A lighthouse on the edge of a cliff in the Azores

Azores: The North Atlantic Archipelago That’s 50 Shades of Green

Sharon McDonnell

Sharon McDonnell

January 16, 2024

9 min read

An archipelago of nine mostly rural islands in the North Atlantic, the Azores is a wonderland of volcanic landscapes, pink and blue hydrangeas, fruitful pineapple and tea plantations, and 50 shades of green pastures. It’s an autonomous region of Portugal located almost 900 miles west of the mainland (about a 2.5-hour flight from Lisbon and 5 hours from Boston), yet it has a much cooler climate and a distinct identity. 

The Azores is proud of its reputation as a sustainable, nature-packed destination. After all, it was named Europe’s Leading Adventure Travel Destination from 2020–2022. Top sights aren’t yet flooded by tourists and souvenir shops. There are tons of hiking trails and no big resorts. When you visit, just be sure to respect the land and all the natural beauty that comes with it.

Shaped by volcanoes

A caldera in the Azores

The islands of the Azores are really the tops of an underwater mountain range—the Mid-Atlantic Ridge—which separates the North American Plate from the Eurasian and African Plates. The Azores were formed some five million years ago when the plates buckled and molten rock escaped. Even today, volcanic influence is everywhere.

On the biggest island, São Miguel, at Lagoa das Sete Cidades, you’ll find twin lakes in a collapsed volcano crater. One lake is turquoise and the other is bottle-green, and they’re separated by a thin strip of land and surrounded by 1,000-foot cliffs that you can hike around. (Legend has it the lakes were formed from the tears shed by a pair of doomed lovers, a blue-eyed princess and her green-eyed shepherd beau.) In Furnas, São Miguel’s area of highly concentrated hot springs, you’ll find thermal pools and the local specialty, cozido das Furnas, a meat-and-vegetable stew cooked underground by volcanic steam. 

And on the island of Faial, a volcanic eruption that took place from 1957–1958 left a barren landscape that looks like the moon. A museum next to it, Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Centre, delves into how the Azores were formed. 

Take your pick

A small community on the coast in the Azores

Each island offers a distinct experience; it’s best to do your research before traveling so you pick the perfect island (or islands) for your trip. The Azores is composed of three island groups—eastern, central, and western. 

São Miguel is part of the eastern group and has the Azores’ largest city, Ponta Delgada; it packs the biggest punch since most scenic highlights of the archipelago are here on the “Green Island.” Santa Maria, also part of the eastern group, has white-sand beaches, rather than the Azores’ typical black volcanic sand beaches.

The central islands are Pico, Faial, Terceira, São Jorge, and Graciosa. Pico boasts Portugal’s tallest peak at 7,700 feet and UNESCO-designated vineyards protected by black lava walls. Faial, four miles from Pico, is a global yachting destination; its port town Horta has a marina whose ground is completely covered in paintings by sailors to commemorate their journeys across the Atlantic. Terceira houses a historic UNESCO-designated city, Angra do Heroísmo, a major port for trade between the Americas, Africa, and Europe for over 300 years; Angra was also a temporary capital of Portugal twice, when rival kings claimed the throne.

The western islands are Flores and Corvo. Four islands—Flores, Corvo, São Jorge, and Graciosa—are so pristine, they’re recognized as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. 

History is relatively recent

Steps up a jagged rock in the Azores

Despite the Azores’ ancient geological history, its settlement by people is fairly recent. The Azores weren’t discovered by the Portuguese until 1427. (However, some scholars think the Vikings may have visited the Azores about 700 years earlier.) From the 15th–16th century, the islands were settled by the Portuguese and people from Flanders, which is why you often see Azoreans with blue or green eyes (otherwise uncommon in Portugal), windmills, a valley in Faial named after its Flemish settlers, and a 500-year history of cheese production.    

In subsequent centuries, industry and recognition for the North Atlantic archipelago flourished. The ports of Ponta Delgada and Angra do Heroísmo grew rich from trade between Europe and the Americas when Portugal was ruled by Spain from 1580–1640. When Captain Cook visited in 1775, he praised Horta’s grand houses and gardens. In the 19th century, the islands were a popular stopover for New England whalers. And in the 20th century, the Azores became stations for transatlantic cable companies, military air bases, and meteorological observatories. 

A whale of a time

Whale watching in the Azores

The Azores is one of the top whale-watching spots in the world; 28 cetaceans, from blue whales and sperm whales to bottlenose dolphins, are found in its waters. New England whalers made the Azores a popular stop to pick up fuel and crew during the 19th century. Locals also did whale hunting on their own, and it remained a major industry until the international ban on commercial whaling. Whales were last hunted here in 1987.

A fascinating whaling museum in Lajes do Pico, Museu dos Baleeiros, shows astounding films and photos of the small wooden canoes where whales were hunted with handmade harpoons, then hauled back to shore.  

Now, there are a number of operators that offer whale-watching tours. Futurismo, which offers tours year-round on São Miguel and April–October on Pico, has a breakdown of which species you’re likely to see each month; the company is so confident you’ll spot some, you can rebook for free if you don’t. 

Steeped in tea (with a side of pineapple)

A man crouches among the tea leaves on a plantation in the Azores

The oldest continuously operating tea farm in Europe, Gorreana, is in the Azores. It was founded in 1883 on São Miguel’s north shore. You can take a delightful walk through the emerald-green tea fields on a self-guided tour, sip black and green tea in its cafe, and see historic photos. Tea replaced oranges—a major crop in the Azores until a blight in the 19th century wiped them out; a Chinese tea master was hired to teach locals how to grow it. During the tea industry boom in the 1850s, various farms produced 250 tons of tea each year. In 1899, there were 14 tea producers, and by 1966, only five were left. 

Europe’s only pineapple plantations are also in the Azores. Pineapples were first imported from Brazil, a Portuguese colony at the time, in the 19th century. Soon after, pineapples became the Azores’ leading export. Arruda, located on São Miguel just outside Ponta Delgada on a former orange farm, is one of the few plantations open for tours. The pineapples here—sweeter and smaller than pineapples elsewhere—are grown in greenhouses to protect against frequent rain. You can do a free tasting; browse its shop for house-made pineapple liqueur, spicy pineapple piri-piri sauce, and other products; and sip piña coladas and pineapple mojitos at its bar.

Underground stews and the sea’s bounty

The Azores are largely self-sustaining in terms of meat, seafood, dairy, produce, and wine. You’ll find specialties like limpets (aquatic snails—called lapas—grilled with garlic and butter); alcatraa Terceira-style pot roast with red wine, cloves, onions, garlic, and peppercorns; and tender steak with garlic and pepper, called bife à regional. In Ponta Delgada, A Tasca is an always-packed tavern-style restaurant that serves all the above. You can also try Furnas’ own specialty, cozido das Furnas, at Restaurante Terra Nostra, served in an elegant setting at Hotel Terra Nostra, or O Miroma, a casual eatery with outdoor seating.

In Horta, on the island of Faial, Peter Café Sport, a world-famous casual hangout for yachties opened in 1918, serves steak marinated with rum and spices or whisky and pepper sauce; an appetizer plate of sausage, pineapples, and yams; and a range of fresh seafood, including roasted octopus, grilled cod or tuna, fish stew, and fried mackerel. For a different atmosphere, Sal & Pico, located in a 16th-century fortress, is a fine-dining hotel restaurant specializing in regional fare. 

In Pico, Cella Bar, a tapas bar right on the ocean, is high-design; the remodeled barn has a striking whale-shaped wooden extension, a large round window, and outdoor rooftop seating with fantastic views, especially at sunset. Red and white wines are produced on Pico, as well as Terceira and Graciosa, and the volcanic soil makes for a mineral, acidic flavor that truly reflects the terroir.

São Jorge cheese, a semi-hard aged cow’s milk type with Protected Denomination of Origin status, is made on the island of the same name but can be found everywhere in the Azores. A popular appetizer is fresh young cheese served with spicy red pepper paste. Sometimes it’s topped with peanuts in a banana leaf. 

Peculiar crafts 

The robust fishing and farming industries have made for some mighty unusual crafts in the Azores. You’ll see jewelry and “paintings” made from a substance you can’t quite figure out: It’s fish scales, dried, dyed, then often shaped into flower designs and sewn with gold or silver threads, called escamas de peixe

Tiny sculptures of flowers, ships, buildings, windmills, and nativity scenes crafted from white fig tree pith—some smaller than a penny, yet all painstakingly detailed—flourished on Faial from the 16th–19th century. Faial’s Museu da Horta displays 70 miniatures by a master of the craft, made from 35,000 fig pith parts. (One is a scale model replica of the Queen Mary ship.) 

Scrimshaw—ink drawings on whale bones and teeth that often depict ships and whaling scenes—is a sailors’ craft that New England whalers taught Azorean locals. Wonderful examples can be seen at the Scrimshaw Museum in Horta at Peter Café Sport. You can also follow a crafts trail, which features more than 100 workshops across the nine islands; the crafts range from fish-scale jewelry and corn husk dolls, to mats and hats, embroidery, and 12-string guitars. In Ponta Delgada, the Azores in a Box Store (part of the Azores CraftLab project) sells crafts from over 90 producers.  

New England flair

Cha Gorreana tea plantation in the Azores

In the Azores, the word for sweater is “suera”pronounced the way a Bostonian would, dropping the “r.” The word for ice cream is “açucrim” (pronounced ah-soo-creem, due to a cedilla under the first “c”), pail of water is “pelo de água”, and pan is “pana”; in Portuguese, it’s “sorvete”, “balde de agua” and “frigideira”, respectively.  

Due to such frequent contact with New Englanders and close immigration bonds—there are big Azorean communities in New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts, in particular—Azoreans borrowed words from American English, and so have words not used on the Portuguese mainland. Another linguistic oddity: The Portuguese word for tea is “cha”It’s pronounced the way locals in Macau (Portugal’s ex-colony in southern China, next to Hong Kong) pronounce tea in Cantonese.

Good to Know

Is it expensive to visit the Azores? 

The Azores is generally an affordable place to visit. A three-star hotel will run around $110–$265 per night during the summer, while hostels are $30–$55. For a sit-down dinner in a mid-range restaurant, you can expect to pay about $16 for an entree. For cheaper meals, like street food, expect to pay under $9. The priciest activities, like whale-watching tours, are around $70. But if you skip those, you can generally have a great time for about $100–$150 or less per day.

Best time to visit the Azores

The best weather is in the summer, when average temperatures are 66–75°F and inter-island flights and ferries are more frequent. In spring, average temperatures are 57–64°F. Whale-watching season is April–October (check whale-watching charts to see which species can be seen in which months). Remember: Weather is changeable here; the day may start off sunny but be cloudy with light rain showers later. The rainy season is November–February.

What languages are spoken in the Azores?

Portuguese is the main language in the Azores, but bear in mind that some Azorean words are different from Portuguese words. While most people speak English, it’s possible that some older folks and people in rural areas won’t.

The Azores with kids

The Azores is ripe with family nature activities, including watching geysers erupt, exploring lava tunnels, whale-watching, hiking, and bathing in hot springs (some are the perfect temperature for the little ones). 

The Azores public transportation

Flying on SATA/Azores Airlines between different island groups is best; traveling by ferry within the same island group is common. Be aware that the weather can cause flight and ferry cancellations. All islands except Corvo have buses and taxis. However, due to limited service and routes, public transit shouldn’t be your main form of transport. Renting a car at an island airport is best. Just be sure to book before you go, especially if you require an automatic car—it’s common for rental cars to sell out during the summer months.

Are the Azores safe?

Portugal ranks #7 out of 163, according to Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index. The Azores are considered a very safe place to travel around.

Portugal ranks #26 in the world with a score of 74/100 for LGBTQ+ equality, according to Equaldex's LGBT Equality Index. The country legalized same-sex marriage in 2010. While the Azores are far more rural than the capital city, Lisbon, most visitors find locals welcoming to all.  

Getting to the Azores

More European destinations

Sharon McDonnell

Sharon McDonnell

Freelance Writer

Sharon McDonnell is a travel, food, and culture writer in San Francisco. She’s been to Portugal many times, as well as its former colonies in Asia, including Macau, China, and Kochi, India.

Published January 16, 2024

Last updated January 16, 2024

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