Walking holidays in the Azores

1,500km east of Portugal, the Azores is a mid-Atlantic archipelago that welcomes many ocean-going visitors every year, and not all of them human. Walking in the Azores sees you spending time on four of the main islands: Pico, Faial, São Jorge and São Miguel, travelling between them by boat or small plane. Here you’ll find UNESCO-listed vineyards where the vines twist and tangle their way through walls made of black volcanic rock; tea plantations offering tours and tastings; sunken volcanoes and crater lakes; and inky black waters that are ideal feeding territory for whales as they pass through on their epic migration routes.
Arriving onto the main island of São Miguel you will reward early exertions with a meal of ‘Cozidos das Caldieras’, cooked in earthen pots by volcanic heat underground. You’ll explore Pico, known as the ‘Black Island’ for its hardened lava fields, and one of the best places in the world for whale watching. You might climb Mount Pico which is the highest point in the Azores at 2,350m. It’s a steep uphill climb of around four hours to the summit, where steam escapes from the rocks and the views are spectacular.

On Faial, named the ‘Blue Island’ for the dazzling hydrangeas that pop up in summer, you’ll finish a brisk morning walk arriving the Horta harbour, with lunch at an iconic sailors’ restaurant. Here you can admire the colourful murals created over the years by passing voyagers, and traditional scrimshaw art carved into bones and teeth of whales hunted decades ago. And visiting São Miguel you’ll walk up to a small community inlaid into a vast volcanic caldera, lushly green, then descend by following the levada water channels and even stop for a refreshing dip under a waterfall.

Whale watching in the Azores

Some 25 species of whales and dolphins frequent the waters off the Azores throughout the year. The incredibly deep, nutrient-rich waters are prime territory for them, and they are especially visible off Pico. Whale watching trips, supported by the watchful eye of spotters in coastal vigia towers, are a major highlight of any Azores walking holiday, but even if you don’t head out on a boat, there will be ample opportunities from coastal paths to catch a whale breaking the surface or sending up a water spout.

Practicalities of a walking holiday in the Azores

Walking holidays in the Azores are typically small group trips, during which you’ll be in the company of around 15 or so others plus a tour leader. Your itinerary and travel dates will be fixed, but the trip is organised to maximise your time, and remove any logistical headaches leaving you free to enjoy your walking. The routes are generally very manageable, averaging around 10km a day, which leaves plenty of time for activities such as whale watching, wine tasting or optional longer walks. The terrain can be tricky in places especially in wet weather, so you may want to bring a set of walking poles. In the evenings you’ll rest up in locally owned hotels, providing you with a tasty, homecooked breakfast every day.

When to go walking in the Azores

The Azores can see very changeable weather at any time of year, but temperatures are actually reliably predictable. They average around 16°C to 26°C, rarely topping 30°C in summer or falling below 8°C in winter. Bring a raincoat and layer your clothing and you should be fine. It’s worth noting though that the seas get rougher in winter, so between December and March inter-island crossings can be unpleasant.

If you hope to see whales during your Azores walking holiday then aim for spring, when blue whales are passing through. Humpbacks are resident here so can be found all year round, and pilot whales along with several species of dolphin are in these waters up until October.

Walking in the Azores travel advice

Kay Palmer, from our supplier Exodus, tackled a walking holiday in the Azores:

Whales and vines

“On Pico the vines are sheltered by volcanic rock walls which provide them with heat and protection from the Atlantic weather. Because of this unique formation, from a distance the vineyards look almost like a lava flow interspersed with the lime green of the vines which run into and out of the rocks. On our free day we were given the option of taking a whale watching tour, and although we were a little late in the season to spot blue whales we were lucky enough to see sperm whale and bottlenose dolphins.”

Getting around

“Flying back to Sao Miguel we flew past Mount Pico on Pico Island. Often shrouded in cloud on this occasion it was clear and we had a perfect view! The walking terrain in the Azores is very mixed and although the distances are not overly long I found walking poles came in very useful, especially after it had rained, as some of the trails, especially descents, became extremely slippery.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Angela Compagnone] [Intro: Rodrigo Gonçalves] [Whale watching in the Azores: Guillaume Baviere] [When to go walking in the Azores: Guillaume Baviere] [Kay Palmer Quotes: Werner Paris]