When I was researching my trip to Portugal and wanted to explore beyond the mainland Portugal, I came across Madeira Island on the map. As a traveler blogger, the first thing I did was to see if I can find any Madeira blog that talks about the facts, and basics. Well, I figured I would save you multiple searches and present the facts, after my family’s, adventurous visit to Madeira Island.
Madeira Blog – An Exotic, Thriving Island !
It was a love at first sight. We landed at Funchal airport late afternoon. The Island so well equipped for visitors willing to drive on their own. Right at the Airport entrance, we collected our rental car and headed off to the Airbnb in downtown Funchal. While driving, I kept wondering how so remote and exotic this Island and yet so well developed.
Where is Madeira Island ?
If you check the map, you might conclude Madeira Island is in Africa. Yes, that’s how close the Island is to Morocco on the map. It’s a shame we didn’t go to Morocco which looked like a stone throw away given that we were already in Madeira. But, it belongs to Portugal.
Who discovered Madeira Island ?
I was really curious myself to know the answer to this question. Who discovered it after all ? Even though official colonization is credited to Portuguese explorers of 1400s, there is apparently some evidences of Madeira being mentioned in ancient history.
Portuguese set foot at the Island in early 1400s and colonized the island of wild forests and rich waters.
How big is Madeira Island ?
The Island might be just about 35 miles long by 14 miles wide, but the windy roads, long levada walks and cloud hugging mountains would leave one wondering if even a month is enough.
Is Madeira Island part of Azores ?
Madeira is way far out from Azores. Only connection between the two is the fact both Azores and Madeira belong to Portugal.
Most people think of Azores when it comes to islands in Portugal. And it’s no surprise. The proximity to Lisbon on the map might make it more obvious.
But, I strongly urge anyone to look into Madeira for a vacation.
How to get to Madeira Island Portugal ?
Fly ! There are flights from most of the European cities to Funchal, the capital city of the Island.
If slow travel is what you fancy, there is a passenger ferry from mainland. Check out the schedule: https://madeira-ferry.pt/en/madeira-ferry/
How long to drive around Madeira Island ?
Technically, one can drive around the Island in perhaps 3 hours. But, why would you want to do that ? The Island is so beautiful that even a week of driving and stopping won’t be enough.
Is Madeira Island expensive ?
Compared to the mainland Portugal, I didn’t find it particularly more expensive to spend a week in Madeira. We had rented Airbnb, bought groceries, cooked our own meals. Besides that, I also got diapers and formula for the baby. Baby products were on par with US price.
When is the best time to visit Madeira Island ?
Best time to visit Madeira is whenever you want and have time to visit. Yes, it’s a year-around destination. Tropical weather pattern applies here with rainy winters. But, crowd seems to flock to Madeira for Christmas and New Year’s irrespective of the rain.
Who doesn’t love tropical rain ?!
December, January and February :
Rain is in the air for sure. But, that doesn’t stop the islander’s get into the festive mood. Mid February, is the carnival celebration in Madeira. Be sure to plan ahead and book your accommodation if you plan to be there around that time.
Be sure to checkout some great accommodations on Booking.com with recommendations.
March, April and May:
We went there end of March and early April. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. T-shirt weather pretty much everyday, with some drizzles during the mornings.
When we attempted to hike some of the mountains, the visibility was pretty bad and we chose not to hike them in interest of doing other activities.
The month of May is known for floral festival in the capital city of Funchal. A must attend if you ever happen to be there.
June, July and August:
As the Sahara hot wind blows through, the Island warms up in the summer. These months might be your best bet for hikes as the cloud blanket dissipate over the day in the summer.
These months are also popular for whale watching in the Island.
September, October and November
September and October are another set of ideal months to visit for warm waters for a swim or two in the ocean before the rain picks up in November. Great time for Levada walks as the weather is bearable, and heat is calming down.
Don’t conclude that Fall months are the best for Levada walks. We did levada walks in April and it couldn’t have been any more perfect.
How to get around in Madeira Island ?
One of the best ways to explore the Island of Madeira is by renting a car. The Island doesn’t have much public transportation. It’s fairly inexpensive to rent a car and move around at your own convenience.
We went with our 5 month old infant and it was a no-brainer to rent a car.
Other options are to base yourself in Funchal and hire uber/taxi service to get to your destinations.
There are also plenty of tour operators available if you would prefer to just sit back and relax.
How many days are needed in Madeira Island ?
We spent 5-days in Madeira Island and felt it wasn’t enough. I could have spent another 5-days easily to hike mountains, levadas and spend more time at the beaches.
Mind it, if you are looking for pure beach vacation to sun bathe, Madeira might be a bit of a disappointment. Portugal mainland offers better beaches than Madeira.
Check out my posts on Portugal beaches.
Things to do in Madeira Island ?
We based ourselves at Madeira Island. And with the rental car at our disposal, it was easy to put together the itinerary.
I broke it down by different sections in this article, along with a map that you can follow.
NorthEast Madeira Tour
Volcanic caves of São Vicente
890 thousand years ago…..my jaw drops. Wow, this is truly pre-historic. And the caves nothing like the caves I have seen in the US. My initial thought was, I have seen enough volcanic caves such as the Mammoth Caves National Park, Luray Cavens in Virginia etc., but lava tubes here are truly unique. For a small fee (8 euros when we visited), you would walk through the Lava tubes and watch a film of how Madeira was created and learning about volcanoes.
A small village on the northern coast of Madeira Island, Ponta Delgada, is just beautiful with scenic mountain drops and sea. A perfect get away place to spend an afternoon overlooking the cliff, admiring the charming village, local church by the sea and swimming pool.
Northern coast villages generally have less facilities in terms of grocery shops, ATMs etc. But you will be able to find small shops that sell necessary things.
This village thrives on the agriculture, traditional handicrafts, embroidery and wickerwork.
Ponta Delgada is home to the church of Imaculado Coração de Maria, built in the 15th century. If you are there in September, don’t miss the opportunity to take part in the famous Religious festiva of Senhor Bom Jesus. This is the time the entire Island comes together to celebrate.
Arco Sao Jorge
If you thought Ponta Delgada village was cute, wait till you check out Arco de São Jorge, a unique village by the seaside. Beauty at it’s best surrounded by mountains and vineyards, I wish I could live at a place like this where the clock seems to have forgotten to tick.
With only 500-ish inhabitants, the village’s microclimate nurtures one of the most fertile agricultural lands in the Island. It’s lush green everywhere with sea to one side.
Indeed a heaven on earth. Don’t forget to visit Quinta do Arco Rosarium garden with its large collection of roses from Portugal.
Cabanas de Sao Jorge Village
A popular tourist location Cabanas set at the seaside is a great place to stay in Santana. Checkout the cabanas.
Porto da Cruz
As you reach Porto da cruz, you might be tempted to think there is nothing to do here. Hold that thought for a minute. This sleepy village is about to expose her beauty through a steep hike up the mountains.
Penha d’Águia, an imposing rock that separates Porto da Cruz from Faial. The trail is steep and deemed hard to climb. The views from the top are well worth it.
As you climb up, you might wonder where the actual view point is. My recommendation is, it is up to you. If you are happy with what you get out of the hike then you have reached your view point.
After the hike, don’t miss out on the opportunity to get a taste of Porto da Cruz, a famous dry red wine made of grape Americana.
Again, in september there is a local celebration just with the theme of this wine.
Well, I have to mention the sugar factory in the town that is known for it’s functioning since 1927 the same way. Well, didn’t I say the clock seem to have stopped here after all.
Pico do Facho
If you are in Madeira, don’t forget to spend an afternoon at the village of Santa Cruz, one of the oldest villages in the Island. With great view points such as Pico do Facho, beautiful rocky beaches, cute coffee shops and restaurants, you are guaranteed to have a great time.
Must do things in Santa Cruz:
- Levada dos Tornos
- Levada walks are one of the highlights of the Island. You can’t come to Madeira and not do at least one Levada walk. This one in particular is a beautiful 14km walk that takes you through a couple of tea estates where you can get snacks and tea along with gorgeous views.
- Cristo Rei de Garajau Viewpoint
- I loved spending time overlooking the ocean from the Christ statue. We also walked down the stairs but there were some damages to the stairs and we had to come back.
- One of the highlights of the trip for sure.
- There were several coffee shops and restaurants to enjoy an evening outing at this viewpoint.
- Santo da Serra
- It’s not your ordinary golf course. Surrounded by tall trees, lush greenery, sound of the birds, you are guaranteed to experience a serene setting.
- On Sunday’s the area turns into a local market that is really not to be missed if you are in town that time.
East Tour of Madeira
An year around pleasant weather this parish is lush green with historic significance. This is first place where football was played in Portugal in 1875 apparently. A British student living in Madeira introduced to sports to locals for the first time.
For the beauty and the historic significance, the village is one of the most visited among fellow tourists, given it’s folk traditions.
One of the largest craft shows, exhibiting “Wicker Works” where you can be the produce owner of handmade things going all the way to furnitures and kitchen stuff.
An iconic landmark here is the Café Relógio with a clock and bell. Of course, one must visit the Parish Church of Camacha, built in the late 18th century.
Pico de Areiro
Madeira’s third highest peak, Pico de Areiro is one of the must do hikes if you are into hiking and walking. At 1,818 m (5,965 ft), the hike to the peak is guaranteed to give you panoramic views that are jaw dropping.
If you are not into hiking, you can drive up to the mountain top.
This is also usually the starting point for most of the hikers attempting Pico Ruivo the tallest peak in Madeira.
Literally translating into “Cold Water”, Ribeiro Frio is the popular starting point for Levada walks. Besides the walks you would also enjoy beautifully groomed garden and a trout farm.
Hungry, enjoy a local restaurant that is guaranteed to serve a fresh local trout dish.
A small parish with spectacular views of the ocean and mountains in the Island. Definitely stop by at the Fortress of Faial with your best camera equipment.
We lost track of time as we had a picnic with the view. There are several cafes to grab a bite in the village.
You can’t miss the houses of Santana, when in Madeira.
This village is known for the cobble stoned streets, lush green meadows and pretty houses. When we visited, it was a gorgeous Spring day and there were several tourists visiting the village. Parking was hard to come by. But, with a couple of rounds around the parking lot, we eventually found one.
Portela view point is a stunner. You get an amazing panoramic view of the landscape showcasing Porto da Cruz, Penha d’Águia and part of Santana.
Ponta de Sao Lourenco
The easternmost point of Madeira Island Ponta de Sao Lourenco is one place you should NOT miss. Yes, it’s probably the most mind-blowingly beautiful places I have visited.
We parked the car at the closest parking lot possible and started walking towards the beauty. Weather changed for worse so quickly and we came back to the car and waited till the rain subsided.
In a few mins the Sun came out to grant us the best evening outing. It gets extremely windy at this point. So, go prepared for the weather.
I couldn’t get enough of the view and there is plenty of walking paths and view points for any skill level to enjoy.
Is one the handful of sandy beaches in Madeira. Shallow enough for kids to get into the water as well. There is enough beach space for everyone to sit under the sun, listening to the water sound while the breeze cools you off.
Southwest Tour of Madeira
Ponta do Sol
A free car wash with adrenaline rush is what comes to my mind when I think of Ponta do Sol. “Sun Point” is what it literally translates to. This sleepy and sunny village by the sea is supposedly the sunniest point of the island.
The beach here is still very rocky access to swim. However, there is a nice ramp that goes down to the beach section that has relatively less rocks if you want to get into the water.
Rock or sand, people here know how to have relax. There are beach umbrellas and relaxing locals/tourists alike to be found for sure.
Madalena do Mar
A handful of houses and population under 1000 makes up this small village. Located right on the coastal extent, this agricultural community relies on banana plantation for livelihood.
Don’t expect much from here besides a small church, primary school, beach access and plenty of Sun.
A must visit on the southwest coastline, this is one of the hottest spots for travelers alike. It’s town with a cute little marina and two man-made white sand beaches.
What more you may ask. Calheta is also known for it’s best white rum ‘Aguardente’ a special ingredient of the typical Madeiran drink ‘Poncha’.
Casa das Mudas Arts Centre: A contemporary art museum set on a cliff top in the village of Calheta, hosts a variety of art works by popular artists such as Francis Bacon, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Picasso and Dali. Also, a popular place for hosting variety of art, dance and music festivals and performances. Soak in the art scene while at it.
Stop, Look and Enjoy ! That should be the slogan here. Don’t just drive by this terrace village with breathtaking views overlooking the ocean and the surrounding mountains and villages.
This well groomed village is worth your time and effort to get there for it offers a parish run Zoo, herb garden, tea house with view.
It’s a delight to stop and sip a cup of tea while you enjoy the scenery with absolute peace surrounding.
Ponta do Pargo
You must visit this west most point of Madeira. It’s beautiful beyond the words and pictures can describe it to be.
Religious festivals, Apple festivals and local gatherings clearly make this place another highlight of the trip if you happen to be there at the time of these gatherings.
Load up your camera gear and get there for sunset or pretty much any time of the day for spectacular views of the coast line and wild flowers bordering around the terrace. What a delight to the eyes !!
It was windy when we went, carry a light jacket or wind protector to make the trip pleasant. Of course, don’t forget to grab a snack with you to sit there, relax and enjoy.
Paúl do Mar
A traditional fishing village, great surfing hotspot, gorgeous view of the mountains are the ways one would want to describe Paul do Mar.
The entire south west coast offers sunnier and warmer weather making it ideal for sunbathing, swimming or surfing due to it’s high waves.
Jardim do Mar
A picturesque village near the sea, Jardim do Mar is the island’s meeting point for the international surfing community. Thanks to its location, the Madeira archipelago is a privileged spot to receive swells of the North Atlantic and has offers a variety of surfs, from point breaks to reef breaks.
It’s quite serene to just sit and listen to those fierce waves break against the cliff.
Madalena do Mar
Madalena do Mar is a beautiful fishing village with a promenade along the pebble beach. Take a stroll to the breeze on a warm afternoon and admire the tranquility and the lush banana plantations around.
Nuns Valley Tour of Madeira
Pico dos Barcelos
Pack your lunch and reach the top of Pico dos Barcelos Viewpoint that is approximately 355 meters above sea level. A meal with view are my favorites. You are guaranteed a splendid panoramic view over Funchal bay and the city area, with the Desertas Islands in the background.
Eira do Serrado
Curral das Freiras
Accessible through mountain roads, caved out of the rocks, this sleepy village is a true hidden European gem.
‘corral of the nuns’ is the what the village name translates to. Imagine a bowl made out of 1000m mountain peaks and a tiny village sitting at the bottom of the bowl…that’s how dramatic the scenery is in this village.
Chestnut Festival – a festival that started during the times when the local parish had a surplus of chestnuts, has now become one of the tourist attractions with plenty of food, music, dance, and wine.
One thing not to be missed is the delicious chestnut cakes that are made with locally produced chestnut that are cultivated in the valley.
West Tour of Madeira
Camara de Lobos
Just a few Kilometers away from Funchal, this active fishing village is absolutely worth spending couple of hours.
Go during day time if you are interested in a colorful boat picture in the foreground, surrounded by the whitewashed and red roofed village.
Of course, who would want to pass on the opportunity to have a fresh caught fish for lunch ?!
From Camara de Lobos, head to the most popular cliff of Cabo Girao.
Bring out your brave soul to experience vertigo, while stepping out over the 500m drop of the Cabo Girao cliffs on the glass bottomed skywalk. As you look down, witness the terraced fields and vineyards below. Want to do something more brave, how about the cliff face cable car to the base ?
If you haven’t identified the theme already, the entire Island of Madeira spots to visit fall into three categories:
Ribeira Brava (which means wild stream) also fits right into that category. Walk along the road to enjoy the street cafes and shops while the ocean breeze cools you off during the hot summer days. Or stare at the mountains in awe while sipping your favorite beverage at one of the cafes.
Be there in June to be part of the St. Peter’s festivities, at the end of June where the entire town, especially the oceanside streets come live with music, dance, art, food and alcohol.
Encumeada is a viewpoint located on top of the village of Serra d`Água in Ribeira Brava.
At 1007m altitude, this viewpoint is one of the must visit to experience the dramatic nature display. A view point that showcases both north and south of the Island and their micro-climate in a snapshot. Look to the north to feel like you are floating in the clouds and to the south to fill your heart with some tropical blue skies and sunshine.
This is also an access point to Levada do Norte, one of the amazing region covered with wild flowers.
Paúl da Serra
Would you believe me if I said there is a flat / plateau on Madeira Island, especially after all the mountain spots we have talked about ?
Well Paul da Serra is that place. Located pretty much at the center of the island, with highest point reaching as high as 1640m. The plateau is also the starting point for several levadas and peak hikes such as the highest point of Pico Ruivo, second highest peak of Pico Bica da Cana etc,.
Trust me you will never be alone on these roads, there are plenty of cows and sheep wandering around to give you company.
This is one place that we ended up visiting twice in our trip to Madeira. First time, we reached ended up there right before sunset and I was in awe of the dramatic waves splashing through the black volcanic rocks.
Next day, we made a point to spend some time here. Still the best part the evening before when there was barely anyone around while the drama of nature unfolded.
Lava pool complex is totally a great place to spend a couple of hours that gets filled with water from the ocean. An unique experience in Madeira.
Another fine beach location, a black sandy beach, located between Porto Moniz and Sao Vicente.
As I mentioned earlier, Sao Vicente is the popular for the caves. Read the “NorthEast Madeira Tour” section above.
If I have to summarize Madeira trip in two sentences, it’s filled with beautiful panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, the beach, the soothing sounds of the ocean – together they take you on a soul-healing journey.
You might have some practical questions like below, read on.
Where to stay in Madeira ?
Now that you have gotten a tour of the entire Island, I am sure you are wondering where to stay in Madeira for varies activities. Here are my hand picked recommendations.
First of all, if you don’t want to pack and unpack for the entire trip to Madeira, want to be located centrally and be able to access all the modern facilities, choose Funchal. The entire trip I have described here can be comfortably achieved by staying just at Funchal.
Here are my Funchal stay recommendations:
Farm Stay with Kitchen Access:
Quinta Devónia by Travel to Madeira – Here is your gorgeous farm stay home that features a full facility house with living room, kitchen and gorgeous views. It is located at a mountain a bit away from the centre of Funchal, guaranteeing you with very quiet ambience and soul-soothing views of the ocean.
Claim this unique stay your home for your trip, if you can. Everything in the farm, both vegetable and fruits garden in the property, is also for the guests to enjoy.
Apartment to yourself: If I am staying in one place, I usually look for an apartment setup with kitchen and fridge access, so it’s easier to make breakfast and dinner. And eat out lunches.
Forum Funchal Apartment fits the bill here. Especially the fact that we travelled with my 5 month old infant, it was certainly nice to have the apartment to ourselves.
Shearwaters – Sounds of the sea is hard to get. But, if you get it, go for it. Beach view is unbeatable value. Apartment to yourself with a beach view, what else can you ask for in a vacation ?!
All Inclusive: If all inclusive is your type of place, Madeira got you.
Muthu Raga Madeira Hotel is a fantastic stay with a classic all-inclusive features and beach access.
Where to stay in Curral das Freiras ?
Beyond, Funchal, another village that I highly recommend for staying is Curral das Freiras. As we have discussed above in Nuns Valley, this village is so uniquely set up that your stay is also guaranteed to give you unique experience.
Here are my recommendations in Curral das Freiras.
Danny’s Rural Suite – Location, Location & Location. Gorgeous suites in the gorgeous valley. A country side house with breathtaking views. Amazing service by the host. All you need to do is sit back and relax.
Eira do Serrado – Hotel & Spa – Looking for something more luxurious ? How about some spa and massage treatment while you are in a secluded retreat place ? All in affordable price range with amazing views of the mountains from the valley.