Choosing between the Azores or Algarve is a choice between one of the most-visited parts of Portugal and one of the least. There’s the sun-kissed southern region of the mainland, with its golden beaches and bumping bars. Then there’s the far-flung archipelago, some 900 miles out in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
Where to go? Cue this guide. It can help you pick the place that’s right for you by focusing in on several key aspects of each. We’ll reveal where offers the best beaches, the best nightlife, the best value for money, and a whole load more.
There’s plenty to say, because these two corners of the country are pretty different in both character and style. They promise two very different sorts of vacations, one loaded with intrepid treks and colonial-feeling towns, the other filled with balmy beach days, surf, and stylish hotels on the shoreline. Let’s begin…
Azores or Algarve for ease of travel?
There’s no doubt that the Algarve is the easier of the two places to get to. It might be at the very far southwestern tip of Europe, but it’s still linked to the continent by direct road – in fact, you can drive to Seville in Spain in just two hours and be in Lisbon in about three hours. Most people arrive by air, though. Faro Airport, also known as the Algarve Airport, is where you’re looking to get to. It mainly has seasonal connections but there are loads of them, from London, Berlin, Bergamo, Warsaw, and Cardiff, along with long-haul charters from North America. Easy.
The Azores are a different beast, although there are now budget airlines going over to Ponta Delgada Airport from London and Lisbon once or twice per week. That’s helped cut the cost of the average trip in from Europe. From the US it remains quite high, with Azores Airlines the only carrier operating direct routes (from Boston and JFK) and charging around $400-500 a pop for the luxury. Expect at least four hours in the air to get here, and more if you’re coming from stateside.
Azores or Algarve for prices?
The Algarve isn’t the cheapest part of Portugal, but it also shouldn’t break the bank. To put it another way, it’s not the exclusive beach retreat of the Cote d’Azur. There are hotels to suit all budgets and plenty of affordable things for your average family traveler. We’d say that most trips would cost in the region of $1,200-1,400 a week if you went midrange here, but you could also get away with a lot less than that if you traveled during shoulder seasons, at times like May and September, when there’s not such a jostle for hotels and whatnot.
Compare all that to our estimated cost for a week-long trip to the Azores, where we’d say the average traveler will spend about $1,570 per week, but up to $1,800 per week if traveling in from the USA. That’s mainly down to the hike in the cost of food, which is a touch more than on the mainland of Portugal since so much has to be imported, and a bit of a premium on hotels – there aren’t so many in the Azores, so there can be a lack of competition to keep prices low.
Azores or Algarve for beaches?
Don’t pick the Azores if you want picture-perfect, travel-brochure beaches. It’s just not that sort of place. The islands are actually the top of mighty shield volcanos that sprout from the mid-Atlantic Ocean, meaning the geology is rugged and rocky. On top of that, most beaches here have black sand. The exception to the rule is Santa Maria, where the glowing golden sand lagoons of Formosa Beach are something special. Oh, and you are likely to prefer it here if you like your coastline wild and untamed, especially at spots like Fajã Grande and Caloura.
Then comes the Algarve. Some say this region is home to the finest beaches on planet Earth, let alone the best in Portugal. They are characterized by glinting gold powder, yellow cliff scapes, coastal caves, and rock stacks, not to mention sea waters colored with a perfect green-blue hue. It’s hard to pick the best because there are so many candidates, but the long Praia do Barril of Tavira, the dramatic grottoes of Vale do Lobo, and the wind-lashed bays of Arrifana out west are surely worthy of a special mention.
Azores or Algarve for outdoors adventure?
Pack the hiking boots for a holiday to the Azores, folks. There’s just so much to get through in these lands of soaring peaks and mist-swirled calderas. The trail that connects the two lakes of Sete Cidades on the main island, and the one that traverses the Caldeirão of Corvo island are the two absolute musts. However, others will like the bottom-to-top challenge of Pico, the highest point in Portugal. And it’s not just walking. There’s whale watching and coasteering to get stuck into here, too.
To be honest, the Algarve is more about lazing on the beaches than exploring the peaks and hills. There are walking paths, but they aren’t as dramatic as over on the Azores. However, there is something to be said for the coastal route down the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, which weaves through thickets of heather and gorse to wavy beaches. Talking of waves, the Algarve’s main adventure pursuit has to be surfing, which takes place mainly on the west-facing beaches north of Sagres – from Ponta Ruiva to Odeceixe.
Azores or Algarve for food?
The Algarve has all sorts of food options. There are traditional seafood taverns that sell clam soups and salted cod, Portuguese fish off the grill and even country stews inspired by the inland areas of the region. But you will also find a whole host of international dining, especially around resort areas like Vilamoura and Albufeira. They’re brimming with greasy spoons that do full-English breakfasts, Italian pizza joints, and even all-American steakhouses.
Things in the Azores are a touch more authentic. These islands are a mecca for surf and turf, drawing ingredients from the fertile volcanic soils of their hinterland and the wild waves of the Atlantic Ocean alike. As such, it’s the rich blood sausage, the hot pimenta da terra mezze starter pepper, the buttery milk cheese of queijo nova açores, and the griddled mackerel that are the musts. Oh, and meat eaters shouldn’t leave without sampling cozido das furnas, a hearty mix of pork and beef and sausage and spice that’s cooked over volcanic steam vents.
Azores or Algarve for families?
The Algarve has been cutting its proverbial teeth as a top family destination for decades now. It’s well-primed with hotels for the whole crew, developed resorts that have everything you need for a great family trip, and activities for travelers with the little ones in tow. You can hit the wild slides of the Aqualand Algarve water park, go on dolphin-spotting excursions in a high-speed RIB, or meet exotic creatures in Lagos Zoo. But the beaches are often also family-friendly, with calm enough waters for swimming for much of the year.
It’s not the same in the Azores. We wouldn’t say that families shouldn’t go here but it’s never going to be as fun for the tots as the activity-packed Algarve. The only families that might prefer the Atlantic archipelago are the ones who have a penchant for long hikes and intrepid coastal walks, not the ones who like lazy beach days and nightly entertainments.
Azores or Algarve for nightlife?
When it comes to letting loose after the sun’s dipped, there can only be one victor between these two parts of Portugal: The Algarve.
Yep, come the summer months, this sunny spot on the south coast comes to life. The leaders are the resorts of Albufeira and Lagos. The first has its own pumping strip to the east of the old town area, while the latter has an array of more local microbreweries and live-music places. There’s also a chilled nightlife scene in the likes of Sagres and Aljezur, largely thanks to the resident surf crowd.
The Azores don’t really have off-the-hook nightlife. However, Ponta Delgada can be lively on the weekends. Hit the streets that creep up the hills behind the port and the main promenade. They host venues like Raiz Bar (for cocktails) and Ned Kelly’s Irish Pub & Grill (for beers and casual pub grub). The place to start a night is surely Bar Do Pi on the far end of the jetty.
Azores or Algarve? Our conclusion
There are plenty of enticing reasons to visit both these places. However, we’d say that first-time visitors to Portugal should pick the Algarve. It’s more quintessentially Portuguese and offers a taste of the country’s iconic beaches and surf culture, not to mention bumping party resorts throughout the summer months. The Azores are something else entirely; a destination to dine on fresh Atlantic seafood in old taverns and hike colossal volcanos to crater lakes. They are better for adventure-loving travelers who want to escape the crowds and popular resorts of mainland Europe.