I had planned to explore the island of Madeira by self-driving. Then I heard some concerning stories about the road conditions. Is driving on Madeira truly as scary as some say?
To have the greatest flexibility to go anywhere, I had set my mind on renting a car for my entire Madeira trip. Then, just days before my flight, someone told me that driving on Madeira is meant to be insane.
Apparently: lots of twisty mountain roads, crazy inclines, and super narrow streets.
I had no idea!
My source even told me that ‘some of the houses are built with thicker walls just because cars keep crashing into them’. (Yes, I believed him. Don’t laugh.)
Surely it could not be that bad? I did a quick Google search, which landed me on several Madeira blogs with titles including ‘dangerous’, ‘super challenging’, and ‘scary’. Oh dear.
GIFs of cars flying off cliffs were now looping through my head.
Was renting a car on Madeira just a bad idea?
Using public transport on Madeira
Not being sure about the situation, I tried using the bus network first. Sadly, in practice, the bus network is not so useful for tourists.
When looking at a map of the bus network (see PDF) it seems like you can reach pretty much anywhere on the island. Nice! There are four different bus companies, which is a bit confusing, but at least the network seemed pretty good.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll find only a few sightseeing spots are actually reachable by bus (such as the peninsula of São Lourenço). Most of the interesting sites are far away from any bus line, or buses go there only once or twice a day.
I quickly gave up trying to get around by bus. Despite my trepidation, I realized that renting a car in Madeira is simply the best way to see the island.
Driving conditions on Madeira
Let me share an honest report on what driving is like in Madeira.
Firstly, Madeira is a volcanic island with very little flat land. Just take a look at a relief map and you’ll see it’s just one giant festival of peaks and valleys. Even the capital is built on hillsides with many sharp elevation changes.
Given this terrain, I was actually positively surprised by how easy many of the roads are.
The driving conditions are easiest around the capital, thanks to two-lane motorways, which let you easily get around the urbanized areas.
Elsewhere I had expected only twisty mountain roads, but in fact, there is an extraordinary number of tunnels all around the island. These tunnels (usually single lane both ways) serve as Madeira’s main traffic arteries. Getting from A to B often involves just going through a long series of tunnels, punctuated by small roundabouts that connect to the local destinations.
So, for like 70% of the time, I found myself either on highways or going through straight-as-nails tunnels.
It’s true there are some pretty crazy roads in more remote locations. This includes small streets in mountain towns that can have some truly wondrous 20° inclines.
The old coastal roads around the island (from before all the new tunnels were made) are not used as much anymore, but they’re still there for you to drive. They’re scenic they are also narrow and beside steep cliffs. These specific roads are perfect road trip material, but they are also not required if you just want to get to a specific destination.
If you’ve driven mountain roads anywhere else in Europe, you’ll roughly know what to expect. If you are a less experienced driver, you can choose to avoid some of the crazy old roads and stick to the much easier main ones.
Renting a car on Madeira
I was glad I ultimately chose to book my own rental car.
I had an absolute blast driving around the island!
I loved discovering some of the hidden gems and going to hiking trails without needing to book a guided hike with pick-up.
When booking your rental car, I do recommend getting a type of car one step up from what you normally get. For example, if you would normally book a mini, get a compact. This will ensure you have some extra horsepower should you face a steep road. While most roads are normal, Madeira is probably not a place where you’ll want to have 5 people crammed into a mini just to save some money.
It’s a good idea to book your rental car ahead of time. I almost didn’t get one because I left it so late!
At the rental agency, I even witnessed an American woman desperately trying to secure their last remaining automatic car (of which there are few on Madeira). So, it’s worth reserving your preferred car, especially in the tourist high season.
With Discover Cars you can search for the best rental car deals. This site will check the bigs brands as well as all the smaller local rental companies. Use the widget below to check availability:
As is often the case, the more days you book your car, the cheaper it gets per day. For example, renting a car for 2 days is usually more expensive per day than renting one for 5 days.
Madeira driving tips
If like me you were worried about the roads in Madeira, I think they are actually mostly fine — and I’m not the world’s greatest driver.
Twisty mountain roads are also not my speciality; I learned to drive while growing up in the Netherlands and, well… have you seen the Netherlands?
Still, I survived just fine.
Of course, every driver is different. I’m 38 and have done a fair bit of driving in various European travel destinations. I think some of the more extreme warnings on other blogs may have come from younger drivers or those not accustomed to driving on the right side or driving manual. I imagine it could be more stressful in those cases.
If you’re used to automatic, be sure to book well in advance as there is a limited stock of automatic rentals.
If you want to have an easier time, take the new roads (basically any with the designation ‘VE’) and avoid the very old coastal roads (like the remnants of ER101).
Oh, and don’t let Google or Apple Maps lead you down some zigzaggy recalculated route that only shaves a few minutes off your travel time.
The map apps are very good for the main point-to-point routes but they have a habit of sending you down difficult little streets when you’re in remote villages. Sometimes it’s better to ignore the GPS and just follow the road signs.
The above photo shows the craziest incline I found during my two weeks. This was a side street deep inside a village, so not the typical situation when driving in Madeira.
Hopefully, I’ve given a balanced preview of what to expect. Madeira could be a bit more stressful if you haven’t had your license very long or you’re not the most confident driver. In such a case, you could consider booking tours on Madeira as a more convenient way to see the sights.
Otherwise, driving in Madeira is not as extreme as I’d been led to expect; in fact, having your own rental car is a glorious way to explore every corner of this amazing island. If you’re okay with driving through a mountainous island, I can highly recommend going on a road trip in Madeira.
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