The reddish, wind-whipped cliffs give way to the mounds that emerge from the crystalline sea, providing the backdrop to long beaches of pristine sand. These are the marvellous Portuguese islands, little corners of paradise that, each year, attract hundreds of thousands of tourists with their undeniable beauty.
We'll tell you everything you need to know about Portugal's most beautiful islands and the destinations we have selected to make your stay unforgettable.
This archipelago, which belongs to Portugal, is of volcanic origin. It is located in the Atlantic Ocean, 545 km from the north-western coast of Africa. The main islands are:
- Porto Santo
- The Desertas Islands (uninhabited)
- The Savage Islands (uninhabited)
Funchal is the capital of the volcanic archipelago of Madeira. Immersed in the waters of the Atlantic, it is sheltered by the hills that shield it from the northern winds - that's why this place enjoys a wonderful, mild climate all year round.
Funchal derives its name from the aromatic plant wild fennel, "funcho", which in ancient times grew along the island's coast and was one of the island's predominant species. However, it was only in 1424 that the island officially began to be populated and, starting from the nineteenth century, Funchal became a tourist destination along with the entire area of Madeira.
First, let's take a tour of the wonderful historic centre of Funchal, in the western part of which we find buildings like the Praça do Municipio (Municipal Square) which is striking for the play of light created by the contrast between the black and the white mosaic paving. The whole city is rich in contrasts like this, as we will see throughout the holiday. On the southern side of the square, lies the Archbishop's Palace, a 16th century building now transformed into the "Museum of Sacred Art". Also nearby is the Camara Municipal, the City Hall, in the 18th century a Portuguese noble's palace. Don't miss the Igreja do Colégio dos Jesuitas, the College Church, which dominates the northern side of the square.
Among the populated areas not to be missed, don't forget the São Pedro area, where you can visit the Convent of Santa Clara and the fortress of São João do Pico. One of Funchal's greatest attractions is probably the Zona Velha, the heart of the town's nightlife, running through the Santa Maria quarter, which dates back to the fifteenth century. Also in this area and worth a visit are the Santiago Fortress, on the waterfront, and the Corpo Santo and Boa Viagem chapels. Lovers of good food and wine will be able to discover all about the local food at the Mercado dos Lavradores.
The Azores are an archipelago of volcanic origin, situated in the Atlantic Ocean. There are nine main islands, divided into three groups, and numerous smaller islets:
- Eastern group islands: São Miguel, Santa Maria, Formigas islets
- Central group islands: Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, Faial
- Western group islands: Flores, Corvo
Let's take a closer look at these beautiful Portuguese islands, all part of the Azores archipelago:
- São Miguel
- Terceira Island
- São Jorge
- Santa Maria
Also known as "The Green Island", São Miguel is a bright oasis in the middle of the Atlantic, in the Azores archipelago. Despite being the most populated island in the area, São Miguel has only about 150,000 inhabitants, of whom 50,000 are residents. The scenery encountered by inquiring tourists is so varied and ever-changing that it never gets boring: with its enchanting lakes, sandy beaches and towering mountains, the islet offers truly breath-taking activities and scenery. Visitors to São Miguel are spoiled for choice when it comes to things to see: every tiny village on the island has something special to offer, both from the point of view of culture and natural beauty. Take, for example, Ponta Delgada, a mix of ancient and modern, with its narrow streets full of shops and bustle. Well worth a visit are the Churches of San Giuseppe and San Sebastiano. From the capital, as you arrive at the outskirts of the town, you can admire two splendid twin lakes, called Lagoa das Sete Cidades
Also of interest are Ribeira Grande, with its ancient and suggestive architecture, and Nordeste, almost a wilderness where the main point of interest is the Salto do Farinha, the island's main lighthouse.
The beaches of São Paolo will enchant you with their beauty: the dark, volcanic sand is black in Praia do Populo, but Ribeira Quante, too, will take your breath away. Don't miss Praia do Lombo Gordo and Praia de Santa Barbara. In the Azores there is always plenty to do: in addition to being a great place for whale watching, São Miguel is also perfect for canoeing and paragliding.
Terceira is the third island of the Azores to have been discovered and is also one of the largest in the area. Many tourists, attracted by the beauty of the archipelago, come here, to the liveliest resort of all, which combines fantastic nightlife with immense natural beauty, not to mention its considerable cultural and historical heritage. The first thing you should do, even before you put on your hiking boots, is to take a stroll around Angra do Heroìsmo, former capital of the Azores and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much evidence remains of the old glory days and you can explore the cathedral, the Igreja da Misericòrdia, the Rua Direta and the nJardim Duque da Terceira, a large park which slopes up towards the da Memòria obelisk.
The heart of Terceira conceals natural wonders of volcanic origin. In Algar do Carvão lies the Gruta do Natal, a tunnel of lava that solidified over the centuries. It contains an altar where mass is celebrated on Christmas day. Worth a detour are the fumaroles of Furna do Enxofre and, after that, the Lagoa da Falcã lake, romantically set, deep in the woods.
The long and narrow island of São Jorge surprises with its unspoilt natural surroundings and lush vegetation. In this part of the Azores archipelago, you can admire the fajãs, low coastal plains located just below the cliffs overlooking the sea. This island is the perfect destination for trekkers, who can spend a couple of days exploring Sao Jorge on foot. From the Serra del Topo, you come to the coastal plains of Fajã da Caldera di Santo Cristo, Fajã do Belo and Fajã dos Cubres. Expert trekkers can also follow the path that leads from Norte Grande and Urzelina across volcanic peaks until we reach the highest point on the island, Pico da Esperança.
Sao Jorge is also renowned for its cheese production. This is where Queijo São Jorge is produced, an EU protected designation, which owes its characteristic aroma to the wild mint that the cattle feed on. Another local speciality is Santa Catarina tuna
The highest peak in the Azores is Pico, an island that is home to the eponymous volcano, which is also the highest peak in the whole of Portugal. This is a magical place, surrounded by ocean where, as everyone knows, dolphins and whales swim undisturbed in the blue waters. Visitors here shouldn't miss a day's trekking on the Pico, which at 2,351 metres is not beyond the capacities of anyone equipped with good shoes, reasonably strong legs and a bit of determination. This is not a difficult path, only rather long, as it takes about 6 hours.
Those with different tastes may prefer instead to visit the Adegas, the volcanic vineyards and wine cellars, designated patrimony of UNESCO. Although small, the area contains a series of enchanting vineyards, interspersed with very characteristic, lava-rock structures.
We recommend a visit to the "Dos Baleeiros museums", the whale museum, where some traditional hunting boats are on display. The area is equipped with interactive features that make the visit fun for young children as well. The Museo del Vino exalts the uniqueness of the Pico vineyards and offers an overview of the varieties cultivated for centuries in this place.
In Pico, you will also find the "Villaggio Felice", not just a human settlement but a philosophy of life. Here, the houses are hand-built and the passage of time will take you to another dimension: we suggest you pay a visit to better understand what we are talking about!
It should be said, however, that this is the part of the Azores that is, perhaps, least suitable for bathing so those wishing to spend part of their vacation sunbathing should opt for other resorts, such as São Miguel or Faial.
Dubbed the "Blue Island" by the poet Raul Brandão, Faial is considered the pearl of the Azores because of the abundance of hydrangeas to be found everywhere. With a surface area of approximately 173 square km, Faial's highest point, at 1,043 metres, is the Cabeço Gordo, a volcano whose caldera is both wide and deep. As well as being a marvellous place for chilling out, Faial, offers several other interesting attractions. Take, for example, the Marina di Horta, with its colourful murals, hand-made by sailors as tokens of good luck. Indeed, it is these murals, not only ancient inscriptions, but also paintings created by passing crews, that make Faial unique. On this island, there is a saying to the effect that any boat that does not leave a souvenir of its passing will meet with bad luck. In Horta, you will also find the Scrimshaw museum, where an interesting collection of works made with parts of whales or inspired by these fascinating giants of the sea is on display.
At the top of Penìnsula do Capelo, is Vulcão dos Capelinhos, formed by eruptions which took place over the course of thousands of years. You may wish to go on a 3 km excursion on the volcano, which offers a splendid panorama of the beautiful, surrounding area. And you can also visit the Natural Park Interpretation Centre to learn more about the hydrogeological phenomena that affect the Azores.
The best views of Faial are those from Monte Guia and Ponta da Espalamaca. A hydrangea-lined road leads us up to the Caldera, the volcanic crater, right at the heart of the area.
Among the must-see beaches are Piara do Almoxarife, Playa Norte, Playa Varadouro and Playa Porto Pim. From this last, you can also pay a visit to the Whale Station, an old animal processing factory.
It's a bit reminiscent of Ireland or of Switzerland, but this is Flores, one of the islands of the Portuguese Azores archipelago, and you are sure to fall in love with it. Its verdant hills rise amongst beautiful lagoons and inlets from where its waters flow directly into the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing along the coastline of Flores, you can admire the beauty of the Santa Cruz das Flores Arch, the islet of Maria Vaz and the sea caves of Gruta dos Enxaréus and Gruta do Galo. Diving enthusiasts will fall in love with Alagoa Bay, but to get a sighting of a dusky grouper you'll need to go to Garaju.
In Flores, there are 7 volcanic craters which, over time, have turned into lakes. The landscape is magnificent, and we especially recommend a visit to Lagoa Funda. Also strongly recommended is an excursion to Rocha dos Bordoes, basaltic columns resulting from a volcanic eruption that create a fantastic, hilltop landscape. History lovers will be right at home in Santa Cruz das Flores, where they can admire the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, followed by a walk through the Praça do Marquês do Pombal.
No visit to Flores would be complete without stopping at the Morro Alto Nature Reserve, from where you can enjoy the best views of the whole island. The area is reached via the Pico dos Sete Pes, where there is also a charming waterfall. Nature lovers will also be delighted by the two adjoining lakes of Negra and Comprida, located in the highlands at an altitude of about 600 metres. The former, notable for its depth, is connected by a waterfall that flows into the other lake, Lake Comprida.
Want more waterfalls? Then visit Poco do Bacalhau, where there is one that falls for 90-metres, near the village of Faja Grande; it's a great spot for swimming, although the water can be very cold indeed.
Among the most northern islands of the Azores, Graciosa offers a unique blend of natural surroundings and enchanting rocky beaches. Characterized not only by its dreamy blue seas, but also by its basalt walls, Graciosa exudes an atmosphere of serenity and relaxation that will immediately entrance you. Despite being one of the smaller islands, Graciosa is packed with things to see. Take for example Santa Cruz da Graciosa, a picturesque village you can visit to get a feeling for the island. From here, we proceed towards the summit of Monte Nossa Senhora da Ajhuda, which offers breath-taking views. The scenery is dotted with enchanting, red-domed windmills, Flemish style, where cereals used to be processed. In Vila da Praia, you can visit the Church of San Mateo, where the church organ dates from 1793.
Hikers will enjoy a trip to Caldeira, the crater of an ancient volcano that has now become a Regional Natural Monument. Inside there is a large cavity, called Furna do Enxofre, about 40 meters high at the centre, which can be reached by a spiral staircase. Among Graciosa's peaks, special mention should be made of Pico Timão which, at 400 metres, is the highest point on the island. Visit also Pico do Facho, 375 metres high: the footpath is easy and suitable for everyone and the views from the top will be well worth the effort.
Among the beaches you mustn't miss is Termas do Carapacho, where you will find a thermal pool and pristine seas. Barro Vermelho Beach, with its volcanic, basaltic rocks, is also very beautiful.
Located to the south of the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores, Santa Maria is a gem of unspoiled nature, blessed with breath-taking beaches and outstanding natural beauty. Nicknamed "Island of the Sun", it is the perfect place to go for a holiday to recover your inner peace. Visitors to Santa Maria mustn't miss the Barreiros, an expanse of bright red soil that looks its very best at sunset.
At Santo Espirito, you can visit the Church of Nossa Senhora da Purificação, where splendid local frescoes can be viewed. Nearby lies Pico Alto, the highest point on the island whose views will take your breath away. At Vila do Porto, the island's largest village, stands the Forte di São Brás, whose cannons remind us that these marvellous islands used to be targeted by pirates.
We also recommend a visit to Pedreira do Campo where today, inside a basaltic flow, you can see impressive marine fossils, a reminder of the island's antiquity. Within Espirito Santo lies the Baìa da Maia Protected Area, with its characteristic basalt stone and vineyards, which borders with Ponta do Castelete and Ponta do Castelo.
Santa Maria beaches you don’t want to miss include Formosa, in the south of the island, not far from Vila Do Porto: a sandy expanse on whose slopes there is also a campsite. Also of interest is the Baia dos Anjos, an artificial, concrete beach, and the beach of São Lourenco, whose natural pools will delight young and old alike.
Take a Costa cruise to the Portuguese islands
Set off with Costa cruise on a voyage of discovery to the fascinating Portuguese islands and let yourself be enchanted by the lush vegetation of São Miguel and the incredible historical and cultural heritage of Terceira.
Don't delay, check out our departures for the Portuguese islands.