Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago that lies just off the coast of Northwest Africa. You might have heard of the namesake wine that the island is famous for; but it’s also known for its warm, subtropical climate, making it a popular European destination for those who need a little winter sunshine. Madeira may have a bit of a reputation as a vacation destination for retirees and while at times we were the youngest tourists (by a few decades), we found that Madeira really has a lot to offer any age! It is a volcanic island with rugged cliffs, pebbly beaches, and views for days…basically the Hawaii of Europe.
We made a rash decision back in the summer to spend a week in Madeira over our February ski break when we found flights for crazy cheap on Easyjet. Fortunately, it turned out to be a great decision and we spent our week with a mix of relaxing, spending time in nature, and touring the sights and towns of this small but mighty island.
Here’s our recommendations for the top things to see and do in Madeira:
1) Explore the Capital of Funchal
From Funchal, ride the cable car up high to the hills of Monte to enjoy beautiful views of the city and the ocean below. At the top, you can visit the beautiful Monte Palace Tropical Garden. We spent a really nice morning walking through the gardens admiring the plants and the views. There are different trails you can take including some that go past koi ponds and over little bridges…our kids really enjoyed exploring! The best part for the kids was the tons of small lizards they spotted everywhere. The highlight for us was the small cafe near the entrance with a lovely lunch of salads and crisp white wine outside in the sunshine!
After the gardens if you’re up for an adventure, you can take a toboggan ride back down the hill. These toboggans, powered by local men who steer you down the hill in a basket on two sharpened skis, are an iconic symbol of Funchal! We wanted to try it, but the line was long and we didn’t have the patience to wait…but it looked really fun! Just note that if you do it, it doesn’t take you all the way back down to the city. You will have to take a bus the rest of the way. Even if you don’t try it, it’s definitely worth going to watch for a bit. These guys are skilled!
Whichever way you choose to get back down, once you’re in the city again I’d definitely recommend exploring. We enjoyed strolling along the ocean and we loved checking out the local market…so many delicious looking tropical fruits! If you get there early, there’s also a fish market where you can see all the fresh catches of the day.
2) Have lunch at Quinta do Furao
After two nights in Funchal, we picked up our rental car and headed to our AirBnb in the hillside…but first we drove up for lunch and some stunning views at Quinta do Furao. The food here was fresh and amazing, but honestly it was hard to compete with those jaw-dropping views. Thankfully the weather was on our side and we were able to eat on the patio to admire the scenery. The Quinta is also a hotel and has a nice children’s playground for the kids to burn off some steam if you are just passing through. Also make sure to look for the A-frame thatched houses that the village of Santana is known for. This place was definitely a worthwhile detour!
3) Hit the Beach
Madeira is a rocky, volcanic island, so it doesn’t have the best beaches. The few natural beaches are pebbly, but in order to increase tourism some artificial beaches have been created. All of the beaches are sheltered by sea walls to stop them from washing away so it’s not as picturesque as other places, but still a nice place to spend a few hours. One of the best beaches is at the small town of Calheta where there are two small horseshoe shaped beaches facing one another. There’s also a very nice playground just next to the beach and further down there is a pretty marina with several cafes and restaurants. Alternatively, if you are really after a beach holiday you can take a two-hour ferry to the neighboring island of Porto Santo. With a 5 km sandy beach, it is a popular destination for both day trippers and those who come for a longer stay.
4) Take a hike
Madeira is well known for its many hiking opportunities and there are well marked trails of varying levels all over the island. There are many hikes alongside levadas, which are irrigation channels that bring water to different parts of the island. We found a fairly easy, family-friendly levada hike near Rabaçal because it was close to where we were staying, but there are seriously tons of options.
5) Visit Seixal and Sao Vicente in the North
After our hike, we headed to the black sand beaches of Seixal where thankfully the rain had stopped and the boys were able to enjoy watching the surfers ride the waves. The drive from Rabaçal was gorgeous and we stopped lots of times for pictures.
After our hike and a stop by the beach, we had worked up quite an appetite so we went for a delicious seafood lunch at Restaurante Caravela in Sao Vicente. We were excited to try limpets (sea snails) and they did not disappoint! The fish was fresh with big side dishes served family style and even the boys loved their tasty salmon. Homemade dessert and madeira wine were a great ending to one of the best meals we had on our trip.
With full bellies and heavy rain, it was time to move onto our next activity. Thankfully the caves of Sao Vicente were the perfect rainy weather experience and they turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for our kids! You take a 30 minute tour walking through the caves which were actually lava tubes of the former volcano. After the tour, you watch a short film about the creation of this volcanic island, tour the volcano center, and then you get to watch a 3D movie about volcanoes, which my kids thought was the coolest! I’d highly recommend this place, especially if you are visiting with children, and the setting itself is also very pretty.
After our visit the rains had cleared for another picturesque drive back to our place.
6) Cliffside Views at Ponta de Pargo and Natural Pools at Porto Moniz
We woke up the next day to gloomy weather, but luckily there was only a light mist when we arrived at the cliffs of Ponta de Pargo. The views were incredible and worth braving the weather for! After some quick pictures, we headed to nearby Garganta Funda to check out the waterfall. Unfortunately the rain had really picked up, so everyone else stayed in the car while I made the short hike to the waterfall. It was really pretty and if the weather had been better, would have been a quick, easy hike for the kids.
After the views, we drove to the natural pools of Porto Moniz which are open year round for a swim. On the day we went the pools were closed due to high waves, but that was ok with us because it was a bit too chilly for a swim anyway! We had a nice lunch overlooking the pools and it was very cool to see.
7) Drive to the top of Pico do Arieiro, Madeira’s Third Highest Peak
On the day before we left, the sun was out and the weather looked good so we headed to one of Madeira’s tallest peaks. At 1,818 meters, Pico do Arieiro is one of Madeira’s most visited places with lots of hikes starting from here. On a clear day you can see all the way to the island of Porto Santo, but unfortunately by the time we arrived the clouds were rolling in. Luckily we caught just a glimpse of the view before it was completely swallowed in fog. It was so cold up there so we had hot chocolates and our favorite Portuguese pastry, pastel de nata, to warm up!
8) Visit the Fishing Village of Camara de Lobos
We loved this colorful village and we started our visit out right with a lovely al fresco lunch at Vila do Peixe. After more delicious seafood, we explored the cute village, bought pasteis de nata for later (can you sense a theme here?!), and admired the cliffs along the ocean.
After exploring the town we drove up to nearby Cabo Girao, the highest cape in Europe with a suspended, glass bottomed viewing platform. The views were gorgeous and a perfect way to end our week on this beautiful island!
Where to Stay
We stayed for two nights of our trip in Funchal at the Castanheiro Boutique Hotel and it was excellent. Perfect location to explore the town, rooftop pool and hot tub, spa with awesome indoor pool, spacious family rooms, mimosas at breakfast, and a good on-site restaurant…this place really ticked all the boxes and more for us!
For the rest of our stay, we rented an AirBnB in Arco de Calheta. It was a great set up with beautiful views, plenty of space, and a heated pool. Unfortunately the pool heater wasn’t working for the first part of our stay, but in the end it warmed up so we were able to swim for the last couple of days. We really loved waking up to that stunning view and also picking up amazing fresh, tropical fruit to eat every day…most delicious papayas, melons, and pineapples ever! We also liked visiting the neighborhood cows. 😉
Where to Eat
I already mentioned our favorite restaurants of the trip, but also while you are there don’t forget to try a poncha. It’s a local drink made of distilled alcohol from sugar cane, honey, sugar, and orange or lemon juice. It’s strong but mixed with passion fruit juice it’s delicious! We had consistently good food on the island and enjoyed lots of fresh seafood and Portuguese wine all week (plus all the pasteis de natas, of course).
And there you have it, your complete guide on what to see and do in Madeira! We loved this small island and found that even after spending a week here, there were still other things we didn’t have the chance to explore. We’d definitely recommend this as a great year-round destination!
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