It took me two weeks of exploring Madeira to truly turn it inside out — and if you can, I advise spending at least one or two weeks on this magnificent island.
But knowing that you may be visiting Madeira on a shorter trip, I distilled my 2 weeks of experiences into this 3-day Madeira itinerary which includes the must-see highlights.
If you’re arriving by cruise ship, you will be immediately welcomed by the charming capital, Funchal. Arriving by air, you’ll get a preview of Madeira’s dramatic volcanic landscapes. With almost no flat areas on the island, the runaway has even been built on an en elevated platform resting on 180 giant pillars, looking a bit like a beached aircraft carrier. Welcome to Madeira, where the rugged landscapes are a continual challenge (at least, if you’re driving) as well as reward.
Get the most of your stay in Madeira with this action-packed 3-day itinerary featuring nature hikes, botanical gardens, and culinary discoveries.
Best hotels deals in Funchal
Exploring the capital and gardens
Rise and shine! It’s best to get up early so you have plenty of time to enjoy Madeira’s capital, Funchal.
It’s the island’s largest city and it’s highly urbanized, though the small historical centre is highly walkable and a joy to explore. Pedestrian areas are tiled in the traditional Portuguese ways and the palm-lined boulevards will make you instantly realize you’ve arrived in a subtropical place.
As you absorb the atmosphere, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to shop for some unique products from the island, such as the Madeira Wine. In fact, this was a favourite of Winston Churchill, who spent time on Madeira and likened the wine to “drinking liquid history”. Honestly, that expression just makes me think of the musty scent of history books, but I assure you Madeira wine is a lovely and sweet fortified wine, similar to Port.
Next, stop by the Mercado dos Lavradores. This market’s market has a fun atmosphere. Many peculiar fruits that grow in the island’s various microclimates are sold here. You can also peek inside the adjacent fish market, where large tuna and other catch of the day is sold — possibly to end up on your restaurant plate later in the day.
Many of the fruits sold at the Farmer’s Market are more typical to South America than Europe, such as the green and spiky soursop, the flat Paraguayan variety of peach, or the oddly named English tomato, which in fact grows on trees and has more in common with passion fruit.
Just one tip: avoid buying fruits at the Farmer’s Market, or at least don’t be pressured to buy large quantities. The salespeople can be quite forceful and the prices can be higher than you’d expect.
(If you’re intrigued by the local produce, a better way to spend your Euros would be on this Funchal Agriculture Green Tour, where you can visit a banana plantation and a passionate guide will tell you everything about the fruit cultivation on Madeira.)
Having explored the town and evaded some potentially overzealous fruitsellers, it’s time to grab some lunch.
If you’re feeling adventurous — and if they’re in season — try the caracois. These snails are typical in Portugal and much smaller than the kind you may find in France, which means they are perfectly snackable and not nearly as intimidating to eat. Many local restaurants will serve this and many other Portuguese dishes during lunchtime, as it is customary to have a hot meal at this hour.
Belly full of snails?
Then it’s time to take the cable car!
This very steep lift will take you to the suburb of Monte, which is at 1,025 m (3,363 ft) altitude and home to many gardens.
The Monte Palace is the most impressive of the gardens, so consider this a must-see on your Madeira itinerary. Depending on your interest, you can also visit the other gardens. These all showcase the diverse flora of the island’s unique climate, as well as the plants and trees that were imported along trade routes during the Age of Discovery.
Monte Palace is a multi-level tropical garden with exotic trees and plants, unique sculptures, several traditional mansions, and a small mineral museum. It takes about at least two hours to walk around here. I recommend checking this out first!
At the Botanical Garden, many specific plant species are grown in small beds. There’s perhaps a bit less splendour here than Monte Palace, as it’s a bit more focused on actual botany, but the gardens are nevertheless beautiful and impressive. From the Botanical Garden, it’s a short (10 minute or so) taxi ride back to central Funchal.
Expect Funchal and the gardens to take up a full day. Bring comfortable footwear as it involves a fair bit of walking.
At night, give your feet some rest and activate your tastebuds with a truly Madeiran dinner. Try an espetada, a traditional meat-on-a-skewer meal you can find in local taverns and restaurants. For drinks, be sure to order some tasty (but strong!) Poncha, a rum-like aguardente mixed with orange or lemon juice.
Discovering the east of Madeira
Get ready for some epic views as this day will deliver a boatload!
One unmissable sight in Madeira is its central mountain peaks. High above the clouds, you’ll be able to see all corners of Madeira, and even the island of Porto Santo on a clear day. One of the best viewing points is at Pico do Arieiro.
Keep in mind this trip is not so easy to self-organize, as there is little to no public transportation to take you there. Consider either renting a car in Madeira or booking a local tour for the day.
If you have limited time in Madeira, taking tours is the easiest and best way to make the most of it. I recommend this guided tour of eastern Madeira, which includes the Pico do Arieiro, a levada walk, a stop at Santana, and more. This tour includes a pick up from anywhere in Funchal or Canico, including from the harbour should you arrive by cruise ship.
Walking a levada trail is one of the unique activities in Madeira. Totaling over 800km, these small waterways through the mountains were built to bring excess rainfall of the north side to the much drier south. Although the levadas were not originally intended as hiking trails, they’ve become very popular for this purpose, as they often take interesting routes through the nature areas of Madeira.
If you take the tour of eastern Madeira, you will most likely go on a lavada walk in Ribeiro Frio, which is in the highly forested interior of Madeira. If you are self-organizing, you can also opt for a different levada hike, such as the beautiful Caldeirão Verde.
You can find more tips in my article about the four best areas to hike in Madeira. Many of the levada hikes will take you through Laurissilva forest, a type of ancient cloud forest that would have once covered many areas in the Mediterranean, but which can now be found almost exclusively on Atlantic islands like Madeira or the Canaries.
Following your hike, stop by Santana, where you can see a type of quaint, thatched-roof house that used to be common on the island. The well-preserved examples of this building style are now a popular tourist attraction.
The weather can be quite changeable on Madeira, so sometimes the views at Pico do Arieiro will be obscured by dense clouds. You can use the Weather Madeira app to check live webcams and weather reports.
Should the conditions not be favourable, consider driving all the way east to the open peninsula at São Lourenço, a rugged and beautiful landscape that offers phenomenal views as well. From Funchal, it will take about 45 minutes to get to São Lourenço.
Road trip in the west of Madeira
The west and north sides of Madeira are some of my favourites. Not everyone takes the chance to visit them since they are furthest from the capital, but these remote areas will definitely show a different side of the island.
For the most flexibility, I recommend renting a car, though consider this option if you are comfortable driving on the right and in mountainous areas, as some of the roads in Madeira can be quite steep and winding.
If you self-drive on this day, I suggest heading to the far northwest to see the waterfall of Garganta Funda, the natural pools at Porto Moniz, and the cliffs at Achadas da Cruz, where the cable car is one of the steepest in all of Europe. On your way back, see the spooky forests of Fanal and the Paul da Serra plateau.
The driving in Madeira can be a bit challenging at times, so if you prefer not to drive, then a day tour will suit anyone who has limited time to explore Madeira. Consider this “best of the west” tour of Madeira which offers good value for money, includes many of the highlights, and the driving will of course be in the capable hands of a professional local driver.
One of the most interesting areas in the west is the Paul da Serra plateau. Although most of the island is extremely mountainous with steep elevation changes, the landscape is dramatically different at this plateau, which was once formed due to soft lava flows.
The Paul da Serra is a protected reserve where cattle is allowed to roam free and where you can see several waterfalls and forests. Be sure to stop at the forests of Fanal, which due to the prevailing trade winds are nearly always covered in thick fog, creating a unique ecology and a bit of a spooky atmosphere.
The north coast is considerably wilder and greener than the south coast where the capital is. When I emerged from the tunnel leading to the north side, my tour guide whispered “welcome… to Jurassic Park”, which felt highly appropriate as the green mountains and narrow valleys did seem a bit like Isla Nublar (without dinosaurs, luckily).
The west Madeira day trip I’ve recommended also covers this region, offering grand views of Madeira’s gnarly northwestern coast, and stopping in the northern town of São Vicente.
Something the island is famous for are the fajãs, areas of flat land besides the sea created by ancient lava flows, backed by very steep cliffs. Several of these remote spots have been made accessible by cable car and if you’re self-driving, be sure to stop at either the Achadas da Cruz or the Faja dos Padres fajãs where you can go down to take a look.
The organized day trip doesn’t leave enough time for this, though you’ll be able to see the Faja dos Padres from above while you stop at the viewing point of Cabo Girão, where has been constructed Europe’s highest cliff skywalk at 589m.
As you can tell, there is truly a lot to see in Madeira, and in this itinerary we have barely scratched the surface!
You can see plenty of highlights and come away with a great impression of Madeira in 3 days, though if you feel inspired to plan a longer trip, you can find more in-depth tips in my explorer’s travel guide to Madeira.
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