Madeira is especially popular with hikers, nature lovers and sun worshipers. The island has a mild climate, an impressive mountain landscape and an exuberant flora. The gardens of Madeira are famous for the variety and beauty of subtropical vegetation. In addition to the beautiful nature, there are also other sights, such as the busy, grand city of Funchal. There are plenty of opportunities to be active, especially for walkers, surfers, divers and cyclists. The long sandy beach on the neighboring island of Porto Santo attracts sun worshipers.
- Seaside resorts
- Top locations
- Top hotel in Madeira
- The most beautiful walking routes
- Food and drink
- Party and event
- Sports activities
- Travel to Madeira
- Traveling in Madeira
The Madeira archipelago belongs to Portugal, but is closer to Africa than to Europe. Madeira is located almost 1000 km southwest of Lisbon in the Atlantic Ocean. It is located more than 600 km from Morocco and almost 500 km from the southern Canary Islands. The archipelago consists of two inhabited islands, Madeira (741 km²) and Porto Santo (43 km²). The capital of Madeira is Funchal with almost 130,000 inhabitants. A total of 289,000 people live in Madeira (2020) and 5,500 people live in Porto Santo.
Madeira is not a beach destination, the coast consists mainly of steep rock walls. Because sandy beaches are virtually non-existent, Madeira has no mass tourism. There are a number of seaside resorts with seawater swimming pools. If you are looking for golden sandy beaches, you will find them on the neighboring island of Porto Santo. The main seaside resorts are found on the dry and sunny south side of Madeira.
Caniço, in the south-east of Madeira, has developed into a modern holiday resort over the past two decades. The old town, halfway up a steep hill, has a number of shops. Most tourist facilities can be found in Caniço de Baixo , the lower part of the city on the coast. Here you will find hotels, apartments, shops, restaurants, bars and cafes. Caniço has two seawater swimming pools, Lido Galomar and Lido Rocamar . In the east of Caniço there is a promenade that goes to the pebble beach Praia dos Reis Magos .
Funchal is not only a city with many attractions, it is also a holiday resort. Here you will find the best hotels, restaurants and shops. Accommodation is available in all price ranges. West of the center is the hotel district, mainly luxury hotels. Most of these hotels have a shuttle bus service that connects the hotel with the city center. Simpler and cheaper hotels can be found in the center. In the outer parts of the city you can stay in villas and mansions. The Lido Funchal city swimming pool is located in the hotel district . It has rock pools and some swimming pools, and you can descend into the sea via stairs.
Ribeira Brava is a seaside resort with some interesting sights. On the main square is the Igreja de São Bento , built in the 16th century. This parish church has a Manueline-style pulpit, a beautiful Baroque altar and a sculpted baptismal font. There are also paintings by Flemish painters on display. The bell tower is decorated with blue and white tiles. Museum enthusiasts can visit the Museu Etngráfico . Here you can learn more about the history of Madeira. The museum provides information about fishing, wine production, and traditional work such as weaving. Ribeira Brava has a number of mid-range hotels. There is also an artificial pebble beach, sheltered by breakwaters. A beach tent provides food and drinks.
The quiet seaside town of Calheta is located between vineyards and banana plantations. An important attraction is the Igreja Matriz do Espírito Santo , built in the 15th century. This parish church has a beautiful wooden ceiling in Mudejar style. The highlight of the interior is a tabernacle of ebony with inlaid silverwork. Next to the church is an old sugar factory. Tourists can taste and buy rum and sugar syrup here. Calheta has a number of comfortable hotels, both on the beach and more inland. Next to the marina is Praia da Calheta , an artificial golden sandy beach. It has a pier that protects swimmers from the waves. Besides Machico, Calheta is the only place on the island with a beach of imported golden sand.
The capital Funchal attracted the first settlers in the 15th century and is now the center of tourism on the island. Here you will find most of the museums and historic buildings as well as the best hotels, restaurants and shops. At the eastern end is the old town, now a popular entertainment area. On the west side is the hotel district, with mainly hotels and restaurants. In between is the center with its sights, shops, terraces and a colorful market. Funchal is also called ‘little Lisbon’ because of its elegant architecture and grand appearance. Funchal is surrounded by green mountains with subtropical vegetation.
In the center is the Cathedral ( Sé in Portuguese), built in 1514. The cathedral has a square tower topped with a spire covered with tiles laid in geometric patterns. The interior is impressive: the ceiling is made of wood carvings in Mudejar style. The Order of Christ, the Portuguese coat of arms and the armillary are depicted on the choir stalls. Near the cathedral is the Museu de Arte Sacra , the most beautiful museum in Funchal. In the 15th century, merchants became wealthy from the sugar trade with Antwerp. They wanted to safeguard their souls by donating art to the churches. Many examples of this are now in this museum. Key pieces are the Flemish paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries. Another valuable work of art is a 16th-century Manueline processional cross made of gilded silver.
In the west of the old town is the Mercado dos Lavradores . Fruit, vegetables, flowers and fresh fish are sold in this covered market building. The Jardim Botânico is located in the northeast of Funchal . This botanical garden contains plants from all over the world. There are pruned gardens, wooded areas and the garden also includes a bird park.
The beautiful mountain village of Monte is located high above the Funchal valley. It is easily reached by the cable car that runs from the south of Funchal to Monte higher up. There is also a second cable car that connects Monte with the Jardim Botânico. Monte has three top attractions. The tourist attraction par excellence is a ride in a basket sleigh ( toboggan ), formerly a local means of transport. In this wicker basket with wooden glides you descend 2 km from Monte to the Livramento district. This means of transport is pushed, steered and braked from the back by two toboggan drivers . On the terrace above the toboggan station is the pilgrimage church of Nossa Senhora do Monte . This church, built in 1818, is the center of festivities on the Assumption Day. There is a coffin in the chapel to the left of the nave. This contains the remains of Emperor Charles I, the Austrian emperor who was deposed in 1918. An exile in Madeira, he died in 1922. A highlight among the gardens is the Monte Palace Tropical Garden . Native and exotic tropical trees and plants grow in the extensive terraced gardens. The gardens are a maze of lakes, fountains, caves and oriental pavilions.
Camara de Lobos
Câmara de Lobos is virtually merged with Funchal to the east. This beautiful fishing town was one of the first settlements on Madeira and is now the second largest town on the island. The town has been painted several times by Winston Churchill, who often visited Madeira in the 1950s. A plaque on the main street marks the spot where he painted this picturesque scene. Swordfish and swordfish are brought ashore in small boats. The latest catch of catsharks is hanging to dry in the sun. An interesting sight is the Nossa Senhora da Conceião . This small chapel, built in the 15th century, has a richly decorated gilded altar and murals depicting fishing scenes.
Cabo Girão is located more than 5 km west of Câmara de Lobos . This second highest cliff coast in the world runs vertically down 580 m. The viewing platform offers spectacular views of the terraces at the edge of the sea below you.
Santana is known for its characteristic gabled houses. There are more than 100 of these houses here and some of them are open to the public. The triangular houses are built on an A-shaped frame with thatched roofs reaching to the ground. Nowadays the windows and doors are colorfully painted. Most houses that still exist are no more than 100 years old. About 1 km from the center is the Parque Temático da Madeira theme park . Here too you can see triangular houses, but also a village with old crafts and a water mill. The pavilions feature exhibitions about the discovery, history and landscape of Madeira.
Ribeiro Frio (cold stream) has a few restaurants, shops and a trout farm. The fish tanks are filled with clear water from the stream and are surrounded by laurel trees and flower beds. This place is also a good starting point for two beautiful levada walks. The walk to Balcões (balcony), a famous viewpoint, is easy. This walk of about 30 minutes takes you through a forest with ferns, mosses, lichens and mushrooms. On the ‘balcony’ you have a beautiful view of the valley and the surrounding peaks of the Central Massif. The 3.5 hour walk to eastern Portela is longer . This walk takes you through a mountain landscape with tunnels, waterfalls, and lush vegetation of laurel trees, tree heather, tree ferns and conifers.
Machico was Madeira’s first settlement and is today the third largest city on the island. In the center is the Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Conceição , a 15th-century parish church. Above the main altar of gilded wood carvings is a statue of Mary. Slightly from the center is the Capela dos Milagres . This 15th-century church was destroyed by a flood in 1803. The 15th-century crucifix was found floating at sea in 1829. Today it can be seen again in the tabernacle above the high altar in the rebuilt chapel. In the old fishing district you will find a modern marina with cafes and restaurants. There is also an artificial golden sandy beach here, the only one on the island besides Calheta.
A few kilometers north of Machico lies Caniçal . This town was the center of whaling until 1981. The remains of this industry can be seen in the whaling museum, Museu da Baleia . To the east of Caniçal is Prainha , Madeira’s only natural sandy beach , with fine dark lava sand. To the east of this beach lies the Ponta de São Lourenço headland, which extends far into the sea . This easternmost point of Madeira is characterized by more than 150 high cliffs. The treeless and rocky landscape attracts many hikers.
The picturesque village of São Vicente is located at the mouth of the Ribeira de São Vicente. The church in the center is surrounded by shops, cafes and whitewashed houses. In the church itself, the Igreja Matriz de São Vicente (17th century), there is a ceiling painting with St. Vincent. An original eye-catcher is the chapel of São Vicente (1692), carved out of the rock in a estuary. The main attraction of the village is the Grutas de São Vicente , located in the river valley. These lava caves and lava tunnels were created approximately 890,000 years ago as a result of volcanic activity on the Paúl da Serra high plateau. A guided tour is provided through the tunnels and the interactive Centro do Vulcanismo explains how volcanoes form. A film shows everything about the volcanic origins of the archipelago. An elevator leads to the ‘Middle of the Earth’ and in a 3D film you go up through all the ‘layers’.
The picturesque village of Porto Moniz is located on the northwest tip of Madeira. It is surrounded by small fields that are protected by dry stone walls of tree heather and ferns. This was constructed to protect the crops from the Atlantic winds, torrential rains and sea water. Porto Moniz’s main attraction is the Piscina Naturais , a collection of natural pools among the rocks. Here you can swim safely in the sun-warmed sea water. Two other attractions are suitable for children. The Centro de Ciência Viva has exhibitions on accessible scientific topics. A small aquarium, Aquário da Madeira, is located in a reconstructed fortress .
The neighboring island of Porto Santo
Porto Santo is located approximately 43 km northeast of Madeira. It is flatter, drier and less vegetated than the main island. Porto Santo can be reached from Madeira by ferry (2.5 hours) and by plane (15 minutes). There are a number of hotels and apartments. The main attraction of the island is the 9 km long golden sandy beach. The island is easy to explore on foot or by bike. The only significant historical site is in the capital Vila Baleira . This is where the Casa Museu Cristóvão Colombo is located . In this building where Columbus is said to have lived, his history is told through nautical charts, images and engravings.
Top hotel in Madeira
Reid’s Palace in Funchal
The Reid’s Palace hotel, opened in 1891, is one of the most beautiful luxury hotels in the world. To this day, this hotel is the address for the rich and famous. Famous visitors included Winston Churchill, Roger Moore and Charles I, the last Emperor of Austria. The hotel, decorated as a country house, has a beautiful view of the cliffs, the swimming pool and the park. The hotel also has 163 stylishly furnished rooms and suites, plus a large park with lush tropical vegetation.
The most beautiful walking routes
Madeira is an excellent walking island. The maintenance paths along the levadas (irrigation canals) form a network of footpaths spread throughout the island. Madeira has a unique irrigation system consisting of canals totaling more than 2,000 km in length. To make the drier south also suitable for agriculture, rainwater was diverted via a network of small canals. These channels are the so-called levadas. Most walks are levada walks and take you past rushing waterfalls, steep cliffs and high mountains. You also walk through fertile arable land, swampy raised bogs and subtropical vegetation of laurel trees and tree heather. The walk that connects the three highest mountains is spectacular. The waterfalls and springs of Rabaçal are also a popular destination for hikers.
From the Pico do Arieiro to the top of the Pico Ruivo (difficult walk of 2.5 hours)
This walk in the heart of Madeira runs from Pico do Arieiro (1818 m) to Pico Ruivo (1861 m), the highest peak on the island. Along the way you walk through/along the Pico do Gato (1780 m) and the Pico das Torres (1851 m). During the walk, which passes through several short tunnels, you can enjoy the impressive alpine mountain landscape. The starting point is the parking lot at Pico do Arieiro , then you can walk to the top via the stair path in a few minutes. Then you walk back down and further downhill you arrive at the Miradouro Ninho da Manta . You now descend further to the tunnel along the Pico do Gato . Once out of the tunnel you can choose from two tunnel paths on the Pico das Torres . After the tunnels, continue uphill to the top of Pico Ruivo , the viewing platform offering panoramas in all directions.
Walks near Rabaçal (medium walk of more than 2 hours)
Rabaçal, in the west of Madeira, is one of the most famous hiking areas on the island. Famous are the Risco waterfall and the rock cauldron of the 25 springs . The walk starts at the former parking lot in Rabaçal . Via the Levada do Risco , shaded by tree heath covered with lichens, you arrive at the Risco waterfall . Here the water falls from a height of 100 m along a smooth wall and only comes to rest another 100 m below the path. A canal path through tree heath and laurel forest leads to the 25 springs . Along the steep wall covered with ferns, several streams flow via waterfalls into a pond.
Madeira has a volcanic and mountainous landscape, with a soil formed by lava and ash. The center of the island is dominated by an alpine-looking mountain massif, the highest peak of which reaches 1861 m. This mountainous spine is of volcanic origin and rose from the sea 20 million years ago. Erosion formed jagged rock formations and watercourses made their way through deep gorges. On the southern and northern slopes of the mountain massif there are valleys enclosed by high rock walls, which flow into the sea through deeply carved gorges. The coasts of Madeira are steep and rocky. Rugged cliffs rise almost vertically from the sea, beaches are virtually non-existent. The landscape of Madeira also has unexpectedly flat areas. To the west lies the Paúl da Serra plateau and to the east the smaller Santo António da Serra plateau .
Thanks to the mild, humid climate, Madeira has rich vegetation. This consists of plants and flowers from all parts of the world. Both nature and the botanical gardens feature subtropical and tropical vegetation. Nearly two-thirds of the island’s surface is under nature protection. In 1999, the laurel forest was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
At altitudes above approximately 1200 m, tree heath, heather, juniper berries, ferns and pine trees grow. Laurel trees mainly grow inland and on the north side of the island, between 500 m and 1200 m altitude. The trunks of these trees are covered with mosses and beard mosses hang from the branches. The undergrowth consists of various fern species and milk thistles. Furthermore, tree ferns, tree heathers and pine trees grow in this altitude zone. Endemic, i.e. only found in Madeira, is the Echium candicans , a species of snakeweed. The blueberry bush Vaccinium padifolium is also endemic . The dry-resistant coastal vegetation consists of prickly pear cacti, agaves, spurges and date palms. The Paúl da Serra plateau is covered with moss and fern fields. On the Ponta de São Lourenço peninsula there are some date palms and a layer of green grass.
The flora of Madeira is a collection of flowers and plants from all over the world. Eucalyptus trees and acacias are native to Australia. They often grow in the same place as laurel trees and pine trees. Cape lilies and hydrangeas mainly grow along the levadas. Even more crops grow from subtropical and tropical areas, such as chrysanthemums, camellias and bougainvillea. Brambles, chestnut trees, cherry trees and pollard willows also grow there. Orchids occur in nature, but are also grown in gardens. The bird of paradise flowers ( strelitzia ) originating from South Africa are grown in fields and are a popular souvenir.
The best way to learn about the variety of flora is to visit one of the botanical gardens. The Jardim Botânico in Funchal contains plants from all over the world. There is a section with native plants, such as the dragon’s blood tree. There are also exotic species on display from around the world, including desert cacti and South African proteas. Nutritious plants such as coffee, cocoa, cinnamon and vanilla also grow in the garden. There is a beautiful orchid park close to the garden. The Monte Palace Tropical Garden has a mixture of native and exotic plants. The garden houses a collection of cycads (bread trees) from South Africa. The abundant ornamental flora also consists of camellias, orchids, proteas and plants from China and Japan. The Jardins do Palheiro , 8 km northeast of Funchal, is considered the most beautiful garden in Madeira. Plants from South Africa, China, Japan and Oceania grow in the garden. A special feature is a small valley full of fallen trees, where native tree species and exotic tree ferns thrive. Furthermore, camellias, plane trees, African lilies, magnolias, proteas and azaleas grow in the garden.
Part of the flora consists of agricultural crops. Most agricultural lands are located on the sunny south coast, where mainly grapes and bananas are grown. Fertile terraced plantations also occur in the center and north of the island. All kinds of crops are grown here, such as grapes, papayas, apples, cherries, chestnuts and flowers.
Madeira has a subtropical climate with temperatures averaging 13 degrees in winter and 23 degrees in summer. The sea water temperature fluctuates between 15 and 25 degrees. The trade wind gives the island a distinct microclimate. The mountain massif inland acts as a meteorological barrier. This makes the north of the island rainy and cloudy, the south dry and sunny. In winter it can be cool and rainy in the north and at altitudes above 600 m. It can even snow in the central mountain massif.
The Arabs, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans were probably already familiar with the Madeira archipelago. Italian sailors, who regularly sailed to the Canary Islands, probably also visited Madeira. Madeira and Porto Santo were already indicated on a nautical chart from 1351. In 1418, the Portuguese captains João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira accidentally ended up on Porto Santo due to a storm. They occupied the island and in 1419 the larger neighboring island was also taken over by Portugal. When Madeira was discovered by the Portuguese it was not inhabited by humans. The population has developed its own cultural identity over the years. The first settlers used the fertile soil to grow sugar cane. Slaves were brought in from the Canary Islands and Africa. They worked on the land and from the 16th century also constructed irrigation canals ( levadas ). From the beginning of the 17th century, sugar production gave way to wine production. In the mid-19th century, wine production declined sharply due to an economic crisis. At the end of the 19th century, Madeira became a popular winter destination for tourists from Northern Europe. Mass tourism started in 1964, and the rest of the world came into contact with the island. Agriculture is still important in Madeira, but tourism is now the largest industry. Today the island is a popular place for hikers, nature lovers and sun worshipers.
Food and drink
Madeira cuisine consists mainly of local ingredients, with a strong emphasis on meat and fish. Most restaurants on the island serve traditional cuisine. A well-known culinary specialty of Madeira is Espada (black swordfish). This is usually fried and served with milho frito or fried banana. Fish also plays an important role in other dishes. Seafood lovers can choose from sardines, tuna, king prawns and squid. Another popular dish in Madeira is Espetada , cubes of beef with herbs and garlic, strung on a sprig of laurel. This meat is roasted over a wood fire. Beer or wine is usually drunk with food. Most wine comes from the Portuguese mainland. The meal usually ends with a bica (espresso) and a glass of aguardente , prepared from sugar cane distillate.
Madeira’s most famous culinary specialty is Madeira wine . This world-famous wine is not drunk with food, but as an aperitif or digestif. Regular wine is transformed into Madeira wine by heating and adding brandy. The most common types of Madeira wines are sercial , verdelho , bual and malmsey . Sercial is the least sweet wine and malmsey the sweetest. Sercial is made from white grapes and is very suitable as an aperitif. Verdelho, made from the Verdelho grapes, is suitable as an aperitif, but is sometimes also drunk as a dessert wine. Bual, made from the bual grapes, is drunk as a dessert wine. Malmsey is made from Malvasia grapes and is drunk as a digestif after a meal.
Party and event
The Madeiran people love to celebrate. Patron saints, carnival, wine – there is reason for a festa all year round . Church festivals are celebrated with great passion and often have the character of a pilgrimage.
In February or March, Funchal is turned upside down for four days. The carnival spectacle reaches its climax on Saturday evening with a parade of floats and a large samba parade. The celebration ends on Tuesday with the trapalhão parade, where the Madeiran dress up in very striking costumes.
Every year on August 15, the day of the Assumption of Mary, the patron saint of the island is honored: Nossa Senhora do Monte. Pilgrims walk in procession to the church of Monte, the final destination of the pilgrimage. In the church they pray before the small statue on the high altar.
Tourists can choose from a wide range of excursions. Boat trips can be taken to look out for whales and dolphins. Walking tours are offered, as well as jeep safaris and bus tours. Organized bus tours visit almost all tourist sights. The summit of Pico do Arieiro can be visited on bus tours to the east of the island.
Madeira has a modest nightlife, but there is a wide choice of bars and cafes. The old town in Funchal is the entertainment area par excellence, with nightclubs, bars and cafes. There are also several discos and a casino. On a more modest scale, it is also possible to go out for an evening in Caniço de Baixo. There are numerous bars and cafes here. Other (seaside) resorts hardly have any entertainment options. However, some larger hotels have a bar, live music and a disco. They also regularly organize folk dance and cabaret performances.
Films, theater and concerts
Funchal has two major cinemas. Most films are shown in the original language with Portuguese subtitles. For a cultural night out, visit the Teatro Municipal Baltazar Diaz in Funchal. This is the main theater for concerts, plays, ballet, art exhibitions and films.
Madeira is a walking island par excellence, but the island also offers opportunities for diving, golfing, surfing and cycling. The relatively calm sea on the south coast is ideal for divers. For diving excursions and courses you can go to diving schools in Funchal, Caniço and Caniço de Baixo. The pleasant weather makes Madeira an ideal destination for golfing. To the east are the island’s two golf courses, both 18-hole courses. Porto Santo has one golf course, also an 18-hole one. For surfers, the southwest coast is the best location. The beaches at Jardim do Mar and Paúl do Mar are only suitable for advanced surfers due to the high waves. The bicycle is a popular means of transport on the flat Porto Santo. You can rent a bicycle here and cycle along the beach and in the hinterland.
Travel to Madeira
Madeira can be reached from Schiphol by various airlines. The flight time is 4 hours for a direct flight. You can travel further from Funchal Airport in various ways. Most travelers are picked up by representatives of travel organizations. The fastest but most expensive way to reach your destination is by taxi. From the airport you can take a minibus to the center and hotel area of Funchal. You can travel to all seaside resorts with city buses, sometimes with a change in Funchal. It is also possible to rent a car at the airport.
Traveling in Madeira
On Madeira there are good bus connections from Funchal to all parts of the island. Taxi stands can only be found in the main towns. It is also possible to rent taxis for half or full day. For a rental car you can go to car rental companies in Funchal and at the airport. Most walking locations can be reached by public transport. Some starting points can only be reached by car.