Madeira has to be one of Portugal’s best kept secrets. I cannot begin to describe how beautiful this small volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is. Stupendous green landscapes cover the entirety of Madeira, turning it, somehow, into a floating garden. The rocky mountains, moist laurisilva forests and vineyards cover the higher peaks and valleys. Meanwhile, the subtropical palm trees and rough cliffs crown the coast. You will inevitably fall in love with the extraordinary micro-climates. The sense of relaxing atmosphere will hit you as soon as you step on the island. And you won’t help but think if you should just ignore your return flight and settle in a beach house in Funchal instead. Oh well.
But there is more. Madeira is full of incredible places to explore, an exquisite gastronomy and a singular history that still lives up to this day. So where do you start? Check our list on the top 10 things you must do in Cristiano Ronaldo’s birthplace.
1. Explore Funchal
Funchal is the capital of Madeira and the biggest city on the island. The rich colonial history is still very much alive here, that exploring Funchal alone can tick almost all of your boxes! The city’s structure is made out of different layers. Modern buildings (predominantly some of the finest hotels on the island) intertwine with 15th century Portuguese colonial style architecture. Fortresses expand along the coastline (Palácio de São Lourenço and Fortaleza do Pico), while Funchal’s Cathedral (Sé Catedral) and Historic Centre (Zona Velha) define the soul of the city. Here, what was once Funchal’s old settlement of fishermen and merchant houses is now home to funky bars, vibrant restaurants and new-fashioned hostels.
Most of them run along Rua de Santa Maria, Funchal’s oldest street. Thanks to the Painted Doors Project, beautiful illustrations cover every door of this street, turning it into a permanent street art gallery.
Head over to the Farmers’ Market (Mercado dos Lavradores) for a kick of gastronomical culture. Women dressed in multi-coloured striped dresses and pointy hats, the traditional Madeiran clothing, serve at their stands. You will instantly fall in love with the bright colours and delicious smells of the exotic variety of fruits, veggies, fish and endemic flowers that fill every corner of this beautiful market.
Vibrant colours also fill the many Botanical Gardens and parks around the city. Santa Catarina Park (Parque de Santa Catarina) is the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely stroll overlooking the CR7 Museum. Beautiful flora from across the island (see the next tip!) and all over the world fills Santa Catarina. You will see swans and ducks swimming in the lake while hundreds (if not thousands) of cheeky lizards bask in the sun and run in and out of the rock walls of the park.
2. Find a Bird of Paradise, Madeira’s National Flower
Madeira is home to one of the prettiest flowers of the Strelitzia Reginae family. With a striking resemblance to a bird’s beak and bright plumage, the Bird of Paradise can be found almost everywhere in Funchal. Take a stroll around Madeira Botanical Garden or Santa Catarina Park and take the perfect Instagram shot of these incredible flowers.
3. Go up to Monte in a Cable Car (Teleferico do Funchal)
Probably one of Madeira’s top tourist attractions, the Madeira Cable Car connects two of Funchal’s most iconic suburbs: Zona Velha and Monte. Open every day of the year (except Christmas), the Teleferico do Funchal offers the best panoramic views of Funchal and surrounding valleys in a 15min trip. Starting from the Historic Centre, you will soon find yourself overlooking the sinuous landscape and striking nature while slowly ascending up the hills to reach Monte.
This civil parish and former health resort for the high society was established as a devotion of Our Lady of Monte, the patron of Madeira, back in the 15th century. There, standing at the top of a large staircase, the Church of Our Lady of Monte (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte) overlooks Funchal from above. Close by, the Monte Palace Tropical Garden (Jardim Tropical Monte Palace) and the Madeira Botanical Garden crown the valleys with exotic and endemic flowers.
Teleférico do Funchal | Caminho das Babosas 8, 9050-541 Funchal, Madeira, Portugal
4. Take a Toboggan Ride down to Funchal
This has to be one of the most fascinating ways of transportation ever! Instead of taking the Teleferico again, make your way back to Funchal in the iconic wicker and wood basket. Back in the 19th century, these were used by locals as a way to reach their downhill destination more quickly. Now, the Carreiros do Monte will take you from the bottom of the Church down to Livramento (a suburb of Funchal) in these two-seater wicker sleds. The singular 2km long adrenaline ride slides through dozens of twisting roads and can even reach 38km per hour! Once finished you can either carry on walking down Caminho do Monte into the centre of Funchal or take one of the expensive taxis waiting.
Carreiros do Monte | Start: Caminho do Monte nº4, 9050-084 Monte, Funchal, Madeira
Finish: Caminho do Monte nº82/84, 9050-288 Livramento, Funchal, Madeira
5. Do a Madeira Wine Tasting
Madeira is well known for its exceptional wine flavour and unique wine making process. Back in the day, it was discovered that the high levels of heat and sea movement that shipped wine was exposed to altered its flavour. This technique was then replicated by wine producers in Madeira and is still applied during the wine making process up to this day.
The Blandy’s Cellars are perhaps the most famous producers of Madeira wine with the Bual, Verdelho, Sercial, Terrantez, Malmsey and Tinta Negra varities. Their cellars are open to the public for wine tastings and include a tour around the lodge, warehouses, museum and the shop areas (with more than 500 bottles of wine from all over the world!).
Blandy’s Wine Lodge | Avenida Arriaga 28, 9000-064 Funchal, Madeira, Portugal
6. Hike the Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo trail
The Madeira Archipelago’s singular rocky landscape offers incredible trails among the most spectacular scenery. The volcanic landscape of the island has shaped some of the highest peaks in Portugal, which are hiked by locals and tourists throughout the whole year. Pico Ruivo stands as the highest peak in Madeira and third highest peak in Portugal with 1862m and can be reached through two main hiking trails:
- Hard Trail: Pico do Arieiro (third highest peak, 1818m) to Pico Ruivo. Approx. 13km, more than 2000 stairs and 4.30h of pure hard hiking (which we did).
- Easy Trail: Achada do Teixeira to Pico Ruivo. Approx. 2.8km and 40min of leisurely walk along the mountains (which we also did, once we conquered the peak).
As it’s peak to peak, the easiest way is to do the walk with a guide so someone’s waiting to pick you up at the other end. Being the highest peak, remember to take a raincoat and water with you.
Discover Madeira | Rua da Alfândega 78, 3º, Funchal, Madeira, 9000-059 Portugal
7. Try Madeira’s Local Food and Drinks
I myself am a big fan of Portuguese cuisine so of course, I had a blast discovering Madeira’s traditional dishes. The delicious Madeiran gastronomy is characterised by fresh fish, sweet fruit drinks, grilled meat dishes and warm cakes and pastries.
- A freshly made Poncha (fruity alcoholic drink) at Mercearia Dona Mécia. Or three, as it is said you’ll then be able to speak perfect Portuguese! We went for the deliciously sweet passion fruit Poncha.
- Bolo de Mel (Madeira honey cake).
- Warm Bolo do Caco (garlic bread) with butter and parsley.
- Espetadas (skewers) and Nuns Valley Stew at Venda de Donna Maria. This restaurant offers regional tastings, local cuisine and Fado live music.
Mercearia Dona Mécia | R. dos Aranhas 26, 9000-044 Funchal, Portugal
Venda da Donna Maria | 9060-291 Funchal,Portugal, Rua de Santa Maria 51, 9060-291 Funchal, Portugal
Madeira is full of hidden treasures everywhere you go. The island may seem small, but there is surprisingly always something to do or some new place to discover! Although we didn’t have the opportunity to try the following experiences, we think it is worth mentioning them. We are definitely coming back to tick them off our list!
- 8. Explore the Levadas, the World’s Largest Laurisilva Forest (UNESCO)
- 9. Go Whale, Dolphin and Turtle Watching
- 10. Go up Cabo Girão, the World’s Highest Cliff
What do you think of our Madeira list? Have you been to Madeira before? If so, what other places would you recommend visiting? We’d love to hear everything about it in the comments below!
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