Madeira is probably the most exotic destination in Portugal. Every outdoorsy type and nature lover would very much enjoy what Madeira has to offer and be amazed by all that beauty on these islands.
Breathtaking landscapes, exceptional wine and great weather with warm temperatures year-round
Spring brings so many colors around us and with the subtropical climate that Madeira enjoys, you’ll find all the colors of the rainbow in the abundance of various flowers, traditional costumes, exotic fruits, and the street art in the Funchal’s old town.
Although Madeira is part of the European Union, this autonomous region of Portugal comprised of four islands, is closer to Africa that is to Portugal. The total population of Madeira is nearly 250,000. Madeira island, the largest of the group is not too big either, with only 57 km in length and 22 km wide. But, it’s one of the safest destinations in the world.
In Madeira, you can expect much different beach vacation from other tourist popular destinations or islands. These islands offer much more varieties for swimming and sunbathing: from pebble beaches and natural lava pools to man-build swimming complexes and golden sandy beaches. Prepare yourself for a quite unique beach vacation to remember.
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Beaches and pools on Madeira islands
Madeira is quite diverse and if you want to spend nice time near the shore and the ocean there are some unique options that you won’t find quite often elsewhere.
The Northern part of Madeira island is where the most visited and popular natural lava pools of Madeira are. These bathing areas made of volcanic cliffs in the waters of the ocean are one of a kind experience here. So rare to come across and purely enjoyable.
Porto Moniz is a well-known natural lava pool that most of the tourist will want to stop by and spend at least one day here. The convenient part is that anyone can have a dip in it, swim peacefully without worrying about the surf while enjoying the sound of the waves crashing on the cliffs. Although the water in this open pool comes naturally from the ocean and is surrounded by natural stones and rocks, still the area is built of concrete platforms and stairs like any other pool. Amenities such as change rooms, showers, toilets, and bar are available. It’s very safe for families with a nice playground for the children. There are lifeguards on the spot and you can rent sunbeds or parasols for the day. Since the average temperature of the sea water is between 18-22℃, the pools are open all year round. Right next to it, there is another, but a completely natural pool made of volcanic cliff formations.
If you’re looking for one of these lava pools near Funchal, visit Doca do Cavacas natural pool. This one, even though it’s quite small, it’s very well adjusted with concrete platforms for sunbathing and stairs that lead directly into the ocean.
One of the nicest beaches on Madeira island is undoubtedly Seixal beach. And that is not only because of the black sand that this beach was naturally formed of but the stunning views that one can enjoy while swimming or sunbathing here. You shouldn’t miss out visiting one of the Madeira best natural volcanic pools, Clube Naval do Seixal, located in this area. On the east side of the island, there is another black sandy beach – Prainha, with everything you’ll need for rent such as chairs or parasols, toilets, and showers with nice restaurants on site.
The beautiful golden sandy beaches in Madeira can be found in Porto Santo, the second largest island in Madeira. A two hours ferry drive from Funchal will take you to the island. With 9 kilometers of soft sand, the main beach of Porto Santo is simply stunning. Tidy and clean with crystal clear waters that offer pure satisfaction. The main activity here would require a lot of relaxing and chilling under the wonderful weather.
Being a volcanic island most of the natural beaches in Madeira are stony. Which makes them quite difficult for one to stay at since the stones are pretty big and hard for walking or entering into the water. That’s why they have paths or leathers for easier access to the water which is helpful enough. There are also artificial beaches, as these two sandy beaches with small marinas which are nice, well protected and quite safe, Calheta and Machico. You won’t ever notice that the sand wasn’t naturally formed here but it was brought from Africa.
Lastly, in Madeira people have constructed very nice bathing complexes for anyone to enjoy. With saltwater pools for kids and adults, but a direct safe access to the ocean, diving boards and conveniently built concrete platforms for sunbathing, these bathing areas will make you never want to leave. You can rent parasols and sunbeds, have a snack in the bars, dine in the restaurants or have a nice picnic with your own food and drink. Showers, changing rooms, lockers, toilets, playgrounds are offered. Simply everything you might need. Two of the most visited and popular are Lido which is located near Funchal and Ponta Gorda.
Whichever side of the island you choose to stay at, you won’t lack the opportunity of visiting some nice place for spending the day, enjoying the sun and the ocean, swimming or sunbathing.
Walking and hiking in Madeira
Another thing that has to be on must-do activities to any visitor of Madeira are levadas. These walks or hikes in Madeira, known as levadas, are led along the irrigation canals that run through the forests. Built by people in the forests for the purpose of the land soil and distributing water from the north coast to the south coast.
It’s very nice since every walk takes you by the water when you get a chance to admire a wide variety of endemic species of the flora and fauna, ancient trees and exotic birds on the way. In some of them, you’ll walk through tunnels and be rewarded with beautiful cascading waterfalls at the end, like in Levada das 25 Fontes (fountains)/ Risco walk. If you hike the trail from Pico do Arieiro (1818 m) to the highest peak in Madeira, Pico Ruivo (1861 m) literally you’ll be walking above clouds and admiring the stunning views. It’ll definitely give you the feeling like you’re on top of the world. The Levada Rabaçal takes you through Laurisilva Forest, which is a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Finally, you may challenge yourself with all those stairs and wind in one of the most famous hikes in Madeira, and enjoy the lovely sceneries of the landscapes and views overlooking the volcanic cliffs in the ocean when you take the Vereda da Ponta de Sao Lourenço hike. Or, if you’re not much of a hiker at least make sure you walk the easiest levada walk, Vereda dos Balcões and have a glimpse into the typical greenery of Madeira.
The amazing natural beauty in Madeira is quite generous. From forests to lands with hardly any vegetation one can truly enjoy the beautiful diverse landscapes of Madeira. There are walks and hikes for every fitness level, some of them longer than the others, but all of them too beautiful to be missed on your visit to Madeira.
Most of the hikes and walks will require a car or bus to get you to the starting point. Keep in mind that if you’re not an experienced driver you may find the twisty roads a bit challenging. All of the walks and hikes though can be explored with organized guided tours.
Not to be missed
Every little town has its own charm and you can’t go much wrong when choosing your stops on the way of exploring Madeira. Still, here are some suggestions:
Câmara de Lobos is a picturesque fishing town just a few kilometers from the capital, Funchal. A day excursion with a couple of hours spent in this small town is worth a while for the small beach and colorful fishing boats that practice fishing of the scabbardfish at night. Scabbardfish with bananas is the national dish of Madeira, but this ugly looking fish comes in the shallows at night. That’s why you’ll be able peacefully to observe all those fishing boats moored in the water during daytime. When ordering this delicious fish specialty make sure you opt for the filets.
The Cabo Girão Skywalk is the highest cliff skywalk in Europe. Situated at 580 meters above sea level not so far from Funchal Cabo Girão is a must visit for anyone visiting Madeira. This skywalk is made of transparent glass where you can actually walk on the glass floor and see below. Being so close to Funchal, the capital, it makes it that much easily accessible and attractive for a visit. Besides the opportunity to visit such a unique viewpoint and enjoy the amazing views over the Atlantic ocean this experience is much more enhanced with this glass platform that gives a stunning vertical view down. Quite exciting feeling that’s not recommended for those that suffer from vertigo. Keep in mind though that the area is not large and can get quite busy since obviously everyone visiting Madeira want to see the cliff. There are also gift shops, cafe, and toilets at the site.
Not so far from here, you can visit Fajã dos Padres. A cable car can take you in a just few minutes ride to the bottom of the cliff, at sea level, where you can visit a small area with a farm, beach and a restaurant that serves delicates prepared with organically grown ingredients in the gardens right from the site. You’ll walk through vines, tropical fruit trees, and vegetable gardens until you reach the beach with palm trees and tranquil peaceful ambient. There are amenities such as parasols and chairs as well as showers on the beach and the crystal clear waters makes it a perfect place for swimming and snorkeling too. And yes, here you can stay in one of the small houses that once were farmers homes, but today they’re available for tourists to accommodate. You might want to consider spending at least one night in one of these beautiful beach houses with ocean views that offer quite an authentic experience of Madeira or have a delicious lunch in the restaurant, tasting the local organic ingredients followed by a smell of the ocean.
If curious where is the best place to hide on the island you should go to the Valley of the Nuns (Curral da Freiras). It’s where the nuns were hiding every time the pirates would attack Funchal, the capital. And the best part is that this perfectly hidden village among the mountains was built on a volcanic crater. Worth a visit too.
Visit the small village of Santana to see the charming traditional triangular houses of Madeira, painted in white, blue and red with thatched roofs. There are only a few of them, from which some house shops. Not too many are left in Madeira nowadays, but if you want to, you can definitely find accommodation and place to stay in these typical country cottages.
Madeira islands were formed by a massive volcanic eruption that took place thousands of years ago. São Vicente caves in Madeira were formed by this same eruption. If visiting these caves with a guided tour you’ll be able to actually walk inside the lava tunnels for about a half an hour. Right next to these caves there is a Volcanism Center located. Afterward, you can learn more about the eruption and formation of the islands through explanatory audiovisual demonstrations.
While you are there take the advantage of the specific location that Madeira has and go for the dolphin and whale watching trips that will take you just a few kilometers offshore where these creatures may be spotted swimming and playing in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Don’t leave without trying some of the traditional food and drinks of Madeira
When it comes to the Madeiran food and drinks it simply is unavoidable not tasting some of the traditional recipes during your stay there. So, except for the juicy seasonal exotic fruits that you may find in abundance arranged in wicker baskets at the popular traditional farmers Market in Funchal, Mercado dos Lavradores, here are few other foods and drinks to taste:
Espetada or steak skewers as well as Scabbardfish with Madeiran bananas (characteristic for their small size and sweetness). Actually, because Madeiran bananas are so small they don’t fit in the EU regulations for banana sizes, and can’t be exported out of the country.
From the sweets and desserts, you must try the traditional honey cake from Madeira, Bolo de Mel, and Broa de Mel, which are small and round traditional cookies.
Madeiran wine is famous worldwide. Besides the wine that Madeira is well-known worldwide, there is another alcoholic drink that you should try – the traditional Poncha made with aguardiente de caña, honey, sugar, and lemon juice (the classic version) or other fruit juices.
Things to do in Funchal, the capital
Funchal, the capital of Madeira, with nearly 100,000 inhabitants, is the only actual city on the islands. So, when visiting Madeira and Funchal for the first time to get the full perspective of the town and make that first bond with the culture and tradition here, the best idea right from the start would be to take the cable car that will take you all the way up to the Monte. From here you can enjoy the beautiful panoramic view over the Funchal with its red rooftop houses, that might give you as well a vivid picture of how big this city is.
While you’re up there take your time and visit the beautiful Monte Palace Tropical Garden. Admire the exotic plants and trees, native and from around the world. Take a moment to watch the beautiful white swans swimming in the lake as well as the unique Asian Koi fishes. Within the garden, you can visit the Monte Palace Museum with its galleries and explore the current exhibitions.
From Monte, find your way down with the quite exciting traditional toboggan ride on wicker basket sleds and make that first link with the culture in a very thrilling way. So, this was the way to go downhill in the past in Funchal. And while in the past these baskets were used as a transport for the people, today it’s a must-do tourist attraction. It’s a two kilometers ride, starting from the Nossa Senhora do Monte Church to Livramento. As soon as you sit in the basket, two guys dressed in white pants and shirts, called ”Carreiros”, with straw hats will give you a push all the way down using only their special rubber shoes as breaks on the curved downhill road that will even cross active streets.
Undoubtedly the most touristy and popular area in Funchal is the old town. With its cobblestone streets full of nice bars and restaurants, and the beautiful colorful street art that you’ll find on every old door in the oldest street in Funchal, Rua Santa Maria it’s quite justified though.
Funchal is very well known for its gardens rich in a variety of plants, flowers, and trees. So, make sure you spare some time for at least the Municipal Garden and Santa Catarina Park. The beautiful Botanical Garden located above Funchal is a plant lovers paradise.
The Cathedral on the Funchal’s main street and the São Tiago Fortress that was built a long time ago for the purpose of defending the city of pirates attacks are worth a visit as well. Today the fort houses large artwork collection from Portugal.
Finally, in Funchal, you will see the statue of the popular footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, who was actually born here in the capital of Madeira. If interested more on the subject, the CR7 Museum is dedicated to this world famous football player. So, take your time to explore more of the city.
This may come as surprise, but Madeira held the Guinness World Record for 6 years for the largest firework show that took place in Funchal at the New Year’s Eve in 2006. Good enough reason, along with the good wine, food, and weather, to consider spending your next New Year’s Eve in Funchal since you certainly won’t miss any fun and party. And if you’re not convinced yet how does the best island destination in the world sounds like? Madeira has been rewarded with World’s Leading Island Destination for 2018 by World Travel Awards (WTA).