An Expat’s Guide to Living in The Azores

/ Last Updated: July 7, 2023 / No Comments

The Azores (or Açores in Portuguese) is an archipelago or group of 9 islands that’s located in the Atlantic Ocean between continental Portugal and North America. Although the islands are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, they’re closer to Portugal than they are North America: the flight time from Lisbon to Ponta Delgada is around 2 hours and 10 minutes while the flight time from Ponta Delgada to Boston is around 5 hours and 40 minutes.

These islands are unlike anywhere in continental Portugal. Not only do the islands have a different landscape because of the previous volcanic activity, but the weather is different: it’s more tropical and humid than mainland Portugal.

For most people, they’re a place to visit. However, for an increasing number of people, they’re also a consideration of somewhere that they might move to. If you’re thinking this might be a place you want to live, you should absolutely come and spend a few weeks (and ideally months) here first to get a feel for it. 

Pros & Cons of living here

Everywhere has its pros and cons, including The Azores. Some of these pros and cons vary depending on which island you live on. For example, living on São Miguel or Terceira tend would be much easier than living on Flores or São Jorge, both of which are more isolated and have fewer amenities like large supermarkets. 

Pros

  • The Azores is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s often compared to Iceland or Hawaii, but the cost of living here is considerably lower. 
  • Things are simpler here, which can make for a less stressful life. 
  • There are direct flights to the US, Canada, and a few European countries like the UK and Germany (although they can be expensive, if they are available at all). 
  • The Azores has a long-established history with the US in terms of emigration, and many residents have family in both places, making it very appealing to Americans. 

Cons

  • Life in The Azores can be isolated, which is sometimes a pro but can be very challenging when it becomes a con. 
  • Getting things delivered, even from shops in mainland Portugal, can be a challenge (and often isn’t possible at all). 
  • The cost of products, including groceries, is usually higher than the mainland (but not always substantially higher). 
  • Getting good quality fresh fruit and vegetables can be difficult on many of the smaller islands. 
  • To travel anywhere, you’ll often need to fly to mainland Portugal first.
  • The weather is very interchangeable and humidity can be very high. 
  • Like mainland Portugal, The Azores is in an earthquake zone and there is always the risk of a dangerous earthquake taking place. 
  • Public transport can be limited, although this depends on the island. However, you should expect to need a car. 

Islands in The Azores

If you’re thinking of living in The Azores, you have 9 islands to choose from. 

São Miguel

lagoa do fogo

São Miguel has plenty of attractions, from its beautiful lakes to its tea and pineapple plantations. It’s the largest and most developed island in The Azores, and Ponta Delgada, the capital, has all of the same amenities you would expect in a small city in mainland Portugal.

It’s also home to the largest airport in The Azores, João Paulo II Airport, with plenty of flights to mainland Portugal, a few European destinations, and one or two destinations in North America as well. All of this does mean that São Miguel is also the most popular island for tourists to visit but for many that’s a small price to pay for what you get in return.

  • Estimated population: 137,228 (2019)

Terceira

Serra do Cume

Terceira is the second-largest island in The Azores. It doesn’t have as many dramatic attractions as São Miguel, which means it doesn’t get as touristy but it does get a few. Its airport, Lajes International Airport, has plenty of flights to mainland Portugal as well as a few international ones — not as many as Ponta Delgada Airport on São Miguel, but a few.

Angra do Heroísmo, the main city on the island, is also reasonably large in size (by Azores standards) with pretty much all of the amenities you’re likely to need.

  • Estimated population: 53,311 (2021)

Faial

volcano on Faial

Famous for its stunning natural attractions — including a former volcano that you can walk around the edge of, Faial has plenty to offer. It’s a popular destination for sailors crossing the Atlantic and its said that the gin and tonic cocktail was invented here. It’s also just a 30-minute ferry ride from Pico island, so living on either Pico or Faial would mean easy access to the other.

  • Estimated population: 14,356 (2021)

Pico

Captain's Lake on Pico

Pico is known for three things: whale watching, wine, and Pico mountain (Portugal’s tallest mountain). Although most people go whale-watching from a private boat tour, often you can see them when they swim up close to the land. It’s also just a short 30-minute ferry ride from Faial, meaning you can easily visit either island whenever you want to.

  • Estimated population: 13,895 (2021)

São Jorge

faja de santo cristo

Known as the island of fajãs, São Jorge is famous for its wild and rugged landscape. It’s so rugged that one town, Fajã de Santo Cristo, has no mains electricity, internet, or proper roads. The only way to get there is to hike (although many locals have quadbikes). Don’t worry: there are good roads and electricity in the rest of the island but, even still, São Jorge has a very rugged feel to it.

  • Estimated population: 8,381 (2021)

Santa Maria

Ponta do Castelo

The most easterly island in The Azores, Santa Maria is situated next to São Miguel, the largest island in The Azores. It is known its white sandy beaches (unusual in the Azores) and dry weather, so it’s a good choice if you’re considering an island in The Azores and want the best weather possible. Despite its warm weather and sandy beaches, Santa Maria is still relatively undiscovered, particularly because getting here isn’t easy. If you’re coming from mainland Portugal or outside of Portugal, you’ll probably need to fly to São Miguel and then take a ferry to plane onto Santa Maria.

  • Estimated population: 5,414 (2021)

Graciosa

caldeira graciosa

Known for its rolling hills and white villages, Graciosa or the white island is the second-smallest Azores island in terms of size. It’s also the most northerly of the islands, located around 80 km northwest of Terceira.

  • Estimated population: 4,095 (2021)

Flores

Poço Ribeira do Ferreiro
Poço Ribeira do Ferreiro

Flores means flowers in Portuguese, and this gives you some idea of what the island is like. It is one of the most beautiful islands in The Azores; floral, green, and yellow. While all of the islands are perfect for hikers and nature lovers, many consider Flores the most beautiful.

  • Estimated population: 3,429 (2021)

Corvo

vila do corvo

The smallest island in terms of population, with just over 400 residents. This is perfect if you’re looking for somewhere incredibly remote, but it could be too remote for a lot of people.

  • Estimated population: 384 (2021)

Weather

The weather on The Azores varies from island to island, but, generally speaking, the best months are between May and October. However, even during the “good weather season,” you really need to prepare for both rain and sunshine — often in the space of a couple of hours. If it looks sunny on the day, bring a raincoat with you just in case (and if it looks wet, bring your swimsuit and some sunscreen just in case).

Cost of Living

Assume that the cost of living will be higher in the Azores than on most of rural, mainland Portugal. This is the case of items like fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly on the smaller islands, and anything that needs to be shipped from mainland Portugal. Longer life items, such as pasta, aren’t particularly more expensive, thanks in part to lower VAT for the Azores. 

On the plus side, although property prices have increased on The Azores, it’s still possible to find affordable houses and apartments for sale on each of the islands. 

Health & healthcare

The Azores is part of Portugal, which means that residents have access to the public healthcare system where treatment is normally free (or there’s a very small subsidy). However, the options available will — as with everything on The Azores — vary depending on which island you live on. There are currently only three hospitals in The Azores (on São Miguel, Terceira, and Faial) and if you live on one of the other islands you will normally need to travel to one of these islands, mainland Portugal, or wait for a travelling doctor to come and visit you.

In 2021, the first private hospital, Hospital Internacional dos Açores, opened in Lagoa on the island of São Miguel.

Supermarkets & shopping

As with everything else, the range of available supermarkets and shops varies from island to island. On São Miguel, for example, there’s a large Continente Modelo and this is housed inside a shopping centre, Parque Atlantico, where you have shops like Berksha, Claire’s, and Gato Preto. On a smaller island, however, you may be limited to small minimercados, which often have very limited stock. 

Transportation

Each of the islands in The Azores has an airport, and there are also ferries, but many of the smaller islands do not have direct flights to mainland Portugal. Normally you’ll need to fly to another airport, like Ponta Delgada Airport on São Miguel, and then take a connecting flight or ferry. There is currently no ferry service between continental Portugal and The Azores.

To get between the islands, you’ll need to either fly (Azores Airlines) or take a ferry (Atlanticoline) if one is available. 

Most of the islands have some kind of bus service, but timetables can be limited. For this reason, owning a car is definitely recommended. 

Schools

Most of the islands have primary and secondary schools, and on the smaller islands these two schools are often combined. A list of public schools can be found at edu.azores.gov.pt. Rankings for the schools can be found at observador.pt and publico.pt, and this includes both public and private schools. There are currently no international schools in The Azores. 

Similar Locations

As well as looking at The Azores, you may also want to consider the island of Madeira. 

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