Last updated on March 7, 2023 by Wandering our World
Picture this: a stunning natural landscape with refreshing waterfalls, pristine beaches and an inviting climate. We’re packing our bags and booking our next flight to Portugal already! With its two archipelagos in the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores and Madeira, Portugal is one exciting holiday destination that should be top of your bucket list.
But how do you decide which of these beautiful island clusters to go for? Well, look no further! Right here we’ll compare the two and help you pick the one that’s best suited for your travel style and preferences. That’s important, as Madeira and the Azores are actually quite different.
The Azores archipelago, set off the coast of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean, is made up of nine volcanic islands and is characterized by gorgeous natural scenery, hot springs and beaches. It is eco-friendly, rugged, and feels more ‘local’ than Madeira, but it’s also less developed.
There are many serene and secluded spots to enjoy in the Azores too, so if you’re an adventure-seeker, hiker and explorer, you will have the time of your life island-hopping and trekking around the Azores.
Madeira is an archipelago comprising four islands, two of which are inhabited, Madeira and Porto Santo. If you like sunbathing on golden beaches with a side trip of hiking in the mountains, this island duo should be your pick. Traveling around Madeira is much easier than the Azores too, as the infrastructure is very good and the island is more touristy.
Of course that’s just the very beginning when it comes to how these two destinations differ from each other.
Luckily we delve deeper into the details of what makes each of these destinations unique and what they offer below.
By the end, we’re sure you’ll be able to pick the perfect island for your next vacation. Let’s get started!
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Has The Better Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Hiking?
- Which Is Best For Water Sports?
- Which Has Better Weather?
- Which Has Better Food?
- Which Has Better Sightseeing?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Best For A Honeymoon?
- Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
Which Is Easier To Get To?
It is easier to get to Madeira, as the islands have more developed infrastructure than the Azores. Madeira has a busy airport serviced by major airlines such as TAP Portugal, BA, Condor, SATA, and EasyJet.
If you’re traveling from Europe, you can take one of these airlines to fly direct – or via Lisbon or Porto – to Funchal, the capital of Madeira. From Madeira to Porto Santo you can take a ferry or make a shorter plane trip.
In comparison, the Azores is more remote and has fewer direct flight options.
However you can fly to the Azores from some selected cities in Europe via mainland Portugal with a stopover in Lisbon or Porto.
If you’re traveling from the US however, you can fly direct from Boston or New York to the Azores with Azores Airlines, TAP Portugal and United.
Most of these flights will land you in Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores on Sao Miguel Island. There are actually three airports in the Azores, but Ponta Delgada is the better and more popular starting point from where you can then island-hop.
The Azores is connected to Madeira by air and ferry too, so you can opt to visit both on the same holiday as well!
Regular ferry services also operate from mainland Portugal to both of these island groups and are generally more affordable. But if you tend to get seasick, it would be wiser to opt for flying instead.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Madeira has been a vacation destination for a longer time, hence it has a better network of roads. It’s also smaller, and easier to get around in general
There are local taxi and bus services which you can choose from; there are also car, bike and scooter rental services available if you prefer to be more independent.
A local ferry line operates between Madeira and Porto Santo as well, so covering both the Madeira Islands is easy and a must!
In the Azores the public transportation is not as developed or as reliable for tourists as Madeira. The bus system is better suited for the commutes of locals, so the best way to get around for tourists is by rental car.
Be sure to book a rental car in advance, especially if you’re traveling during summer. Taxis are useful if you don’t want to drive, but keep an eye on the meter.
If you’re planning on island-hopping in the Azores, there are two options: by air or sea. If you’re not prone to getting seasick, you can take the ferry. It is fun and cost-effective. But if you want to travel quickly, you can also fly between the islands with Azores Airlines.
Schedules are set for both ferry and plane, especially during peak seasons, so plan accordingly. Flights are rather expensive, so if you’re traveling on a budget, go for the ferry.
Which Has The Better Beaches?
And the beach bums among you will have a hard time choosing which of these two island groups to go for: both Madeira and Azores offer varied beaches with different activities.
In general Madeira has fine sandy beaches with turquoise waters, and they tend to be more suited to sunbathing and swimming than the beaches in the Azores.
There are more than 20 beaches along Madeira’s shores and each has something different to offer.
For sunbathing and swimming, go to Formosa (pebble beach), Machico or Calheta (imported sand beaches).
Ribeira Brava and Seixal are unique in that they have beautiful black sand, a characteristic of the volcanic geological history of the region. Several of these beaches have active nightlife around them too – that’s not really the case in the Azores.
In general, the beaches in the Azores are more serene and secluded than those in Madeira, and have less crowds too. However they are usually covered with black sand or pebbles and this destination is definitely more famous for its dramatic landscape than its beaches.
The most famous beach in the Azores, Praia de Santa Bárbara, has volcanic sand that is perfect for sunbathers though. It is also a great spot for water sports and is frequented by surfers.
While beaches like Faja Grande, set against green hills and volcanic rocks, and Moisteros with its deep black sand, offer snorkeling and diving against gorgeous scenery.
All in all, beaches in the Azores offer many different water sports and activities, and tend to be more secluded and less busy than in Madeira.
However the beaches in Madeira are more likely to have the golden sand that holidaymakers prefer when thinking of a beach vacation. So if sunbathing is your priority on holiday, Madeira will likely be a better choice for you than the Azores.
Which Is Best For Hiking?
One of the best ways to explore the tropical islands of both archipelagos is by hiking. And in that case, one destination definitely trumps the other.
Azores: The Hiking
That destination is the remote and rugged Azores, as the islands have more than 80 well-maintained hiking trails, plus countless more.
In fact the reality is that hiking in the Azores will be a dream come true for hikers and adventure lovers.
No wonder too, as the islands are mostly named after their characteristic features: Sao Miguel (Green Island), Pico (The Peak, hosting the highest point of Portugal), Corvo (Crow), Flores (Flower), Terceira (The Third), Graciosa (Graceful), then there’s Faial, Santa Maria and São Jorge.
All trails in the Azores lead to stunning natural scenery, landscapes or mystic waterfalls and offer spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean.
The largest island, San Miguel, has around 30 official trails that are maintained and approved as safe by the Azores Tourism Board. The most popular trails are the one that leads to Pico, which is actually the highest peak in Portugal, and the one that leads to the stunning volcanic Sete Cidades Lake (see photo below).
The hiking trails in the Azores come with different levels of difficulties, altitudes and lengths too. So whether you’re a beginner or an experienced hiker, you’re sure to find one that suits you.
However, it’s always good to check the weather forecast before you set out for the day, as the Azores are known to have unpredictable weather – more unpredictable than Madeira.
You may also be tempted to go and enjoy some off-beaten tracks (and it sure would be exciting!) but remember that those tracks will not be maintained or approved as safe by the Azores Tourism Board. So it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Madeira: The Hiking
Hiking in Madeira is more challenging but still worth it. The island sits on a volcano and its mountains are covered with forests and waterfalls.
The scenery is breathtaking, but there is also the risk of landslides and rockfalls which may hinder your hiking and trekking plans. Again, it is advisable to check the conditions of the routes beforehand and go prepared and aware.
Madeira has more than 30 hiking trails to choose from. The most popular trails are the ones that lead to Pico Ruivo, Levada das 25 Fontes and Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço. These gorgeous trails alone may make you choose Madeira over the Azores.
The Levada das 25 Fontes is one of the most stunning hikes, taking you through lush forests and beautiful waterfalls. The Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenco is a definite bucket list item too as this hiking trail offers the most majestic views!
Which Is Best For Water Sports?
Both the Azores and Madeira offer excellent opportunities for many different water sports, so it depends on your interests and preferences.
There is surfing, diving, snorkeling, boating, fishing, whale-watching and swimming with dolphins all available at each.
But we think the Azores, in particular, is perfect if you love the ocean. You’ll have fun diving here as you’ll get to explore interesting marine life. There are also diving tours to discover and explore old shipwrecks and caves. The site near Vila Franca do Campo is probably the best choice for a diving expedition.
And if you love surfing, there are many great surfing spots in the Azores. Santa Barbara Beach on Sao Miguel Island and Cubres in Sao Jorge Island are our top picks.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a pro at surfing because there are surf schools and great local instructors who will teach you what to do!
Madeira is a little different. There are opportunities for water sports but there tends to be not as many as in the Azores.
Madeira has amazing and varied sea life though, which you can see on a diving tour. The waters are clear and calm and make for excellent undersea viewing. The island is famous for fishing too, and the giant blue marlin is the most famous fish to catch in the island’s waters.
In addition to these water sports, perhaps the most fun and exciting one is whale and dolphin watching. Both Madeira and the Azores have plenty of tours for whale-watching and swimming with dolphins. Although the Azores is often regarded as the better whale watching spot.
If you’re traveling with your family and children, these tours will be the highlight of your trip. The best time for dolphin and whale-watching is from June to September, so note that in your travel plans!
Which Has Better Weather?
Both Madeira and the Azores generally have a pleasant and tropical climate.
Madeira has sunshine and warm temperatures all year round. The summer and spring seasons are sunny and pleasant with low rainfall, while in autumn the chance of rain is higher.
Winter is cooler and makes Madeira a good option for a winter getaway.
The weather in the Azores can be very unpredictable, with frequent changes in temperature and humidity. So it could be a sunny day at one point, then unexpected patches of rain the next.
Still, the best time to travel is between May and September. Winters are moderate in the Azores, as in Madeira, with colder and rainier days.
Which Has Better Food?
This one’s for the foodies. Picture yourself having some traditional Portuguese food with a hint of the ocean. That’s what to expect at either as the cuisine of both Madeira and the Azores showcases the history and cultural influences of these islands alongside that of mainland Portugal.
Seafood, as you’d expect, features prominently in the cuisines of both Madeira and the Azores.
Food is produced, or rather ‘caught’ locally like tuna, swordfish, sardines, octopus, and Madeira’s famous marlin.
Tropical fruits grow in the islands’ warm climate too, such as mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, bananas, avocados and Azores’ pineapples, as well as a number of vegetables.
Plus a traditional meal in the Azores, for example, can even be cooked in hot holes created in volcanic soil, or boiled over natural geysers. Quirky, right? And definitely a unique travel experience to take home with you.
Madeira and the Azores are also known for their unique drinks and desserts.
Madeira is a producer of sugarcane which in turn produces some fine-quality rum. This rum is used to make “poncha” a traditional drink with rum, honey and lemon juice.
On the other hand, the Azores produce their own tea, which is a must-have for tea lovers. In fact Azores’ tea plantations on Sao Miguel Island are the only ones of their kind in Europe.
Both islands produce their own wine too, with the Azores making fine quality white wine and Madeira making a liquor-type sweet wine.
Which Has Better Sightseeing?
Both island groups have some unique sights to see and enjoy.
But knowing the main ones in each destination can help you decide which will suit your holiday preferences the most. We show you those next:
The Azores: Sightseeing
The Azores has plenty of natural landmarks and cultural places to see and visit.
It’s home to the city of Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Terceira Island. Angra do Heroismo dates back to the 15th century and has preserved medieval architecture such as the Cathedral of Angra do Heroismo, an impressive Town Hall, a fortress, and a museum with many historical treasures.
Culture lovers and history buffs will certainly enjoy a trip to this city! Other small towns worth visiting include Horta, Ponta Delgada and Furnas.
Among the many natural landmarks in the Azores are the hot springs which should be on the top of your list to check out.
Most of the hot springs are on Sao Miguel Island and offer some stunning views of the mountainsides. These hot springs are said to have healing properties and have lovely warm temperatures for a relaxing soak.
Madeira also has some interesting sightseeing to enjoy.
The historical town of Funchal is the cultural capital of Madeira and it’s worth taking your time to explore the city with its many old churches, museums, palaces and gardens.
The town is full of cultural sights and history, but it’s better if you take a guided tour with a local to make the most of your trip.
Moving around in Madeira can be a fun experience too!
You can take a cable car ride over the hills and capital of Funchal and visit some remote villages on the island, or you can take the traditional Toboggan ride.
The Toboggan is a type of sledge that locals would use to move quickly through the hills. But now it’s a fun touristy experience that you’ll remember for a long time.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: With stunning sea and mountain views, a wonderful garden, swimming pool and fantastic service, Sao Vicente Lodge – Atlantic Retreat is a fantastic choice which feels like luxury but is well within a budget price point. See photos and rates!
Luxury: White Exclusive Suites & Villas is a gorgeous five-star resort which sits right on the coast with exceptional sea views and a swimming pool worthy of a honeymoon.
It’s one of those resorts we should all stay in at least once in our lifetime. See photos and rates!
Budget: Just a few minutes walk from the beach, but right in the heart of the action, a stay at Apartments Madeira Old Town is perfect for those who want more than just sunbathing and swimming. The apartments come with balconies and great views too. See photos and rates!
Luxury: You can’t get more luxurious than the Royal Savoy in Funchal, a five-star resort with 2 heated lagoon-style pools and private Atlantic Ocean access.
With spa, tennis court, restaurants, spectacular sea views from your room and more, you’ll have everything you need when staying here. See photos and rates!
Which Is Best For A Honeymoon?
If you’re planning your honeymoon, both Madeira and the Azores have some beautiful beach locations and places to enjoy a peaceful vacation.
Which is best will therefore depend on your preferences, but if you’re looking for serene and secluded places, then Azores are a better option.
However if you’re looking for a more touristy and happening destination, then Madeira should be your choice.
Madeira is more developed than the Azores too, with proper resorts perfect for honeymoons and a nightlife scene. But there can also be crowds during peak season.
On the other hand, the Azores are quieter, and a little more romantic and atmospheric feeling than Madeira. And if you’re a couple that loves the outdoors, the trails are exceptional and will create a honeymoon to remember.
Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
For a family trip, your best bet is going where the kids will be most entertained. Both islands are similar, yet slightly different in what they offer in that respect.
Madeira is busier than the Azores, with well-developed resorts and accompanying amenities and facilities for children like kids clubs.
However the activities on smaller Madeira can be a little limited compared to those in the Azores. So Madeira may be better for a short and quick getaway. Although shorter distances between activities, and easy access to facilities will likely suit families with smaller children.
In comparison, the Azores could be a better destination for a longer family vacation with older kids as you can island-hop and visit the many natural attractions such as thermal pools, hot springs and waterfalls.
The Azores also tends to have better opportunities for water sports. The islands have the best diving spots and expeditions for whale-watching and swimming with dolphins too, which older kids will definitely enjoy.
Which Is Cheaper?
You can expect the Azores to be cheaper than Madeira, because the latter is more well-developed than the former as a tourist destination, whereas the Azores still has local prices.
Madeira also has several beach resorts with a varying range of facilities that attract a large number of tourists. Hence Madeira can also be a bit pricier than the Azores when it comes to hotels.
But the differences in cost regarding accommodation, transport and food between the two destinations is not that big.
Ultimately, it depends on what you are willing to give up to offset the cost difference. For a short and easy vacation, Madeira is suited best. While for a longer, laid-back and more ‘local’ holiday, the Azores will be perfect.
Madeira vs Azores: Which Is The Better Choice?
In the end, it all depends on your vacation style and preference. Both Madeira and the Azores are wonderful holiday destinations, quite similar to one another, yet also a little different.
Nature lovers and adventure-seekers will find the Azores a paradise, with plenty of stunning natural scenery and hiking trails to enjoy.
Kids will also love the Azores for its many water sports such as diving, surfing and whale-watching.
For those looking for a quick summer getaway, Madeira may prove to be the perfect beach resort, complete with amenities and facilities.
Ultimately, the final decision of where to go is yours. Regardless of where you choose, enjoy!