Five ‘must-sees’ in and around Funchal
Madeira may be a small speck in the Atlantic, but this little island is big on unforgettable experiences. Straddling Europe and North Africa, it’s a place of beautiful botanical gardens, rugged landscapes, superb hotels, and dizzying levadas. Whether you’re seeking wildlife or nightlife, the island’s vibrant capital, Funchal, puts everything within easy reach.
At just twice the size of the Isle of Wight, you can cross the whole of Madeira in a few hours. In fact, it’s one of the few places in the world where you can drive from pineapple-growing gardens to snowy peaks in just 15 minutes. But, with so much diversity to choose from, where do you begin? Here’s our guide to Madeira’s definitive experiences from sky to sea, and shore to snow.
Arriving at ‘Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport’ (yes, it was recently renamed after the island’s most famous son) is an experience in itself. The airport’s runway is supported by columns that lift it 70 metres above the ocean. As you circle around, take in the views of the azure seas, towering cliffs and the volcanic interior. Think Jurassic Park island, just without the hostile residents.
After touchdown, take a moment to make yourself at home. Funchal is just a short drive from the airport and it’s home to some of the best hotels in Madeira. Our highlight has to be the majestic Quinta Da Casa Branca. A little like the island itself, this hotel strikes the perfect balance of past and present. You could stay in the 19th century manor house with five luxury suites, or opt for a room in the new extension – a cutting-edge creation of glass and steel.
To get your bearings, why not venture out on a boat trip? Funchal has plenty of tours to choose from and you’ve got a great chance of spotting dolphins and whales. Or, if the sun is shining and you’re longing for sandy beaches, make for the island of Porto Santo. Just 2 hours from Funchal it’s home to some of Portugal’s best beaches.
Madeira itself is more about lush scenery and rugged cliffs than long, sweeping bays. To experience the sheer drama of the setting, take the short drive west to the Cabo Girao cliffs. Towering 580m above the sea, this is Europe’s second-highest cliff.
If you still have a head for heights, head back to Funchal and hop aboard the Monte cable car. It may be a tad touristy, but the wicker toboggan trip back into the city is a truly unique blink-and-you’ll-miss-it experience which dates back over 100 years.
For such a small island, Madeira has really made its mark on the culinary map. While you’re here, make sure you sample some Madeira wine. The island’s been producing wine since the 16th century and at Blandy’s Wine Lodge you can get up close and personal with this warming aperitif. Alternatively, hole up in Casa da Quinta and pair your tasting session with equally inspiring views.
Any visit to Funchal wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Mercado dos Lavradores. This farmer’s market in ‘old town’ Funchal is crammed with local produce. It’s a great place to try local delicacies such as Bolo Do Caco (the local garlic bread) and exotic fruits. Don’t miss the fish market with its impossibly fresh tuna and ghoulish (but delicious) scabbard fish.
#5 Snow-capped peaks
Far away from the bustle of the markets, there’s another, altogether wilder side to Madeira. Venture into the interior and discover a walker’s paradise. You could join a tour and explore the ancient ‘levadas’ – water channels that wind through the mountains across sometimes perilous drops. Or hire a car and climb up to the top of the island: the Paúl da Serra plateau. If it’s a clear day, you’ll get spectacular views to both sides of the island. It’s the perfect spot to finish your visit, take in the scenery, and look to new horizons.