Mainland Portugal definitely has more than its fair share of the best things: glorious sunshine, beautiful beaches, interesting cities and history everywhere you turn. And that’s before you even get to the food and wine.
But though the mainland is not to be missed, it’s worth making the journey to some of the many beautiful Portuguese islands. Whether you’re seeking nature, sports opportunities, quaint architecture, or just a bit of peace and quiet, you’ll find it among these truly charmed places. Read on for a round-up of just some of the most special island destinations to keep in mind when you visit Portugal.
It’s impossible to write about the best Portuguese islands and not mention Madeira. Its year-round sunshine has made it a mainstay of Portugal tourism for many years, but there’s more to recommend it than just the weather.
The island is edged with lovely beaches, while the scenery in the lavishly green interior is astoundingly beautiful. Historic buildings abound in the towns and cities, colourful flowers bloom in cultivated public gardens, and you’ll rarely be more than a stone’s throw away from a charming family-run restaurant.
Of course, the growing tourist industry has left its mark here too, and there’s no shortage of nightlife options in the favourite tourist spots. But if you prefer to keep things calm, you’ll find plenty of isolated places far from any kind of buzz.
São Miguel Island
São Miguel Island is the largest island in the Azores, an archipelago renowned for its stunning beauty. Like Madeira, this is often a go-to choice for travellers who don’t want to get too far off the beaten track. But in spite of being a well-known tourist destination, it retains abundant natural allure – so much so, in fact, that it has been nicknamed “Green Island”.
Amid the wild magnificence of its peaks and valleys, there’s manmade appeal to be found too. The Terra Nostra Gardens, for example, are famed throughout Portugal and beyond for their carefully cultivated beauty. Make sure you take a dip in the heated outdoor pool.
Flores and Corvo Islands
These two islands are also in the Azores, and like São Miguel, they’re particular stand-outs even in this archipelago full of beauty and charm. Flores Island is by far the larger of the pair, but both are protected by UNESCO, and both have landscapes that appear positively prehistoric. Volcanoes rise from verdant valleys, blue lakes sparkle amid the green, and birds and other animals abound.
When you’re preparing to visit Portugal, you might already have some images in mind. Things like custard tarts, elaborate tiles, buzzing beaches and… flamingos. If you haven’t already factored these comical yet charismatic birds into your plans, perhaps you should. Seeing them can be a real holiday highlight.
The lovely island of Tavira is known for its rich population of exotic birds, and flamingos are among the many brightly-coloured species you can expect to see here. It’s no surprise that the island provides such a brilliant habitat for birds; it’s looked after by the Ria Formosa Natural Reserve.
Whether you’re a nature lover or not, you’ll find a trip to this island a delightful experience. Its beaches are flawless, and its sparse population means utter tranquillity. Apart from the bird calls, that is.
Yet another one of the Azores makes the list (and it won’t be the last). This is the archipelago’s largest island after São Miguel, and it features similarly primeval scenery. Volcanic rock and luxuriant foliage make up the island’s base. The landscape is spiked with high peaks, the highest of all being the dramatic Volcano of Pico. It’s no wonder this is a bit of a Portugal tourism classic, although it’s still far less busy than the likes of Madeira.
All Portuguese islands offer good wildlife-spotting opportunities, but if you like to go big, Pico Island has something extra special. It’s a favourite base for whale-spotters, and you can head out on a boat trip to try and see some of these giants yourself. If you prefer to stay on dry land, you can always spend an afternoon in one of the island’s whale museums instead.
If nature’s not your thing, perhaps wine is. A day spent touring Pico island’s picturesque wineries and sampling the produce is a must while you’re here.
Porto Santo Island
Located close to Madeira, this picturesque island benefits from the same irresistible climate. However, it doesn’t draw anything like the same crowds, and for many visitors this is one of its greatest qualities.
The stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife offer plenty of reasons to stay, but beyond the island’s natural bounty there’s even more to keep you here. The island has a long, rich history; in fact, you’ll already be very familiar with its most famous son: Christopher Columbus. There are also lots of facilities here to keep sporty visitors on their toes, including everything from golf courses to dive schools.
Like the other Azores, Terceira Island is paradise for anyone with even a passing interest in nature. It has the same green landscape as its neighbouring Portuguese islands; the type of landscape that only nourishing volcanic minerals can create.
Although every part of the island seems made for photos, the Monte Brasil is especially lovely. This protected coastal area is a favourite with hikers. Meanwhile, the island’s pleasant towns make for good bases, and many have a high density of historic buildings and intriguing museums.