Still one of the best hidden gems in Europe, especially as a nature destination, the Azores are a beautiful place to avoid crowds and get off the beaten path. These Portuguese islands make a great summer trip (and are even quieter in the spring and fall). This article is an overview of what to know before planning your trip to the Azores, and how to make it more sustainable.
Note: I wrote this article after a sponsored press trip. Still, my opinions are my own. See below for details.
Visiting the Azores for the first time was one of those trips that felt like stepping into another world.
These nine small islands in the middle of the Atlantic are the western-most part of Western Europe. They’ve played an outsized role in European history, yet visiting them feels like stepping off the edge of the map, tumbling through a rabbit hole, and popping up in a kind of… subtropical Iceland?
But one that’s glowing green like Ireland, and scattered with hiking trails and cows. With deeply surprising traditions, festivals, attitudes and religious beliefs that reminded me slightly of… Central America?
It really felt more disconnected and surprising than I expected. And also profoundly quiet, humble, and serene.
When I first checked into my small hotel, it seemed like a chic wellness retreat – one with a glowing green front lawn, and a quiet pool with a view of the Atlantic in the distance.
The modern, elegant furniture in my suite was intriguing enough that I wanted to find a way to fit it into my suitcase. When I opened my bedroom window the first morning, cows were quietly munching on grass in the morning glow outside. I could almost reach out and touch them.
And this clean, fresh, humid air just made the place feel so healthful.
But after a few days, I realized it wasn’t just the hotel that felt like a retreat. It was the whole island of Terceira. A restful, soothing place where you have almost no option but to let yourself relax and let your batteries recharge.
And that must be one of the things that keeps the Azores so unique and special – these islands are not for everyone.
They have very few sandy beaches – but having to lay their towels on a seaside strip of concrete (or a lava flow) doesn’t keep Azoreans from the water!
There’s no night life to speak of. (The largest island of São Miguel would be the only place to hope for much, but if you’re looking for a trip that involves clubbing, the Azores shouldn’t be your first pick.)
The buildings are almost beautifully shabby, and the whole place is very low-key in a lovely way. In short, there’s very little drama here.
A bit of Azorean History
While nature is undoubtedly the main attraction in the Azores, there’s also some fascinating European history to see, and lots of culture. (I spent an evening at a local festival in a small village that I certainly won’t forget.)
The Azores have been part of Portugal for centuries, minus about 60 years under Spanish rule. For a couple of years around 1580, the small port town of Angra do Heroísmo was even the Portuguese national capital, after being the only place in Portugal to successfully repel the initial Spanish invasion. Two years later, though, the islands did fall to Spain.
The story of this period – about a woman named Brianda and the herd of bulls she released to attack the Spanish invaders – is part of what it means to be Azorean.
Herds of bulls are still an important part of life on the islands, where local beef, local fish, and local cheese are the staples of just about every menu. (Note: The Azores won’t be the easiest place for vegan travelers, or even vegetarians. But if you enjoy seafood, you’ll be in heaven.)
Out of the pastures, these islands were a rare safe harbor in the mid-Atlantic for centuries of sea trade. The town of Angra do Heroísmo, which was our home base on the island of Terceira for 7 days, has been an important hub for centuries. It was where Vasco da Gama brought his dying brother in the late 1400s, because the town had the only hospital in the Atlantic.
(Even today, only three of the nine islands have hospitals – Terceira, São Miguel, and Faial.)
And what exactly is an Azore, anyway?
It’s a kind of falcon, as our excellent guide, Pedro, explained. And it’s featured on the Azorean flag – despite none of them living in Azores. (And happily, for once, this isn’t a story of a species being pushed out. As far as scientists can tell, there never were any azores in the Azores.)
(This is the full-day tour you should book to get our guide or his colleague. Here are the other tours from his company. It’s a small local business on Terceira, and he was one of the best guides I’ve ever had!)
And one of the best-known symbols of the islands is the hydrangea – you’ll see them flowering everywhere in the summertime. (But they’re originally from Japan.)
That’s the surprising kind of special place these islands are. At first glance, they simply don’t make sense.
The next Iceland?
However, the Azores did remind me of a lot of other beautiful places I’ve visited, perhaps most poignantly Iceland. Both are volcanic islands in the Atlantic, with intense, dramatic landscapes. Both have recently emerged, to some extent, from centuries of relative poverty on the fringes of Europe.
And the Azores are following in Iceland’s footsteps and using “stopover” flights as a way to increase tourism. (Travelers can book flights between mainland Europe and North America with the option to add a few days in the Azores.)
After all, it’s on the way. And as far as sustainability is concerned, if you would have needed a layover anyway, and can replace a useless one with a beautiful experience, it’s a win-win. I’ve written about this before in another Portuguese destination – Porto.
Are the Azores a sustainable destination?
This is one of the questions I get most often, as a sustainable travel writer, and it’s usually a complicated one to answer with real meaning.
First, yes, the Azores are mostly a nature destination, and probably one of the best eco-tourism destinations in Europe. Does that mean they’re automatically a sustainable destination? No, because just taking place outside doesn’t make an activity sustainable.
But in this case, it does mean that people are traveling to the Azores not to spend money in over-airconditioned, foreign-owned beach resorts, to shop international fashion brands, or for any kind of mass-tourism.
Still, it’s a destination that’s impossible to reach without flying. (Unless you’re planning to sail there like Vasco da Gama, in which case, more power to you! And call me. Otherwise, see below for flight info.)
The fact that the similarities with Iceland seemed so obvious made me nervous about the future of tourism here – the thought that the Azores, too, could quickly turn into an unsustainably popular tourism destination. (Iceland is one of the modern poster children of over-tourism, with 2 million visitors a year in a country of less than 400,000 residents.)
Right now, that’s blissfully hard to imagine. Almost everyone I met in the Azores seemed genuinely happy to see tourists.
For just one example, I was wandering around one morning in Angra, minding my own business and marveling a colorful império – a uniquely Azorean kind of chapel devoted to the Holy Ghost. (Holy Ghost worship is the defining belief of Azorean religion, and the only religious tradition that’s common to all nine islands.)
And while I marveled, a stranger volunteered to snap a picture of me in front of it. I think my eyes are closed, and the top of the building is chopped off, but I kind of love it.
That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in places like Venice or Paris, where local people are overwhelmed by too many tourists.
But the appeal of the two places – the Azores and Iceland – is similar. Both feel like dramatic, remote, spacious, places where the main appeal is nature and, frankly, avoiding other tourists or… any people. At least major crowds of them.
What matters most: How you get there & how you spend your money
So as always, when trying to travel more sustainably, there are lots of simple tips that make a big difference. First, choose a lower-emission flight route. (As I describe below, I was able to fly to the Azores directly from New York City – no need to go all the way to Europe first – on one of the most efficient planes available.)
After you arrive, the most important factor is who you spend your money with. (Keep it local, and skip the chain hotels and restaurants!)
Without tourism, the economy of the Azores is almost entirely agriculture and fishing, and the region still has a higher rate of poverty than the rest of Portugal.
So this is a place where your travel budget is appreciated, and where it’s easy to spend money with local businesses.
And they’re almost all local businesses on the Azores. Chain hotels or fast-food restaurants aren’t really a thing here. (That means it’s quite easy to eat mostly locally produced food – although as a food culture based on cows and the sea, it’s not an easy place to be vegan, or even a casual flexitarian like myself.)
So I have to say, if you’re thinking about visiting the Azores, I would think about going now instead of waiting five years – just in case any of this starts to change.
Besides economics, you can control lots of other sustainability factors with a few habit changes:
- Eat and drink whatever is locally produced.
- Purify your own water if you can’t drink tap (but in the Azores, you most definitely can).
- Order less meat – especially beef, which has by far the highest climate impact. (Although here, where cows are grass-fed and very local, is probably one of the best places in the world to indulge.)
- Pack less.
- Take public transit. (Which is limited in the Azores, but keep it in mind for elsewhere.)
- Bring plastic-free toiletries.
- Choose trains and ferries over flights.
- And whenever possible, move slower and stay longer.
[For more on all of these points, check out the articles linked above, and my Lazy Guide to Sustainable Travel.]
Getting to the Azores
From some parts of North America, the Azores are surprisingly easy to reach – although I wouldn’t have guessed it from the sparse tourists I saw there in early September.
If you’re in North America, SATA Azores Airlines has direct flights from five cities in North America straight to the Azores. (From the East Coast, it’s about a 6-hour flight.)
As someone who often chooses her destinations based on direct flights, to reduce carbon emissions, this was a useful tip!
Important tip: Ferries and flights between islands in the Azores are seasonal, and even in the high season, they’re not every day. So when you start planning your trip, check the schedules sooner rather than later.
Direct flights to the island of Terceira, where I spent more of my time in the Azores, are from Oakland, JFK and Toronto.
Direct flights to Ponta Delgada, the Azores’ largest city, on the island of São Miguel, below, are from JFK, Toronto, Boston, and Montreal.
Flights from JFK, Boston and Toronto depart throughout the year. From Oakland, they’re from June through September, and from Montreal only in July and August.
(From Europe, Azores Airlines flies direct from Paris, Frankfurt, Barcelona and Bilbao, as well as Porto and Lisbon. But flights from Europe to the Azores aren’t as unique, since the Portuguese airline TAP, as well as the ultra-low-cost airline RyanAir also fly there.)
The local airline also has a fuel-efficient fleet of aircraft. (For example, both of my flights between JFK and Terceira’s Lajes Airport were on the A321 Neo, which is one of the most efficient airplanes in the world.)
As I learned when I calculated my carbon footprint from flights in 2022, the kind of aircraft can actually make a massive difference in the climate impact of a flight, along with other factors like the time of day.
And can you imagine getting on a plane in Oakland, California, and getting off at an airport where you can count the gates on one hand?
It must be one of the most remote, most thoroughly different destinations that’s accessible directly from a major metro area in North America.
When to Go
The high season for tourism in the Azores runs from June through September. That’s what every local I asked told me.
Since I was actually there in the first week of September, I always followed their answer up with, “So… right now? You mean this is still the busy season?”
And inevitably I’d hear back, “Oh yes! Look around, there are so many people here! Not quite as many as in August, but still a lot.”
But I was looking around, and I just kept thinking, “Where? Where are these tourists?”
I suppose having spent so much time in the mainland of Europe has skewed my perspective a bit on what over-tourism, or even just any tourism, looks like.
On Terceira, we’d go to a city beach and have all the space we wanted to spread out. Most restaurants were half-full. (The only one we went to in a week that was packed was a very popular, very local seafood joint that most of the people I talked to on the island had recommended.)
The quietest times to visit, when the weather should still be nice and the hotels still open, would May and June or September and early October.
Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Volcanos, Oh My
The islands do have a few natural threats to be aware of – but hardly any human threats, so that feels like a fair trade-off.
The worst crime we could see evidence of was bad parking. Once, when our van was stuck behind a car in Angra, our guide explained it calmly:
“That’s our traditional parking place — in the middle of the street. And people wait, we are quite patient.”Pedro, our local guide (highly recommended!)
Other than the palpable threat of patience, the Azores really did feel like one of the safest places I’ve ever traveled. (As a taxi driver told me, “Maybe once every ten years someone does a crime.”)
Anecdotal, sure. But memorable.
Nature, on the other hand, keeps a different schedule.
Hurricane season runs from July to November in the Azores, with August and September bringing the highest risk.
And, of course, volcanos and earthquakes don’t have seasons.
All of the islands of Azores have active volcanos – 1,700 of them in total – but remember that “active” means a volcano has erupted in the last 12,000 years. (And they’re part of the attraction, since they’re responsible for so much of the beautiful landscape!)
But it is a good idea to check the volcano risk level before departing. When I was on São Jorge, it was at a level 2 out of 5. But in the past couple of years, it’s even made it up to level 4 (although nothing happened).
These are all, of course, good reasons to buy travel insurance, in case you need to cancel your trip last-minute.
Cruises to the Azores
Only two places in the Azores receive large cruise ships – the towns of Praia, on Terceira Island, and Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel. Whether you want to be on a cruise, or avoid the crowds they bring, the big ships only dock in the Azores in February through April, and October and November.
And every island of the Azores is completely different.
9 Islands to Choose From
While I’ve only visited Terceira and São Jorge so far, I learned a lot about all of the islands from our guides and just from talking to locals while I was there. These are my notes:
São Miguel is the largest island in the Azores, and travel articles often mistakenly call it the capital. (But our fantastic local guide, Pedro, explained that the region’s government is actually split up into three separate capitals on three islands. I suppose with 1,700 volcanos, you wouldn’t want all your eggs in one basket.)
São Miguel is also the island that’s famous for cozido, the stew that’s cooked underground by volcanic heat.
Santa Maria is a very small island just 34 miles south of São Miguel. It’s known as one of the best scuba diving destinations in Europe, and has sandy beaches – which aren’t very common in the Azores.
(You can get there by flying to São Miguel first, and then taking another short flight or a – for lower carbon emissions – a ferry.)
Terceira is the third largest island in the Azores geographically, and the second largest in population. (Although it still feels entirely bucolic.) It’s where I spent the majority of this trip, and I would absolutely recommend visiting. The historic old town of Angra is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Even though I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a geology enthusiast, descending the stairway down into the active volcano of Algar do Carvão was one of the most unique and fascinating parts of my visit.
I’m writing up a separate guide to Terceira with all of my favorite restaurants, hotels and places to visit.
If you want to island-hop to several of the Azores in one trip, Terceira is a great jumping off point (especially if you’d rather take ferries than flights).
Terceira has the main international airport, besides Ponta Delgada, so you can fly there directly. And it’s part of the biggest group of islands – so Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial are all close by.
São Jorge is the other island I visited on this trip – known for steep hills ending straight in the ocean, walking trails, and the unique São Jorge cheese factory, which we toured.
Not a lot of places in the world can make the island of Terceira feel hectic in comparison, but São Jorge is one of them. The tranquility is a huge part of what makes it feel so special.
Faial is a small island that’s known as an international yachting destination. After a major volcanic eruption on the island in 1957 (the most recent one in the Azores) about half of the population of Faial moved to the United States.
Graciosa is known as “the white island” because of its ring of white cliffs along the coastline.
You can reach Graciosa by a direct ferry from Terceira or São Jorge.
Pico is known for two things: First, the highest mountain in all of Portugal, which I got a quick but clear view of from São Jorge, but was too amazed to pick up my camera fast enough (we were driving down a windy road!). And second, wine. Its black basalt-lined vineyards are another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Corvo is the smallest island in the Azores in every sense. It’s only 7 square miles (17 square km) and has 400 residents. It’s honestly one of those places that I’m not sure if there’s a reason to visit, and I think that makes me want to go even more. If you’re looking for far off the beaten path in Europe, Corvo might be a great example.
Flores is known, as its name suggests in Portuguese, for flowers and, as our guide on Terceira told me, for waterfalls. That combination sounds just idyllic. Flores is right next to Corvo (but nothing else), and not much larger. I think the two would make an excellent pair of islands to visit when you want to explore a truly remote place.
So much to explore…
This was technically a work trip for me, and when I got home, I had thousands of photos, videos, and notes to sort through. But I still felt a deep sense of post-Azores relaxation, which doesn’t happen every time I come home from a writing trip.
It left me wanting to go back again and visit other islands – Pico is one of the first on my list – and also just wanting to keep on seeing more of the world.
The Azores are such a small place, but they pack in so many different kinds of beauty. They’re a reminder of how much there really is to see in the world, when you zoom in to look at the details.
Note about the sponsors:
I was able to take this trip because it was sponsored by the local Azorean tourism boards and SATA Azores Airlines. That means I didn’t choose my itinerary for these 7 days in the Azores — but it also means I had a professional, local guide with me the entire time, who I pestered with questions for a whole week. (Sorry not sorry, Pedro – but you were great! This is the Terceira day tour you’ll want to book to get him or his colleague.)
What I’m writing in this piece, and my accompanying Terceira itinerary, is the best of what I experienced during that week, what I learned, and what I’ll do differently next time.
As always, my advice is my own, uncensored opinion, and I have full editorial control of what appears on Tilted Map, regardless of sponsorship. Accepting sponsored trips simply lets me afford to share more sustainable destinations with you. Thanks for reading!