21 Portuguese islands to visit when you’re tired of the mainland

21 Portuguese islands to visit when you’re tired of the mainland

Officially, there are close to 80 islands in Portugal, but I’m not dedicating a blog post to all of them. The 21 Portuguese islands I’ll introduce you to are the ones you can travel to, visit, spend time at (at some, more than a day trip), and do stuff (yes, even if it’s just lying on the beach all day).

It wasn’t until I moved to Lisbon 20+ years ago that I realized how much of an impact growing up on an island had on my personality and how I faced life. A remote, isolated island, I should add. After one month of living in Lisbon, I distinctively remember missing the smell of the ocean. I physically missed the smell of the sea and the salty air that used to drive me crazy!

If Portugal has one ideal destination for each traveler type, it also has one island for every kind of islander-aspiring tourist.

Azores Archipelago

Visit all of the Azores Archipelago, and you’ve ticked 9 Portuguese Islands off your list. I believe they’re the most beautiful islands on the planet, but I’m biased as an Azores-born and -raised islander.

The islands are split into three groups: Eastern (S. Miguel and Santa Maria), Central (TerceiraGraciosaS. JorgePico, and Faial), and Western (Corvo and Flores). Flores is the most remote of all nine, and S. Miguel is (technically) the closest to the mainland. However, the archipelago is located in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean (or close enough).

Top things to do include outdoor and nature activities, marveling at unbelievable natural landscapes (weather permitting), and experiencing life as an islander.

Landscapes are as beautiful as they are dramatic in the Azores Archipelago
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Madeira Archipelago

The Azores might be climbing spots when it comes to popularity as a tourism destination, but Madeira has probably been the most famous Portuguese Island worldwide for some time now.

With two islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, the Madeira Archipelago is also an autonomous region of Portugal like the Azores, meaning not entirely independent from the mainland but with their own regional government.

I traveled to Madeira almost 20 years ago in the Spring, and I regret not having the time to visit Porto Santo. I thought once you’ve seen an island, you’ve seen them all (my islander-snob side speaking, most likely), but I was too quick to judge. I don’t like comparing destinations because I think each one is unique on its own, so I’ll keep my comparisons with the Azores islands to myself.

Its appeal comes from the islands’ laidback vibe, great tropical-like weather almost all year round, flowers, food, and Madeira wine, of course. They also put up a hell of a firework spectacle when it’s time to ring in the New Year. Oh, and how could I forget their most famous island-born international star? Madeira is the homeland of soccer sensation Cristiano Ronaldo.

Top things to do include:

  • Outdoor and nature activities
  • Madeira wine tastings
  • Lounging by the ocean on the soft sand beaches of Porto Santo
  • Cultural events
  • Visiting local museums and monuments
Madeira Island is one of the most famous Portuguese Islands
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Armona (Algarve)

Considering the island of Armona is just a few minutes’ ferry ride away from the Algarve city of Olhão, it might be hard to believe it is, in fact, an island.

But, no, there it is, the embodiment of what an island is: a piece of land surrounded by water and smaller than a continent.

The island is 5.6 miles long and almost 1 mile wide but still manages to have a population of around 50 people, bars and restaurants, shops, and accommodation. Fishing and tourism are the locals’ primary sources of income. It attracts mostly beach-goers in the summer, who are staying in mainland Algarve.

The absence of cars on the island makes it feel even more heavenly. The white sand pristine beach closes the deal, and it’s the top thing to visit on the island. As part of Ria Formosa’s Natural Park, Armona Island is also a good spot for birdwatching for those who enjoy the activity.

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Barreta (Algarve)

Barreta Island, or Ilha Deserta (Deserted Island), is home to one of the less frequented and quiet beaches near Faro. Algarve is a famous summer destination and typically crowded at that time, so hearing the words “quiet” and “less frequented” to describe a beach is like music to your ears (and mine)!

Regular ferries connect Faro to Barreta Island, but you can also opt for one of many tours available that include visiting and spending some time on the island.

Going to the beach and walking around the island are the top activities. As a curiosity, add visiting the most Southern part of Portugal (Cape St. Mary) to your list of things to do on Barreta Island. Part of the west side of the island is, since 2011, a designated area for nudists.

Culatra (Algarve)

With a fixed population of about 1,000 people, Culatra Island has always been famous in Algarve as a day trip among Portuguese families.

Tourists looking for quiet beaches also head to Culatra in the summer to enjoy the white sand stretching for miles. You can be surrounded by other tourists and still feel like you’re by yourself. Quite the affordable luxury, right?

In addition to relaxing at the beach and making the best of the clear waters while snorkeling and diving, you can walk the 2.5 miles that separate the village of Cacela from the village of Farol on the opposite side of the island (this village is sometimes called Farol Island).

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Faro Island (Algarve)

Faro Island is one bridge crossing away from the main city of Algarve, on foot, by car, or by bus. Technically it’s a peninsula, but it’s known by both locals and visitors as an island, so I decided to not rule it out from the list.

Compared to the other islands mentioned before, Faro Island is not as quiet and is one of the most crowded. As a popular beach destination for tourists staying in the area, you’ll have to compromise your peace of mind if you want to visit.

The upside of being such a popular and easily accessible island is having more things to do besides going to the beach, including water sports like surfing and windsurfing.

Tavira (Algarve)

This almost seven miles-long island, south of the Algarve city of Tavira, is one of the most popular spots in the summer during the high season. With the four pristine-kept and certified beaches of Tavira, Terra Estreita, Barril, and Homem Nu, one can understand why.

Although the last beach listed translates into Naked Man, the only legal place for nudists is to the west of Barril beach.

The local population lives mostly off fishing and tourism, like other islands in the South of Portugal. It’s not difficult to find restaurants and bars on the island to make the best of your day trip from the city of Tavira.

The beaches, walking or hiking, and breaking the monotony of the sand dunes exploring a small forest of pine trees are the top attractions of Tavira Island.

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Pessegueiro (Alentejo)

Pessegueiro might be the Portuguese word for peachtree, but the Pessegueiro Island is not named after a tree. Confused? Curious? I’ll get to that in a bit.

Like any other place in Alentejo, this island off Porto Covo’s coast is meant to be taken in slowly. Its white-sand beaches, great local food, and relaxed environment are so enchanting that both the island and the mainland village were immortalized by Portuguese singer and songwriter Rui Veloso.

Exploring this mysterious island not too far from the mainland is always a good option, but plan ahead and book a guided tour to visit the remains of a medieval wall and an Ancient Roman port.

As for the Pessegueiro/peachtree confusion? According to Historians, the island’s name is of Latin origin (from piscatorius or piscarium), which means fishing — as you see, not related to fruit at all.

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Almourol (Central Region)

I love this Portuguese Island for one main reason: it has nothing else to see but a castle (the only castle in Portugal that’s in the middle of a river). Even if you only see it from the shore, you can already say you’ve looked at something unique.

By the time the Portuguese took over this territory in 1129, the castle had been a medieval defense fort called Almorolan. It was handed over to the Templars, then abandoned when the religious orders were extinct in Portugal, and later recovered in the 19th century during that time’s near-obsession with the Middle Ages.

Baleal (Central Region)

Similar to the Faro Island I mentioned before, the Baleal Island is also a peninsula. The reason why everyone calls it an island, though, it’s because it used to be one, and that’s how everyone knows it.

Baleal stood as an island during high sea, and it would only be reunited with the mainland when storms brought up the sand from the bottom of the ocean.

But that’s a minor technical detail. Baleal has been one of Portugal’s top destinations for surfers, as most of the Peniche area. Surfing is still one of the leading outdoor activities, but take the time to explore one of the most beautiful central Portugal towns that many consider heaven on earth.

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Berlengas (Central Region)

Besides the Baleal one I mentioned before, Peniche’s other famous islands are the three islands of the Berlengas Archipelago – Berlenga Grande (the only one that’s visited), Estelas, and Farilhões.

Listed as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2011, the Berlengas has been a protected area since in 1465 King Afonso V banned hunting on the archipelago’s main island (Berlenga Grande).

Close enough to the mainland to not feel too remote, the boat trip to the Berlengas is reportedly a bumpy ride. Not ideal if you suffer from seasickness, but nothing that an over-the-counter pill at the local pharmacy won’t help. After all, it’s only half-an-hour away from Peniche.

Visiting the fort (and spending the night if you want) and enjoying some beach time are the top reasons people visit the Berlenga Grande.

Ermal (North)

Ermal is the third Portuguese Island on this list that is technically a peninsula. I hope you forgive me for the flexibility to include it because it’s the only island you can visit in the North and it’s linked to what was once the most famous music festival in Portugal.

Located in the Ermal dam, in a small town that is part of Vieira do Minho (in the Braga district), the peninsula/island is where hard rock and heavy metal music fans used to travel every summer for the Festival da Ilha do Ermal.

The festival welcomed big names like Slipknot and Sepultura in previous editions. In 2002 they made the mistake of including Nickelback in their lineup. Not pleased with this choice (for that music genre fans, the Canadian rock band can’t be labeled as hard rock or heavy metal), the festival attendees stoned Nickelback off stage.

Well, fast forward a few years. The recent music event I’ve heard about that happens at Ermal Island is Indigo Generation for psychedelic culture lovers (apparently on its 4th edition in 2018).

If not for the music, visit for the beautiful scenery, water sports, and quiet time.

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