The Azores may be familiar to most people, but many would be hard-pressed to find this archipelago on a map. This is a shame because this autonomous region of Portugal is one of the most underrated vacation destinations. Here's everything you need to know about this hidden gem in the Atlantic.
What Are the Azores?
Officially known as the Autonomous Region of the Azores, this chain of volcanic islands is part of the Portuguese Republic. The islands were first discovered in the 14th century, although it is unclear which explorer gets credit for laying eyes on them first.
All nine islands were colonized over the next few centuries, but most Europeans didn't want to live so far away from continental Europe in those early years. Interest in the archipelago grew after the islands proved able to sustain crops and livestock. The first island settled by Europeans was São Miguel, which remains the most populous in the chain today.
Where Are the Azores?
The Azores sit in the Atlantic Ocean around 800 miles off the coast of Portugal. They are composed of nine islands that are divided into three groups:
- West Cluster – Flores and Corvo
- Center Cluster – Faial, São Jorge, Terceira, Graciosa, and Pico
- East Cluster – Santa Maria and São Miguel
Altogether the islands contain more than 900 square miles of beach, jungle, and mountains. Due to their status as an active volcanic environment, the soil is lush and very fertile. This, combined with the island’s mild climate, contributes to the healthy ecosystem that has covered the entire area with vegetation.
The Azores are just the tops of massive volcanic mountains that rise up from the ocean floor. Hiking through these landscapes is a popular pastime. Three of the islands — Flores, Graciosa, and Corvo — are protected as natural biospheres, offering plenty of pristine, unspoiled land to explore.
The Azores sit on the part of the Atlantic Ocean that serves as the meeting point for the African, American, and European tectonic plates. This means that the region is incredibly active and a dedicated explorer can find many natural volcanic wonders, such as mud pots, fumaroles, and caves.
Both mountain biking and horseback riding are popular pastimes on the islands. If you are looking for even more excitement, the Azores have hosted a paragliding festival each August for over 20 years.
On top of that, there are wonderful diving and whale-watching opportunities off the coast of the Azores. As the water stays between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, some have even gone so far as to call the Azores the best diving location in the Atlantic.