How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Portugal's Azores

Whale watch, hike a volcano and embrace rugged landscapes with an action-packed trip to the archipelago.

By Gwen Pratesi, ContributorNov. 1, 2016
By Gwen Pratesi, ContributorNov. 1, 2016, at 10:30 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Portugal's Azores

Lagoa do Fogo, aka Fire Lake, is a crater lake on Sao Miguel, Azores. It is the highest lake on Sao Miguel and is in a nature reserve.

A quick flight from Boston brings travelers to the Azores' volcanic archipelago, filled with untouched beaches, quaint seaside villages and tucked-away natural splendors.(Getty Images)

The Azores, a volcanic archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, features nine islands. Forged by earthquakes and volcanoes, the isles today offer breathtaking landscapes, abundant outdoor adventures and off-the-beaten-track experiences. The Azores played a critical role in global trade starting in the 14th century. The winds of the Atlantic naturally brought ships to the islands and sailors knew how to navigate the swirling winds to propel them to their destination. Ships laden with gold, silver and other precious cargo, as well as food products such as sugar, herbs and spices made their way to the natural harbors of the Azores, where their cargo was sold or their ship reprovisioned before continuing their journey.

Today the Azores, with its striking vistas, vibrant festivals, awe-inspiring sights and lesser-known gems, beckons to travelers looking to escape it all and maximize the strength of the U.S. dollar against the euro. Even better, the Azores is just a four-hour direct flight from Boston, making it an easy and convenient trip. If you're ready to plan an adventurous getaway, consider this your go-to guide to the Azores.

Visiting the Azores

With a subtropical climate and year-round average temperatures in the 60s, the Azores can be enjoyed at any time of year, but to get the most out of your trip, pick the season and select which islands to visit wisely.

The nine islands afford somewhat similar opportunities for outdoor adventure, but each boasts a unique personality with versatile accommodations and dining options. Plus, each of the islands offer the chance to swim, climb, hike, bike, surf, fish, dive, whale watch or simply take in the surrounding natural beauty.

São Miguel Island

São Miguel Island, the largest and most populous of the nine islands, offers some of the most dramatic scenery and luxury accommodations found in the archipelago. The Flemish region's stunning beauty will remind you of Bavaria with cow pastures on lush green hills and farmland dotting the countryside. There are magnificent vistas overlooking the ocean from high above and the botanical gardens of António Borges, and Terra Nostra are of a class unto themselves, while the natural geothermal springs in Furnas are similar to Yellowstone. But one of the most spellbinding experiences is a walk through Caldeira Velha, where you can imagine dinosaurs still roam with its tree ferns, hanging vines, mineral springs and canyons.

No visit to São Miguel would be complete without visiting one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Portugal at Sete Cidades' Vista do Rei, the "King's View," and Lagoa Rasa overlooking the Blue and Green lakes formed in the collapsed craters of past volcanoes.

Terceira

Terceira, in addition to its farming heritage, has made festivals a cornerstone of its life, culture and economy. Angra do Heroísmo, the largest city on Terceira and the capital of Portugal twice, was the center of global commerce centuries ago. As a result, it is much larger than what you would expect from a city of 35,000 residents. As you walk down the streets showcasing a Renaissance design, you'll notice the Portuguese pavement resembling mosaic art and buildings with muted pastels and wrought iron balconies. Angra is home to the annual International Folklore Festival in August, the International Jazz Festival in October and the Holy Ghost Festival, which takes place seven weeks after Easter. Towns throughout Terceira celebrate weekly festivals that feature a carnival atmosphere with bull runs through the streets. These festivals take place from May to mid-October. In addition to farming and festivals, Terceira is also known for its cheesemaking, churches and convents, military forts, museums, olive groves and winemaking, as well as outdoor activities.

Faial

Faial was long known as a place where sailors would harbor. It became an important whaling center in the 18th and 19th centuries and you can visit the whaling and scrimshaw museums to learn more about the tools, techniques and importance of whaling on Faial. Faial is centered around water activities and is the most cosmopolitan of the central group of islands that includes Faial, Pico and São Jorge. Home to fertile farmland and long range vistas, this Isle also offers a dramatic view of the Azores' version of Mount Fuji, the 7,713-foot Mount Pico that dominates the landscape from above the eastern shore across the channel on Pico Island, just 5 miles from Faial. Drive above the town of Horta to Mount Gordo, the volcanic crater. Along the way, you'll pass extraordinary flowers like hydrangea that were brought to the island from China.

Faial is also home to the Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Center, which chronicles the 1958 eruption that lasted 13 months, caused the evacuation of 2,000 residents and left behind a landscape of ash and rock that covered the area, except the top of the lighthouse that signaled the western shore. What's more, visitors can learn more about the volcano and travel beneath the ash at the Center.

Pico

Pico, the youngest of the central islands, is home to the highest point in Portugal, Mount Pico. For the adventurer and outdoor enthusiast, there's plenty to do to in and around the water as well as climbing, hiking, biking and camping. The explorer will enjoy the coastal towns with their volcanic rock buildings, whaling museum, and the unique viticulture and wine making where volcanic rock is stacked, creating cribs for protection from wind and ocean spray, while providing a warm area from the evening chill.

The Next Big Travel Destination

The Azores offers something for every type of visitor. Outdoorsmen, adventurers, history buffs and families will appreciate the spectacular scenery, sightseeing opportunities, excellent seafood- and beef-centric dining options and wide range of accommodation options. Visit several islands to experience their diversity. The Azores' low cost combined with the strong U.S. dollar, safe environment and friendly people make it an ideal vacation destination.

Getting There

In North America, Azores Airlines offers direct flights from Boston, Oakland, California, and Toronto, as well as inter-island flights. Several other airlines currently service the Azores from major cities in the U.S. and Europe, including TAP Portugal, Ryanair, Air Berlin and easyJet.

Gwen Pratesi, Contributor

Gwen Pratesi is a James Beard Finalist in Journalism, award-winning food and travel writer, ...  Read more

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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