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Driving in the Azores is an experience like no other. This group of nine Portuguese islands, located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is a paradise for nature lovers. The Azores offers breathtaking landscapes, winding roads and unique cultural experiences. Driving in the Azores can be both exciting and challenging, as roads are often narrow and winding, and many of the island's attractions are only accessible by car. However, the rewards are well worth the effort. We visited two of the islands and drove ourselves there. Keep reading to get useful tips for driving in the Azores.
Covered in the Article
- The Azores Islands
- Why Hiring a Car is the Best Way to Explore Azores?
- Traffic Rules in the Azores
- Driving Culture in the Azores
- Our Driving Experiences in the Azores
- Tips for Hiring a Car
- Driving Tips
- Our Favourite Attractions in the Azores
- Bottom Line
The Azores Islands
The Azores Islands are a group of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about 1,500 kilometres west of Lisbon, Portugal. The archipelago is known for its stunning landscapes, rich history and unique culture. The islands are divided into three groups: the western group, which includes Flores and Corvo; the central group, which includes Terceira, Pico, Faial, Sao Jorge, and Graciosa; and the eastern group, which includes Santa Maria and Sao Miguel.
We visited Sao Miguel and Terceira islands on a winter trip to the Azores. First, we flew from Helsinki to Lisbon and continued straight away to Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel island. After spending a few days in Sao Miguel, we continued our trip to Terceira Island.
In this article, we tell about our driving experiences in the Azores and share useful driving tips.
What Are the Azores Like?
The Azores Islands are a nature lover's paradise, with lush green forests, breathtaking waterfalls, and crystal-clear lakes. The Azores are also home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, including some species that are endemic to the region. In addition to its natural beauty, the Azores are steeped in history, with several impressive forts, churches, and other historic landmarks to explore. Visitors can also experience the unique culture of the Azores by sampling the delicious local cuisine, taking part in traditional festivals, and interacting with the friendly locals. Whether you're looking for adventure, relaxation, or a little bit of both, the Azores are sure to offer an unforgettable experience.
Sao Miguel, our initial stop is characterized by a comprehensive and well-maintained road system that facilitates exploration of the island's every nook and cranny. The island features paved highways and numerous rural roads, with a few being narrow and winding. There are not many mountain roads even though altitude changes are big. The roads are prominently marked with clear signage indicating the directions to various landmarks and towns.
Our second destination, Terceira Island has a road network that is also well-developed and provides easy access to the island's many attractions. The road network offers amazing views of the island's rugged coastline, rolling hills, and verdant forests.
There are no road tolls in the Azores.
Why Hiring a Car is the Best Way to Explore Azores?
One of the best things about the Azores is its untouched natural beauty. To truly experience this, you must get away from the touristy spots and venture into the heart of the islands. While there are public transportation options available, they can be limited and infrequent, making it difficult to get around on your schedule. Hiring a car gives you the freedom and flexibility to explore the islands at your own pace, stopping whenever and wherever you want to take in the stunning views.
In addition to the convenience factor, renting a car in the Azores can also be cost-effective. While taxi rides and organized tours can quickly add up costs, renting a car allows you to save money on transportation while also allowing you to discover off-the-beaten-path destinations that you may not have otherwise known about.
Traffic Rules in the Azores
In the Azores, you drive on the right-hand side of the road. There is usually only one lane per direction.
To drive on the roads of the Azores, you need to have a valid driver's license corresponding to the category of the vehicle to be driven. EU citizens and citizens from the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states won't have to exchange their driving licenses for Portuguese ones even when staying longer in Portugal. The countries included are Angola, Australia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Canada, Chile, USA, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Mozambique, New Zealand, UK, Republic of Korea, São Tomé and Príncipe, Switzerland, and Turkey.
Also other visitors to Portugal can use their national driver's license for a short period. However, if your license is written in a non-Roman alphabet (such as Arabic, Japanese, Cyrillic, etc.), you will need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP/IDL) or an official English translation.
In Azores, vehicles coming from the right have priority, unless otherwise indicated by traffic signs or lights. Vehicles inside roundabouts have priority over entering cars.
Approach intersections slowly so you have enough time to evaluate the priority rules.
The speed limits in the Azores are as follows:
- 50 km/h in urban areas
- Max 100 km/h on main highways
Traffic Signs and Lights
Traffic signs and lights in the Azores follow international standards and are used to indicate speed limits, road conditions, and other important information for drivers. It is important to obey all traffic signs to ensure safe driving.
Parking in the Azores is generally free outside of the towns. In the big cities, you may need to pay but the prices are affordable. During our 1-week trip, we never had to pay for parking. We advise parking only in designated areas and confirming if the parking is free.
The legal blood alcohol limit in the Azores is 0.5 per mil. Driving under the influence of alcohol is strictly prohibited and can result in heavy fines, license suspension and even imprisonment.
Driving Culture in the Azores
Driving culture in the Azores is generally relaxed. The traffic laws and regulations in force are the same as in Portugal and Europe, and drivers should keep in mind that they drive on the right side of the road and speed limits are in kilometres. Most roads on the islands are of good quality, allowing for comfortable and safe driving, but many rural roads can be narrow and winding. Although driving is generally safe in the Azores, a few mountain roads can be challenging. Luckily, local drives are friendly which makes driving more comfortable in the Azores.
Driving in the Azores is relaxed as there is not much traffic.
Our Driving Experiences in the Azores
Before embarking on our journey, we recognized the importance of having a reliable hire car to explore the Azores without restrictions. Following thorough research on the Internet, we opted to lease a car from a local small business, Autocunha Car Rental. The company was not the cheapest one but they spent a lot of their time helping us with our travel plans.
Upon arrival at Ponta Delgada Airport, a company representative collected us from the airport and transported us to their rental shop in the Ponta Delgada area. Following the necessary paperwork, we were presented with the keys to a brand-new Opel Corsa, which was in impeccable condition.
To our delight, the traffic on the Sao Miguel island was tranquil and the roads were in good condition. Although some roads were narrow and steep, requiring careful clutch control, the majority had a smooth and comfortable surface. Nonetheless, we did encounter some unpaved mountain roads with large potholes that presented a slight challenge when driving.
We did not know any car hire company in Terceira, so we decided to hire a car through Discovers Cars. Discover Cars is a practical website to compare hire cars and their prices. Initially, we booked the cheapest option available, but after coming across some negative reviews, we decided to cancel the booking free of charge and search for a more reliable option. After conducting another search, we found a car rental company with positive reviews and made a new booking.
Upon landing at Terceira Airport, we were pleased to find that we could pick up the car directly from the terminal. While the Citroen C1 we rented was small and had some scratches, it proved sufficient for our needs. A small engine was a little problematic because some of the uphills are steep in Terceira.
Driving in Terceira was almost easier than in Sao Miguel. There was only a little traffic and the roads were in good condition. However, some of them were narrow and the speed limits were relatively high. We also encountered many cows wandering on the roads so it was important to be alerted all the time and keep the driving speed low.
When hiring a car, it is important to buy extra protection without excess to avoid costs resulting from scratches and minor damages to hire cars.
Driving in Terceira was a thrilling experience. The island's roads were in good condition, and there were a few highways with high-speed limits that made it faster to move from one place to another. However, driving in the towns was more challenging because the roads were almost too narrow. It felt like we were driving in a maze as we navigated through the town's twisting roads. Despite the challenge, it was worth it, as we were able to explore the town at our own pace and discover its hidden gems. We even stumbled upon a few beautiful viewpoints that we wouldn't have found otherwise. Overall, driving in Terceira was an adventure that we'll never forget. It allowed us to explore the island's breathtaking scenery and vibrant culture while enjoying the freedom of the open road.
Tips for Hiring a Car
Hiring a car in the Azores is relatively easy. However, there are a few things to remember to ensure a smooth rental experience. Here are some tips to help you out.
Book in advance. While renting a car on the spot is possible, booking in advance is always a good idea to ensure availability and get the best rates. You can easily book online through popular car rental companies or compare prices on Discovers Cars.
Be careful with hidden costs. Before you book, make sure to read the fine print and check for any hidden fees or charges. Some rental companies may have additional fees for things like insurance or extra equipment rentals.
Confirm that the hire car has the necessary insurance. Usually, there is an excess part so we recommend buying extra protection directly from the car hire company or Discover Cars. The protection sold by Discover Cars is almost always cheaper. Remember also to travel with personal travel medical insurance.
Choose the right car. Make sure to choose a car that suits your needs and the type of road you'll be driving on. If you plan on exploring some of the more rugged terrains, then a 4x4 or SUV may be a better choice than a compact car. A manual car is better in the mountains but you need to know how to handle the clutch well. Do not book too big cars since the streets are narrow.
Driving in the Azores can be challenging for first-timers, especially for those who are not used to narrow and winding roads. Here are some tips to help you navigate the roads safely.
Book a small car because it is easier to handle in the mountains and it is also more practical in small villages. Also, parking spaces are narrow so you will prefer a small car for easier parking.
Keep the speed slow. Some of the roads in the Azores are narrow and winding, so taking your time and driving at a comfortable pace is important. Remember, the journey is just as important as the destination! Wandering animals on the roads is common.
Prepare for any weather. The weather in the Azores can be unpredictable, so make sure to check the forecast before you head out. If the weather is bad, consider postponing your drive until conditions improve. If you plan on driving during the rainy season, make sure to choose a car with good traction and visibility. Also, remember to pack suitable clothing according to weather conditions.
Watch out for animals and people. The Azores are home to a variety of wildlife, including cows, goats, and sheep. These animals are often found grazing on the side of the road, so make sure to keep an eye out and drive cautiously. In villages, there may be people crossing the street anywhere.
If you're not used to driving on the right-hand side of the road or in hilly terrain, then the Azores may not be the best place to learn. The roads in the Azores can be narrow and winding, and some may not be well-lit, so it's important to have some experience driving in similar conditions.
Driving in the Azores is similar to driving in Spain.
It is difficult to navigate the Azores without a navigator. Google Maps knows the roads well but it may lead you to unpaved roads with big holes. That happened to us.
Do not blindly trust Google Maps but check the routes manually. It is also important to check your navigator settings. Driving on the highways is much faster than on rural roads. In every case, Google Maps is usually over-optimistic with driving times so we advise you to reserve 20 per cent more time than suggested. It is not nice to be in a hurry on a vacation.
Our Favourite Attractions in the Azores
The Azores is filled with incredible destinations that are worth visiting. Here are some of the must-see spots to add to your itinerary:
On the Sao Miguel island, we recommend heading to the village called Sete Cidades. It is a civil parish located in the western part of the island. The village is known for its stunning twin lakes, Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde (Blue and Green Lakes), which are situated in the crater of a dormant volcano. When the sky is sunny, the village is a perfect place to explore on foot. On the way to Sete Cidades, we recommend stopping at Miradouro do Cerrado das Freiras from where you can have a stunning view of the village and the twin lakes.
Ponta da Ferraria is another our recommendation in Sao Miguel. It is a unique hot spring located off the western shore of Sao Miguel. Visitors can swim in the ocean and enjoy the feeling of a hot tub during low tide.
The water temperature varies between 18 to 28 Celsius during low tide. This hot spring was created by volcanic eruptions and is a fabulous place to enjoy the hot springs in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
We enjoyed relaxing dips there and a cup of coffee under the sun at the cafeteria near the hot spring. The attraction has a free parking area.
Furnas is a must-see place for every visitor to Sao Miguel. The area is a giant volcanic crater with thermal pools, steam holes, and hot springs. There are over 30 geysers and hot springs, making it the best place to experience the volcanic origins of the Azores. If you don't mind the smell of sulfur, this attraction is one of the best in the Azores.
Terceira Island has fewer attractions but still, there is enough to see for many days. If you are driving a car, we recommend heading to Miradouro da Serra de Santa Barbara which is the highest point of the island. It can be easily accessed by car. This viewing spot offers stunning panoramic views of the island's landscape. Visitors can enjoy the breathtaking views, take photographs, and explore the surrounding nature reserve, which occupies 1,863.40ha of the massif of the Serra de Santa Barbara.
The lookout point is open year-round, 24/7.
- Is it easy to drive in the Azores?
- Yes, it is. Since there is not much traffic, driving is peaceful. Sometimes, the roads are narrow.
- Are the mountain roads difficult to drive in the Azores?
- The roads are narrow and windy but they are not too challenging. With a slow speed, they are not difficult to drive. There are not many steep falls.
- Does parking cost?
- Parking is free in the majority of places. It may cost in towns.
- Are the roads paved?
- The main roads are paved. Smaller roads may be unpaved and the surface can be bad.
- What are the default speed limits?
- The default speed limit in urban areas is 50 km/h, and outside, 80 km/h.
- How to navigate in the Azores?
- We recommend using Google Maps.
- Where to hire a car in the Azores?
- We advise comparing hire cars on Discovers Cars which knows almost all available car hire companies in the Azores.
- What is the traffic culture like in the Azores?
- The traffic culture is peaceful.
Hiring a car in the Azores is perhaps the best way to explore the islands and enjoy their natural beauty. However, it's important to keep in mind the unique challenges that come with driving in the Azores. By following our tips and doing your research beforehand, you can have a safe and memorable driving experience in this incredible destination.
We advise not booking too big a car because a small car is practical in the mountains and parking is easier. Comparing hire car options on Discovers Cars will help you decide which is the most suitable car for your trip. Be sure to purchase the necessary protection to avoid extra costs. We recommend choosing small cars as they have manual transmissions but you need to have excellent clutch handling skills. As in many villages in the Azores island, there are steep uphills at intersections but you still must be able to control the car smoothly. In rural areas, traffic is more peaceful and driving outside the villages is more relaxing.
Have you visited any of the Azores Islands? Did you hire a car there? Comment below about your experiences.