8 Things to Know Before Going to the Azores

8 Things to Know Before Visiting the Azores
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Maybe you’ve heard a bit about the Azores or seen Ann’s blog post about her epic adventure. You know they are a stunning archipelago off the coast of Portugal, with lush green scenery, incredible waterfalls, and crater lakes that pop up on every Instagram feed. A perfect balance between the lush awe-inspiring landscapes of Hawaii with the volcanic roots and slightly unpredictable weather of Iceland. Plus, a little something extra. You’ve done some research and looked at Ponta Delgada, the Sete Citades, the thermal baths, and the whale watching, and your bag is practically packed already!

Now, what might surprise you about these islands, and what’s important to know before you step on a plane? Here are our Top 8 Tips:

The Basics

a map showing the Azores between the US and  Europe

First a little primer on the Azores.  It is a nine-island archipelago off the coast of Portugal, about a 2hr flight from Lisbon and a 5hr flight from Boston. The islands are distinct for their incredible nature, above all else. These volcanic islands boast beautiful black sand beaches, gorgeous pastoral valleys, and luscious impossibly green, hilly countryside.  The official language is Portuguese, but English is widely spoken and the official currency is the Euro.

a close up map of the nine Azores Islands

The nine Azores islands divide into three groups based on proximity. The Eastern Group comprises São Miguel Island and Santa Maria Island. The Central Group is the islands of Terceira, Graciosa, Faial, São Jorge, and Pico. Finally, the Western Group consists of Corvo Island and Flores Island. Because of their configuration, you’ll either need to take a ferry or an inter-island flight to go island hopping.

Top activities in the Azores

Ann hiking along a path on top of the hilly and lush green Azores Islands
IPhoto Credit: Annie via Shared Adventures Travel]

The Azores are made for nature adventures and take sustainability seriously. The primary activity on any of the islands is hiking. These verdant hills offer beautiful trails that open up to stunning views. For the super adventurous you can also go canyoning – sliding down waterfalls and rappelling into the extinct lava tubes. The Azores are also famous for their whale watching, thermal hot springs, and natural pools.

Staying in the Azores

You can find everything from campsites and eco-lodges to high-end hotels on the Azores. But to retain the natural and cultural beauty that makes these islands so special, you won’t find any high-rises or large beach resorts. Room counts are low, so booking ahead is crucial.

While you can get a taste of a single island and see the main highlights in 2-3 days, spending a week or longer will allow you to do some in-depth exploration and a little island hopping.

Top 8 Tips

Sete Cidaes hike view of lake in Azores
[Photo Credit: Annie via Shared Adventures]

1. The Azores have an amazing Foodie scene

Often remote islands have to ship in food from the mainland, making it quite expensive and not the best quality. But the Azores is a Foodie’s paradise! With rich, fertile, volcanic soil they grow some incredibly delicious fruits, vegetables, and wine. In addition, they have herds of free-range cattle happily munching on the green grass and producing incredible dairy products. Trying the cheeses on the Azores is a must. Since they are islands in the middle of the Atlantic, several of their most famous dishes involve fresh seafood. You’ll also find some soups, stews, and steaks are part of the cultural cuisine. The Cozido das Furnas is particularly unique, a stew cooked inside thermal vents. Also unique to the islands are the locally grown pineapples, which rarely leave the island and are often served for dessert!

If you’re visiting in the high season, it’s advisable to book a few restaurants ahead of time to ensure a table. Between tasting the local wine and enjoying the fresh food, you could spend all your time eating your way around the Azores.

lush green mountains from the Sete Cidades hike Azores
Photo Credit: Kendra and Shad vis Shared Adventures – read about their Azores Adventure Here]

2. The weather is constantly changing – but the webcams will help

The Azores can be beautiful sunny islands….sometimes. Locals like to say they experience four seasons in a single day. While there are some beautifully clear, sunny days, you’ll also likely experience wind, thick fog, and driving rain. The weather is best in the summer months, but don’t be surprised if one side of the island is entrenched in thick fog while the other side has blue skies. The temperatures are always moderate, rarely dipping below the low 50s in winter or rising above the high 70s in summer.

Because of this unpredictability, the Azores has set up webcams of the major sites. If you’re driving yourself around the island you can use these webcams to decide where to go when and stay one step ahead of the weather! But changes can happen throughout the day, so be sure to pack both a raincoat and a sunhat.

3. Resources for Hiking

Hiking in the Azores is a beautiful and jaw-dropping experience. It’s one of the main attractions of these pristine islands! You can find a list and description of all the trails on the Azores site.

a dirt hiking trail overlooking an incredibly blue lake in the Azores.

The trails are generally well-maintained and very well-marked. Wooden signage indicates which way you should be going and if you’re going the right way. There are often picnic areas dotted along the footpaths and plenty of opportunities to take a dip in the pool of a waterfall.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Azores are mountainous, hilly islands. So, even the easiest of paths will have a few steep accents or descents to contend with. Good hiking shoes are recommended – especially if they’re waterproof. You don’t necessarily need a guide for hiking. But, if you have limited time, a guided tour will help you see the best views and can’t-be-missed spots to make the most of your time.

4. Even if you rent a car- you still need the Taxi’s phone number

It’s not necessary to rent a car to discover the islands. But it will give you a lot more freedom to explore the island at your own pace and make spur-of-the-moment decisions about which trails, pools, and viewpoints to visit. If you’re not comfortable driving on hilly roads or narrow town streets, taxis and tours are always good options. We recommend using a combination of the two to see as much as possible.

However, even if you do rent a car, many of the hiking trails are linear and will not circle back to your parking space. It is for this reason that everyone should stop in the tourist information center – Delegação de Turismo. (located in the airports and near the ports). They will give you the phone numbers of all the different taxis and, more importantly, they’ll tell you which taxis are best to call in each area. This way you can arrange for a taxi to pick you up at the end of a linear hike.

a path lined with flowers overlookign the mountains and blue sea of the Azores Islands Portugal
[Photo Credit: Annie via Shared Adventures Travel]

5. Hikes and Drives will always take longer than listed on the websites

The beauty of the Azores is best appreciated from the countless Miradouros or viewpoints. Around every corner, on most of the hikes and roads, you’ll want to stop for an awe-inspiring view. This is one of the best parts of the Azores. Stunning. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that when google maps or the Azores hiking trail tells you a drive or hike will take a certain amount of time, you need to add at least an extra half hour. Be sure to give yourself time to take it all in.

6. It’s always whale-watching season

groups in small boats watch for whales on the Azores

As with many whale watching places, you can see the most variety of species in the Spring. However, Sperm Whales live around the Azores year-round, meaning it’s always whale-watching season! In fact, the Azores is one of the biggest whale sanctuaries in the world. When you take a whale-watching tour you know the companies are committed to sustainability, education, and conservation.

[Photo Credit: Andrea Zanenga via Unsplash]

While Sperm whales can be elusive, your chances of an encounter are good as they still use whale spotters or Vigias. Once used by the whaling industry to help them hunt the whales, whale-watching tours now use these talented individuals to help direct them to a sighting. An experienced spotter on land can see the blow of a whale up to 50km out to sea, and they can tell what type of whale it is by the blow!

7. While not known for its beaches – still bring your swimsuit everywhere you go!

If you’re expecting a white-sand-beach tropical island, the Azores don’t fit the bill. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities to swim in incredible waters! Being a volcanic island, most of the beaches are black sand or pebble beaches. (Except for Sao Lourenco bay on Santa Maria Island). Additionally, the Atlantic Ocean can be tempestuous. Perfect for surfing but with strong rip tides and currents it’s not recommended for inexpert swimmers. What gives you that island paradise vibe are the incredible waterfalls with inviting pools at the bottom. After taking a long hike through the tropical hills, dive in.

There are also Picenes Naturales formed from lava hitting the cold ocean and creating little enclaves that are safe for swimming. Natural pools like Simao Dias and Varadouro are stunning in their own right. It’s recommended to bring water shoes so you can enjoy the rockier shores along the coast.

[Photo Credit: Annie via Shared Adventures]

unique rock formations and reflective pools on the Azores Islands in Portugal

8. Bring a dark-colored swimsuit for the hot springs

Like neighboring Iceland, the Azores are full of delightfully warm and rejuvenating thermal hot springs. São Miguel is the best island for hot springs — particularly around the town of Furnas. It’s a perfect activity to do on those foggy or chilly days since the waters are always warm and welcoming. The springs range in size and style. From the largest and most famous Terra Nostra, which has an entrance fee, changing rooms, showers, and other amenities. To the smaller Ferraria which offers changing rooms and a unique natural experience. It’s one of the only thermal springs connected directly to the ocean! (Make sure to go at low tide for the warmest water)

The thermal pools are full of iron and have a reddish color that can stain swimsuits and towels. So it’s highly recommended to bring dark-colored suits or even a spare old suit specifically to enjoy the hot springs.

Are you ready to go to the Azores? Let us know and we’ll help you plan the perfect adventure!

A Delicious Adventure

Kendra and Shad honeymooned in Italy, in the Cinque Terre, and wanted a first anniversary trip with a similar mix of scenery, outdoorsy activities, and great food…but without the sweltering Mediterranean heat that had plagued them in Italy. They are independent, and up for an adventure, and I thought the Azores might be just the right spot. Suitably forewarned about how erratic their flights can be (see my trip report from last summer), they decided to give it a try. Sounds like it was a gamble that more than paid off!

Readers’ digest version: Overall, it was a fantastic vacation.  We enjoyed being able to explore almost the whole island, had generally good weather, and ate good (but not great in comparison to Italy) food, and drank delicious and very affordable wine.  The landscape is beautifully wild, and at times driving along interior roads we felt like the only people on the island — far outnumbered by cows.  There were a fair amount of tourists, but it really feels like the island hasn’t yet been spoiled.  Of course, there were some trade offs — restaurant/bar choices seem to be limited outside of Ponta Delgada, but that’s to be expected; and a car really is necessary to explore, since public transportation is limited.  The driving was a bit nerve wracking, but the major roads were maintained really well.

The full report

On the logistical side, I had no trouble using the bag I normally do as a carry on for both flights — they were actually a bit lenient on both ends with the weight limit.  Both flights were only 20-30 min delayed, which in my book is on time.  Our flight there was on an older plane, but for a 4.5 hour flight, it really didn’t bother us.  Our flight back was on a much nicer, newer plane with better leg room. Neither had in-flight entertainment monitors, but I usually read or watch Netflix on my phone anyway, so I didn’t miss it.  The flight crew were great both ways, and as far as airplane food and drink go, I would rate SATA pretty highly (far better experience than we had on Alitalia last year).  Checking in and getting through security on the way home was a breeze — we arrived at the check in counter about an hour before our flight was scheduled, and it probably took no more than 15 minutes to both check in and get through security.

The Talisman hotel was great for a one night stay in Ponta Delgada.  Upon arriving, I did realize that the EU plug adapter I brought is grounded (3 prongs), and every outlet we came across was not grounded (2 prongs). We were able to borrow an adapter from Pedras do Mar, but we ended up having to buy one in Furnas.  The room was large and comfortable, and the concierge gave us a great recommendation for a late night dinner (A Tasca).  We explored the city a bit the next day on foot, but didn’t spend a whole lot of time, as it didn’t seem like there were too many points of interest/attractions to see/things to do.

Pedras do Mar was great — the room was large and comfortable (though, I will say the glass wall for the bathroom is a bit odd), with a queen-sized bed, rather than two twins pushed together.  We ate at the restaurant a couple of times (snacks and lunch, and dinner one night), and the food was good.  The bar staff was really friendly and attentive. It was great to be in a self-contained kind of oasis.  The downside, of course, was that we had to drive to anything else, including restaurants. We wished the weather was nicer so we could have taken advantage of the outdoor pool, but we did use the indoor pool and sauna, which was nice. From here, we explored the west side of the island — accidentally doing a 13+ mile hike along/around the Lagoas das Sete Cidades.  I read the map wrong, thinking it was a loop, but it was a point-to-point so we had quite a trek to get back to the car – oops!  Ponta da Ferarria is a must — it was one of my favorite excursions. We also stopped at the Santa Barbara eco resort on our drive one day for lunch — they had surprisingly good sushi, and a great beach you could walk down to.

lush green mountains in Azores Portugal

stunning view overlooking a large lake and lush greenery in Azores

On our journey to Furnas, we stopped at the Cha Gorreana tea factory, which was really cute.  We really enjoyed our time in Furnas — we liked being able to walk around and take a break from driving.  Hotel Terra Nostra is fantastic, and we enjoyed our dinner at the restaurant our first night.  The staff were very helpful, and were even able to accommodate my husband’s celiac disease with gluten free bread.  It was so relaxing to have access at any time to the botanical garden and hot springs.  The outdoor bar was also fantastic. We went to the Furnas Boutique hotel for lunch one day, and it didn’t particularly impress us.  The space looked nice, and it was a more secluded location, but I would not have traded the botanical garden access and the food at Terra Nostra.  From Furnas, we explored the east side of the island, driving along the coast.  We stopped at Lagoa das Furnas, took a walk through the Jose do Canto Botanical Garden, and of course visited the caldeiras.  Our favorite restaurant on this stretch of our trip was, by far, Restaurante Ponta do Garajau.  They had excellent fresh fish, delicious wine and fantastic service.

a towered red and white building hidden among the palms in Azores

Thank you so much for suggesting the Azores — we never would have thought of it and really enjoyed our trip!  I think our next vacation will need to be a bit more relaxing, though — this one was pretty adventure-packed and even with moments of relaxation, pretty tiring (but in a good way).

Pack your sense of adventure, and your patience!

I recently returned from a long-awaited trip to the Azores Islands, and I have very conflicting thoughts to share. In some ways, the destination was SO much more than I expected, but in one key aspect, it was sadly disappointing.

I’ll get the bad news over with first.  Azores Airlines, which is currently the only way to get to and around the islands, is  — unfortunately – truly terrible. And I say that as someone who flies a lot, and who understands that air travel is simply a means to get from point A to point B. But Azores Airlines couldn’t even do that. We had flight cancellations, a lost day of vacation, significant delays, re-routing, and more. Nothing went smoothly, the planes are old, and there are no creature comforts whatsoever (no entertainment system, no leg room, no hot water for coffee or tea, “mystery meat” for dinner).  Sadly, now that I’m reading some reviews, I see that my Azores Airlines experience is pretty universal. However, all of that being said, if you can “roll with the punches” and endure the experience of getting there, the islands are AMAZING.

The weather was beyond perfect, the people were warm and friendly, the food and wine were very good (and very inexpensive), and the scenery is a photographer’s absolute dream. If you want proof of that, check out my husband’s album from this trip.

If you have an adventurous spirit, and love exploring beautiful places, and if you can handle the fact that you might not arrive in the right place on the right day, but you’ll get there eventually, then read on for my full report…

a dirt hiking trail overlooking an incredibly blue lake in the Azores.

My husband and I were super excited to take advantage of the new nonstop flights from Providence to Sao Miguel (Ponta Delgada), but were disappointed to get to the airport and find out that our flight was canceled, and that we’d have to try again the next day from Boston instead. Thankfully, we were able to notify our hotel, car rental, etc about the change in plans, and they all agreed to hold our reservations until the following day.

We did make it out of Boston the next night, and arrived in Ponta Delgada very early in the morning. The airport is small and manageable, and we easily found our car rental rep. She shuttled us to the offsite lot, and we picked up our brand-new BMW electric/diesel wagon with a sunroof and a GPS. Very easy to drive, and perfect for our purposes.

We were feeling good and the weather was gorgeous, so we decided to hit the ground running.  We grabbed a delicious (and cheap!!) breakfast in Ponta Delgada, and then headed to the west end of the island to see the famous Lagoa das Cete Cidades. We were so glad that we had gotten an early start! We were ahead of all the crowds, and were able to take tons of photos from the Vista do Rei viewpoint, and then again when we hiked up to the Boca do Inferno overlook.  Afterwards, we wandered our way along the coast to Ponta da Ferraria to check out the rugged black lava coastline and the lighthouse. A that point we were getting tired and hungry so we called it a day and drove to Furnas to check in to our hotel.

standing in front of the beautiful view of lush green mountains nad blue lake in the Azores Portugal

unique rock formations and reflective pools on the Azores Islands in Portugal

The Terra Nostra Garden Hotel is a lovely Art Deco property with fabulous service. They got us right into our room, and we cleaned up and then wandered across the street to the Atlantico cafe for lunch. It was the quintessential little local spot, with great food at great prices. Two beers, the octopus special, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich and fries for 17 Euros total!

After lunch we explored the Terra Nostra botanical gardens adjacent to our hotel (gorgeous…lush…and extensive – and free admission for hotel guests) and then sat on the hotel patio in the sunshine, enjoying some local wine and cheese. Had a light dinner in the hotel restaurant and an early bedtime.

Day 2:

After a solid ten hours of sleep, we were good to go!  Got up nice and early and had breakfast at the hotel before jumping in the car and heading out to explore. The weather was gorgeous (a common theme throughout the trip), and we enjoyed a very scenic drive to Lagoa do Fogo, which is more or less in the center of the island. After a beautiful, twisty drive up the mountains to the scenic overlook, we parked the car and hiked up the nearby hill to a path along the ridge. From there, you can see both sides of the island, and we were treated to the sight of paragliders overhead.

overlooking a reflective lake and mountain range on the Azores Islands Portugal

Afterwards, we wound our way back down the mountain, and decided to skip Caldeira Velha because of the number of tour buses in the parking lot. Instead, we headed north to the coast to the Cha Gorreana tea plantation for a quick self-guided tour and tasting. After that, we continued along the coast to Nordeste, to see the Faro do Arnel lighthouse. We should have paid more attention to the VERY steep street leading down to the lighthouse, and left our car in the parking lot at the top, but of course we didn’t.  It was touch and go winding our way down the steep grade and – even worse – struggling back up with our tires sliding and smoking. Not fun, and quite adrenaline-inducing, but the views were amazing.

the Faro do Arnel lightouse and azure sea beyond on the Azores Islands in Portugal

Afterwards, we enjoyed a scenic drive back along the east end of the island, stopping at several gorgeous overlooks, and then we had a late lunch of local cheese and beer on the hotel patio before a steamy dip in the hot springs at Terra Nostra gardens. I’m glad we did it, but I have to admit that the iron-heavy water was murky and brown…nothing to compare to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland!

a path lined with flowers overlookign the mountains and blue sea of the Azores Islands Portugal

We ate dinner at the hotel that evening, and it was fabulous. Prawn ravioli, octopus tempura, and some delicious local wines.

Day 3:

We packed up, checked out, and hopped back in the car to go see the Nossa Senora da Paz church in Villa Franca do Campo, but we were defeated by the tiny one-way streets in the village, and the fact that many were closed off in the aftermath of a festival.

We eventually had to give up and head to Ponta Delgada to explore for a bit instead. We  wandered through the central food market, and all along the seafront promenade, and then we visited the Igreja do Collegio dos Jesuitas – a Jesuit church that was turned into a museum of religious art.

a mosaic street on the Azores Islands Portugal

Our afternoon flight from Ponta Delgada to the island of Faial was – not surprisingly – delayed, but we eventually made it there about 4:30 pm, and grabbed a taxi to the hotel.  We had been unable to rent an automatic transmission car here (it can be difficult outside of Ponta Delgada), but that really wasn’t a problem. Taxis are plentiful.

Our hotel – the Pousada Forte da Horta – was an historic fort overlooking the harbor in the town of Horta. Great location, tons of historic charm, and the staff could not have been more helpful.  Our spacious suite (bedroom, living room, large bathroom and an enormous balcony) overlooked the harbor and the island of Pico in the distance.

a distant mountain with puffy white clouds at the base a hill and the sea on the Azores Island Portugal

We walked around town a little bit to explore, stopped in the market to pick up wine and snacks for the room (a nice bottle of local wine was only 4 Euros!) and had a fairly forgettable dinner in the hotel restaurant that evening (nice atmosphere, and very earnest servers, but the food was honestly not great).

Day 4:

We had booked a private half-day tour of the island, and our guide picked us up about 9 am at the hotel.  It was too foggy in the upper elevations for us to see the caldeira, so she took us around the perimeter of the “Blue Island” (named so because of all the gorgeous hydrangea bushes) to show us all the lovely coastal villages. We stopped at Ponta dos Capelinhos to see the lighthouse and learn about the volcanic eruption that created this portion of the island, and then she dropped us back in town in the early afternoon.

ponta dos caplinhos on the Azores Islands Portugal

We spent a few hours exploring the marina, and the nearby beach at Porto Pim, and then relaxed on our balcony with our wine and cheese.   Dinner that evening was at restaurant Atletico, which was a hit.  Simple grilled meats and fish, very good inexpensive (1 Euro per glass) house wine, and grilled pineapple for dessert. Yum!

Day 5:

For our final day in the Azores, we had booked a full-day private tour of Pico island. We had a quick breakfast at the hotel and then took a short (15-20 min) walk along the harbor to the ferry terminal to catch the 9 am ferry to Pico. The ferry is inexpensive (3.5 Euro pp) and quick (a 30-minute trip) and it makes Pico very easy to do as a day trip from Horta. They also have ferries to Sao Jorge, though those are longer and less frequent.

overlook of a small town, sea and mountains on Azores Islands Portugal

We were met at the ferry dock by Raisa from Tripix Azores, and we hopped in her Jeep for a fascinating tour of the island. She is a friendly, fun, and very knowledgeable guide, who made us feel like we were spending the day with an old friend! We learned about Pico’s wine culture, toured vineyards and enjoyed some samples; we saw lovely coastal villages, and scenic overlooks; and we visited the whaling museum in Lajes. Along the way, we had a lovely lunch in a local restaurant.  It’s worth noting, if you’re the adventurous type, that Tripix also offers guided climbing expeditions on the Pico volcano, and overnight camping stays in the caldera!

a windmill and blue sky on Azores Islands Portugal

a seaside pool and blue ocean on the Azores Islands Portugal

At the end of the day, we took the 6pm ferry back to Horta, and enjoyed our last dinner at Genuinos, which is the top-rated Horta restaurant on tripadvisor, and did feel more tourist-oriented (and more expensive) than the other restaurants on this trip. That being said, the meal was delicious (local cheese and bread, grilled prawns, more octopus) and the final tab for two with drinks and dessert was only 60 euros.

Day 6:

We woke on our last morning to a text from Azores Airlines saying that our return flight from Ponta Delgada to Providence would be delayed by more than six hours, but we had booked a separate flight from Horta to Ponta Delgada, so we still had to get up and out for that 9:30 am departure.  Thankfully, when we got to Ponta Delgada we were able to switch to a slightly earlier flight to Boston, rather than waiting all day for our Providence flight, and we then just rented a car at Logan to drive home.

Overall, as I mentioned, the trip was fantastic, we loved the Azores, and we were willing to deal with the obstacles thrown at us by the airline. If I were to go back, I would probably re-visit Sao Miguel, and add a stay in Terceira (one of the islands we skipped this time around). Each island has a different flavor, and it would be a shame not to sample some more 😊

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)