While the mainland gets plenty of attention from visitors to Portugal, the country’s collection of islands is more of an undiscovered gem. Between the archipelagos of Madeira (300 miles off the coast of Africa) and the Azores (850 miles west of mainland Portugal), nearly a dozen inhabited islands offer unique and rewarding experiences for visitors.
The big question, then, is which ones are best? Here are five of the top Portuguese islands to visit.
The largest island of the Azores, São Miguel is also home to the archipelago's only major airport and cruise ship terminal. Both are located in Ponta Delgada, the capital and biggest city, so almost all tourists will start their visit there.
There are enough shops, restaurants, gardens, and other attractions in pretty Ponta Delgada to entertain visitors for a day or two, but the best of the 40- by 10-mile island lies elsewhere.
Bus tours are available, but unless you’re very short of time, renting a car or motor scooter is more rewarding. As with mainland Europe, vehicles drive on the right, and almost all roads are paved and in good condition. Be aware, however, that most are narrow and winding, and many rental cars will have a manual/stick transmission.
São Miguel is known locally as the “green island,” and it’s easy to see why. The volcanic soil and temperate climate make for lush forests and hillsides, and when combined with the mountains in the interior of the island, stunning views are everywhere.
One of the best is at Vista do Rei, overlooking the green and blue lagoons of Sete Cidades. As an added bonus, the abandoned five-star Hotel Monte Palace sits alongside, available to (carefully) explore to anyone with sturdy shoes and a sense of adventure.
There are plenty of good, inexpensive accommodation options, both in Ponta Delgada and many other towns and villages on the island. Good, inexpensive seafood and wine are available everywhere, but the most memorable meal of your trip to São Miguel is likely to be the “Cozida das Furnas”.
This version of the famous Portuguese stew is cooked, quite literally, by a volcano! Each day, locals bury pots of the stew in the hot ground, pulling it out again, fully cooked, at noon. Head to Restaurante Tony's in Furnas to try it out.
Speaking of geothermal activity, bathing in hot springs is another popular pastime on São Miguel. Several naturally-heated baths and pools can be found on the island, including one underneath a waterfall. It’s a must-do activity while you’re there.
While every Azorean island has its share of beaches, most are black and quite rocky—unless you head to Santa Maria. The southernmost island in the Azores has the whitest sand, warmest water, and driest climate in the archipelago, making it an appealing beach holiday destination.
Most visitors choose to stay in Almagreira, alongside the popular Praia Formosa (Formosa Beach). Lush green hills run down to this long stretch of white sand, which given its location, has plenty of wave action to keep the surfers happy.
Along with other water sports like jet-skiing and kayaking, there are gentler activities like checking out the abundant nearby rock pools, and even a ruined 16th-century fort in the middle of the beach to give history buffs something to look at in between working on their suntans.
Given the island’s small size (37 square miles), it’s easy to explore when you want a break from the beach. Along with many nature parks and hiking trails, it’s worth checking seeing a few of the distinctive chimneys on the local houses, since they’re generally quite different from building to building, with many being ornately designed and decorated.
Getting to Santa Maria is straightforward, with flights from both mainland Portugal, and the Azores’ main airport on São Miguel. During summer months (mid-May to mid-September), it’s also possible to take a ferry between São Miguel and Santa Maria. The trip takes roughly three hours each way but doesn’t run every day.
It’s impossible to mention Pico without talking about the volcano that gives the island its name. Ponta do Pico is the highest mountain in Portugal, rising 7,700 feet above the nearby Atlantic, and it dominates the view from anywhere else on the island.
Keen hikers can climb to the summit in around four hours, and return in three, making for a strenuous but manageable day trip. Even more than elsewhere in the Azores, though, the weather is very changeable around the mountain—so don’t expect conditions at the bottom to be the same at the top, and expect plans to have to change at a moment’s notice!
It’s been three centuries since Pico last erupted, and historic lava flows have turned into fertile volcanic soil that makes the island particularly good for viticulture. Verdelho wine from Pico was exported throughout mainland Europe until the 19th century and has made a comeback in recent years. The Museu do Vinho is a good place to learn more about Pico’s wine history, and it can also arrange tasting tours.
Other than scaling a volcano, there are plenty of other things to do on the Azores’ second-largest island. From exploring the three-mile lava cave Gruta das Torres to going on whale-watching tours (April to October is the best time to see them), plus dozens of good spots to hike and swim, it’s easy to fill up a few days on Pico.
You can fly there from São Miguel, or take ferries from neighboring islands. Accommodation becomes more expensive and fills up quickly in summer months, so book early or plan your trip for shoulder season.
Flores means “flowers” in Portuguese, and rarely was a place so appropriately named. Even jaded Azoreans from other islands comment on the unspoiled natural surroundings, which was made a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2009.
Located in the far west of the Azores archipelago, the 55 square mile island is covered with volcanic craters, seven of which have turned into attractive lakes over the millennia. These are must-see attractions while in Flores, the blue of the water offset by the green mountainsides and splashes of color from the abundant flowers that give the island its name.
Other geographic highlights include Rocha dos Bordões, dozens of basalt pillars that resemble a pipe organ, and the Monchique Islet, a distinctive black rock that marks the westernmost point of Portugal (and by some arguments, Europe).
Most tourist activities center around making the most of Flores’ natural beauty, with hiking, scuba diving, sailing, and canyoning being particularly popular. As with other islands in the Azores, whale watching is also available in-season.
Ocean and river fishing is a popular pastime for both locals and visitors alike, along with bird-watching—along with local species, several types of migratory bird stop off in Flores on their journey from the Americas.
It’s a calm, old-fashioned part of the world, where life moves at a slower pace. If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation, you can do a lot worse than spending a few days in Flores.
SATA/Air Azores flies regularly between Flores and São Miguel, although the unpredictable Atlantic weather means around a third of flights end up being canceled. For this reason, Flores is better visited towards the start of your trip, rather than at the end.
Ferries run to nearby Corvo but are too long and infrequent to other islands to be practical for most tourists.
Visited by around a million people a year, Madeira sees about twice as many visitors as the Azores and is one of Europe’s leading island destinations. Most of that activity is concentrated on the 268 square mile Madeira Island, which houses almost all of the archipelago’s permanent population.
Blessed with a mild climate year-round (daily temperatures average between 68 F and 80 F), Madeira is a nature lover's delight. An ingenious system of stone and concrete aqueducts delivers water for flowers and crops across the island, and the maintenance paths for those waterways make for perfect hiking trails to otherwise-inaccessible areas. The dense forests of the northern valleys are home to large native trees, which in turn provide shelter for many native and migratory birds.
Madeira is also a great place for a road trip, with well-paved, winding coastal roads affording exceptional views everywhere on the island. Those roads are steep, though, so be sure to rent a car with enough power to handle the hills! Gas stations aren’t as frequent as you might like, so fill up when you get a chance.
Along with horse riding, paragliding, and several golf courses, Madeira offers many water-based activities. Sailing, big game fishing, and kayaking are all easily accessible, and the snorkeling and scuba diving is particularly good due to the clear waters and abundant sea life.
For those after a less-strenuous vacation, there are plenty of beaches and public bathing spots across the island. Don’t expect miles of white or golden sand, however—the volcanic history of Madeira means the sand is naturally gray or black. A few artificially-constructed beaches have imported lighter sand, however, if that’s your preference.
If you can get the timing right, try to take in the New Year’s Eve fireworks display in Funchal harbor. It set a world record for the largest fireworks display in the world back in 2007 and has been just as impressive in the years since.
Madeira’s food and drink are rightly famous, with many products being widely exported—but of course, it always tastes better when it hasn’t had to travel over an ocean to get to you! Be sure to try out Madeira fortified wine, honey cake, and rum at a minimum, before starting on the dozens of other lesser-known options. The black scabbardfish is a local delicacy, while the tuna, octopus, and shellfish such as limpets, are particularly good there.
Several European airlines fly to Madeira, including many budget carriers. Cruise ships also regularly stop at the terminal in Funchal, and for most of the year, there’s a car and passenger ferry for the two-hour journey to Madeira’s other inhabited island, Porto Santo.