Positioned in the Atlantic Ocean near Africa and Portugal is the Portuguese island of Madeira. Whether you are are looking for a relaxing vacation or an action-packed adventure, Madeira has it all.
Why You Should Visit
Madeira is known for its pleasant weather all-year long and breathtaking landscapes. The warm weather and unique location of Madeira make it an ideal spot for outdoor activities such as swimming, surfing, and hiking, just to mention a few. The island boasts a diverse range of hiking trails, nature reserves, and picturesque viewpoints, where you can enjoy the stunning scenery.
Your Madeira Guide
Continue reading to discover all the activities I embarked on during my visit to Madeira and the recommendations I have for you!
Hike Pico Areiro to Pico Ruivo
Let's kick off this guide on a high note with the most memorable experience from our trip to Madeira: this awe-inspiring sunrise hike!
The PR1 Pico do Arieiro - Pico Ruivo hike is widely renowned as the most famous hiking trail in Madeira and takes you to the two of the highest peaks in Madeira (with Pico Ruivo being the highest). This captivating route guides you through tunnels, zigzagging terrains, and offers mesmerizing vistas throughout the entire journey.
One particular highlight for me was the beginning of the trail at Pico do Arieiro, especially during sunrise. As the sun graced the surroundings with its golden rays, it painted the environment in a stunning light, creating the most breathtaking scenery I have ever witnessed while hiking.
To ensure convenience, we opted for a "sunrise hike" transfer service that picked us up in Funchal, transported us to the summit of Pico do Arieiro to commence the hike, and arranged to collect us at the end of the trail after reaching Pico Ruivo (at Achadas Teixeira). With the hike starting at 7:00am and the transfer scheduled for noon, we had a comfortable five-hour window to complete the journey without the need to backtrack to the starting point.
Distance: 6.2 mile out-and-back trail
Difficulty: Moderately challenging
Duration: 3.5 to 4 hours (one-way), depending on how often you stop to take pictures!
Note: You should not hike this trail if you have vertigo or a fear of heights.
I highly recommend considering a transfer service for this hike, as it greatly simplifies the logistics of transportation and offers valuable insights from a knowledgeable driver. Our driver provided us with a wealth of information, including restaurant recommendations and suggestions for other activities to enjoy during our visit. Another bonus was the opportunity to visit an authentic A-framed house in Santana during our journey back to Funchal, where we had the pleasure of meeting a friendly local resident.
To reach the Botanical Gardens, a convenient option is to purchase a garden combination ticket from the cable car kiosk in Funchal. This comprehensive ticket provides access to both cable cars and entrance to Madeira Botanical Garden. However, please be aware that separate entry tickets will be required for Monte Palace Tropical Gardens.
Monte Cable Car
The Monte Cable Car offers a 15-minute ride from Funchal Old Town to Monte, showcasing stunning views of Funchal bay and the surrounding landscape.
Botanical Garden Cable Car
Similarly, the Botanical Garden Cable Car takes approximately 9 minutes to travel from Monte to the Madeira Botanical Garden, offering incredible vistas of the Ribeira de João Gomes Valley.
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
Although I recommend going to both botanical gardens and making a day of it, if you were to only choose one, it should be Monte Palace Tropical Gardens due to its larger size and multitude of activities.
The garden is home to a rich assortment of exotic plants from all over the world. It offers serene beauty, with numerous paths to wander, enchanting water features, artistic sculptures, tiled walls, and scenic viewpoints.
Moreover, at the heart of the garden, there lies a serene lake inhabited by graceful ducks, elegant swans, and if you're fortunate, you may even catch a glimpse of some flamboyant flamingos!
Opening hours: 9:30am to 6:00pm, open everyday except December 25th
Admission price: Adults:€12.50, Children younger than 15 years old: Free
Estimated time for a visit: 3 hours
Tip: Wear comfortable footwear since the garden is located on a hillside with many steps and stone paths.
Wicker Toboggan Slide
For a well-rounded experience, I highly recommend choosing Funchal as your base, as it is the largest city on the island and offers plenty of activities. If you plan on renting a car, it sto ensure that your hotel or Airbnb provides a parking space, allowing you to explore during the day without concerns about parking when you return in the evening.he coastal town of Funchal.
Madeira Botanical Garden
After your exploration of Monte Tropical Garden, I recommend continuing your botanical journey by taking a cable car to the next destination. Madeira Botanical Garden was originally established with the primary objective of preserving native Madeiran plant species, some of which are exceptionally rare or no longer found in the wild.
A notable attraction within this garden is the captivating "choreographed garden," featuring a mesmerizing arrangement of vibrant plants arranged in patterns such as diamonds, squares, lines, and even lettering.
As an enthusiast of succulent plants, I personally found great delight in the dedicated section showcasing an impressive assortment of cacti and succulents!
Opening hours: 9:00am to 6:00pm everyday
Admission price: Adults:€5.00
Estimated time for a visit: 2 hours
Tip: Considering the garden's hillside location with numerous steps and stone paths, it is advisable to wear comfortable footwear for your visit.
Queimadas Forest Park
Located in Santana, the Queimadas Forest Park is a must-visit destination on the island of Madeira. At the park's starting point, there is a charming forest shelter that houses a café and information center designed to resemble the traditional houses of Santana, complete with thatched roofs.
One of the most breathtaking trails on the island is the PR9 hiking route of Caldeirão Verde, which takes you through the mesmerizing Queimadas Forest with its lush and vibrant vegetation. Along the way, you can immerse yourself in the beauty of nature.
For those with extra time and energy, the excursion can be extended to include a visit to the Caldeirão do Inferno, requiring an additional two hours of walking. Unfortunately, due to arriving late in the day, I was unable to complete the entire hike. Nevertheless, I was captivated by the scenery and delighted to experience a portion of the trail.
After our walk, we decided to unwind at the café and treat ourselves to a scrumptious slice of passionfruit cheesecake alongside comforting cappuccinos.
Note: Please be aware that accessing the park can be somewhat challenging due to its one-way road, which may require you to pull over to the side when encountering approaching cars. It is important to exercise caution and proceed at a slow and careful pace while navigating the route.
Between the Seixal and Ribeira da Janela mountains, Fanal is an expansive Laurisilva forest area known for its enchanting landscapes with ancient trees that have stood for up to 500 years. This region is part of Madeira's Laurisilva forest, (one of the few laurel forests in the world!), and is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Situated high in the mountains, Fanal Forest is frequently covered in a layer of fog. This mist, combined with the twisted branches of the aged trees, creates a whimsical setting, like a scene from a fairytale.
Explore Funchal - Madeira's Capital City
Funchal, the vibrant capital city of Madeira, rests on the southern bay of the island. The city offers a magnificent view, with its winding streets cascading down the mountainside and overlooking the shimmering blue sea. Visitors can explore the narrow streets, stumble upon charming cafes and restaurants, explore museums, and wander through delightful gardens.
Funchal Places of Interest:
Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers' Market) - An open market where you can find Madeira's specialties, ranging from freshly caught fish, to exotic flowers, fruit, and locally crafted goods.
CR7 Museum - A museum and gift shop honoring Portuguese footballer, Christian Ronaldo.
Parque de Santa Catarina (Santa Catarina Park) - A beautiful park across the road from the CR7 museum where you can relax and enjoy a panoramic view of the harbor and bay below.
Funchal Marina - Stroll along the harbor and enjoy views of the marina, the blue Atlantic, and the vibrant cityscape of Funchal that serves as a scenic backdrop.
Jardim Municipal do Funchal (Municipal Garden) - A small sanctuary adorned with beautiful plants and trees.
Fort of São Tiago - Constructed during the 17th century, the fort stands as a testament to history. Within its walls, a captivating restaurant awaits, offering a delightful dining experience for visitors to savor.
Rua de Santa Maria (Santa Maria Street) - Santa Maria Street holds the distinction of being one of the oldest and most vibrant streets within Funchal's Old Town. As you stroll along its narrow cobblestone path, you'll find yourself immersed in a lively atmosphere filled with restaurants and inviting cafe terraces. Keep an eye out for the captivating display of over 200 multi-colored painted doorways, an art project that adds to this picturesque street.
Praça do Município (Municipal Square) - A picturesque square with black and white checkered Batistini tiles.
Fabrica Santo Antonio - A renowned bakery in the heart of the Old Town, offering a taste of tradition. Here, you can delight in the wide selection of artisanal cookies and cakes, perfect for both immediate indulgence and as thoughtful gifts.
Funchal Cable Car - Hop on the cable car in Funchal and visit one or both of the Botanical Gardens - more info here.
Relax at Fajã dos Padres
Fajã dos Padres is a little slice of paradise in Madeira, featuring an organic farm, restaurant, beach, and a small pier equipped with showers and sun loungers for a refreshing swim. This extraordinary retreat can only be reached by cable car. The admission fee is €12 per person.
I had so much fun jumping off the pier and swimming in the crystal blue water!
Enjoy a Beach Day at Machico
Banda D'Além Beach in Machico distinguishes itself from the typical pebble beaches of Madeira with its golden sand, imported from Morocco. The beach provides convenient amenities such as changing rooms, restrooms, and parking, making it an ideal destination for swimmers.
Go on a Whale and Dolphin Tour
On the island, there are numerous whale and dolphin tours available. We opted for Madeira Sea Emotions, which departs from Marina Quinta do Lorde and offers fantastic views of the Ponta de São Lourenço coast. The tour takes you a few miles offshore on a small boat, accompanied by a marine biologist guide, to locate and observe whales and dolphins.
While it took some time to spot the dolphins, I was thrilled to witness the island from a fresh vantage point and enjoy the exhilarating boat ride across the waves. In fact, the boat journey itself might have been even more enjoyable!
Hike PR8 Verada da Ponta de São Lourenço
The PR8 Ponta de São Lourenço hike should not be missed and is one of the island's best! Located on the easternmost point of Madeira, this trail offers a unique landscape that stands apart from the rest of the island. With its semi-arid climate and awe-inspiring rocky cliffs, the area showcases spectacular rock formations formed by the island's volcanic origins.
Distance: 4.6-mile out-and-back trail
Difficulty: Moderately challenging
Duration: 2:30 hours
Entry cost - €1
Surf at Porto da Cruz
I decided to try a beginner surf lesson with Calhau Surf School, located in Porto da Cruz. The surf village features a beach with ideal conditions for both beginners and intermediate surfers. The surf lesson lasts for 2 hours and includes a wetsuit, surfboard, and experienced instructors.
To my delight, I discovered that they also provide complimentary pictures of your surfing experience—no additional cost! One aspect that impressed me was how they scheduled the lesson time based on the wave conditions, ensuring the best possible experience for students learning to surf.
Enjoy the Coastal Lookout at Portelo Viewpoint
Situated between Porto da Cruz and Machico, the Portela Viewpoint provides a panoramic vista of the eastern and northern parts of Madeira Island.
Marvel at the Rock Formations (Ilheus da Ribeira da Janela)
Before reaching Porto Moniz, I highly suggest making a stop at Ilheus da Ribeira da Janela, a pair of extraordinary coastal rock formations in North Madeira. Take advantage of the staircase that leads to a tunnel within the cliffs, offering a vantage point with an elevated perspective to admire these distinctive rock formations than from the beach.
Swim at the Porto Moniz Natural Swimming Pools
The natural swimming pools at Porto Moniz are saltwater pools created in lava formations by the ocean. While Madeira boasts several natural pools, those in Porto Moniz are widely regarded as the island's most stunning. The crystal-clear water has an average annual temperature ranging between 68 and 70ºF which offers a refreshing swimming experience.
The complex also includes other services like a locker area, showers and restaurants. For a fee, you can purchase umbrellas and loungers.
Hours: Open all year round between 9:00am and 5:00pm during the winter months and 9:00am and 7:00pm during the summer time.
Entry cost - €3
Visit the A-Framed Houses of Santana
The traditional houses of Madeira are one of the iconic symbols of the island. They were rebuilt for tourism but still possess their original charm. They are definitely worth visiting, particularly for photography enthusiasts.
I suggest allocating 20 minutes or so to admire the cluster of 4-5 houses situated closely together. Conveniently, there is a complimentary underground car park just across the road from this site.
São Jorge Ruins (St. George Ruins)
When you're near Santana, make sure to visit the St. George Ruins for breathtaking scenery. These ruins consist of a preserved portico and walls from an old sugarcane mill by the coast. Additionally, the secluded beach in the area features a small freshwater lagoon and is surrounded by a vibrant landscape, nestled between lush green hills and the ocean.
Calheta, a sea-side town, features a marina and one of the few golden sandy beaches on the island. Visitors can rent sun beds and umbrellas while enjoying a wide selection of nearby cafes.
Calheta's location on the western part of the island ensures abundant sunshine, late sunsets, and delightful water temperature in its sheltered bay, making it an ideal destination for swimming.
After a refreshing swim, take a leisurely stroll along the promenade that stretches alongside the beach and marina. Discover a restaurant or cafe along the way and relish the breathtaking views of the ocean and the picturesque hillsides.
Drive under a Waterfall at Cascata dos Anjos
Cascata dos Anjos which means "Waterfall of Angels" is the famous waterfall that falls on your car as your drive on the old road, ER101. Perhaps a once in a lifetime experience! It is located about 30-minutes west from Funchal and is just outside the municipality of Ponta do Sol.
Cabo Girão Skywalk
A short 20-minute drive away from Funchal is the Cabo Girão Skywalk, the highest sea cliff in Europe. At the top of the Cabo Girão cliffs is a glass walkway that extends out the edge where you can view 580m down to the ocean below.
Hours: 9:00am to 8:00pm everyday
Entry cost - €2
Ponta do Pargo Lighthouse
Ponta do Pargo Lighthouse stands proudly on the furthest western cape of Madeira Island. From this vantage point, you can admire the vast Atlantic Ocean and the striking rock formations of the coastal cliffs.
Madeira General Tips
Getting to Madeira
Currently, Azores Airlines is the only carrier providing non-stop flights between New York City JFK and Funchal (Madeira) FNC, which is the route we opted for.
Alternatively, travelers can choose to fly to Lisbon, Portugal, and then take a 90-minute flight to reach the island. There are frequent flights available from mainland Portugal, with departures from both Lisbon and Porto. Additionally, passengers from the East Coast of the United States have the option to connect via Ponta Delgada in the Azores.
Driving - Renting a Car
A visit to Madeira can be planned using transfers, tours, and public transportation options such as buses, eliminating the need to rent a car. However, if you prefer the convenience of having your own vehicle, it's important to note that driving around the island is quite different from what we are used to in the United States. The roads can be narrow and steep!
It is advisable to opt for a smaller car that can maneuver through tight spaces, while still having enough power to navigate mountainous roads. Although less common, if possible, consider renting an automatic car instead of one with a manual transmission. This will spare you from performing hill stops in challenging situations and provide a smoother driving experience.
Other Ways to Get Around
Buses - Madeira has bus companies that provide comprehensive coverage across the island. It is recommended to check the bus routes and schedules ahead of time or use Google Maps to help you. Generally, you can purchase single tickets with cash onboard the bus. In Funchal, there is an option to obtain a rechargeable card called "GIRO" from a kiosk. This card allows you to load a fixed number of travel credits for convenient use.
Taxis - If you require immediate transportation, taxis are readily available throughout the island. You can often find them stationed in various locations, awaiting customers.
Book a Tour
During our time on the island, we made reservations for three tours/activities, and I thoroughly enjoyed each one of them! From the convenient transfers for our hike to the exciting whale and dolphin boat tour, and even my exhilarating surfing lesson, every experience was exceptional, and I highly recommend them. Engaging in guided tours truly enhances your overall experience compared to trying to organize everything on your own.
The primary language spoken in Madeira is Portuguese, but we found that many people we encountered were fluent in English. When dining at restaurants, it's common to come across menus in three languages: Portuguese, English, and French.
Remember to use "obrigado" (for males) or "obrigada" (for females) to say "thank you"!
What to Eat
Read my blog post where I share insights on Madeira's mouthwatering cuisine and provide a curated list of must-visit restaurants during your island adventure. Explore it here!
What to Pack
Here are some must-have items that I recommend packing for a trip to Madeira:
Headlamp - If you have hiking plans, it's advisable to carry a headlamp, especially for traversing tunnels on levada walks and the Pico to Pico hike. A headlamp proves to be a useful accessory in illuminating your path during these activities.
Raincoat - A raincoat is highly recommended for your visit to the island, particularly if you plan to explore the mountains. The weather can be quite unpredictable, so it's wise to have a raincoat on hand to protect yourself from unexpected showers.
Hiking shoes - For the extensive hiking opportunities available on the island, it's essential to pack a pair of sturdy hiking shoes that provide ankle support. Make sure to bring proper hiking footwear to ensure comfort and stability during your hiking adventures on the island.
Comfortable walking shoes - Comfortable shoes are essential when visiting Funchal and exploring the island. With its cobblestoned pathways and hilly terrain, it's important to have a pair of shoes that can handle the walking conditions.
European outlet adapter - America uses type-A/B plugs, while most European countries use Type-C plugs so its important to have an adapter.
Where to Stay
For a well-rounded experience, I highly recommend choosing Funchal as your base, as it is the largest city on the island and offers plenty of activities. If you plan on renting a car, I would consider it mandatory to book a hotel or Airbnb that provides a parking space, allowing you to explore during the day without concerns about parking when you return in the evening.
During our visit, we opted to stay in an Airbnb situated in the charming Old Town of Funchal. One of the highlights of our accommodation was the balcony that provided breathtaking views of the ocean, the fort, and the bustling streets below. Being located in this vibrant section of the city proved incredibly convenient when it came to finding dining options, as we merely had to step out the door to discover an array of restaurants and cafes.
Thanks for reading!
- The Maine Chick