It was only after living in Portugal for 5 years that I finally travelled to Madeira. Once I realised how great it was, I seriously wondered what had taken me so long!
Madeira is like a miniature world, encompassing different geographies and climates within its boundaries.
Its vertiginous nature and stark volcanic rock formations make it a feast for hiking and outdoor activities, while the swirling coastal roads, backed by rocky cliffs and waterfalls, offer the perfect backdrop for a road trip. Away from its capital, charming towns bordered by banana plantations offer scenic and tranquil places to stay.
And yet… despite this, Madeira is often thought of as a mere pit-stop on Atlantic cruises, causing many tourists only to ever visit the harbour capital, Funchal.
The island also used to be mainly marketed to pensioners looking for a package holiday, though more recently Madeira has also been discovered by a different crowd of nature-lovers and thrill-seekers, in turn changing the image of Madeira.
What struck me most about Madeira was its spectacular nature. It’s not just an island where you can sit by the hotel pool (although that’s certainly nice too) but where you can go hiking, whale watching, climbing, scuba diving, and drive around to visit wonderful towns by the coast.
In this Madeira travel guide, I’ll set aside the typical itinerary centred around the capital, instead highlighting the amazing places and activities across all corners of this spectacular island.
Canyoning in Madeira
Being a volcanic island, Madeira has cliffs and mountains all over. It should come as no surprise then that the island has numerous waterfalls — and, as I discovered, a canyoning tour is a thrilling way to see these!
Canyoning is an activity where you traverse river gorges and waterfalls, wearing a wetsuit and using rappelling gear.
There are varying levels of difficulty, ranging from kid-friendly clambering through a stream all the way up to heart-pumping descents at some of the biggest waterfalls.
Feeling adventurous, I signed up with Epic Madeira for a Level 4 canyoning tour, the highest level you can do without training. I was dropped off at the Ribeira Funda, a wild river running through the jungles on the north side of Madeira.
I knew we’d be rappelling down a series of waterfalls, but what I didn’t expect was that the first waterfall was a whopping 60-metre drop! It was thrilling to be thrown right in at the deep end, so to speak.
Climbing down the epic cliffs with water splashing your face was an incredible introduction to the island’s epic nature. On your way down, you get a rare drone’s eye view of Madeira’s most majestic natural sights. When you finally reach the bottom, you suddenly feel very small, hardly believing you made it all the way from up there.
Our canyoning trip involved several more hours of clambering and rappelling while seeing a wild part of the island away from any paths. We ended on an abandoned coastal road where the canyon opened onto a panoptic view of the Atlantic sea. Simply spectacular!
The staff at Epic Madeira are highly professional in ensuring a safe and fantastic experience. But if merely looking at the images above gives you vertigo, lower grade canyoning options are much less intense. The beginner tours involve some cascades of a few meters in height with optional jumps into the water.
Whatever your preferred level, I can highly recommend booking with Epic Madeira. If you’re interested in an introductory experience, you can also more easily book a level 1 canyoning tour with them through GetYourGuide.
One incredible added bonus when doing the Ribeira Funda canyon is that the trip starts in a truly hidden place. The canyoning route begins in a tiny village that can only be reached by taking a hard turn into the emergency exit of a nearby tunnel. It’s so secret, I’d never have found it alone!
A few Madeira travel tips
- It’s pronounced Mad-aye-ra; the “aye” is like the affirmative and not like “deer”. Locals will be impressed if you say it in the Portuguese way!
- The weather can be unpredictable and frequently changes on Madeira. Get the Madeira Weather app for up-to-date local forecasts and webcams.
- Unsure where to stay in Madeira? You can jump to my recommended accommodation.
Road trip in Madeira
One of the best activities in Madeira is to take a road trip all along the coast or through its mountainous interior.
I should mention here that Madeira’s roads can be quite adventurous at times. You need just a single glance at a relief map of this island to realise the extent of the steep inclines and narrow mountain roads.
Driving in Madeira can be a bit challenging sometimes, but the benefit of having your own car to properly discover the island far outweighs these challenges. For a few days, I used public transport to get around, which turned out to be highly impractical—and even impossible for many places. Renting a car in Madeira gives you complete freedom to explore; it’s definitely the best way to get around.
If you’re unable to self-drive, then using organised tours of the island is your next best option. For instance, consider this 4×4 tour of the island interior, which will take you to some of the most dramatic locations.
Given that I’m not the world’s best driver, I was concerned that the driving in Madeira would be pretty wild. Fortunately, it was not nearly as crazy as suggested in some comments online. Madeira has an impressive network of tunnels that cut through the different mountains, giving you access to different sides of the island using very straight and easy roads.
That being said, the old coastal roads and crumbling old tunnels—from the times before the more modern infrastructure was built—are all still there. So, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can opt to take these slower and narrower roads around the island.
I found the driving conditions in Madeira mostly easy, but there are a few spots that may be a bit more challenging to inexperienced drivers. In my guide to driving in Madeira, I share a few more specifics on what you can expect.
There is a limited stock of cars available on the island, so I recommend booking your rental car in advance. I booked mine with Discover Cars, which check prices of both brand-name and local rental companies. Consider getting a model one step up from what you might usually get; for instance, if you typically book a compact, you may want to get a 4-seater, just to give you a bit of extra power on the (rare) heavy incline.
You can use the search form below to look for rental cars for your travel dates.
Exploring Madeira by car lets you easily explore far beyond Funchal and into the charming rural areas. The south has many sun-drenched coastal villages, such as Ribeira Brava, Ponta do Sol, and Calheta. The island’s north faces the prevailing trade winds, making it much greener and more humid. The fortress of Faial, the natural pools of Porto Moniz, and the beach of Porto do Seixal are some of the key sights on the northern side.
If you are looking to go hiking, you can use these organized hiking tours to reach some of the best hikes. However, if you’re self-driving, you can go to any trailhead at any time—including some cool lesser-known hikes.
Hiking in Madeira
Madeira is truly a hiking paradise. This is partly because of the different microclimates but also largely thanks to its countless levadas.
These are numerous small aqueducts that intersect the island, bringing some of the excess rainfall of the north side to the much drier south. Construction of the levadas goes back to the 15th century when Madeira was first settled. Totalling over 800km, these waterways have been submitted for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The narrow paths along the levadas were initially constructed as maintenance paths, but over the years, they were co-opted into hiking trails. As a result, many of Madeira’s hiking trails follow the narrow paths along these gentle streams. Some go through small tunnels or even behind waterfalls as they make their way through the mountains.
If you’re afraid of heights then a few of the levadas may be a bit challenging, as sometimes all that separates you from the cliffs is a thin metal rope. Some of the levadas may also not be ideal for small children. Thankfully the official trail descriptions will let you know exactly what to expect and there are trails for every level.
You can check out some of my favourite hikes on Madeira, though there are essentially four different environments you can hike on Madeira.
The open headland
The northeast peninsula of Madeira is typified by open space and gnarly seaside cliffs. Starting at Sao Lourenco, this main trail is one of the few you can easily reach by bus from Funchal. The dry, eroded cliffs make for a very dramatic backdrop as you make your way to the furthest point with a view of the Sao Lourenco lighthouse.
Since this area is very exposed to the sea, it can sometimes be rainy or cloudy while other parts of the island are sunny, so check the weather before going. I did this hike in the early morning, which turned out to be a great move, as the morning light was beautiful and the sun was not yet so hot.
The misty forests
Completely opposite in character to the dry northern peninsula, the northwest area around Fanal is almost perpetually shrouded in fog as trade winds push clouds against the central mountains. The knobbly trees in the mist make Fanal look like a spooky forest, especially with the chorus of frogs croaking from the ponds creating even more of an enchanted feel.
There are several point-to-point trails here, but you can also park your car and wander randomly for a while; just bring your phone in case you get lost in the constant whiteness! Be sure to bring a coat and long trousers as even in the summer the temperatures drop considerably in this magical cloudy forest.
The mountain peaks
The central peaks are emblematic of Madeira, often featuring in many drone shots of the island. Due to road maintenance, I sadly could not explore this part of Madeira during my stay, but it’s the first place I will go when I return!
The most commonly walked trail in this area is between Pico Ruivo and Pico do Arieiro. Pick a good day to do this trail when clouds do not obscure the views. While it is point-to-point rather than circular, there are tour services in Funchal that can deliver and pick you up at the trailheads at specific times.
The twisty levadas
Finally, you can’t leave Madeira without doing at least one levada hike. An overwhelming number of them can make it hard to choose, but among the most popular ones are the Levada das 25 Fontes and the Levada do Caldeirão Verde. These can get a bit busy, but they are fun and highly worthwhile.
My personal favourite is the less-known Levada do Moinho near the town of Ponta do Sol. It goes through a valley to a waterfall and through some tunnels on the way back. On your return, you can take the upper route if you’re up for an adventure and the lower route if you’re not a big fan of heights. My guide to hiking on Madeira has more details.
Unique fruits of Madeira
Your adventures on Madeira may involve not just your feet but also your tastebuds! Thanks to its many microclimates, you can find produce on Madeira that is not common on the European mainland.
Among the fruits I found were English tomatoes, which grow on trees and look nothing like regular tomatoes. I also saw soursops for the first time since I got to know this strange fruit in Colombia.
Madeira is also known for its cute mini bananas that they are not permitted to export. The EU refuses to classify them as proper bananas, so they are unique to the island. The mini bananas are smaller but also sweeter.
One important tip: avoid buying fruits at the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmer’s Market) in Funchal!
This market may have a pleasant atmosphere, but it’s 100% a tourist trap with a business model that is clearly based on relieving clueless cruise ship tourists of €20 per kilo for some bananas or other. I’ve heard the fruits here also get injected with artificial sweeteners.
Try the local fruit markets instead, such as the Mercado Municipal da Ribeira Brava, or keep an eye out for fruit sellers on the side of the road while you’re driving around. For just a few Euros you’ll be able to sample many wonderful fruits.
I often picked up interesting fruits to take as snacks on my hikes, or my guesthouse would treat me to a delicious fruit bowl at breakfast. Doesn’t that look great?
In addition to the fruit, there are some other special things to try. Be sure to order some Poncha, a rum-like aguardente with orange or lemon juice. Or try an espetada, a traditional meat-on-a-skewer meal you can find in local taverns and restaurants. On another blog, you can see plenty more tips for things to eat and drink in Madeira.
Descending into the fajãs
Fajã is a name given to flat land at the sea at the base of very steep cliffs, usually created by ancient lava flows. Their fertile soil and microclimates make them ideal for cultivation, but the tall cliffs make them relatively inaccessible and remote.
It’s fun to visit these fajãs. Two of them are especially worth mentioning, as they have cable cars for easy access.
The first is the Faja dos Padres, just a 15-minute drive outside Funchal. The cable car operates between 10:00 and 18:00 and costs €10 per person. It’s very steep but offers exciting sea views and ends on a tranquil strip of land with some gardens, cottages, and a pier where you can take a dip into the ocean.
The fajã at Achadas Da Cruz is much further away in the extreme northwest of the island. It’s more remote and arguably even more beautiful. The cable car here costs €3 per person round trip and runs from 8:00 until 19:00.
Again it goes down very steeply, so it’s perhaps not for those with a strong fear of heights; I’ve heard it’s one of the steepest cable cars in all of Europe! The sensational descent leads you to the hamlet of Achadas da Cruz, an incredible end-of-the-world kind of place where you can stroll along the coast or grab a drink with an ocean view.
On your way to Achadas Da Cruz, it’s also worth stopping at the Garganta Funda waterfall (which literally translates to, well, Deep Throat). The viewing point is tucked away behind some farms and pastures and is worth the short hike for its incredible views.
Where to stay in Madeira
The most common area to stay in Madeira is undoubtedly the capital, Funchal. It offers a vast selection of hotels as well as resorts with swimming pools and spas.
If you enjoy comfort and plenty of facilities, then Funchal is definitely a good place to stay. From the capital, most parts of the island are very accessible. In Funchal, I stayed in a hotel with a swimming pool for a couple of relaxing days. If you’re looking for a high quality hotel, try the Hotel Porto Mara.
Modern boutique hotel built in a restored mansion in central Funchal
With indoor & outdoor swimming pool. In Lido, a hotel district 10 minutes from central Funchal
Seafront rooms in the charming town of Jardim do Mar
Charming house with lush garden in the authentic São Vicente
If you have at least a week in Madeira, I think it’s fun to stay at different points of the Island, giving your better opportunities to explore.
Since I also like to stay in smaller or more remote locations, I considered several towns along the coast, eventually opting to stay in Jardim Do Mar. And what a great decision this was!
Jardim Do Mar (meaning Garden of the Sea) is a tiny coastal settlement that can only be reached via a tunnel. Your car is left in a car park on arrival, as the village itself has only pedestrian paths. Jardim Do Mar has an absolutely delightful atmosphere. Most nights, I would go to Joe’s Bar, a friendly place with a garden where both locals and tourists sip on Poncha or have the piri piri espetadas.
I stayed at Maktub Guest House, a family-run guesthouse with a kind of soul and atmosphere that reminded me of guesthouses in South America. The rooms are all adjacent to a central garden with grapevines, flowers and mango trees, while another floor provides limited dorm-style accommodation for budget travellers.
I loved the tropical island atmosphere and can highly recommend staying at Maktub. I believe they are not on any booking platforms so you have to reach out to them directly. Otherwise, there are many other charming guesthouses to choose from, such as the nearby Cecilia’s House or North Coast in Sao Vicente.
Other things to do in Madeira
Apart from the nature-based activities and road trips, there are several other activities that often feature on a typical Madeira itinerary.
In Funchal, you can take a cable car up the hills and visit the amazing botanical gardens (there is not one but three big ones to check out!). These gardens are magnificent, though they are definitely a cruise ship tourist activity making the entry prices a bit high by Portuguese standards.
It’s fun to stroll around the Farmer’s Market in Funchal and to maybe grab a drink in one of the cafes there. Just be wary of the prices of the fruits sold at the market (they are definitely highly inflated).
One thing that’s often heavily featured in the tourism promotion of Madeira is a type of traditional house with a straw-thatched roof. These are very rarely seen on the island, though the village of Santana has a few that have been restored and have become a popular tour stop. They’re not the best thing to see in Madeira, in my opinion, but they are still worth a look if you’re in the area.
Finally, there is a type of wicker sledge that’s traditional to Madeira. You can slide down about two kilometres of a steep road, guided by two men wearing white uniforms and straw hats. This brief (around 15 minutes) activity costs approximately €15 per person and seems like a lot of fun.
These activities tend to form the more typical Madeira itinerary. However, I found there was so much more to see and discover all over the island. I had no idea the hiking trails were so beautiful or that the remote roads were so much fun to drive. Madeira definitely took me by surprise, and after my 10-day stay on the island, I only wish I could have stayed longer!
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