Spectacular scenery, pretty mountain villages, dramatic coastlines, exquisite gardens, vineyards and typical Portuguese style houses – these are just some of the attractions that have seen the small, enchanting island of Madeira become an increasingly popular holiday destination in recent years.
Situated in the Atlantic, Madeira is one of four islands that make up a small archipelago, just 310 miles off the northern coast of Africa, and 620 miles off the south west coast of Portugal. The other islands include Porto Santo, and two uninhabited islands, Selvagens and Desertas. Madeira is the largest.
This is the perfect destination if you’re looking to combine a relaxing sun and sea holiday with other leisure activities such as sightseeing, exploring the countryside, hiking, trekking, rock climbing, mountain biking, fishing, scuba diving and golf. The subtropical climate means that the weather is pleasant all year round – with hot summers and mild winters. What’s more, it doesn’t take long to get here, as Madeira is only three hours by air from the UK.
Getting there/around Madeira
There are a number of airlines that fly to the main airport in Madeira, Funchal. These include British Airways and TAP Air Portugal, who operate scheduled flights from UK airports. Various charter airlines also fly here. There is also an airport, at Vila Baleira, on Porto Santo island. So, if you want to visit this island, you can take an internal flight, which takes 15 minutes. Or, else take a ferry from Funchal waterfront. This takes 2 hours 30 minutes.
The easiest and cheapest way to get around the island is by bus. You can pick up a schedule of times from the Tourist Office at Funchal. Or, ask at your hotel. Expect to pay between 1 -2 euros a ride, for shorter journeys. Buy tickets at any news stand. Alternatively, you can get a taxi almost anywhere. These are yellow with blue stripes – so, easy to spot. These are regulated by the government – so, prices are fixed. The roads in Madeira are incredibly windy and steep, with lots of sharp corners and hairpin bends. So, hiring a car is generally not recommended, unless you’re a brilliant driver with nerves of steel.
Beaches in Madeira
Madeira’s mountainous rugged terrain and steep cliffs means that beaches here are on the wild side. So, don’t come here expecting stretches of Caribbean style white sands – as there aren’t any. Instead, you will find mainly pebbled shores with the odd sandy patch. But, don’t let that put you off. Madeira’s beaches may be more pebbly than sandy, but they are immaculately clean, well maintained and offer sunshine, warm, crystal clear waters and blue skies. Just make sure you bring a beach mat.
Praia Formosa is the main beach near to Funchal. It offers three small, sandy beaches and one pebbled one. There are also lots of facilities, including changing rooms, a crèche for children, and lively waterfront area with lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. Another beach with sandy areas, also on the south coast, is Ribeira Brava. Or, try Calheta, which has a lovely man made beach with golden sands, imported from Morocco and Portugal.
Sightseeing in Madeira
There are many places of interest all over Madeira. A good starting point is Funchal, the capital. Take a wander round the cobbled streets of the Old Town and see the many beautiful 15th and 16th century buildings. For an interactive overview of Madeira’s history and culture, visit the Madeira Story Centre. Also, worth a look is the Convent of Santa Clara, Madeira’s oldest convent, which you can reach via the balconied passage of Calcada de Santa Clara.
Visit too the grand Cathedral Se, in Funchal, a magnificent fusion of Gothic and Moorish design. Take a cable car to the pretty mountain village of Monte. Stroll round the beautiful tropical gardens here. Also, not to be missed is the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte, the Church of Our Lady of the Mount, a popular place of worship for pilgrims.
Other places to visit include Santana, a stunning village on the north coast, with lots of exquisite thatched cottages. Also, Machico, the original landing port where the Portuguese navigator Joao Goncalves Zarco first docked when he discovered Madeira. See the oldest church on the island here, Capela dos Milagres. Also, Sao Roque, a lovely 16th century chapel.
Shopping in Madeira
Madeira is a shopper’s paradise with a good choice of retail outlets from large, modern shoppings malls, small boutiques and shops to local markets. The biggest shopping mall, Madeira Shopping, is in Santa Quiteria, Funchal. It has over 80 stalls, 20 restaurants and coffee shops. Another popular mall is Arcadas de Sao Francisco, also in Funchal.
For local handicrafts, leather goods, including boots, rugs, embroidered goods, and gifts, go to the Municipe Market. You can also buy all sorts of wicker goods in Camacha. Most towns and villages also have regular weekly markets where you can buy traditional Madeiran goods and handicrafts. Look out too for traditional Madeira cake and Madeira wine which you can buy all over the island.
Eating Out in Madeira
Madeiran food has is very similar to Portuguese. You’ll also find an abundance of fish and seafood dishes – tuna, swordfish, clams, mussels, oysters and cod. Classic Madeiran specialities include: bolo de caco, a local bread which tastes delicious served hot with garlic butter and parsley. Sopa de tomate e cebola, tomoto and onion soup is another favourite. Try too the carne vinho e alhis, a pork stew made with wine vinegar. Or, if you’re a meat eater, try picado, a spicy beef dish. If you have a sweet tooth, enjoy some classic Madeira cake, or try, bolo de mile, a honey cake.
You’ll find many fine restaurants in Funchal and all over the rest of the island. For seafood, try Jango in Funchal Old Town. Also, excellent for seafood is Jaquet, on the waterfront. For traditional Madeiran dishes try A Seta, a country tavern just outside Funchal. For a memorable experience, have a meal at The Dining Room, at the exclusive Reid’s Palace Hotel. For wonderful views of the sea, eat at Doca do Cavacas, located on a pretty bay, near Funchal. For traditional Madeiran meat dishes such as game, rabbit and pork eat at Abrigo do Pastor in Camacha.
Nightlife in Madeira
If you want to chill out with a glass of Madeira wine, a ‘poncha’, punch, or a shot of ‘aguardente’, the local rum, you’ll find plenty of great bars in Madeira. In Funchal, try Joe’s bar, at the Quinta La Penta da Franca Hotel, or try the bar at the Pestana Park Resort Hotel. If you want to go dancing, head for Vespas, the largest club on the island.
For some late night music, try Do Fa Sol, in Funchal, a cosy bar that stays open till 4am. The Golden Gate, a bar where you can also get something to eat, also stay open late, till 2am. There are also some great bars along the harbour in Machico. Two to try include Camara de Lobos, and La Barca.
Family Attractions in Madeira
Take the family to the Whale Museum, in the small fishing village of Canical, on the east coast of the island. Exhibits include photographs, hunting implements, fishing boats and a life size model of a whale. You can also take a boat from Funchal, which will take you out three miles away to to watch whales and dolphins.
Visit the Sao Vicente Caves, near the river at Pe de Passo. The caves consist of the volcanic tunnels and lava tubes that have remained after an eruption that took place 400,000 years ago. The tour of the caves takes around 30 minutes.
Spend a fun day at the Lido Promenade in Funchal. You’ll find three swimming pools here, including a huge seawater swimming pool. There are also slides, watersports activities, cafes, restaurants and bars. The kids will also love taking a toboggan or sledge down the 2km steep slope from Monte. Basically, you sit in a 2 seater wicker type basket on wheels, which is guided down by ‘gondoliers’. This is not for the faint hearted, as speeds can reach about 40 mph.
Day Trips in Madeira
Take a boat from Funchal to Porto Santo island. This beautiful island has 5.5 miles of sandy beach, watersports activities and golfing. You can also go walking or horseriding. Porto Santo also has some lovely cafes, restaurants, including Roca Mar and Estrela do Norte, on the Marina.
Have a fantastic day out on the uninhabited Desertas Islands, off the coast of Madeira. Take a boat from Funchal. The islands used to be a haven for pirates. Now they have Nature Reserves and are the habitat for monk seals and sea birds. You can take a hike through the nature reserve, explore the island and then have lunch on the boat, before sailing back, and possibly seeing some whales or dolphins on the way.
it. The nearby 19th century railway station is also visually impressive. Commerce Square, or Palace Square as it’s also known, denotes the former maritime entrance to the city and is dominated by a splendid arch.
Belem and the Gulbenkian Art Complex are possibly the cultural hearts of the capital – both areas are crammed with art galleries, musuems and gardens. Quelez National Palace is easy to reach from Lisbon. Studded with Baroque fountains, statues and gardens, it’s often compared to the Versailles Palace in France.
Getting there/around Funchal
Madeira International Airport is 25km from Funchal. Scheduled services are available to the island, with plans for a new low cost airline to serve Funchal in the future too.
There’s good public transport and plenty of taxis around Funchal. It may be a remote island, but car hire rates compare with other European destinations.
Due to the hilly terrain, the island is generally not recommended for the less mobile, whilst Madeira’s steep mountain roads can be hard to take.
Beaches around Funchal
This is not a place for beach bums. Having said that, there are a few around, such as Praira Fromosa, reached by the two-mile ‘lido’ pedestrian promenade in Funchal linking three public swimming pools, and all flanked by lush gardens.
Most beaches are rocky, or black volcanic sand but 12 of them have still made it onto the EU’s Blue Flag list for cleanliness.
Or combine Funchal with Porto Santo, Madeira’s sleepy neighbour – reached via a 2.5 hour ferry trip, or a 15-minute flight – with unspoilt beaches.
Sightseeing around Funchal
To really get the picture, take Funchal’s panoramic hot air balloon ride, rising up to 150 metres.
On the ground, check out the horticultural heaven – including the Botanical Gardens, Pregetter’s Orchid Garden and the Santa Catarina Park.
The tropical gardens at nearby Monte can be reached by cable car – return options include toboggan. Once a mere answer to a vertical problem, the two-seater wicker toboggans are now a key tourist attraction. It’s like zooming down a hill in a giant basket.
Golfers will find two excellent golf courses outside the capital, 18-hole Palheiro and Robert Trent Jones-designed 27-hole Santo de Serra.
The Madeira Story is a clever new interactive museum in Funchal.
Walking is the reason many people holiday here. Amateurs and pros follow the routes of the levadas, a 1,500 mile network of irrigation channels stretching from north to south.
Family attractions around Funchal
Madeira’s lack of beaches means it’s not immediately attractive to anyone with young family, but hotels often have children’s facilities, swimming pools and plenty of green space to roam around in.
The Madeira Theme Park in Santana is the first of its kind in Portugal – divided into several zones, it cleverly illustrates Madeira’s culture and incredible natural history.
Diving, surfing, sea kayaking, canyoning and deep sea fishing are diversions off land.
Day trips around Funchal
Tour the island highlights such as Cabo Girao, the second highest cliffs in the world.
Walkers flock to Madeira where the mountainous, volcanic interior promises wild and wonderful rambling, such as Pico Ruivo, the highest point of the island, at 1,860m.
To get to the neighbouring island of Porto Santo, take the ferry from Funchal.
The Volcanism Centre at Sao Vincente helps interpret the amazing volcanic caves here, formed 400 years ago.
Eating out around Funchal
There are plenty of places to eat in Funchal and the hotels and quintas also boast fine restaurants.
Island dishes to look out for include the local soup, acorda, peixe espada (black scabbard fish accompanied by passion fruit, bananas and almonds) and espatada, skewered beef grilled with garlic and sea salt. There are also plenty of familiar international options.
Madeira wines range from dry (Sercial), through medium dry (Verdelho) and medium sweet (Bual), to the sweetest, Malmsey and visiting a vineyard is a must. The wine festival in September is a great time to be in Funchal.
Nightlife in Funchal
Funchal is not some provincial backwater, but it’s hardly party central either – come the weekend though, things heat up.
Funchal has lively bars at the marina, hotel entertainment, local bars hidden on back streets and even a casino. Trendy locals head to Vespas at the docks for weekend clubbing.
One of the biggest events in the calender year is the Atlantic Festival every June when spectacular firework displays illuminate the sky every Saturday night accompanied by music. New Year’s Eve parties are also memorable.
Shopping around Funchal
The classic Funchal souvenir would be something made of wicker – the villagers of Camacha are mainly responsible for this craft, but it’s sold all over the island.
Shop at the town’s Wine Lodges, or buy wonderful local flowers to take home.
Funchal packs in the malls too. Marina Shopping is the biggest, followed by Forum Madeira, which is handy for the main hotels in the Lido/Ajuda area. Familiar British high street fashion brands can also be found such as Zara and Mango.