An insider handbook to the best spots on Madeira Island and happenings – By Andrea Newton (Resident) 

Welcome to our ultimate Madeira Islands travel guide, your passport to exploring this enchanting archipelago nestled in the North Atlantic Ocean. Madeira, known as the “Island of Eternal Spring,” beckons travelers with its lush landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and abundant natural wonders.

Known to be a holiday maker’s dream as it has something for everyone, my first impression of Madeira Island was that it was lost in a time capsule and retains an almost Jurassic flair to it.

Câmara De Lobos, Madeira - View of the port and Cabo Girao
Câmara De Lobos, Madeira – View of the port and Cabo Girao via Unsplash

Born of extensive volcanic activity the island boasts captivating lush scenery and a fresh climate compared to its mainland counterparts. 

It may seem like a small island and therefore easy to explore, but three years on I have yet to discover many villages and towns that are dotted across this gorgeous tropical haven. 

Getting in

The archipelago of Madeira is geographically closer to Morocco than to mainland Portugal.

An hour and a half’s flight away from Lisbon, you enter through the Cristiano Ronaldo Airport, FNC which is located between Machico and the island’s capital city Funchal. Direct flights make reaching Madeira convenient.

If you are lucky enough to catch a daytime flight, the absolutely stunning views and vibrant nature will surely tease you well before you have made your descent into the island. 

How to Get Around

Inter-island flights offer opportunities to explore beyond the main island. Public transport and taxis provide easy access to popular places, ensuring you can navigate the entire island with ease.

Rent a car for flexibility in exploring at your own pace. Free parking options abound, making it convenient to navigate the island independently.

Renting a car or a scooter is perhaps the best way to go around the island and the most cost-effective but it’s not the only way. (See this Portugal Road trip post too)

Local buses are efficient and reach every small corner, however to the deeper inner parts of the island, one might need to hire a taxi.

However bear in mind, that taxis are expensive but with the introduction of more Bolt service cars, you will be just fine. 

Where to Stay on Madeira Island

Ponta do Sol Pier, Madeira, Portugal
Ponta do Sol Pier, Madeira, Portugal

In terms of where to stay while visiting, it depends really on the kind of holiday you want. There are many affordable accommodations ranging from co-living spaces to shared grand villas or individual apartments and of course luxury hotels.

In order to stay on the sunniest part of Madeira, consider Ponta do Sol on the West Coast. I recommend Estalagem da Ponta do Sol, a lovely 4 star hotel.

Hotel Estalagem, Ponta do sol
Hotel Estalagem, Ponta do sol

Estalagem da Ponta do Sol is perched on a cliff facing the sea with an infinity pool and stunning views.

If you’d like to stay in the North, then I suggest the beautiful Estalagem do Mar in São Vicente.

Estalagem do Mar in São Vicente
Estalagem do Mar in São Vicente

This hotel has views of the Atlantic Ocean that you can enjoy from the pool and many of the rooms. The historic São Vicente Chapel with its views over the São Vicente Valley is right next to the hotel.

You can also stay directly in Funchal so that you are close to the city life, the nightlife, and all the buzz. Consider booking Savoy Palace, a stunning 5-star hotel.

Savoy Palace, Funchal, Madeira
Savoy Palace, Funchal, Madeira

Savoy Palace is close to Almirante Reis Beach and has gorgeous views and outdoor and indoor swimming pools.

It is advisable to book a couple of days in the north, then the east coast, then the west, etc to get a glimpse of the different spectrum of life each side of the island has to offer.

Best Time to Visit Madeira

Senna Flower Tree - Madeira is an year long destination
Senna Flower Tree – Madeira is an year-long destination

While Madeira enjoys a subtropical climate year-round, the winter months are particularly pleasant, offering milder temperatures and fewer crowds. However, any time of year is a good option for visiting, depending on your preferences.

So, the best time to visit the island would be practically any time of the year. There are always festivities going on in terms of festivals that showcase local produce and music and crafts.

If you do want a more relaxed, beachside kind of itinerary I definitely suggest coming towards the summer months when the weather is perfect. If you’d like to experience more beaches of Portugal, then check out the posts about Portugal’s Algarve region and Nazare too.

What to do on Madeira Island

Whether you’re seeking uninhabited islands for a perfect escape or vibrant cities teeming with local culture, Madeira has something for everyone. Let’s dive into the details and uncover the best of what these Portuguese islands have to offer.

Madeira Hikes, Trailblazing & Outdoor Adventures

One of the reasons many tourists flock to Madeira is its stunning hiking trails.

Vereda da Ponta de Sao Lourenco Hike on Madeira Island
Vereda da Ponta de Sao Lourenco Hike on Madeira Island via Unsplash

While the beaches spell beauty, it’s the inner labyrinths of Madeira island that are lined with liquid gold levadas that ooze a magical allure that is unseen anywhere else in the world.

Swim in natural pools carved by the waters of Madeira or marvel at the sheer cliffs of Cabo Girão, one of the highest peaks in Europe. Embark on hikes along the island’s extensive network of trails or simply relax on a sandy beach, soaking in the sun and sea breeze.

I have handpicked a few hiking adventures for you to consider booking based on your level and interest:

It is advised to do the hikes paying heed to the local weather restrictions, the difficulty factor if any, and the guidelines set by other hikers. Some groups meet regularly and do a trail together and this is advisable if you are not familiar with the terrain and cannot speak the local dialect.

Levada walks are usually the ones that are easier to do and don’t involve crazy paths. Whilst Veredas or exploring the peaks are not for the faint-hearted and do require some prep time. Some of the most popular hikes to really soak in the lush outdoors are

Pico Areeiro – Pico Ruivo and it is the most famous and Instagram-worthy hike in my opinion.

Ponta de São Lourenço - Madeira Island Hikes
Ponta de São Lourenço – Madeira Island Hikes

Ponta de Sao Lourenco is fairly easy to do and can be achieved in a time span of about 3 to 4 hours. It is the ultimate tip of the island and is located on the eastern coast of Madeira.

Levada das 25 Fontes, is also known as the fairytale hike because of the number of small waterfalls one can cross whilst doing this absolutely serene hike. It is not a very difficult hike and could be done in under 2 hours.

Waterfall in Rabacal, Madeira, Portugal
Waterfall in Rabacal, Madeira, Portugal via Unsplash

Some other epic trails are Levada Moinho, Vereda do Larano, Caldeirao do Inferno, and Caldeirao Verde.

Whatever trail you choose, be prepared for all kinds of weather, take warm layers as well as protection from the rain, and even your swimming gear. You can experience all four climates in one day and that is a fact! 

Exploring Madeira on a Rented Car

Now if hiking and getting sweaty up in the mountains isn’t your thing then renting a car and driving around the island is a superb way to spend a good holiday.

You can start by exploring the northeast and visiting Santana and Faial. Eat at local restaurants, the seafood on the island is fresh and super delicious.

I highly recommend trying local delicacies like tuna steaks, Espada fillets, grilled limpets, and octopus rice. There is also the very famous Bacalhau com Natas which is baked codfish with cream and potatoes – a winner for all kinds of flavor profiles.

Dolphin Tours in Madeira

Three dolphins swimming on the coast of Madeira, Portugal
Three dolphins swimming on the coast of Madeira, Portugal via Unsplash

Now, everyone knows Madeira is famous for its whale and dolphin tours. There are many eco-friendly tour companies that pass along the coast of Calheta.

This is a great way to get into the sea, some companies offer food and refreshments as part of the tour and you can swim mid-journey alongside dolphins if you are lucky.

I have handpicked a few tours for you:

  • Catamaran Cruise – Dolphin and Whale Watching Tour: EUR 35 per person, and starts from Funchal, Cabo Girão promontory.
  • Luxury Catamaran Cruise: Dolphin and Whale Watching, EUR 40 per person, starts from Funchal, Cabo Girão snorkeling.
  • Sunset Sailing Tour: Starts from Funchal and includes Dolphin and Whale watching. EUR 45 per person. Also includes snorkeling near Cabo Girão cliffs.

And, if you want to take it a notch higher, get yourself a diving lesson dive deep into the turquoise waters of the Atlantic, and associate yourself with marine life face to face. It is highly addictive so only do this if you are prepared to keep coming back for more. 

South Coast: Funchal – Experience the Big City Life 

Funchal, Madère, Portugal
Funchal, Madère, Portugal via Pexels

Funchal is the capital of the island, busier than most parts and full of activities. Whether you want to visit the botanical gardens, museums, parks, eat, shop, attend a concert, or get a massage at a spa, there is literally everything you can think of within a 30-minute walking radius.

Monte Palace

The dreamlike Monte Palace tropical garden is like a movie set in far east Asia, it is a beautiful spot in the heart of the city and should not be missed.

Cable Car Ride in Porto da Cruz

Cable Car Line Over the Cityscape of Funchal
Cable Car Line Over the Cityscape of Funchal via Pexels

Another star attraction of the island is the cable cars which give you an aerial view of Funchal and this is something worth experiencing as well.

Take a cable car ride in Porto da Cruz for breathtaking views from high cliffs or venture to Fajã dos Padres on the main island for a tranquil seaside retreat. Don’t miss the Monte Palace Tropical Garden, a botanical wonderland showcasing the island’s diverse flora.

Câmara de Lobos

Câmara de Lobos, Portugalia
Câmara de Lobos, Portugalia via Unsplash

Câmara de Lobos is Madeira’s largest city, and is a vibrant hub where old town charm meets modern flair. It is actually a suburb of Funchal.

Explore its bustling streets, sample exotic tropical fruits at the Mercado dos Lavradores, and indulge in culinary delights at restaurants boasting Michelin stars.

Ribeira Brava

Ribeira Brava, Travel Guide for Madeira Island, Portugal
Ribeira Brava, Travel Guide for Madeira Island, Portugal

Ribeira Brava serves as a vibrant hub where tradition meets modernity, offering a glimpse into authentic Madeiran life.

The town derives its name, which translates to “Wild River,” from the fast-flowing river that runs through its center, adding to its scenic allure. Ribeira Brava is strategically located on the south coast of Madeira, making it an ideal base for exploring the island’s diverse attractions.

East Coast: Porto da Cruz, Canical, Machico

Moving towards the east coast, Porto da Cruz is a surfer’s haven, with a stunning beach Maiata that is made of soft black volcanic sand and has some decent-sized waves.

Porto da Cruz, Madeira Island, Portugal
Porto da Cruz, Madeira Island, Portugal via Unsplash

It is home to the famous Rum factory where you can go and see the process of the extraction of the sugar cane rum and taste its varieties. There’s also a huge seawater pool by the coast if the beach doesn’t call to you.

The next town, Canical has a gorgeous little beach called Prainha which is worth all those hundreds of steps down. It’s a hidden pocket of paradise that can be the perfect picnic spot to spend the day. 

Machico Beach, Madeira Island Guide
Machico Beach, Madeira Island Guide

Moving further down the coast you will find the second busiest town on the island, Machico. It is here where the first inhabitants of the island set foot in the 1400s.

The yellow sandy beach was made with actual sand from Morocco and is a tourist favorite.

You can hire a kayak for a couple of hours and discover the surrounding bays and coves by yourself or if you like, take a SUP board and cruise along. Machico has some good restaurants and bakeries so it’s definitely worth spending a day there.

During the summer Mahcico hosts a medieval fair that lasts for about 3 days. It is a mesmerizing ode to the history of the original inhabitants and consists of the entire town dressing up in cosplay of pirates and lords, knights on horses, belly dancers mixed with vibrant fireshows, drinks in clay cups, music, food, and a lot of fun.

North Coast: Porto Moniz Pools

Porto Moniz, Madeira Island
Porto Moniz, Madeira Island Photo by Tim L

A trip to Madeira would be incomplete without a visit to the natural pools in Porto Moniz. They are absolutely breathtaking and perfect for summer dipping.

However, the weather is very unpredictable in that part of the island and you may even have rain and clouds on a summer day. Nonetheless, it is still such a picturesque wonder, there’s also a little turtle museum by the coast that showcases some very interesting species of marine life. 

Northeastern Coast: São Vicente, Ponta Delgada & Seixal

Madeirã, Castelo Branco, Portugal - Chapel on Hill in Sao Vicente, Portugal
Madeirã, Castelo Branco, Portugal – Chapel on Hill in Sao Vicente, Portugal via Pexels

The wild northern coast which consists of Sao Vicente, Ponta Delgada, and Seixal are the lesser populated parts where one can truly immerse oneself in the wilderness.

If you’re craving solitude and pristine natural beauty, head to São Vicente, one of Madeira’s uninhabited islands. Here, you’ll find yourself in the perfect place to disconnect and recharge amidst rugged coastlines and untouched landscapes.

São Vicente Chapel and Blue Bridge, Madeira Island, Portugal
São Vicente Chapel and Blue Bridge, Madeira Island, Portugal

Great spots for camping. Not much to do in terms of nightlife so make a trip there when you are in need of solitude and peace and quiet.

West Coast: Ponta do Sol & Madalena do Mar (+waterfall of angels)

Ponta do Sol, Madeira Island Guide, Portugal
Ponta do Sol, Madeira Island Guide, Portugal

Finally, the beloved west coast of the Island, starting with Ponta do Sol which is the sunnier part, home to a sweet little rock beach and the famous Estalagem hotel for its grand views.

Ponta do Sol, Madeira Island, Portugal
Ponta do Sol, Madeira Island, Portugal

Weekly farmers markets, yoga classes, techno parties, hikes, and other activities make this a popular spot for foreigners living in Madeira.

The West Coast is home to the biggest number of digital nomads on the island and has one of the best co-working spaces for nomads in the center of the town. So, if you are working while on holiday you can have the perfect spot to connect with other nomads and explore opportunities.

Madalena do Mar, Madeira Island
Madalena do Mar, Madeira Island

A little ahead is the next town Madalena do Mar, succulent heaven and purely local resident zone but home to the famous Cascata dos anjos, waterfall of angels, drive-through waterfall that has graced many if not all influencers’ Instagrams.

If you do visit in the summer you can drive further down to Zion cafe and sip a cocktail whilst watching the sunset after your customary shower in the waterfall. 

Porto Santo Island

Porto Santo, Portugal
Porto Santo, Portugal via Unsplash

If you have a few days extra on hand, you can take a ferry from Funchal to the island of Porto Santo.

Named the best beach island destination in Europe a couple of times, it is worth visiting. Absolutely raw pristine nature, quiet neighbourhoods, and serenity. 

While most tourist attractions and nature trails are open all year round, the festivals and events are seasonal. It is advisable to check before traveling what the island has to offer.

Madeira Nightlife 

If you have had a busy day and want to kick back, Funchal does have a pretty spicy nightlife going on with cute little clubs that play interesting music.

A few bars to check would be Barreirinha Bar, Mini Echo Bar, Vespas, and Marginal. Depending on the day you can find dub, reggae, electronic, techno, or even trance. 

Funchal Madeira Nightlife
Funchal Madeira Nightlife via Unsplash

A party in Madeira is incomplete without a Poncha. Sounds interesting? It is a potent elixir made of very strong sugar cane rum and mixed with fresh juice of lime, oranges, local passion fruits, mint, and other exotic flavors.

The small drink has its own cup crafted delicately in glass, but do not judge this little dynamite by its sweet and innocent cover, this heady concoction can be quite intoxicating thus making it one of the most sought-after items to try when in Madeira.

You can find Poncha bars almost everywhere, however, Machico is known for the Poncha Pescador (the fisherman Poncha) legend has it was created during sailors’ long trips to the eastern subcontinent and back and comes from the Indian word Paanch meaning 5, and the English word punch.

During the local parties and festivals, it is common to eat grilled meat or espetada which is cubes of juice meal on skewers. And this is the perfect combo for those balmy nights out. 

Experience Madeira Wine

From sipping lemon juice to exploring sugar cane plantations, Madeira’s local culture is as vibrant as its landscapes. Visit Blandy’s Wine Lodge to sample the island’s famed Madeira wine or venture to Curral das Freiras for a glimpse into Madeira’s historical roots.

Christmas at Madeira

Christmas is one of my favorite times to be here as the island lights up like Santa’s workshop. The weather in December is hot during the day so you can be at the beach and then at night explore the Christmas markets.

Listen to the local choirs, check out the fantastic light show, and give in to all your festive cravings at the local markets. 

Spring Carnival

In spring there is the annual Carnavale, the likes of which can be compared to the grandeur and pomp of the Rio carnival. Locals and residents alike prepare months in advance for a glittering parade that attracts thousands of spectators every year.

The weeklong festivities include theme parties and concerts across the island. Each town has its own specific date and its own mini parade so if you don’t make it to the main one you can always catch the smaller version on another day. 

Is Madeira Expensive?

Ponta de São Lourenço, Estr. de São Lourenço, Canical, Portugalia
Ponta de São Lourenço, Estr. de São Lourenço, Canical, Portugalia via Unsplash

While traveling within Madeira might be cheap and eating out quite affordable, I have heard that it is more expensive than the mainland.

Keeping that thought in mind, come prepared to indulge yourself in a holiday of a lifetime by making a visit to this pearl nestled in the Atlantic Ocean.

Madeira Island Guide Closing Thoughts

Madeira Islands offer a myriad of experiences, from whale watching off the north coast to leisurely strolls through the city center. Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, or cultural immersion, Madeira promises a great time for every traveler.

So grab your camera, pack your bags, and embark on a journey to discover the wonders of this Portuguese archipelago – it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience!

About the Author – Andrea Newton

I’m Andrea, an Indian hippie at heart living in Madeira since 2021. I run a small boho business called Bohemia Lifestyle and I make scented candles for a living. I have two beautiful sons and I love life on the island. I used to write for various travel and lifestyle publications in India before I moved to Europe.

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