sperm and blue whales all come to feed in the surrounding waters. Horta, the island's lively capital, is also a haven for yachtsmen who, if superstitious, will ensure a safe onward passage by painting a mural on the breakwater.

As with all the islands in the Azores archipelago, Faial is of volcanic origin, and as well as a huge crater called Caldeira, there's also the majestic Capelinhos volcano which can be seen rising above the landscape at the westernmost point. The informative Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Centre explains more about volcanic activity worldwide.

Standing a magnificent 2,350 metres high, Pico Mountain is not only the highest mountain in the whole of Portugal, it's also the third biggest volcano in the Atlantic. As a result, its huge cone dominates the island. Extensive lava fields dot the countryside too, which has earned Pico its nickname: Grey Island.

Although many tourists come to Pico for whale-watching experiences, extensive vineyards here mean that there's also the opportunity to indulge in a little wine tasting.

Locals use the same unique, long stone walls to protect their plots of crops from fierce Atlantic winds and surges of salty ocean water that their ancestors did back in the 15th century. The Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Recent articles