This April I had the chance to explore the Madeira Islands and was fascinated by the number of different landscapes, plants and flowers despite its relatively small size. If you’re interested in visiting Madeira yourself, this is a complete guide with everything you need to know! I’ve also listed some great things to do while I focused on the main island only. Enjoy!
Table of Contents
- What are the Madeira Islands?
- When to visit Madeira
- How long should I stay?
- Where to stay in Madeira
- How to get around
- Is Madeira safe?
- What to eat and drink
- Top things to do in Madeira
- Explore the capital – Funchal
- Whale or dolphin watching
- Try Nikita in Câmara de Lobos
- Road-trip along south-western coast of Madeira
- Ponta de São Lourenço and the northern coast
- Fairy Forest and the rest of the northern coast
- Hiking and sunrise at Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo
- Hike along the Levadas
What are the Madeira Islands?
Madeira combines the exotic, almost tropical landscape and climate of the Macaronesian islands with the Mediterranean culture and architecture of Portugal. Due to its unique flora and fauna, as well as steady warm climate it is often referred to as flower island or island of eternal spring.
The archipelago is located in the Atlantic Ocean about 600 km off the northwest coast of Africa. Besides the main island Madeira, only the much smaller island Porto Santo is inhabited. The three small, uninhabited islands Ilhéu Chão, Deserta Grande and Bugio form the archipelago of Ilhas Desertas (“The Deserted Islands”).
If you are looking for a beach holiday, Madeira is not exactly the place you’re looking for, since on the main island there are only a few beaches. It is rather a hiking and nature paradise for all outdoor enthusiasts, since the island is filled with hiking paths and changing landscapes depending on the area and altitude of the island. Some parts like the east coast are incredibly dry while other parts look like out of a rainforest.
As already mentioned, flowers are very characteristic for Madeira: there are countless exotic species that come in such strong colors that it almost looks photoshopped. If you’re lucky enough, you can even experience the flower festival which happens every year two weeks after Easter.
When to visit Madeira
The climate in Madeira is subtropical mild and the temperatures on the island are pleasant and constant throughout the year with around 20 to 25 degrees. However, the weather can be quite different on the same day on the different sides of the island due to the speed of changing clouds and different altitudes.
A mountain ridge in the middle of the island creates a weather divide that makes the north of the island rainy and often cloudy. Therefore, the south of the island, where its capital Funchal is located, is the sunniest part of the island.
In general, it’s a bit warmer and sunnier in summer and a bit colder with rain in winter, but you could visit the island at any time of the year. Since the Gulf Stream flows along Madeira, the water temperatures are also constant and relatively warm throughout the year.
How long should I stay?
The length of your stay depends on which kind of activities you’re interested in and what you’re planning on doing in Madeira. If you want to visit the entire island and see everything, I recommend a minimum of 2 weeks or more.
In case you’re only interested in hiking, it depends on which kind of hikes you want to do. The island has a lot of different paths to offer, so keep that in mind, but I would probably recommend approximately everything up to a week.
Seeing a lot of the island is totally doable in just a few days or a week as well, just keep in mind that your days will be packed, and you won’t be able to see it all.
Where to stay in Madeira
Madeira has a total perimeter of 150km and a size of 60km by 23km. Since the island has a very good infrastructure and there are numerous tunnels and highways throughout the island, you can easily circumnavigate Madeira in just one day. Therefore, you can also easily stay in one place and take trips from there to explore the island.
We chose our base in the capital Funchal, which is recommend regarding night life, car rentals, tours etc., since this place is basically where everything happens. For a more chill atmosphere it is also very nice to stay in a smaller village in the south – the sunny side of the island.
Madeira offers a wide range of accommodations such as 5-Star-Hotels, Airbnb’s or hostels. Feel free to choose whatever fits your budget.
How to get around
You’re most likely taking the plane to arrive in Madeira and the airport is located around 18km east of Funchal – the capital in the south of the island. The airport named after the famous football player (Aeroporto Internacional da Madeira Cristiano Ronaldo) is rated one of the most dangerous in the world due to the difficult landing.
Here is why: There is water on three sides of the runway and the only land side is a steep cliff through which dangerous updrafts can occur, making landing difficult. In 2000, the runway was artificially extended to almost double its length to make landing easier. But don’t worry, since the 70’s no fatal accident has happened and the only thing that can currently happen is several attempts to land.
Once you’ve arrived on the island you can take a taxi, private driver or shuttle bus to Funchal. If you’re not going to visit the capital, it’s recommended to rent a car directly at the airport. If you’re staying in Funchal a car is not necessary since you can easily explore the city by foot or public transport and you can easily book tours around the island in one of the many tour offices. If you want to explore Madeira more independently, you can also reach a few destinations around Funchal by bus.
However, I highly recommend renting a car since that is the only way to explore the entire island independently. The rental offices are located at the airport or in Funchal. We used the company “Atlantic” and were satisfied with our choice.
Tip: Take the smallest car possible and the full insurance, since the streets are very small and narrow (except the highway of course).
Is Madeira safe?
Even though the island is located next to Africa, it can be seen just like Europe and is actually a very safe place to visit. It even has the lowest crime rate per capita in all of Europe and is one of the safest destinations in the world. However, just like in every crowded place or city, watch out for pickpockets.
What to eat and drink
Since the archipelago is located in the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll find a lot of fish specialties, mussels and seafood and due to its climate lots of exotic fruits as well. In addition, the cuisine is Portuguese, so make sure to try some typical baked goods such as Pastel de Nata (cream pastry) or a bolo di caco (round flatbread) with garlic butter. Another famous pastry is the Bolo de Mel, similar to a gingerbread that tastes like Christmas.
There are a few famous drinks besides Madeira wine such as Nikita and Poncha. Nikita tastes like a milkshake and is a very unusual drink, which consists of pineapple ice cream, white wine and beer. Poncha on the other hand is a strong liquor and consists of orange juice, white rum and sugar, which is stirred with a typical wooden spoon and drunk cold. In some specific places you can also try some more special variants that are prepared with different fruits such maracuja.
Top things to do in Madeira
Explore the capital: Funchal
Madeira’s capital can be a great starting point and base for your adventure. Nonetheless, it’s also worth a visit itself. Besides the Old Town and its cathedrals, shops and restaurants, you should definitely explore the Rua da Santa Maria – a narrow street filled with colorful street art. Most of the art is painted on the doors.
Next to the entrance of this street you can find the Mercado dos Lavradores – a farmer’s market offering a big variety of exotic fruits and vegetables, as well as some local specialties and flowers. Make sure you try the fruits that look the most interesting to you for free, while buying them is probably not the best idea, since it’s a bit overpriced.
On the hills overlooking Funchal you can find two different gardens, that are definitely worth a visit: Monte Palace Tropical Garden and Madeira Botanical Garden. You can reach them either by bus or with the famous cable car. Both are featuring a big collection of plants and flowers. To go back down, you can try the traditional Wicker Toboggan Sled Ride: two runners that are dressed in traditional clothing are pushing you down the mountain while sitting in a basket.
Whale or dolphin watching
Another activity that you can take from Funchal is a whale or dolphin watching boat tour. In Madeira you can watch dolphins and whales all year round. Thanks to the regulations to protect the animals, they come swimming up to close to land. Therefore, Madeira also has a sighting success rate well above 90%.
While there are many different species depending on the season, the most common ones are: Spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, striped dolphins, and rough-toothed dolphins, Pilot whales, Blainville beaked whales, sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, small killer whales and fin whales. If you’re lucky enough, you could even spot the Blue Whale.
And even if you don’t see any whales or dolphins, you can enjoy the view of the island from a different perspective!
Try Nikita in Câmara de Lobos
Just about 10km west of Funchal, you can find the fishing village Câmara de Lobos. During the day you can see the colorful fishing boats in the harbor and can enjoy the traditional drink Nikita, which origins from the village.
Road-trip along south-western coast of Madeira
As mentioned above, the southern part of the island is the sunny side of Madeira, and you should definitely visit more than just the capital. The perfect way to spend a day exploring the southern coast is by renting a car either in Funchal or directly at the airport. You could start your road-trip from Funchal and have your first stop in Câmara de Lobos followed by the Riveira Brava and Ponta do Sol.
After that I suggest not taking the highway but the normal street to continue driving west, because you pass really nice viewpoints and villages. For sunset, go to the lighthouse Farol da Ponta do Pargo and enjoy the view. We discovered this place by coincidence, and I took some of my favorite photos there.
Ponta de São Lourenço and the northern coast
Another day, you can take your rental car for another road-trip – this time along the northern coast. A great starting point is the peninsula Ponta de São Lourenço, the most eastern point of the island. Unlike other areas of Madeira, this part is very dry with a different vegetation and stunning cliffs, which you can explore best by hiking for sunrise. Unfortunately, we were too tired from the days before and arrived later in the morning, so the photos here are taken at a different time.
From there, take the car and drive along the north passing nice villages like Faial, Santana, Ponta Delgada or São Vicente. There are numerous impressive viewpoints as well and the atmosphere is very different compared to the south since oftentimes there are more clouds and rain.
Once you reach São Vicente, you can easily cross the island via tunnel to come back to Funchal.
Fairy Forest and the rest of the northern coast
Another day, another road-trip. This time you can take your car from Funchal and drive a similar path as the one you took the day before when coming back from São Vicente. The only difference: this time you don’t take the tunnel but instead the mountain pass Boca Encumeada that rewards you with stunning views over the valley including the village Serra de Água.
Then turn left to admire numerous different landscapes as the altitude is changing and you’re driving higher and higher. At some point, take the turn to ER209 to drive above the clouds and reach the fairy forest: Fanal.
This forest was one of my favorite places of the island since it is so unique with such a mystical atmosphere. The trees look out of a fairytale and are usually covered in clouds. There are also a number of cows grassing between them.
Hiking at Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo
In the center of the island there is a mountain range with peaks over 1800m. Often the clouds stick to it which gives a spectacular view, especially at sunrise and sunset. The highest peak is Pico Ruivo which is only reached by foot from Pico Arierio and one of the best hikes in Madeira.
Hiking along one of the Levadas
Levadas are artificial watercourses to channel water from the north and center of the island to the south to support the agriculture. In most cases, levadas have only a slight gradient and there are numerous hiking trails following the path of specific levadas. In total, the network of levada paths in Madeira is over 2,000 kilometers long.