All you need to know about traveling to the Azores
As a local, I know a thing or two (maybe more) about traveling to the Azores, and I get a lot of emails with, often, the same questions.
There’s plenty of information out there, but the readers who reach out to me have trouble in either believing the source or finding all they are looking for in one spot.
This blog post covers all you need to know about traveling to the Azores and will help you plan your trip. Bookmark it, print it, save it for later. If something is missing, let me know.
You can easily find the Azores on a map, but I think grasping how remote the islands are is a whole other story.
Saying the Portuguese archipelago is 898 miles from Lisbon and 2,391 miles from Boston is also not enough. It would be convenient, though, if you were driving there. But, of course, you’re not.
That only measures the distance between those two cities and the bigger island (with the main airport).
I set this map of the Azores with a pre-defined view on Google so you could see how the islands are (literally) in the middle of the North Atlantic.
The blue pins mark the East Group (São Miguel and Santa Maria). The purple pins mark the Central Group (Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial). And the orange pins mark the West Group (Flores and Corvo).
It looks like pretty much a cluster, doesn’t it?
I encourage you to slowly begin to zoom in on the map to see how far each island is from one another. The West Group is the most remote and the most isolated.
Why does this matter? Well, I’m not interested in analyzing the Azores map just for fun, nor is this a Geography lesson.
But to plan an independent trip to the Azores, you need to account for time and distance differently, especially if you are looking to visit more than one island.
Unless you’re an experienced sailor, hopping on a plane is the easiest and fastest way to get to the Azores.
Ponta Delgada port (in São Miguel island) is also a stop for some cruises, but this post is meant to include all the islands and how to travel there, not just one.
I’m also not the biggest fan of cruises for sustainable tourism. Passengers don’t stay long enough to get to know their destination. All tours are pre-paid. Everything is so expensive (and included) on board that tourists aren’t as likely to spend time on land to support the local economy in any way.
Taking a glance at my notes, this was bound to be a long section, so I split it into smaller categories.
Flying to the Azores can be cheap (if you’re flexible and set up price alerts as I do) but flying between the islands is entirely different.
That’s why this section is so big.
About the airports in the Azores
This is a piece of crucial information to plan your trip. Why? Because although all islands have an airport (locals frequently fly to other islands), not all airports get flights from all destinations. Not to mention, not all planes have the right size to land on all strips.
The Azores’ main airport is the João Paulo II in Ponta Delgada (São Miguel island). All international flights land there.
So, if you are, for example, searching for a flight from Boston to Flores island, you will notice you can only find flights with one layover (or more).
The smallest airport (more like an airdrome, actually) is the one on Corvo Island. This island gets the smaller planes. It also means that, when island hopping, you may have to look for more flexible alternatives like taking a boat from the neighboring Flores Island to reach Corvo.
For reference (and to make sure you’re looking at the right airport), keep in mind the codes and location of each one:
- PDL – Ponta Delgada, São Miguel
- SMA – Vila Nova do Porto, Santa Maria
- TER – Lajes, Terceira (also an American Military Base)
- GRW – Santa Cruz, Graciosa
- SJZ – Santo Amaro, São Jorge
- PIX – Madalena, Pico
- HOR – Horta, Faial
- FLW – Santa Cruz das Flores, Flores
- CVU – Vila do Corvo, Corvo
Airlines to the Azores: which airlines fly to the Azores and from where?
The window to visit the Azores when the weather is just right is, unfortunately, very small.
Typically, the high season is between June and September, and this is when everyone is traveling to the Azores, from tourists to emigrants based in the U.S. and Canada.
Azores Airlines is the archipelago’s official airline operating some international flights and the only company operating all flights between islands (still known as SATA Air Açores).
Here’s a breakdown of your options of airlines to the Azores and which destinations they cover (I’ll keep this post updated as much as possible, but keep in mind that routes available may change over time):
- Azores Airlines:
- From London Gatwick to São Miguel – Direct flights (May to October)
- From Boston to São Miguel and Terceira – Direct flights
- From Toronto to São Miguel and Terceira – Direct flights
- From Lisbon, Faro, Porto, Funchal, and Porto Santo to São Miguel – Direct flights
- From Amsterdam, Stockholm, Barcelona, Billund, Copenhagen, Dublin, Frankfurt, Las Palmas, Madrid, Munich, Paris, Oslo, and Zurich to São Miguel – Flights may be operated in partnership with other airlines
- From London Stansted to São Miguel – Direct flights (frequency changes according to season)
- From Lisbon to Terceira – Direct flights (frequency changes according to season)
- TAP Air Portugal:
- From Manchester and Heathrow, via Lisbon
- From Lisbon to Terceira and Faial – Direct flights (usually in partnership with Azores Airlines)
- From Boston to Ponta Delgada – Direct flights starting early 2020
Island hopping in the Azores
Like anything else in the archipelago, island hopping in the Azores needs a little extra planning, so it’s unlikely to be the appropriate way of traveling for those who like to book flights on a whim.
You can do it only by boat, you can do it only by plane or mix both.
Mixing both is the optimal choice, considering the closeness of some of the islands, how regular the boat and flight connections are, and what season you are traveling to the Azores.
I’ve had readers do it all by plane in just two weeks, so I know it’s possible. It was probably a race against time, and they didn’t spend much time on each island, but they pulled it off.
The only downside of this? They had to leave one island out because they couldn’t find a suitable connection without layovers or a ridiculous back and forth.
Like I mentioned before, SATA Air Açores is the airline that connects all islands. Depending on the time of year, you have to account for frequency and, very important, layovers.
Remember that they have to cover all nine islands, and having only direct flights between them is not a smart use of resources. Think of it as a bus with different stops along the way from point A to point B – some people get off, and some people get on.
If you get seasick easily, I would never recommend traveling between the islands by boat, for two reasons. One, I get seasick easily, and the North Atlantic isn’t always kind to poorly prepared sailors. Two, even if you think summer is a safe bet, some trips are more comfortable than others (that’s when knowing the distance between islands comes in handy):
- Approximate distances between the islands (in miles):
- Flores and Corvo – 14.91
- Faial and Pico – 5.5
- Faial and São Jorge – 24.23
- Pico and São Jorge – 11.80
- São Jorge and Graciosa – 37.90
- Graciosa and Terceira – 50.33
- São Miguel and Santa Maria – 63.37
Have you started building a picture for island hopping in your head just yet? It’s always tricky to narrow down the best option because you must consider all factors beyond the distance.
Are you okay with traveling by boat? Is it worth it to go through all the airport security procedures just to travel between islands that are so close together? Is it cheaper, safer, easier?
I can’t make the final decision for you, but I can tell you a few things regarding island hopping by boat:
- Three lines run regularly (Green Line between Faial, Pico, and São Jorge; Blue Line, between Faial and Pico; Pink Line between Flores and Corvo)
- The Yellow Line only runs from 3rd May to 29th September and includes all islands except Corvo
- Traveling by boat is the easiest (and most frequent) between Corvo and Flores, Faial and Pico, Pico and São Jorge, Faial and São Jorge
- Pico Island is the middle island of the “triangle” (Faial, Pico, São Jorge), which means it’s easier to set Pico as a base and travel by boat to Faial and São Jorge
- Boat tickets for some destinations can be expensive
- Check the official website of boat operator Atlantico Line for prices and schedules
Traveling between the islands for free
Improving air travel in the country, from the mainland or from the Madeira islands to the Azores, was long overdue.
It’s usually cheaper for locals to book a flight to another city in Europe or another country elsewhere than to book a flight to the Azores.
When low-cost airlines, like Ryanair and, for some time, easyJet, were allowed to fly to and from the Azores, it became dirt-cheap to reach the main island, São Miguel. Still, it meant the other eight islands were missing out on the opportunity.
Therefore, free inter-island connecting flights were created. Like any other service, there are some ground rules:
- Your origin must be an airport in mainland Portugal (Porto, Lisbon, or Faro) or Madeira island (if you’re flying in from Boston and have a layover in Lisbon, for example, you’re not eligible for the free connecting flight)
- Your final destination must be any other island other than the island of entry (for example, your final destination is Corvo island, but to enter the Azores, you must fly in via São Miguel)
- You cannot stay at your point of entry in the Azores for more than 24 hours
- You must request your connecting flight on this website
Renting a car, hiring a taxi, or using public transportation?
Ah, the million-dollar question about getting around in the Azores.
Again, there isn’t one fit-all simple answer to this. It vastly depends on how much time you’re spending there, which island you are visiting, what activities you planned, and where you are staying.
Let’s break this down one by one.
Car rental in the Azores
I often receive emails complaining about one of these two things: the company charges my reader an outrageously high deposit fee, or the fees are too high for the time they’re spending there.
To be clear, I don’t drive, nor rent cars, so I have no idea what expensive car rental means. I know that there are probably fewer cars available at an Azores car rental than there are in any other part of the country (which could explain the high fees).
Also, be mindful that driving in the Azores might be a challenge for some people who aren’t used to narrow streets or driving on cliffs.
Occasionally, and this is not an urban myth, you will face the most common traffic jam in rural areas on the islands – a massive herd of cows being moved from one pasture to the other.
Instead of looking for an international or a chain car rental company, I strongly suggest comparing prices at local companies for several reasons: most of them have a website where you can plan it all even before you leave your country, they offer airport pickup, they have multiple ways of payment, and if you’re traveling to more than one island you can have a car waiting for you at every stop.
However, I’m listing all available car rental companies in the Azores with a website, and with an office or a representative at the airport (as listed on their pages):
- Autlantis (local) – São Miguel, Santa Maria, Terceira, Pico, São Jorge, and Flores
- Ilha Verde Rent a Car (local) – São Miguel, Santa Maria, Flores, Terceira, Faial, Pico, and São Jorge
- Varela Rent-a-Car (local) – São Miguel, Terceira, Faial, Pico, and São Jorge
- Hertz (global) – Faial, Pico, São Miguel, and Terceira
- Europcar – Terceira, Faial, Pico, São Miguel, Santa Maria, Flores, and São Jorge
- Guerin (global) – Flores, Faial, Pico, São Miguel, São Jorge, Terceira, and Santa Maria
- Sixt (global) – São Jorge, Flores, Terceira, São Miguel, and Santa Maria
Please confirm prices, insurance, extra fees, documentation, and payment modes available on the Azores car rental companies’ websites before booking.
Hiring a taxi in the Azores
All islands have taxis, except Corvo. The island is tiny, so you can practically walk everywhere.
When does it pay off to hire a taxi? As a transfer between the airport and your hotel (and vice versa). If you have a lot of luggage or the distance justifies it. And when you want to do some sightseeing as an independent traveler but with the perks of a tour guide who knows the island well (without being part of a guided tour).
All airports have taxis outside, so getting one shouldn’t be too difficult. Some hotels also offer transfer services, so check the prices for that and compare it with how much a taxi will cost. The taxi ride will most likely cost you a fixed fee – a daily fee for long trips and a tariff based on the distance for short trips.
I tested different tools to see how a trip between the airport and a hotel in a central location would cost me and used São Miguel as an example. I know typically, a taxi for this route costs approximately €7 (USD 8.63). So far, this tool is the most accurate. To check average taxi prices in the Azores in English, simply click your mouse right button and select “translate to English.”
Note: taxis in the Azores are cream-colored with two navy-blue stripes on the side.
Using public transportation in the Azores
The bigger the island, the more frequent buses are. When it comes to public transportation in the Azores, that’s pretty much the only option you have on land.
In smaller towns, where having a regular bus route twice a day is more than enough, you’re better off renting a car or hiring a taxi for a full day or a half-day.
In Ponta Delgada, the main city on São Miguel island, the PDL Mini Bus works well if you want to move around in the city only. More details on the PDL Mini Bus routes and prices here.
Remember the map at the beginning of this blog post? As you can imagine, accurately forecasting weather in the Azores is most times a hit and miss.
I’ve heard all the weather-related jokes from “it’s always raining on the islands” to “you get all four seasons at the same time in one day.”
Technically, you don’t get all four seasons in one day (although it does happen to rain and then be sunny five minutes later). I hardly call it a full season, and this can happen anywhere in the world.
The islands are small. That means that going from point A to point B is quicker, so it is possible to experience different weather in two different places on the same island.
Instead of asking what the weather is like in the Azores, ask instead what the Azores’ climate is like because it’s a little simpler to answer. If you want my advice, skip the weather forecast altogether. Yes, it’s possible to do that and still pack light (we’ll get to that a little later).
The Atlantic Ocean has its ways of keeping things balanced on the islands when it comes to temperature. The coldest month is February (around 13C/55F degrees on average), and the warmest (and driest) is August (around 22C/71F on average). That’s a rule of thumb, but it doesn’t mean one day is like the other.
If you think your tour guide is rushing you to get to that viewpoint, they probably are. Once the fog settles over a lagoon, it could take hours (or days) to clear up – and either you’re patient and have a lot of time on your hands, or you have to let go of that perfect shot you had in mind.
Azoreans are slightly obsessed with the weather, and it isn’t unlikely to find someone who can tell if it’s going to rain the next day just by looking at the sky or checking the tide. I’m not an expert, so I usually look at my phone app like everyone else.
The only reason we’re obsessed with the weather, especially on the more remote islands, is because bad weather for us means a canceled flight or a late shipment. And by late, I mean it can take weeks until it’s safe for a cargo ship to dock again. Something that can potentially disturb our normal routines. I haven’t lived on my home island for over 20 years, and I still feel wary about storm alerts!
Regarding rain, yes, the islands are rainy, especially from September to March. You can’t have all that green and lagoons and waterfalls without a lot of rain. I think it’s a fair price to pay, don’t you?
While tourists will probably complain there aren’t enough hotels in the Azores, I’ll say the number of hotels per island is just right.
The high tourism season is from June to September, and most islands (if not all) cash in during those months to prepare for the rest of the year when not much happens.
Some of the most remote islands might get the occasional visit of the fearless adventurer who doesn’t mind the rough weather. That’s hardly enough to keep a hotel open all year round.
On smaller islands, yes, it’s normal for some accommodation units to close in the winter.
Like I mentioned before, not all Azores’ islands are meant for those who book last minute and travel on a whim. To assure a smooth trip, follow these steps:
- Pick the island(s) you want to visit
- Browse and book accommodation (I strongly suggest you use a service like Booking.com where you can, usually, book now and pay later or at least cancel the reservation without penalties if you change your mind)
- Browse and book flights (or set up a price alert if you think you have a chance of getting a cheaper flight)
The environment and sustainability are two of the most important pillars of the tourism industry in the Azores. The region is one of the top sustainable and ecotourism destinations in the world for a reason, and we’re not bluffing when we say most of the natural landscapes in the Azores are untouched.
So, how green is your hotel in the Azores? That depends on how many Miosótis it got (miosótis is the Portuguese word for the forget-me-not flowers; although not as famous as the hydrangeas, this is an endemic species).
The Miosótis award is given every year by the local government to hotels and other accommodation types that stick to a strict set of rules and criteria to promote and enforce sustainable tourism.
You can see the whole list here and also learn what those criteria for selection are.
If you want to know the best hotels in the Azores, I suggest you start with that list.
I’m preparing a post with a long list of all the things to do in the Azores, but I remember one more thing to add every time I think I’m done. Yes, the list is longer than most people expect (even me). So, I won’t be listing all the activities here.
Instead, and because I want this to work as your starting point to plan your trip to the Azores, I want to address what tourism means for the islands.
First, visiting the Azores is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so please treat it as such.
I’m a little peeved whenever someone writes about a nasty experience about any of the islands (not just “my” two islands).
I think we sometimes forget that when visiting a destination, we’re actually visiting someone’s home. We’re using someone else’s resources (based on hospitality and financial transactions), and we’re seeing the reality of a place where we only spent a few days.
Sometimes, the weather will be shitty, and you won’t be able to Instagram your way through the island as you dreamed of.
Sometimes, you’ll go out on a whale-watching expedition, and none of the animals felt like acknowledging your presence. Because they’re animals. In the wild. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride, and learn a little bit more from the tour guide with you on the boat that day.
Sometimes, you’ll step into a restaurant with crappy food or without a vegan/vegetarian option or with only one thing on the menu. Before bitching about it, put yourself in the locals’ shoes. Do they have access to big chain supermarkets, or do they rely on a cargo ship coming over every two weeks with supplies they can’t grow on the island?
Despite being surrounded by the North Atlantic ocean, did you know that fishing certain protected species, even if in small quantities, is illegal? It’s not as easy as catching something nice and fresh to put on the menu?
Yes, some islands in the Azores have a long way to go to achieve a certain high standard of customer service, I will agree on that. Yes, it’s far from perfect. The reality is that most of the people who work in tourism weren’t quite ready for the sudden influx of tourists because the Azores are so popular right now.
I want you to spend as much time in the Azores as you want, and I want you to experience life in the Azores to the fullest, even if it’s just for a couple of days.
I say this with all my heart, as a local who’s been away from the islands for 20 years but who still feels like an islander. You can take the girl out of the island, but you can’t take the island out of the girl, right?
But I don’t want you overthinking every single step you take, so here are my top tips for things to do in the Azores (sustainably and responsibly):
- Diving in the Azores is not only a bucket-list experience, but it’s also a lesson in marine biology. Make sure you choose a certified and sustainable company.
- Whale watching is what the Azores are best known for, but be mindful that not all islands are the perfect spot for this activity. Also, remember that the whales and dolphins in the Azores are protected species. Here’s what you can do if you haven’t spotted a whale on your trip or your sea expedition was canceled due to poor weather conditions:
- Visit a whaling museum and learn more about the transition from whale hunting to whale watching.
- Visit a local interpretation center and learn more about the biodiversity in the islands.
- Visit an old whale observation post and see if you could spot one.
- The best beaches in the Azores are easy to spot: follow the locals or, if you don’t want to feel like a stalker, ask around where to go. Swimming in the Azores can be tricky, even in the summer, because of the currents, so please be mindful of warnings if you’re not an excellent swimmer
- Other outdoor activities:
- Canyoning (the best islands are São Jorge and Flores)
- Sailing (Faial has a long tradition of welcoming sailors and sailing activities)
- Hiking (details for hiking in the Azores safely in the FAQ section)
- Surfing and windsurfing (the favorite spots are on the islands of São Miguel, Terceira, and São Jorge)
- Cliff diving (São Miguel island welcomes one of the legs of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series every year; not for the faint of heart)
- Swimming (no skinny dipping, please and take note that your swimsuit will be ruined after) on hot springs (the most famous being at Parque Terra Nostra in São Miguel)
- Birdwatching (Corvo island is one of the birdwatchers favorite place)
- Local culture:
- Wine tasting in Pico, Terceira, and Graciosa
- All islands celebrate a local religious event in honor of the Holy Spirit, from April/May to July (dates and how it’s celebrated across the islands varies)
- Summertime is festivals time: Azores Fringe Festival in Pico (June), Maré de Agosto in Santa Maria (August), Semana do Mar in Faial (August), Semana dos Baleeiros in Pico (August)
- Other cultural events: TREMOR in São Miguel (March), Angra Jazz in Terceira (October), Sanjoaninas in Terceira (June)
If you’re looking for many things to do (outdoor activities, guided tours, cultural events, music festivals), go in the Summer (between June and September). It’s the high season, but it’s also the time when the weather will be better.
If you don’t like surprises (although that’s virtually impossible in the Azores), summertime is the time.
For adventurous souls who seek the offbeat paths and the mysteries of island life in the low season, visit during every other month in the year except December, January, and February – the winter months.
I’m not saying you can’t travel to the islands in the winter (to be honest, people do live there all year round, if they can manage it, so can you). It’s just that enduring a winter in the Azores is challenging.
As for which island to visit, it’s up to what you enjoy doing the most.
Here’s a quick overview of what each island is best known for:
- Rugged natural beauty, remote, and offbeat: Corvo, Flores, Graciosa, and Santa Maria
- Cultural vibes: Pico and Terceira
- Island life with an urban touch: São Miguel
- Sailor life and an extinct volcano: Faial
- Secluded and hard-to-reach villages: São Jorge
Although I hardly use any when I’m traveling to the islands, a few readers have asked me about the best Azores apps (or if there are any).
The good news is that I’ve researched a bit and found close to a dozen mobile apps. The bad news is that most of them have not been updated in over a year or have content that’s not really that relevant.
So, I narrowed it down to these free apps for iOS and Android devices:
The official tourism board’s mobile app is basically a handy version of all the information they already list on their website. The app might not list all the restaurant and accommodation options available on each island —only the businesses listed on the website already.
Parques Naturais dos Açores
This is an app entirely dedicated to the nine Azores Natural Parks (one per island). Click the island you’re visiting to download the content (to be used offline). It has 10 different categories, including information about the park (with lots of valuable tips like a code of conduct), trails and circuits, local partners, environmental centers, and suggested itineraries for the must-sees.
I used to make fun of my dad for using the Spot Azores website all the time until I began to use it myself, instead of an ordinary weather app. On the website (and the mobile app), you can see the islands in real-time. Despite this sounding a lot like spying on your neighbors, it beats any weather forecast (you know, the ones that tell you it’s always raining in the Azores?).
If you don’t find it too weird to stalk remote islands in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean (or if you’re feeling homesick or want to show someone what the islands are really like).
Note: if you’re annoyed by constant ads, you might want to skip this one.
Azores – Guide & Travel Tips
Despite the name, this app only includes a travel guide to the island of São Miguel. Maybe one day they’ll expand it to include other islands. Still, for now, you can rely on content that’s been developed by a local company so you can trust it as an accurate resource.
This is the section where a brief answer will suffice, so I don’t need to write more than one paragraph (or a whole blog post) about it. If you have a question that’s not featured here, drop me an email.
Are the Azores part of Portugal?
Yes, the archipelago of the Azores is an autonomous region of Portugal. This means the islands are ruled by a local government (elected by the residents) but not independent of the rest of the country. As part of Portugal, the Azores are also members of the European Union and part of the Schengen area. Depending on your country of origin, you may need a visa to enter the Azores if this is your entry point in Europe.
What’s the language, currency, and time zone in the Azores?
The Azoreans speak Portuguese. Accent and vocabulary may change between islands and even on the same island. It’s not unusual for Azoreans to mix American English words with Portuguese because of the connection between them through emigration. The currency is the Euro (€), and the time zone is GMT -1 (one hour less than Lisbon).
Are there ATM machines in the Azores?
Yes, all islands have ATM machines, and all islands have banks, so currency exchange won’t be a problem. When you reach the Azores via São Miguel, you can visit the airport’s currency exchange office if you prefer to get cash in the local currency that way.
Health and safety
Portugal is one of the safest countries globally, and the Azores are pretty close to paradise with an extremely low crime rate. The locals joke that running away from the police on an island is pretty useless, so why choose that as a career?
As for health care, all islands have resident doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. Only Faial, Terceira, and São Miguel have hospitals; the rest of the islands have local public clinics called centros de saúde. In case of a life-threatening emergency, the Portuguese army has medical teams on-call ready to fly to wherever they’re needed.
Please remember that people live here. This isn’t a tourist resort, so you will find the same facilities you would find elsewhere (or close enough).
Hiking in the Azores
Hiking in the Azores has to be the most famous outdoor activity on the islands, especially for visitors. That sense of exploring and connecting with nature is quite the experience in the Portuguese archipelago.
All islands have clearly marked official hiking trails. If you’re not used to hiking or aren’t familiar with the terrain, I strongly advise you to stick to the mapped trails or, when needed and if available, hire a guide to walk you through it.
The official tourism board has a very comprehensive website dedicated to trails. You can choose where to hike in the Azores based on the island(s) you’re visiting, difficulty level (easy, medium, or hard), length, and shape (linear or circular).
Once you select your criteria and click the search button, you’ll have a list of all the hiking trails in the Azores that match your preferences. It includes how many hours it will take to complete (on average).
What to pack for the Azores?
Pack comfortable shoes (hiking shoes preferred) and rain gear (a light poncho will do). These are the items you’ll always want to have on you.
There, the packing list is complete! Simple. Well, and of course, pack whatever else you want. But these two are the essentials. Oh and remember the humidity. In the summer sometimes it goes up to very close to 100%, so wear light, breathable materials.