Azores Or Madeira? Choosing Between Portugal’s Islands

Azores or Madeira
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Can’t decide between Azores or Madeira? That’s where this guide comes in. It’s here to help you pick between the two most famous groups of islands in Portugal. How? By homing in on several key aspects of each to see where’s best for foodies, for partiers, for budget travelers, and outdoors adventurers.

Thing is, the Azores and Madeira aren’t all that different. They are both set far out in the Atlantic Ocean, a big distance from the sun-kissed Algarve and the hills of Lisbon. Both require a few extra hours in the plane to reach from mainland Europe. Both also have their own unique feel and vibe – a hint of Iberia only with seafaring history, a taste of ocean life, and tales of colonial explorers thrown in for good measure.

There are also lots of differences between the two places. One is beset by soaring, dagger-like peaks, while the other makes it to big, smoking volcano domes. The Azores are a set of multiple islands, while there are only one or two that are really on the tourist trail in Madeira. One has wine, the other has famous meat dishes. You get the idea…

Azores or Madeira for ease of travel?

Boats in Madeira
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There can be no doubt about this: Madeira is 100% the easiest of these two destinations to get to. That’s mainly because it’s closer to the European mainland – it’s just 600 miles from the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula compared to the Azores’ 800 miles or so.

That makes a big difference because it means that more low-cost carriers can make the hop, which is why you can be spoiled for choice when it comes to getting over on Ryanair and easyJet and the like. They fly alongside flag carrying airlines from Bristol, London, Porto, Lisbon – the list goes on. You’ll arrive at the Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport in Funchal.

Ponta Delgada Airport João Paulo II (PDL) is the arrival point for the Azores. It’s now way better connected to Europe than it once was, with once-weekly connections with Ryanair to London and daily links on TAP and even low-costers to Lisbon (the cheapest origin point).

However, there simply aren’t the same number of options, and you’re looking at a flight time in excess of four hours each way. The one upside is that the Azores are better linked to the US, which is much closer, although the only direct flights are with Azores Airlines and can cost upwards of $500 a pop.

Winner: Madeira.

Azores or Madeira for price?

Hotel pools in Madeira
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There’s hardly a whisker in it when it comes to the cost of travel in both these places. But that’s to be expected. They are pretty similar in terms of geography, with premiums for lots of good on account of the fact that much of the stuff needs to be flown over or shipped in (as is the same with any island). We’d say that food is probably a touch cheaper in the Azores, where a meal in a midrange eatery is about $25-30 a head, but hotels will be less in Madeira, largely because there’s more of them and better competition.

The one place where you will have to fork out considerably more, as we’ve already noted, is on travel into the Azores. Those isles are considerably further from Europe, and you could be looking at paying a premium for a flag-carrying airline if you want to fly on a certain day or over $500 for a flight in from the USA. Both places should cost about the same once you’re on the ground, though, so we’ve put this one down as an overall draw.

Winner: Draw.

Azores or Madeira for beaches?

Rocky coast in Azores
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We’ll be frank: Beaches are not the forte of either the Azores or Madeira. It’s really all a question of geography. Each island set is volcanic in nature, which means the topography hardly lends itself to shimmering runs of white sand, plus there’s hardly any white sand to be seen – it’s mainly black-dust stuff. There are some places where you can laze down by the Atlantic, though…

On Madeira, the mountain-shrouded dash of ochre sand at Praia do Porto do Seixal is one of the stand outs on the main island, but the finest of the lot has to be Porto Santo Beach on the isle of the same name – contrary to what we said, it’s long, white, and powdery!

Over in the Azores, the coastal regions are even more rugged, even more void of soft sands. The highlights for shoreline addicts in these parts are Santa Barbara Beach, with its wild, whitecap waves, and the glowing lagoon spits of Santa Maria Island, which are among the most inviting in the whole archipelago.

Winner: Madeira, but only because of Porto Santo!

Azores or Madeira for outdoors adventure?

Hiking in Azores
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Here’s a tricky one. These lands are arguably the most adventure-ready in the whole of Portugal. Let’s take Madeira. It’s scarred through by jagged ranges that soar to the summit of Pico Ruivo some 1,861 meters above the ocean. There are lush laurel forests and hidden valleys cored out by rivers and waterfalls swirling around that, along with countless hiking paths known as vereda that follow the courses of ancient irrigation canals. On top of all that, you’ve got surfing at some pretty gnarly point breaks and whale watching to boot.

The Azores can match that and then some. The great thing is that each one of the nine main islands offers a whole different experience for trekkers and explorers. Highlights surely include the double-lake trek through a volcanic caldera at the Lagoa das Sete Cidades in São Miguel, the 2,300-meter-high tip of Pico Island (the highest point in Portugal), and the soaring crater lakes of Lagoa do Fogo. There’s also some of the best whale and dolphin spotting in Europe between April and October.

Winner: Azores.

Azores or Madeira for hotels?

Hotels in Madeira
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Madeira is generally more popular than the Azores. That’s down to the fact that it’s closer to Europe but also because it has a balmier year-round climate. One upside with the extra visitor numbers is that there are also extra hotels. In fact, Booking.com reveals over 2,200 individual options across the islands here, and some are downright fantastic:

  • Saccharum – Resort & Spa – Savoy Signature ($$$) – Loved-up couples looking to be pampered can get pools lofted above the Atlantic and some of the chicest suites in Europe at this Savoy hotel.
  • Albatroz Beach & Yacht Club ($$$) – There’s an incredible swimming pool down the rocks by the ocean here.
  • North Coast Guest House ($$) – Escape the crowds and get a taste of nature at this family run B&B on the north coast.

The Azores don’t have quite so many hotels as Madeira and you also have to remember that it can be a chore to head over to other islands in the chain (local flights are the main way to do it, but they can crank up the cost of a trip a lot). Still, there’s a good selection on offer, including some lovely traditional Azorean guesthouses that ooze local charm:

Winner: Madeira, but just because there’s more choice not better-quality hotels.

Azores or Madeira for food?

Food in Madeira
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There are similarities and clear differences alike in the cuisine of Portugal’s two island destinations. Madeira is probably the more similar to the mainland, offering a kitchen that’s heavy on meat and fish, fantastically simple, but also heavily traditional. Foodies should be sure to sample the charcoal-grilled espetada Madeirense kebabs and the scabbard fish, while the local limpets are the shellfish of choice. Madeiran wine is perhaps the most famous island export of the lot, though – it’s tangy and sweet.

In the Azores you can look forward to a hint of the tropics in the food. That’s why pineapples are so popular here. Eat them raw as a fruit or add them to sauces. The same goes for passionfruit, which can even be put into a jus to drizzle on steaks! There’s a specialty Azorean black sausage, along with hot bell peppers that are eaten in brine as a starter. The piece de resistance has to be the cozido das furnas, though. It’s a heavy stew of sausage and pork that’s cooked using the natural warmth of the Azores volcanos. Good luck making that one back in the home kitchen!

Winner: Draw.

Azores or Madeira for nightlife?

Ponta Delgada at night
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Our advice? Don’t come to either of these places for a heady holiday on the booze. They aren’t really about that at all. You’d be much better suited to the mainland resorts of the south Algarve – like Albufeira or Lagos. That said, Madeira has the energy of Funchal up its sleeve. That’s really the only part of the island with hedonism worth mentioning. It begins on the Av. Do Mar in the early evening before moving to gritty drinkeries like the White House Pub and live music joints like the Hole in One Pub.

Ponta Delgada is the rival to that over in the Azores. It can be pretty darn wild, too, what with everything from street-side wine vendors to chic cocktail lounges to get through. Overall, there are fewer party establishments in these parts. The likes of Lava Jazz (for great music) and Bar Do Pi (where it can sometimes feel like EVERYONE on the island has gathered on a Friday) are the best. You could also time your visit for the Entrudo festivities of spring, when big carnival parties erupt on the streets of towns across the whole archipelago.

Winner: Madeira.

Azores or Madeira? Our conclusion

We’d say that there’s not all that much in it between these two destinations. They both offer a unique glimpse of Portuguese island life far out in the Atlantic. If we had to whittle it down, we’d say that the Azores are better for outdoorsy types since there are nine islands to get stuck into, but Madeira comes out on top for R&R holidays with nightlife and beaches thrown in.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.