What do you think of when you think of Madeira? The wine, the warmth and Cristiano Ronaldo? What more could you want from a place?! But there is a lot more to Madeira. It is part of Portugal but is actually 4 islands off the coast of West Africa, and it has a warm, subtropical climate which makes it absolutely perfect as a destination for some winter sun.
Getting there from the UK is easy with non stop flights taking around 4 hours and landing in the capital Funchal. The main island is fairly small and you can cross it in around 2 hours. There are good local buses as well to help you explore.
I definitely recommend staying in Funchal so you are close to the shopping and restaurants as it makes it easier in the evening to find somewhere nice to eat. It’s also where the central bus station and transport hub is so it makes it easier for exploring the whole island, and there is a wide choice of hotels in Funchal, ranging from budget to 5* luxury depending on how much you want to spend.
We really enjoyed our trip to Madeira and took it relatively slowly and at a nice pace. Our highlights are as follows, with our full itinerary at the end if you’re interested in planning a trip yourselves.
ONE. Cliff Walk PR8
Did you know the whole island is volcanic?! This means it’s home to stunning walks and cliffs. I had absolutely no idea how steep, epic and plunging the Madeira coastline would be. For me, the best views of this are by following the PR8 walk to Cais do Sardinha. The walk is known as Vereda da Ponta de Sao Lourenco, and is a round 6km. You would need to allocate a full day to do it, but your reward is absolutely stunning views of rocky inlets, beaches, coves and cliffs.
The walk is on the north eastern coast of the island, and you can travel to the start by public bus, or get a taxi – whichever you prefer. We took the bus to the starting point in Baia d’Abra and then were exhausted so took a taxi back to Funchal. Luckily lots of people feel the same, and there are plenty of taxis at the end of the walk waiting to take people home.
TWO. Madeira Botanical Gardens
The Madeira Botanical Gardens are situated on the Bom Successo Estate which was created in 1881 as the Reid family’s (more on them later) private park. Alright for some! They are about a 10 minute taxi ride out of the centre of Funchal, and the views out over the sea and down to Funchal are beautiful.
THREE. Monte and the wicker basket ride
You can take a cable car (Teleferico) from Funchal to Monte. Monte is home to Monte Palace Gardens – tropical gardens full of exotic plants, trees, flowers and sculptures. There are lots of trails to follow and hidden paths and waterfalls to find. However the best part of the gardens is the fact that entrance includes wine tasting, meaning a delicious glass of Madeira sherry. From the Gardens you can then head to Monte church, where Charles I, last of the Hapsburg rulers, is buried.
The fun part is at the foot of the church steps though. Here you can climb in to a wicker basket and be pushed part way back down the hill. The wicker basket ‘ride’ can reach speeds up to 30mph and it’s super fun hurtling down the streets (especially after that sherry!). You finish part way down the mountain and then walk or taxi the rest of the way back to Funchal.
FOUR. Exploring Funchal
The capital Funchal has three main areas. Firstly, there is the main centre which is great for shopping and near both the Cathedral and Sao Lourenco Palace which is a fortress built in the 1500s and includes an exhibit on the history of the Palace.
There is then the characterful old town, which has rows of fisherman’s cottages with colourful doors. You can also see the cable cars over the rooftops and views out to the ocean, and it’s also a good area for eating, especially in the amazing Mercado do Lavradores which is a treasure trove of a Farmer’s market serving fresh produce. Finally, it’s also home to the Sao Tiago Fortress, an incredibly yellow fortress built to defend Funchal from pirates in the 1600s.
The final area to explore is then the harbour, for views out to the Atlantic Ocean and to see where the ships all dock. This area is also home to the CR7 museum dedicated to footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. There is a famous, utterly appalling statue of him outside too which absolutely can’t be missed for its pure awfulness.
From here you can then walk on to Reid’s Palace Hotel (that very rich family mentioned earlier) and explore the lovely gardens. William Reid was a Scot who arrived in Madeira in the 1830s and set up hotels – guests at Reid’s Palace Hotel have included everyone from Roger Moore to Winston Churchill and it’s famous for its afternoon teas and definitely worth a visit.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that whilst in Funchal I recommend visiting Blandys Wine Lodge in the town centre. Anything called a Wine Lodge is a must visit in my book, and it didn’t disappoint. There’s also lots of nice eateries. Our favourite was O Calhau where the staff were lovely and the food delicious, beautifully presented and very reasonably priced. We went back 3 times!
FIVE. Levada walk PR9
Levada walks follow man made water channels, some of which have been in use since the 16th Century to bring water from the wet northern uplands to the dry regions. Another walk we really enjoyed was the PR9 walk to Caldeirao Verde on the north coast of the main island. It’s 6km long and the starting point is a traditional cottage with steep roofs to protect from the Atlantic Ocean winds. At points the trail is dangerous and only wide enough for one person at a time, but the reward for the hike is more stunning views and a huge waterfall!
Full Itinerary for those interested
- Day 1 – Flight out, Funchal harbour, CR7 museum and statue, Sao Lourenco Palace
- Day 2 – Funchal old town, Mercado do Lavradores, Sao Tiago Fortress, Reid’s Palace
- Day 3 – PR8 walk
- Day 4 – Funchal Botanical Gardens, cable car to Monte, Monte Palace Garden, Monte Church, wicker basket ride
- Day 5 – PR9 walk
- Day 6 – Flight home