Stunning scenery, subtropical gardens and mountain hiking. Wildlife, vineyards and a distinctive local cuisine. You’ll find all this and more when you visit Madeira, the Portuguese island off the coast of Africa. Here is our guide to planning your trip.
Why Visit Madeira?
Like the neighbouring Spanish Canary Islands, the volcanic island group of Madeira is geographically part of Africa but politically part of Europe. It is an autonomous region of Portugal, and the first residents were Portuguese, but the climate and the wine also attracted many British settlers. Today the islands have their own culture, almost – but not quite – Portuguese.
At one time Madeira had rather a staid image, seen as a place for expats and wealthy visitors. But all that has changed. Now it attracts walkers and wildlife enthusiasts, families, and anyone who is keen to experience European history and culture in a subtropical environment. They are all attracted by the climate, the scenery and the plants, the food and drink, and the unique culture.
What To Do In Madeira
There is far more to see and do in Madeira than you could fit into a week’s holiday. Whether you want to relax or explore, hike or soak up the scenery, you’ll only have time to get a taste of what the island has to offer.
Even if you are not based in Funchal, you are likely to spend some time discovering Madeira’s capital, on the south coast. The first thing that you will notice is that this is a very beautiful city, built on a slope rising steeply from the sea, with trees and flowers everywhere. Spend some time just walking and enjoy the city, particularly its attractive sea front promenade.
Old Town – Street Art And Market
The old town (Zona Velha) is notable for the street art of the Rua de Santa Maria and surrounding streets. Here you also have a wide choice of bars and restaurants serving traditional Madeiran dishes.
Don’t miss the Mercado dos Lavradores (Workers’ Market). This is a very large, and grand, market building, with two floors and a central square surrounded by smaller spaces and individual shop units. The building is decorated with traditional Portuguese tiled panels and sells all manner of fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, flowers, and more. At the back is the wet fish market – visit early in the morning to see the activity here.
Parks And Gardens
One of the pleasures of Funchal is the many parks and gardens, some large and formal, others tiny patches in front of churches and other public buildings. You’ll see some of these as you walk around but the grandest – the Monte Palace Tropical Garden and the Madeira Botanical Gardens – are a cable car ride away on the mountains above the town.
Read more – Top Funchal Gardens And Parks.
Churches, Forts, And Painted Tiles
Churches in Funchal (and elsewhere in Madeira) tend to be built in a characteristic local style, with white painted exteriors and ornate interiors. The 15th century Funchal Cathedral is one of the oldest buildings on the island, and there are several other historic churches, including the Igreja de São Pedro, with its artworks, jewelled altar and decorative tiled panels.
Churches may be painted white, but fortresses are yellow. Historically the city of Funchal had to be protected from pirates, and along the sea front you will spot the Fortaleza de São Tiago (in the old town) and the Palácio de São Lourenço. And high on the hillside is the Fortaleza de São João Baptista do Pico, with panoramic views over the town and the sea.
Wherever you go, look out for decorative tiling. Quite apart from the market and the churches, you’ll find tiled panels just about anywhere including in restaurants, outside shops, and above fountains.
Museums In Funchal
I only found time to visit one of Funchal’s many museums, the Museu de Fotografia da Madeira. This contains an interesting collection of old photographs showing Madeira as it used to be. The museum is also of interest for its building, a 19th century house that was later used as a photography studio.
But you could also visit the Madeira Story Centre, which follows the island’s history and culture from its volcanic origins to the present day. Other options include the Quinta das Cruzes, a historic house and garden, and the Sacred Art Museum, a collection of Flemish and Portuguese art and artefacts from the 15th to 19th centuries. And football enthusiasts should not miss the CR7 Museu, devoted to Cristiano Ronaldo, who was born in Funchal.
With the island’s spectacular mountain landscape and network of levada paths (following historic water channels), hiking in Madeira is an unforgettable experience. Indeed, for some visitors it is the main attraction. However, you do need to be well prepared and to plan your walks carefully.
Read more about How To Enjoy Hiking In Madeira.
You will want to try the famous Madeira wine and perhaps to learn a little about how it is made. A good place to start is at Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal, the home of one of the island’s most important wine businesses. Here you can take a tour, have a tasting and learn more about the Blandy family in the small museum.
Around The Island
On the east coast you will find a series of small towns such as Santa Cruz and Machico (the original port of Madeira). And on the north coast are Porto da Cruz, with a historic rum facility, and Santana. Santana is small but much visited by tourists because of its traditional houses, which are small and triangular with thatched roofs. Fewer visitors get to the western half of the island, although Cabo Girão, with its glass bottomed viewing platform above a tall cliff, is popular with those that don’t mind heights.
The most dramatic scenery is to be found as you travel inland. Here you will encounter the mountains, forests, waterfalls, and the hiking trails. See Travelling Around Madeira (below) for advice on visiting the interior.
Boat Trips And Other Islands
The only other inhabited island of the archipelago is Porto Santo. The island is small and quiet, but visitors can enjoy the sandy beaches, restaurants and gardens. You can also tour the house in which Christopher Columbus once lived.
Boat trips are also available to the Ilhas Desertas, now maintained as a nature reserve. Or you could take a wildlife spotting trip, and look out for whales, dolphins and birds.
Food And drink In Madeira
Madeira is an excellent location for anyone who enjoys a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and traditional cooking. And, of course, there is the Madeira wine and the local sugar cane rum.
Read more: The Best Madeira Food And Drink.
Where To Stay In Madeira
Most tourists base themselves in or close to Funchal, although there are also smaller resorts such as Caniço or Camara De Lobos. To some extent, where you stay will depend upon whether you want to hire a car and/or explore independently. The centre of Funchal is ideal if you want to be able to explore the city on foot and to take local buses. However, it is not advised if you are going to hire a car, as parking is very limited.
Alternatively, if you want car parking or if you are happy to take tours, you could stay in the Funchal hotel zone or elsewhere on the island. The hotel zone (to the west of Funchal) is like a resort in itself with lots of restaurants and other facilities for tourists.
Have a look at the recommendations on booking.com.
Travelling Around Madeira
- From the airport the Aerobus goes to Funchal, with various stops along the way.
- If you are thinking of hiring a car you need to know that, although the main roads (mostly around the edge of the island) are good, driving in towns or in the countryside can be tricky, as the roads are narrow, winding and very steep. In some places they may also have uneven surfaces. And you may encounter mist when you get higher up…
- Buses are available from Funchal to many destinations. However, they make frequent stops and journeys may be slow. The Funchal Hop On Hop Off Bus covers the city sights as well as Câmara de Lobos.
- There are seven cable car routes around the island (including two in Funchal).
- There are many very good tour companies which can offer anything from conventional sightseeing to guided hikes to individual customised tours. Most of these will pick you up at your hotel (but check first, as some companies only have limited pick ups). You can read about my experience of an individual tour with ToursByLocals.
When To Visit Madeira
Madeira can get busy in the summer months, and you will find it quieter (although not so warm) if you visit out of season. Other times when it may become crowded are at New Year and during Carnival, and at the annual Flower Festival in May.
Although the climate is generally temperate, you need to be prepared for it to be changeable whatever time of year you visit Madeira. The locals have an expression “four seasons in one day”, meaning that you can encounter sudden changes from hot to cold, dry to wet or calm to windy, all in the space of a few hours!