Known for Madeira wine, wickerwork baskets and pulsating toboggan rides, the volcanic Madeira archipelago, southwest of Portugal, is a year-round haven for travelers. The main island is made up of tall mountains, pebbly beaches, cute harbor towns, and is a popular port for cruise ships. Funchal, the capital city, is the main attraction, home to a buzzing harbor and interesting old town. Hotels are built right over the water and up the side of the hill, while the old town is made up of pleasant cobblestone streets. The Municipal Square is a top draw, featuring stunning, basalt-clad buildings. Funchal also has beautiful gardens, with the Lido Promenade being a tourist favorite.
Near Funchal is the Câmara de Lobos fishing village, with a charming harbor and quaint streets, while farther down is the massive Cabo Girão ocean cliff. Around the coast line interesting fishing villages and resorts with surfing and water sports, while the interior of Madeira is one of high mountains and lush terrain. Hiking along the famed levada canals is a favorite pastime among locals.
Madeira is the not the cheapest destination in Europe as the country is remote and the tourism industry mainly aimed at well-heeled cruise passengers. It boasts Good-value hotels and resorts throughout, however, and the seafood restaurants away from the main touristy areas are much cheaper. Although there is a casino, bars, and nightclubs in Madeira, it is not a party island, but several of Madeira’s annual festivals do get quite raucous.
The shopping is a lot of fun and there are several quintessential products to pick up. Madeira wine, a major export, is cultivated on the island and served in all bars and restaurants. The renowned Wickerwork items are available at Funchal’s slew of markets, as is artistic embroidery and a myriad of handicrafts.
The volcanic-centric village of São Vicente, in the north, and the well positioned Porto Muniz, in the northwest, are both must-see locations that can be accessed via the celebrated ER-101 coastal road. Monte is packed with history and is the place to head to if you would delight in riding a toboggan into Funchal. Alternately, the high town of Pico do Arieiro has sublime mountain views. Madeira is not known for it’s beaches, but the nearby island of Porto Santo (discovered before Madeira) has a long stretch of golden sand and is easily accessible by ferry if you need a few days of sun and relaxation.
There is plenty to see around the island, and having a car is definitely beneficial since traveling by bus can become sickly on the winding mountain roads. Streets inland are winding and steep, and even coastal routes zigzag a lot, making travel by bus an interesting experience. Public transportation is also quite slow and expensive, and the schedules can be tricky to decipher so save yourself the trouble and get your own set of wheels.
- Explore Funchal’s beautiful waterfront and its historic old town, especially the Municipal Square
- Sun yourself on the golden beaches of Calheta or Machico
- Surf and windsurf off Paul do Mar in the southwest of the island
- Take in the monumental fireworks display at Funchal Harbor during New Year’s Eve
- Enjoy an exhilarating toboggan ride from Monte to Funchal
- Hike at Ponta de São Lourenço, or the levada canals
- Experience the lava tubes of the São Vicente Caves