Visiting Portugal’s Islands

The islands that make up Madeira and the Azores are the jewels in Portugal’s crown. While Madeira has long been a favorite for Europeans seeking an offbeat nature destination, the volcanic Azores are one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Plan your visit to the islands with this area overview and recommended activities.

aerial view of coastal landscape in Portugal
The subtropical archipelago of Madeira as seen from Funchal. Photo © Balate Dorin/iStock.

Explore Madeira

Off the coast of western Africa, 600 miles (970 kilometers) southwest of mainland Portugal, Madeira is comprised of Madeira Island, smaller Porto Santo, and two clusters of uninhabited islands: the Desertas and the Savage Islands Natural Reserve.

Semiautonomous since 1976, this colorful archipelago is driven by tourism today, with most visitors staying on Madeira Island. The island is also a popular stop for Mediterranean and transatlantic cruises. A daily ferry between Madeira Island and neighboring Porto Santo Island has seen the number of visitors to tiny Porto Santo grow in recent years.

The climate in Madeira is warm and dry most of the year, making it an excellent winter escape for Northern Europeans. Just a short hop from the mainland, it’s a short-break destination any time of year.

Top Experiences in the Madeira Islands:

Hiking Pico Ruivo: Feel on top of the world as you stand on Madeira’s highest peak, with the island—or clouds, depending on the weather—spread out at your feet.

Madeira Wine: Sample the robust fortified wine produced exclusively on the Madeira Islands with a history dating back to the Age of Discoveries at the end of the 15th century.

Whale-Watching from Funchal: Gaze in awe as these majestic creatures surface from the deep to greet visitors.

Wicker Toboggan Sled Rides: Hold your breath as you whiz down Funchal’s steep mountainsides on Madeira’s novel answer to Venice’s gondolas.

Visit the Azores Islands

Scattered like emeralds in the middle of the Atlantic, the nine lush islands of the Azores—some modern and developed, others still largely unspoiled and rural—are breathtaking and full of natural mystique. In recent years tourism has taken off on the main island, São Miguel, and low-cost and charter flights from all over Europe now visit this Edenic oasis. But the islands are still far from being a mainstream destination, and traveling to a relatively uncharted place of idyllic beauty and friendliness makes the Azores alluring.

The weather in the Azores is famously changeable, swinging from sunny and warm to cool with low-hanging clouds in the blink of an eye. Small tremors happen regularly on this volcanic archipelago, although few of the islands have had eruptions since human habitation, and the mini rumbles rarely cause damage. This volcanism, which fuels bubbling fumaroles, hissing hot-water geysers, and soothing springs, is a major draw for visitors.

teal colored lake in a volcanic crater surrounded by green mountainous terrain
Sete Cidades in The Azores’ is postcard-perfect. Photo © VickySP/iStock.

Top Experiences in the Azores:

Sete Cidades Lake: Hike, kayak, or paddleboard around this stunning Azorean landmark.

Terra Nostra Park: Stroll through a paradisiacal Eden packed with beautiful flora before dipping into a relaxing hot-spring pool.

Poça da Dona Beija Hot Springs: Soothe aching limbs in the steaming, sparkling waters of the Azores’ most famous natural hot springs.

Mount Pico: Climbing the highest mountain in Portugal is an adventure lover’s dream.

How to Get to Portugal’s Islands

Traveling to either archipelago is quick and easy from mainland Portugal, with daily flights from Lisbon and Porto. There are a few direct flights between Madeira and the Azores. If your primary destination is mainland Portugal, a long weekend provides time to sample either archipelago.

Start planning your adventure today

Carrie-Marie Bratley

About the Author

Carrie-Marie Bratley moved to sunny Portugal from not-so-sunny South Yorkshire as a child and credits Portugal’s incredible weather, beaches, food, and drink for keeping her moored there. She has worked as a journalist and writer since 2004 and is a newscaster for an Algarve radio station, interpreting, researching and reporting on affairs in Portugal.

Carrie-Marie has traveled Portugal and its islands extensively (her absolute favorite place in Portugal is the heavenly island of São Miguel in the Azores), and has expanded her travels to South Africa, the Caribbean, Morocco, and of course, the UK, which she visits frequently to fill up on the traditional British delicacy of fish and chips. She loves photography, local festivals, and an early night with a good book.

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