When seeking an exotic island vacation in the European zone, travelers often end up needing to choose between Azores or Madeira. Both are small groups of Portuguese volcanic islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean – about 900 and 600 miles southwest of Lisbon respectively.
Madeira is a four-island archipelago, the largest island being also called Madeira. The Azores is a separate archipelago, about 600 miles northwest of Madeira, composed of 9 smaller islands.
Madeira is in the same timezone as the UK, whereas the Azores are one hour behind. While Portuguese is the official language in both archipelagos, English is frequently spoken.
So which of Azores or Madeira is a better choice for a one-week trip? Madeira is mostly mountainous with stiff cliffs and rocky shores. The Azores have lush hills and black sand beaches. Madeira has much more tourism and infrastructure, whereas Azores offer more of a rugged nature experience. The Azores are also more spread out and require flying for traveling between islands. Azores have rainier and slightly cooler weather than Madeira.
In this post, I’ll deep dive into some of the main differences between the Azores and Madeira, with regards to nature, vibe, sights, and more.
Azores or Madeira: what travelers say
- Madeira is a beautiful island with very rich vegetation. However, the south coast is quite built up, namely around the capital Funchal. Madeira is often considered a mass tourism destination and is much more commercialized than the Azores.
- The Azores are more low key, with much less tourism and development (no big chain hotels). They are more a nature and active tourism destination, with lots of remote places and more laid back, slower pace. They are also typically more affordable.
- Most people both in Madeira and the Azores speak English, so language is not an issue for travelers.
- Both Madeira and the Azores are known for their hiking and walking sites. Madeira has better options for mountain-type hiking. Some travelers favor it for hiking activities, while others prefer the Azores.
- Madeira is a better choice than the Azores for fine dining and some nightlife.
- The Azores have less predictable weather than Madeira and much more rain – which is why they are so green with more cattle. Madeira has slightly warmer weather although it also rains quite a lot and the island is also green.
- The best time to visit the Azores is typically in the Spring when the flowers blossom in the green countryside and many festivals take place.
- Madeira has mountain peaks and nice forests to explore. The Azores also have great nature to discover, though flatter, but you have to fly to move between the islands – which can be more costly and time-consuming.
- In the Azores, Sao Miguel (the largest island) and Sta Maria (the closest to it) are the most interesting islands. Sao Miguel can be explored fully in a week. Terceira and Faial are the next 2 islands travelers tend to visit on longer stays.
- While Madeira has very few real beaches, its twin island Porto Santo has miles of them. The Azores, though not really a beach destination, also have quite a few natural black sand beaches.
Azores or Madeira: access & transportation
Since Madeira is a very popular destination in Europe, there are more cheap flights than to the Azores. Low-cost flights (EasyJet, Transavia etc) from Lisbon or Oporto to Madeira are easy to find. Discounted direct flights to the Azores islands via TAP (Portugal) or SATA (Azores) can also be found, but the fares are generally higher.
Madeira is about a 1.5-hour flight from Lisbon, 3 hours from Paris or London, under 1 hour from the Canary Islands, 1h30 minutes from Punta Delgada (Azores), and 15 minutes from Porto Santo (the other Madeira island).
Landing in both Madeira (Cristiano Ronaldo airport) and Sao Miguel (Azores) can be a rough experience due to bad weather and crosswinds. The airport in Ponta Delgada (Sao Miguel) is much smaller than in Madeira.
A car is needed for getting around each of the Azores islands. Madeira, on the other hand, has very good transport around the island. Reaching some more remote locations for hiking, however, is not always easy. Some travelers choose to hitchhike or take a taxi as a group.
Azores or Madeira: vibe & people
Both Azores and Madeira are quiet destinations that are visited primarily for the surrounding nature and scenery. Funchal (Madeira’s capital city) is larger and more lively than Ponta Delgada (capital of the Azores) but is still a small city with a population of about 120.000.
Sao Miguel (Azores) is not as popular with tourists as Madeira and is more untouched, with some amazing scenery such as the twin lakes. Madeira has spectacular mountain views while the Azores have primarily green hills.
Madeira is an extremely rugged volcanic island, which makes it a good playground for hikers. It has no volcanic activity, geysers, or fumaroles, however. Except for Sao Jorge, the Azores are not as rugged and are often described as a mix of Hawaii and Ireland due to its lush green pastures.
In the Azores, unlike Madeira, the volcanism is alive with the last eruption dating from the 50s. Each island has a volcano turned into a gorgeous lake. São Miguel has fumaroles and underwater hotspots, resulting in warmer seawater than in Madeira.
While Madeira is one bigger island, the Azores is composed of multiple smaller ones. Sao Miguel, the largest, liveliest, most populated island, along with Pico and Terceira, is the busiest tourist area of the Azores.
Madeira’s economy revolves around tourism, and it has the infrastructure to cope with high number of visitors. Outside the summer vacation months, however, most travelers find Madeira does is not overcrowded with tourists. From Funchal, most of the island can be visited in just a few days.
Madeira has a subtropical climate (with a large diversity of exotic fruits and flowers), and a short dry season (July and August).
Though Madeira is more expensive than the Azores, prices there remain more reasonable than the rest of Europe.
Azores or Madeira: sights & culture
In the Azores island, the island of Sao Miguel is the most visited. It hosts Ponta Delgada, the archipelago’s capital, beautiful volcanic lakes, Europe’s only tea plantation, and several steaming fumaroles and furnas.
Ponta Delgada has a few cultural sights such as the city gates, the main square and town hall, and the quaint historic cobblestoned streets. The scenic harbor and the Sao Bras fortress are worthwhile sights.
Sao Miguel also has the scenic and unspoiled Lagoa do Canario lake, and the stunning Sete Cidades lake which is one of the island’s main attractions.
Each Azores island has something different to offer. Santa Maria, the furthest south, is the sunniest with warm seas with few tourists around. The Terceira island has the scenic historic city of Angra do Heroismo. Sao Jorge has high cliffs and a Madeira-like rugged landscape.
Pico has the biggest mountain of Portugal. Faial is both the name of the island and main city, whose port is well-known for its role in past transatlantic sailing competitions. Faial also hosts the Capelinhos Volcano, worth a visit.
The Flores island is extremely green with numerous waterfalls and is sometimes considered the Westernmost point of Europe. Corvo, the island next to it, is the most secluded with 400 inhabitants.
Travelers generally feel the Azores combine adventure and culture. It’s a great destination for whale and dolphin watching with many worthwhile organized tours.
In Madeira, one of the main tourist attractions is the island’s irrigation system, the levadas, man-made aqueducts on the side of the mountain. The island has numerous mountain peaks with stunning views, sometimes with clifftop observation decks for hikers.
Madeira’s capital Funchal has a picturesque old town and Cathedral, and a beautiful harbor fronted by the 17th-century Sao Tiago Fortress and Contemporary Art Museum. Travelers also visit the Madeira botanical gardens which include an exotic bird park and a Natural History Museum.
Travelers can take a cable car to reach Monte, an elevated posh neighborhood which offers panoramic views over the city and hosts the Monte Palace Tropical Garden and Museum. Around Funchal are also several popular peaks, nature parks, and trails.
Azores or Madeira: weather & outdoors
The Azores islands is at the latitude of mainland Portugal, while Madeira is further south at the latitude of central Morocco.
In Azores, temperatures range from 68 to 85ºF (20 and 28ºC) in the summer and from 60 and 65ºF (15 and 18ºC) in the winter. Temperatures are generally lower than Madeira. The weather is quite variable and unpredictable, from day to day but also during the same day. The Azores also get many storms.
Madeira generally has more sunshine with the warmest winter of all Portugal. However it can get sudden rains on certain parts of the island, namely on the North coast and in the valleys, while the sun shines in other parts. In the winter, temperatures commonly hover around 20ºC.
In Madeira, trekking is done either along the levadas or in the mountains with magnificent views. Examples include the path from Areiro (3d highest peak) to Ruivo (the highest) and the trail from Encumeada to Curral de Freiras. Seaside treks include Boca do Risco and Porta de Sao Lourenco.
The Azores also offer very scenic hiking options around the volcanic craters, along the coastline, and through the green hills.
Madeira only has two white sand beaches, Machico and Calheta, and a few ones with volcanic sand. The Azores has many more sand beaches, though with basalt dark sand.
Both Madeira and the Azores have great scuba diving and snorkeling (e.g. in the Garajau Marine Nature Reserve in Madeira), sailing, horseback riding, fishing, and whale/dolphin watching. Madeira is also popular for canyoning and paragliding.
Azores or Madeira: food & nightlife
Madeira’s capital Funchal has a lot more activity and animation than Ponta Delgada (Azores), being Portugal’s 7th biggest city (2.5 larger than Ponta Delgada). However, none of the two cities are party places – unlike the Spanish Canary Islands and Balearic Islands with their streets full of bars and big youth-filled nightclubs.
There are many nice restaurants in Funchal, including a couple of Michelin-starred ones. Most restaurants are located at the marina, near the main church, or in the old town. Some restaurants in rural areas also offer great local dishes.
Madeira is famous worldwide for its sweet wine produced at the island’s many vineyards and wineries – there’s a popular Wine Festival in September.
Due to its green pastures, Azores’ Sao Miguel island is well-known for its world-class beef meat and cheese which can be sampled e.g. at Restaurant da Associação Agrícola.
Funchal’s old town has many cafes and music bars, e.g. at the casino hotel, and wine places e.g. the Wine Hotel. The city also has a few popular dance clubs, such as Vespas, Marginal and Jam, all close to the main port, mainly catering to the locals.
In Ponta Delgada, there are fewer bars and clubs for going out at night, most of them relatively quiet. Hotel bars such as at the Azor Hotel or the Grand Hotel are among the best options for having a drink.
Azores or Madeira: lodging
In the Azores, travelers recommend the Hotel Marina Atlantico in Ponta Delgada and the Hotel Caloura in the picturesque fishing village of Caloura 5 miles outside Ponta Delgada. The hotel has scenic location with great sea views and a pool.
Some travelers choose Faial as their base at it allows them to easy get to the neighboring islands Sao Jorge and Graciosa. A recommended place in Horta (Faial’s main city) is Residencial Sao Francisco, which has some nice history from the island’s transatlantic past.
In Madeira, Funchal has the best and easiest transportation to the rest of the island and nice promenades along the Marina. Travelers typically stay in one of the city’s three main areas, the Old Town, the City Center, and the Lido area. the latter is quieter with less traffic.
Travelers often recommend the Castanheiro boutique hotel in the center, located on a quiet side street. Hotel Madeira is a recommended cheaper alternative, also conveniently located in the center though noisier – ask for a room in the back.
(1) Featured: “Funchal” (CC BY 2.0) by Picapau17
(2) “Azores” (CC BY 2.0) by Jsome1
(3) “Madeira” (CC BY 2.0) by jodastephen
(4) “Azores_7030” (CC BY 2.0) by Luca Nebuloni
(5) “Imperio da Caridade en Angra do Heroismo” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Julen Iturbe-Ormaetxe
(6) “Madeira” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Lukas Plewnia
(7) “Fogo lake – S.Miguel island – Azores” (CC BY 2.0) by Luis Ascenso
(8) “Madeira” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Dunphasizer
(9) “Funchal” (CC BY 2.0) by Greg_Men
(10) “Funchal, Madiera Portugal” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Hilmil1
(11) “Ponta Delgada, São Miguel Island, Azore” (CC BY 2.0) by @ravi
(12) “Funchal” (CC BY 2.0) by Michael Gaylard