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Things to do in Madeira: The Ultimate Guide

Hazel Hammond

A Portuguese archipelago of islands covering 286 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira enjoys a rich culture, glorious weather conditions and food specialities that are known and loved worldwide. When it comes to things to do in Madeira, there is well and truly something for everyone... The subtropical archipelago of Madeira makes a holiday destination that truly packs a punch. Great weather and stunning scenery is just the beginning. Steeped in culture and history, it’s a place to feel rooted in the best of Europe, while taking in majestic mountains, azure seas, an unexpected array of water sports and food that ranges from simple flavours to award-winning culinary creations. Whatever the time of year and whichever types of activities take your fancy, Madeira has it all.

Places to Visit in Madeira

Funchal

The capital city of Madeira is a must-visit spot in Madeira for history, culture and food. In fact, Portugal’s first settlers named the city due to the abundance of fennel they found growing there (the Portuguese word for fennel is ‘funcho’) – so the city’s foodie credentials date back to the very beginning. Founded in the 15th century, Funchal is a place to visit for the postcard-perfect historic centre, the cobbled Rua de Santa Maria with its inspiring street art, and an abundance of fascinating museums. While most of these look at different aspects of Madeira’s history, football fans are always pleased to visit Museu CR7 – a museum dedicated to Cristiano Ronaldo, who hails from Madeira. A city backed by mountains, visitors enjoy travelling from the mountainous suburb of Monte into the middle of the city by toboggan. There’s also a cable car for those who like to travel at a slightly more peaceful pace.

The Mercado dos Lavradores is a must visit for food fans, where you can wander around the vibrant market and pick up Madeira specialities including Madeira cake and wine. For sit-down meals, Funchal is a place where visitors can take their pick, with dozens of traditional restaurants and taverns. There are lots of time-honoured wine cellars to explore too.

For those who happen to be in Madeira over New Year’s Eve, Funchal’s fireworks display has gained global renown for being one of the largest displays in the world.

Porto Moniz

This village on the northern tip of Madeira is home to geographical phenomena that cannot be missed. The lava pools of Porto Moniz were formed by volcanic lava and now fill with clear seawater. These natural swimming pools cover an incredible 3,800m² surface area, giving plenty of space for peaceful swims. There is also a children’s pool and disabled access. Also in Porto Moniz is the Madeira Aquarium. Found in a fascinating location in the old fort of Porto Moniz, the village provides an intriguing historic backdrop. The aquarium itself has various tanks helping visitors learn more about Madeira’s sea life. Those who love a bit of adventure can even go inside one of the largest salt water tanks, joined by rays, sharks and hundreds of colourful fish.

Activities in Madeira

Levada walking and Laurel Forest

Madeira is home to a unique irrigation system, where water runs through channels called ‘levadas’. These levadas bring fresh water from the mountains to communities across Madeira, running through beautiful landscapes and Madeira’s famous laurel forest. This subtropical forest is, in fact, a UNESCO World Heritage Site too. The levadas and forest attract everyone from experienced hikers to casual walkers, who follow the winding routes of the levadas while taking in some of nature’s best scenery.

Flower festival and botanical gardens

Madeira’s warm and verdant conditions mean it’s a place to find some of the most dazzling flowers in the world. This is celebrated through various flower shows and festivals. One of the most prominent is the Madeira Flower Festival every May, which usually involves around two weeks’ worth of festivities. With floats, flower walls and flower carpets on the streets, Madeira’s vibrant flora can be seen any way you turn. While this flower festival is the biggest, there are flower shows to be found in many of Madeira’s communities throughout the year. Another year-round attraction is the Madeira Botanical Garden – 20 acres full of plants, arboretums and stunning landscaped gardens with the ocean glinting in the background.

Dolphin and whale watching

Madeira has become well known as a hotspot for catching a glimpse of a variety of magnificent sea creatures. This includes spotted, striped and bottlenose dolphins, and sperm and beaked whales. Dolphin and whale watching trips off Madeira are especially known for the high chance of spotting some of these creatures on any given trip. A number of boat companies offer dolphin and whale-watching excursions, and give travellers the added bonus of being able to take in the magnificent views of the islands from the sea too.

Land adventures

The Funchal Ecological Park is another popular spot for outdoorsy people. The diverse mountainous landscape makes it particularly ideal for canyoning, mountain biking and abseiling. For those who seek adrenalin-pumping activities while on holiday, Madeira’s landscape and climate provides the perfect conditions for plenty of such activities. Paragliding is an especially popular pastime, given the mountains and Atlantic breezes. Many of the paragliding companies can be found in the south west of Madeira, taking advantage of the cliffs and beautiful beaches, which make perfect launch and landing points.

The cliffs at Cabo Girão have gained notoriety among keen base jumpers too. For those who like to stay on solid ground, the Cabo Girão viewpoint is at an elevation of 580m – marking some of the highest cliffs in Europe. This spot offers stunning views over the islands and ocean. The Cabo Girão Skywalk allows visitors to stand on a glass platform and look all the way down to ground level – only for those with a head for heights!

Rent a car

The beauty of being on an island of Madeira’s size is that it’s perfect to explore under your own steam. Hire a car and go where the wind takes you, taking in stunning vistas of mountains and the sea and stopping at small villages along the way.

Beaches and watersports in Madeira

Praia Formosa

Praia Formosa is the largest beach complex on Madeira’s main island, with a black sand beach. This beach is popular with Madeirans and visitors alike, as it’s especially convenient to access from Funchal. On the way between Funchal and Praia Formosa is Doca do Cavacas. While there’s no beach here, there are some amazing natural pools on a rocky outcrop that juts into the sea.

Funchal Lido

The Lido Promenade connects Funchal with Praia Formosa. Madeira is known for its love for lidos, so there are plenty of these outdoor public swimming pools to be found all over. In Funchal, the Lido area has three of these swimming pools. The promenade also passes through gardens and by picturesque restaurants on the way to the beach.

Garajau beach

This small beach at the bottom of a cliff in the Garajau National Park can only be accessed by cable car. Arriving in style is all part of the experience of this secluded beach. The calm and clear waters have made it a popular spot for snorkelers and scuba divers too.

Calheta

Two man-made sandy beaches can be found in Calheta, behind a sea wall that keeps the bays sheltered and the sand in place. The calm waters and Blue Flag status make this spot especially popular with families.

Praia de Machico

This small golden sandy beach is in another secluded spot to watch the world go by. With a boardwalk and a few places to eat, it has everything you need for a laid-back day trip to the beach.

Porto Santo Island

Get to know one of Madeira’s other islands while discovering the best beaches by taking the ferry from Funchal to Porto Santo Island, just 27 miles away. Porto Santo Island is definitely a place for beach lovers, as it has a white sandy beach that extends more than 5.5 miles. Many people believe the sand on Porto Santo Island has healing properties, helping to soothe many ailments, aches and pains. The more actively minded also love Porto Santo Island for the water sports on offer, ranging from windsurfing and paddle boarding to surfing and kitesurfing.

Eating and drinking in Madeira

The food and drink Madeira has made popular across the world, centre on cake and wine. Madeira honey cake is made from sugar cane honey, and it usually has some nuts in it too. This is a must-try food in Madeira, and there are plenty of opportunities to buy some cakes to take home with you too.

Madeira wine

Madeira wine has been raved about for centuries, including by some of the world’s first explorers to William Shakespeare. This fortified wine either comes dry – ideal for an aperitif – or sweet, which is perfect for accompanying dessert. Any restaurant in Madeira will have a selection of Madeira wines ready and waiting to be tasted. For those who want to explore Madeira’s wine even further, Madeira is full of wine cellars offering wine tours and tasting sessions.

As well as Madeira wine, Poncha is another typical drink in Madeira. Served at room temperature or with ice, it’s made from Madeira rum, honey and a variety of tropical juices.

Traditional dishes

Other traditional dishes from Madeira include Espetada em Pau de Lauro – which is skewered meat seasoned with salt and garlic, cooked over a wood fire. Espada is black swordfish found in abundance in the deep waters near Madeira. It can often be found served with banana in restaurants – given the fact bananas grow amazingly well in Madeira’s climate. In general, plenty of Madeiran restaurants serve many varieties of freshly caught fish.

Where to eat in Madeira

Many people flock to Funchal to find some of the best food in Madeira, particularly in the old town. Eating in a traditional restaurant while listening to Fado music is a rich aspect of Portuguese tradition. In Funchal, some of the best places for this are Sabor a Fado and Arsenio’s Restaurant. For high-end dining in Funchal, the restaurant in Belmond Reid’s Palace hotel has a Michelin star. On The Cliff Bay, Il Gallo d’Oro has two Michelin stars.

Shopping in Madeira

For shopping on a large scale in Madeira, Funchal is the place to go. There are various shopping malls there – including La Vie, Forum Madeira and Madeira Shopping. Some smaller shopping strips include Galerias de São Lourenço and Arcadas de São Francisco. The latter is ideal for coinciding with a trip to the Madeira Wine Company. Some of the best gifts and artisan-made products are found on the backstreets of Funchal. As well as visiting the market, it’s best to wander around and see what you come across.

Elsewhere in Madeira, the village of Camacha is well-known for its wicker products. There’s a wicker factory in Camacha, with products made with local materials. Porto da Cruz is home to a rum distillery, and this produce can be found across Madeira. The markets in Ribeira Brava and Santa Cruz and also treasure troves.

  Have you been Madeira? We'd love to hear your stories, get in touch in the comments below. Inspired? For a luxury Madeira holiday tailored to you call us on freephone 0800 047 1066 or visit our website for more information.

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