When it comes to island destinations in Europe, the Azores are hard to beat in terms of natural beauty. There’s a reason why in the past couple of years the Portuguese archipelago has been topping many lists of best island destinations in the world.
Traveling to the Azores is perfect if you want time off but aren’t excited about the idea of going completely off the grid for your vacation. It’s secluded enough to make you feel you’ve gotten away from it all, but only a five-hour flight away from the US East Coast.
I put together this list of Azores insider travel tips to help you plan your trip. As a local, these are the 10 questions about traveling to the Azores that people ask me the most.
1. Is the Azores a Portuguese territory?
The Azores is an autonomous region of Portugal, located in the North Atlantic Ocean, about two hours from Lisbon and four and a half hours from Boston. The islands were deserted when they were discovered by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century and later settled by people from different areas of Portugal and other countries in Europe.
As a part of Portugal, the Azores are included in the Schengen Area and the same visa rules apply.
2. When is the best time to visit the Azores?
The busiest time of the year to visit the Azores starts around mid-June and ends in early September. In these months, the weather is the steadiest and there are a lot more activities to choose from (especially whale watching and any other outdoor activities).
On the other hand, if you like to go when almost no one else does, start looking for travel deals to the Azores from March to May. The weather will be a bit more unpredictable than usual, but you’ll get to experience a more authentic islander lifestyle.
The best time to visit always depends on what kind of activities you’re interested in. If you’re in for some R&R by the ocean, whale watching, and sightseeing, definitely go in the summer. If you’re more interested in cultural events and local religious celebrations, then spring is the best time to go.
3. How far in advance should I book my flight?
These days, it’s not difficult to find flight deals to the Azores, but I recommend you, at least, have in mind the time of year you’d like to visit.
Once you’ve set that, search for a flight on Skyscanner matching your dates or your final destination, and set a price alert. The Azores may be becoming one of the most popular destinations in Europe, but finding a flight that matches your ideal price point could get frustrating. Setting a price alert is the easiest, least stressful way to go.
4. Can I book accommodation once I get there or should I book ahead?
If you’re traveling during the high season (mid-June to early September), it’s best if you book your hotel ahead of time. That way you have plenty of time to browse through all the hotels on the island you’re visiting, finding the perfect accommodation, and even nailing an unbelievable hotel deal.
I hardly think any Azorean would leave you stranded sleeping outside and anyone would lend you a tent for one night, but there are better ways to have the full Islander experience. Booking ahead allows you to decide your travel budget for the rest of your trip.
5. I heard the weather is unpredictable. What should I pack?
My first tip is to not pay too much attention to weather apps and forecasts. Most of the times they are wrong (no, it’s not always raining and cloudy in the Azores). That said, the weather on the islands is pretty unpredictable. Locals say, with good reason, that there are days when you’ll go through all four seasons in 24 hours.
A windbreaker and water-resistant hiking shoes are staple items to keep in mind when packing. You’ll be comfortable and prepared for weather changes. It’s also great to switch from activities on land (like hiking) to activities on the sea (like whale watching) if you’ve booked them all on the same day.
6. Is there public transportation available or should I rent a car?
There are public buses and taxis on eight of the nine islands (Corvo Island is the smallest island of them all, with an area of seven square miles).
Buses work best in an urban area but they aren’t the best option to go on an island tour. If you’d rather have someone take you around the island and explain you all, hire a taxi or ask your hotel for recommendations (they will either provide the service or know someone who does).
If you want to explore the island on your own and would rather not feel like you’re on the clock (and don’t mind not make it in time to see a lagoon before clouds cover it up again), I suggest you look for car rental deals before you go.
7. Can I travel by boat between the islands?
The short answer is yes you can. The long answer is it depends on how much time you have available, what islands are you visiting, when are you going, and how well do you handle trips in high sea.
There are three lines with regular operations: green (Faial, Pico and São Jorge), blue (Pico and Faial), and pink (Flores and Corvo). And two seasonal ones: yellow (all islands except Corvo, from May to September) and purple (Faial, Pico, São Jorge, and Terceira, from June to September).
The triangle islands (Faial, Pico, and São Jorge) are the closest to one another and ideal for island hopping by boat most of the year. For example, there are people who live in Pico and work in Faial (or the other way around) and who commute every day.
A trip between Flores and Corvo can take from 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on weather conditions.
8. Are there any other interesting activities besides whale watching?
The Azores are known for the long list of interesting things to do for nature enthusiasts: hiking, sailing, camping, scuba diving, whale watching, mountain climbing, canyoning, windsurfing… There are so many options that the hard part is choosing what to do first.
But there’s a cultural side to the islands as well that most people probably don’t know about. The center of the city of Angra do Heroísmo (on Terceira Island) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pico Island has art events happening all year long (including, in June, the Azores Fringe Festival). The two most important music festivals of the Azores happen in São Miguel (TREMOR, in March) and Santa Maria (Maré de Agosto, in August).
There is something for everyone in the Azores.
9. How do I know if my hotel is as eco-friendly as it says it is?
With four UNESCO Biosphere Reserves (the islands of Flores, Corvo, and Graciosa, and the “fajas” on the island of São Jorge), the Azores were one of the best-known eco-tourism destinations in the world, before this was even a travel trend. The local government, the inhabitants, and the local business owners take pride in protecting the islands’ ecosystems and go to great lengths to make sure everyone complies.
Responsible and sustainable travel are becoming more and more important topics. In the Azores, being eco-friendly is more than just a trend. It’s taken so seriously that there’s a yearly certification given to hotels that follow the rules. To make sure your hotel is as eco-friendly as it advertises, look for the Miosotis Azores certification.
10. Are people in the Azores fluent in English?
If I wanted to find one Azorean who doesn’t have family in North America, I would probably be out of luck. In the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of Azoreans left their homeland to find work in the US, Canada, and Bermuda. Culturally, islanders feel a closer connection to the American culture than to the European one.
The younger islanders, and those working in the tourism industry are fluent or able to communicate well in English. It’s also not unusual to find someone who’s returned to the island after living for a few years in the United States.
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About the Author
Sandra Henriques Gajjar// Tripper
Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a writer born in the Azores and currently based in Lisbon. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog about cultural travel to offbeat destinations.