“Of the islands, the most beautiful and free”
A place of endless green landscapes and steep cliffs contoured by the Atlantic Ocean. Of golden sands and flavors of sea and land that dissolve on the palate. A “wow” at every corner, that makes you want to get lost and get lost again in every cove as if you were discovering it for the first time with every step. Between 5 and 7 days is the ideal period to get to know Madeira, and always have the excuse of wanting to come back for more. There, situated on the African plate, with crystal clear waters and mild temperature all year round, the beautiful and free Madeira, is waiting for us to discover it!
WHERE IS IT AND HOW TO GET TO MADEIRA?
Close to the Canary Islands and Morocco, only two of its islands are habitable. The easiest, most convenient and fastest way to get to Madeira is by plane to Funchal. It is only 1h30 from the capital city of Lisbon. Through websites like “Skyscanner” it is easy to decide which is the best time to travel and which companies have the most affordable prices. The excitement of visiting Madeira begins even before you set foot on the ground, with one of the most radical airports for landing. During the summer, if you want to play João Gonçalves Zarco, you can reach Madeira by boat. Cruises leave from Lisbon.
WHAT TO VISIT IN MADEIRA?
There are many and spectacular attractions on the island of Madeira. One of the most difficult parts of this article was choosing what to show you. To make the article easier to read and consult, we decided to divide the attractions into blocks: 1-Natural Heritage (waterfalls, peaks, viewpoints, lakes), 2-Activities and experiences in Madeira, 3-Cultural Heritage (churches, hermitages, forts), 4- Urban Heritage (cities and parishes)
NATURAL HERITAGE (Waterfalls, Peaks, Viewpoints, Ponds)
Below is a map with the location of Madeira’s most important natural heritage. We hope you find it useful!
From high above, from its 580 meters high, we can enjoy the fantastic view at this viewpoint that is situated on top of one of the highest cables in europe! And, as if the aerial view over Câmara de Lobos, the ocean, and the island’s undulating coastline wasn’t enough, it is now also possible to walk the Skywalk. And thus have the wood at your feet, or in this case, the glass. With Madeira at our feet we can even jump higher, because in this area paragliding is one of the most recurrent radical sports! Courage?
It’s hard to go to Madeira and choose a favorite viewpoint, a place of choice. But the peak of Areeiro, besides being in the top 3 of the highest viewpoints in Madeira, is, without a doubt, in my top 3 of places to visit! With a breathtaking panoramic view, there is no sensation that can be transmitted in words like watching the sunrise from this spot. Accessible by car, with snow in the surrounding areas during the winter and lots of trails accessible through dirt roads and tunnels that take you to the next peak… the Redhead! It is advisable to carry flashlights, water and appropriate equipment to do this route that can take a few hours!
Pico Ruivo, or Pico de Santana as it is also known, is a magical place full of personality. With unstable weather, the best is to be prepared for everything: gusts, rain, sun that allows us to appreciate the magnificence of the slopes and its deep valleys, sighting the peak of the towers, the areeiro and even the tip of São Lourenço.
At other times the place is transformed, and from the top we sit on beds of clouds that surround the peak and watch them glide across the coves. This is because being in Madeira and especially in this place, is literally, being in the clouds, if it were not the highest point of the island with 1862 meters. The fog is usually more prevalent in the afternoon than in the morning and early evening.
NATURAL POOLS OF PORTO MONIZ
Carved by nature, these natural pools are located in the northwestern part of the island! Flanked by volcanic eruption rocks, crystal clear and naturally salty, the waters here are usually around 20 degrees. They are open all year round, between 9am and 7pm during the summer and 9am and 5pm in the winter. It has a symbolic cost of 1.5€ per person, and still with several discounts. A more rural way to enjoy nature while bathing and sunbathing. It is also possible to rent sun loungers, make use of the bar, and take the kids to the playground. All this always surrounded by the calm and sea air of this small paradise village.
WATERFALL OF ANGELS
Madeira, as I told you, and as you can tell from its people and spaces, has a personality all of its own. Having said that, we don’t always need to think of places to visit and drive there and cross the island. Most of the time, it is the beauty of the island that crosses us. If you drive on the regional ER 101 at Ponta do Sol, it is impossible not to notice and be indifferent to the cascade of angels! It falls right there, right in front of us, just to show us its beauty and then continues on its way to the ocean.
WATERFALL GARGANTA FUNDA
I have already said here that Madeira is magical, but there is a place on this shamed island, hidden in jagged mountains oceans, where magic really happens. Magic moments of silence and contemplation where only the wind carries our thoughts. From a more secluded place, Pedregal, you can get there by car, but there is no parking. The viewpoint overlooking the 140-meter long waterfall is a short walk away. The path there lacks protection and the ground can be slippery. The best time to see this place is during the winter. During the summer the waters are less abundant. There is also a circular path where you can see the lighthouse of ponta do Pargo.
25 FOUNTAIN LAGOON
In an authentic journey through nature, it is possible to reach the Lagoa das 25 fontes (they were sparing with the name, since there are more that make it up), through one of the many famous “levadas” that are traveled on the island. The path is flanked by nature and even the stairs on the way are made of stone. Along the way it is possible to observe the flora of the island and some of its inhabitants (despite being a place quite frequented by tourists). Among other inhabitants, we find the trocaz pigeon, a rare bird that lives here and that can accompany us in a moment of contemplation by the green pond, surrounded by ferns and vines. As for bathing, the water is cold! The Rabaçal parking lot can be a good starting point to begin this adventure.
DONA BEJA’S WATERFALL AND LAGOON
This route is done through the Alecrim levada, where you can take it easy and fill your water bottle along the way. The route is done in less than 3h (round trip), in 3km of low difficulty. The waters, although cold, allow you to dive.
LAGOA DO VENTO (WIND LAGOON)
Those who take the levadas that lead to the previous lagoons can continue adventuring and head for the Lagoa do vento. Descending from the lagoon of dona beja. Through the heart of the forest the path is more challenging and sometimes also more slippery. It is important to bring suitable footwear and clothing for the trail and of course, why not, a bolo do caco to have a picnic with the soundtrack of the 100-meter waterfall that falls over the lagoon. On the way back, to ease the challenge of the trail, you can make a stop at Casa de Abrigo do Rabaçal and taste the cheesecakes or simply regain energy!
FANAL FORESTRY POST
In the north of the island, the forested harbor fanal, stuck in my eyes as if I had plunged into a scene from Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life”. If the sky were an image it would be the calm and tranquility of this space, with enigmatic trees and an inviting green plain. A protected nature reserve and Unesco world heritage site for its Laurissilva forest and woods with century-old trees that already belonged here before the island was discovered.
It is in Ribeiro Frio that the easy access route to this viewpoint begins. At this viewpoint we feel as if Madeira were our home and here our balcony, our balcony. Here we can observe, as far as our eyes can see and rest, the entire central mountain range of the island with Pico Ruivo, do Areeiro, das Torres and do Gato. With abundant fauna and flora, it is a privileged place for birdwatching, such as the famous tendril.
ACTIVITIES AND EXPERIENCES IN MADEIRA
DOLPHIN AND WHALE WATCHING
One of those experiences to have at least once in your life! Did you know that off Madeira it is possible to see more than 23 species of cetaceans? Some of these species have chosen Madeira to live while others cross these waters on their migratory route towards the north! Some species can be seen all year round, especially dolphins, sperm whales and some turtles, while others are more common during the summer months.
There are several companies offering this experience that lasts approximately 3 hours. And no, you won’t see dolphins all the time, it’s 3 hours in which time hovers over the ocean, in which you can delight in the contemplation of the island and the immense sea. Then, when you really expect it… bam! There they are, those friendly and imposing sea creatures greeting us and leaving us the trail of their glimpse.
BOAT TRIP TO THE DESERT ISLANDS
To travel to the deserted islands of Madeira is to feel like an explorer in one of those National Geographic documentaries. With the difference that it’s not Sunday morning and we’re not at home on the couch watching on TV! We are heading towards adventure.
These islands are renowned for their genetic biodiversity being home to over 200 endemic species, rare birds, and even a sea lion nature reserve! It is important to bring comfortable clothing to explore the island as well as swimwear to enjoy the fantastic crystal clear waters. The landing is in a cove on Deserta Grande island. The boats usually depart from Funchal and you can choose from half day or full day tours, some offers also include lunch.
WALK ALONG THE LEVADA OF CALDEIRÃO VERDE
If you don’t have much time, and if you are not a habitual walker (but still want to get to know the heart of Madeira on foot), the ideal is to do the PR9 trail. It’s about 13km (round trip) of linear path, starting near the Parque Florestal das Queimadas, in Santana, and with signs up to Caldeirão Verde. Although it is a moderately difficult trail (despite being flat, it is long), it is important to wear appropriate footwear. Due to the waterfalls the ground can be slippery. The trail also passes through some tunnels, so it is advisable to bring a flashlight as well as water and a snack. Although easy, the whole trip takes us about 4 to 5 hours, but gives us much, much more.
TRAVEL IN A WOODEN BASKET CAR, MADEIRA
When talking about Madeira it is almost impossible to start a sentence without saying: unique experience! The personality of this island takes us to adventures that we can’t find anywhere else. One of them is the famous basket trip! Travel, yes! Not a tour!
The basket cart is handmade by the people of the land with the resources that exist on the island. They are “guided” by professionals wearing white clothing, straw hats, and “brakes” on their feet. That is, shoes with rubber soles made of tires. The route starts in Funchal, in the land of Monte, and is 2km of adrenaline in a natural state, at speeds that make you question life. This asphalt sled takes between 1 and 3 people on a 10-minute trip down the Madeiran slope. Prices start at 25€ and you can reach the town by taking advantage of the views from the cable car.
Below is a map showing the location of Madeira’s most relevant cultural heritage.
SÃO VICENTE VOLCANISM CENTER
It is said that Madeira was born here. In the north of the island, more specifically in the valley of São Vicente. At the Volcanism Center we are playfully guided through the history and geological development of the island. A piece of land that was generated as a result of volcanic eruptions creating a habitat with unique conditions. The visit to the center includes several rooms that simulate the creation of the island, volcanic eruptions, and trips to the center of the earth. At the end it is also possible to visit a garden of endemic plants.
Visiting the interior of the earth is also possible in a 30 min trip to the São Vicente caves (the largest so far discovered in Madeira) made up of 3 galleries. An illuminated route where you can observe stalactites and other volcanic occurrences. Open every day from 10am to 7pm.
FUNCHAL’S CATHEDRAL (SÉ DO FUNCHAL)
Predominantly Gothic architecture, the main religious monument and one of the oldest on the island, its construction having begun in the fifteenth century and has survived the passage of time. Built by King Manuel, it is one of the examples that best preserves the Manueline architecture. Special attention to the goldsmith’s work in the silver processional cross. The ceiling made from Madeira cedar and the chancel with details of the island’s life are other details that fill this space with beauty.
TOWN SQUARE (PRAÇA DO MUNICÍPIO)
The center of Funchal and the largest square in the city. Surrounded by strong elements of the city such as the Church of São João Evangelista and its college (hence this square is also known as the college square), Museum of Sacred Art (former episcopal palace) and also the City Hall. In the center, in the fountain and its obelisk, are represented the city’s coat of arms.
Funchal’s municipal headquarters, this monument is just across the square from the town hall. A building of Baroque architecture, this historical monument from the 18th century is open to the public, every day at 11am, conducting guided tours through its wings, towers and interior gardens. Admission is free.
SÃO LOURENÇO PALACE
National Monument strategically positioned on Avenida Zarco. It served as an instrument of military defense of the island. This fortress houses in the palace part, gardens and offices, a structure that is currently the residence of the representative of the republic of the Autonomous Region of Madeira. On the other side, a military area that holds the museum core with the military history of the island. The site is open during weekdays with free visits.
SÃO TIAGO FORT
By the sea, in the old part of Funchal, this fortress stands out because of its yellowish paint. Open on weekdays, you can tour this military building that has housed at different times, British troops and army. It has also served as a shelter on other occasions. Now attached to it is the MUDAS – Museum of Contemporary Art of Madeira.
URBANISTIC HERITAGE (cities and parishes)
Below is a map with the location of Madeira’s most important urban heritage.
CURRAL DAS FREIRAS
It is in a hidden place in Câmara de Lobos that we find this small village. Its name is due to the fact that it was a place of agriculture and pasture. It is also said that the nuns of Santa Clara had taken refuge here during the French sack. Also known for once being a place of refuge for slaves and fugitives, the small parish gained people and land over time. Now, history is kinder to those who want to take refuge there.
In October take refuge in the beautiful chestnut festival with culinary delicacies produced in this “cauldron” among the mountains. Still in the threshing floor of Serrado we can contemplate all the splendor of the place. In the Santo António restaurant you can enjoy the Madeiran food at your leisure, because there you are protected from people’s eyes. Yes, Curral das Freiras is one of the few parts of the island that can’t be seen from the sea. The perfect place to hide and get in touch with nature and the flavors of the land.
CÂMARA DE LOBOS
With its location to the south of the island, Câmara de lobos owes its toponymy to the fact that, when it was discovered, there were plenty of sea lions living in its cove. Nowadays, their sightings are rarer, with these animals being more present in the uninhabited islands of the archipelago, but the name has remained ever since. This is the place where the famous Madeira wine was born, grew up and still lives, being one of the richest exports from the island. And not only wine lives in this area, ending the day with a Niquita (a cocktail of white wine, beer and pineapple ice cream) and tasting the traditional codfish of Camara de Lobos with frog and cat is a must!
Take the levada do Norte that connects Ribeira Brava to Cabo Girão, go down by cable car to the isolated beach at fajã dos frades and climb to the peak of the tower, are alternative ways to explore the place. Enjoy the tranquility of this fishing area and stroll around the bay decorated by the typical and colorful xavelhas boats that Churchill eternalized in one of his paintings after visiting the island.
PAÚL DO MAR
In the western part of the island, Paúl de Mar, a small fishing village surrounded by vertiginous mountains, this place has a special touch. Popular for its pebble beach, the praia das galinhas. The beach is not watched, but has showers and bars. To have a drink at “Maktub” is literally to enjoy the moment of a cool drink overlooking the sea with an inviting temperature, since this is the area with the warmest temperatures on the island. The area is also, due to its characteristics, very popular for surfing.
Take the opportunity to visit the still little known pico dos bodes viewpoint or the picturesque lighthouse of ponta do pargo, located in the westernmost part of Madeira with a small museum on the lighthouses of the island. Don’t go to bed without enjoying the end of the day with your eyes set on the sea, here the sunset is a delicacy for the eyes.
SEIXAL TOWN, MADEIRA
The north of the island brings us the beauty of the black volcanic sand beaches. Laje beach is one of the options for the beach. The access can be misleading, first you have to pass through a long pebble beach where you can observe the fishermen and even go snorkeling. As we round it we find a small bay, hidden there waiting for us, sitting by the sea. Despite this, it is watched over during the bathing season, has a bar and changing rooms. For surfing and hiking lovers, Ribeira da Janela beach is also an excellent option.
Being an area cut by the mountains, the wind is not so strong here and creates ideal microclimatic conditions for the production of dry wine as well as for banana plantations. It is also worth taking the road that connects São Vicente to Seixal and admire the views from the miradouro do véu da noiva (when you get there you will understand the reason for the name). Visiting the Laurissilva forest valley in Chão da Ribeira is another activity not to be missed.
SANTANA’S HOUSES, MADEIRA
At first glance, when passing through Santana, it seems that it was imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien. A sort of Madeiran Shire but which has nothing to do with hobbits or rings but with traditions and architectural and agricultural resources from Madeira’s early years. Nowadays it is easy to get to this place. When it was discovered, this was one of the most difficult areas to access, with agriculture and abundant rain. In order to take advantage of the resources, the houses were built in an inverted V shape and covered with thatch. The slope served to avoid the strong waters and the material helped to keep the dwellings protected from the summer heat and harsh winters.
In this region there was little stone. The dwellings were mostly made of wood. Their faces were painted with red on the base and the blue of the sea on their outlines. Perhaps this is also why they were nicknamed clowns. They functioned as houses on the ground floor, and the attics were places where grain was stored. You can travel back in time and visit these lovely little houses every day between 9am and 5pm and delight in the local produce on sale there. Admission is free.
VIRTUAL TOUR TO MADEIRA
HOW TO MOVE AROUND IN THE MADEIRA ISLAND?
If the idea is to explore the whole island, it’s really advisable to rent a car (there are many companies on the island and at affordable prices). The island has accessible roads, although the best views are on secondary roads. Still, if driving is not an option, you can always dispense with the steady hand of the steering wheel and firmly enjoy the landscapes through the service of tourist agencies that offer different tours and routes in 4×4 format. When driving in Madeira be aware that on some roads, where basket cars circulate, the direction of circulation changes! The signs are demarcated on the ground.
Although it certainly had Roman, Greek, Arab and Phoenician occupation, it was in 1418 that it was discovered by the Portuguese after they were tossed by a storm off the African coast. Thus one of the islands was named “Porto Santo”. The archipelago is, as far as the eye can see, a green splendor of mountains. Hence the name “Madeira”, due to the abundance of these elements. This volcanic paradise became even more “beautiful and free” in 1976 after the Salazar dictatorship, becoming an autonomous community.
WHEN SHOULD I VISIT MADEIRA?
Being an island, Madeira offers a mild climate all year round without great temperature oscillations. That is also why these fluctuations can occur on the same day. With stunning sunshine in the morning, drizzle around the corner, and wind a few meters further on. So it is best to be prepared. The months between April and September offer a more florid experience, where it is possible to see dolphins and whales, practice water sports, and walk along sunny trails. In December it can snow in the higher parts and the island receives a lot of tourism due to its popular fireworks and New Year’s Eve celebrations.
TYPICAL MADEIRA CUISINE
Madeira is surrounded by beautiful and… good things! With immense food resources, the freshness and flavor of the fish and seafood dishes make any dish a delicacy for the eyes and palate. Delight yourself with the limpets made in a frying pan with melted butter and lemon. Everywhere on the island this Madeiran specialty will make any fan of sea flavors melt as well. Swordfish fillets and tuna steaks are other alternative meals. Not as an alternative to limpets, but for the other days, because in Madeira, with so many gastronomic delights, it will be difficult not to eat but to decide. The restaurant “Muralha’s, in Caniçal, is one of the suggestions where any snacker can indulge in sea dishes at affordable prices.
The island doesn’t live on fish alone, but kebabs are also very popular! Barbecue with cubes of beef skewered on laurel branches! Very appreciated during festivities, in some places we ourselves can roast them over charcoal coals and feel even more at home! Any of these delicacies would not be complete if we didn’t add to it the already well-known, bolo do caco! Great with garlic butter, on a hamburger, on a nail, as a starter, to be dipped in sauce…. Round and sweet, this “bread” was originally baked in basalt stone, which gave it its name. To accompany, or continue, try the typical poncha from Madeira and finish with a sweet of exotic fruits, the famous passion fruit mousse.
RESTAURANTS IN MADEIRA
Restaurant with over 90 reviews and an overall rating of 5 (!) out of a maximum of 5 (this is the first time I have found a MAXIMUM rating with a high number of reviews). The restaurant is located in the center of Funchal and, from the comments, the food is delicious. The compliments mention with insistence the good relation quality / price.