Madeira is one of Europes best kept travel secrets, a stunning volcanic island full of breathtaking scenery, adventure activities, exciting history and delicious cuisine, and here are the 15 best bucket list things to see and do in Madeira.
Madeira is one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations, and for very good reason. Situated half way between Europe and Africa in the middle of a Portuguese archipelago, it boasts year round good weather, stunning volcanic landscapes, UNESCO heritage forest parks filled with waterfalls and lagoons and a cuisine famed for its local delicacies. It’s small size means that travellers can easily explore it in a relatively short time period, but make no mistake this little island packs a punch and makes sure there is more than enough to keep anyone entertained for a long time, no matter what your interests. Here is just 15 of the best, most iconic things to see and do in Madeira that any visitor has to tick off their bucket list!
Madeira is a stunning volcanic island with no shortage of breathtaking coastal views and a variety of landscapes that travellers can never get tired of admiring, and with over 450 official hiking trails it’s safe to say that no traveller will run out of views to choose from! From the famous Levada walks to scaling the highest peak at Pico Ruivo, there really is something for everyone. The official trails range from easy walks through to challenging treks that all but the most confident and experienced of hikers should hire a guide for, but whicever path you choose hiking in Madeira is an absolute must.
On an island made up of spectacular viewing points you really have to make something special to make it stand out, and you’ll find exactly that at Cabo Girão! This skywalk is a glass walkway that protrudes out over a cliff face on the islands south coast. It feels like you are in cloud city rather than a simple viewing point, with unbeatable views over the ocean and Funchal, and the unique selling point of the walkway, the transparent glass bottom where you can see the strips of farmland far below. And the best thing, like the other viewing points in Funchal, it is absolutely free!
Ponta De Sao Lourenco.
Madeira is not short of stunning coastal paths and hikes, but this one deserves singling out. In Canical, on the extreme east of Madeira, is one of the islands most unique and stunning nature reserves, with a dramatic volcanic coastline and views over the Atlantic ocean that are a spectacular reward for hikers who make the journey. The area has been a nature reserve since 1982 and has distinctive flora and fauna that take advantage of the unique climate and ecosystems. There are also a number of jeep tours that will stop off at various viewpoints on half day tours for those who don’t quite feel up to the hike.
Hiking The Levada Walks.
Madeira is famous for its iconic Levadas, the historic waterways that snake through the island. The man made structures date back to the 1500s and take advantage of the volcanic terrain, starting in the wet and rainy north and north west of the island and working their way down to the arid and dry south, providing its inhabitants with drinking water and the famously lush flora and fauna with life sustaining nutrients.
Apart from their practical use, and they are still used today for that precise purpose, they have also created a number of picturesque and unique hiking routes, following the path of various Levadas. There are a range of hikes available for all ages and abilities, from easy but picturesque ambles to challenging routes that will need careful preparation and experience, but all have something to offer, from glorious views of the hundred metre Risco Waterfall (not to mention the many others on the famous Levada dos 25 Fontes) to stunning vistas of the Sao Jorge Valley.
Get a taste of traditional way of life in Madeira by visiting the small town of Santana on the north coast, famous for its traditionally built and whitewashed A frame houses with traditional thatched rooftops. Most homes on the island have abandoned this style as modern islanders need for space and practicality evolved, so it is good to see these traditional homes preserved here.
Exploring The Street Art Of Funchal.
One of the true and often overlooked gems of Funchal is located in its ‘old quarter’, or zona velha. This neighbourhood has completely regenerated itself thanks to the work of local artists who – with the help of a local government initiative – created the ‘Art of Open Doors’ exhibition, where each door and even walls, nooks and window frames are decorated with unique designs.
If you want to see the area specifically for its street art then visit early in the morning. In the early afternoon the area explodes with restaurants, poncha bars and little handmade craft stores as well as an art gallery or two. It is well worth staying here to explore all of this too, but you do miss out on some of the door art. In my opinion it is just a great excuse to spend the whole day here!
Go Whale And Dolphin Watching.
Madeira isn’t just a popular spot for tourists, the Atlantic Ocean’s half way point between Europe and Africa is popular with an array of marine and bird life too. The most popular species to spot are of course whales and dolphins, and there are a number of operators that will take you out on trips to try and catch a glimpse of a whole array of different species. Just make sure you do your research beforehand and ensure that the operator you choose are working in an ethical way.
Enjoy The Cafe Culture.
Madeira is famous for its food and drink with a number of dishes unique to the island, and the best way to enjoy them all, other than exploring the islands many restaurants of course, is simply to wander the streets of Funchal and try out as many cafes and eateries as you can!
With small cafe tables spilling out onto picturesque, tree lined boulevards, traditional Portuguese architecture, squares filled with art and statues, Funchal is full of charm that can only be truly experienced by sitting down and people watching with a glass of wine and a snack or two. The only real problem you have is choosing which one of the many locally owned cafes and artisan eateries to sit down at!
If you want to take your journey with Madeiran cuisine a step further there are also a lot of local run food tours that you can book at the tourist information centre or online.
Take A Wine Tour.
One thing Madeira is perhaps less well known for, but shouldn’t be, is its quality wine! The unique temperate climate has allowed Madeira to create its very own distinctive fortified wine that are available all over the island. There are a number of wine tours that will take you through the entire process, from where the barrels are made, the unique and distinctive conditions where the wine is aged and taste a few of the vintages for yourself! (Although if you want one of the bottles that are over a century old you can arrange to buy one at one of the wineries and have it waiting for you at the airport when you leave).
Riding The Funchal Cable Car.
The Funchal Cable Car, sometimes referred to as the Botanical Garden Cable Car, is one part functional vehicle and the best way to visit Monte and the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, and one part tourist attraction in its own right, with a ride that offers unrivalled views over Funchal bay.
It takes around 20 minutes and moves slowly, which means that it is the absolute perfect way to switch off (a few snaps of the views are allowed of course) and just enjoy the views of the rooftops below you and the ocean beyond.
The starting point is situated in Quinta do Bom Successo in Funchal, which is a pleasantly gentrified area to wander around and relax at various seaside cafe’s and parks for the day in its own right. It costs around €11 one way or €16 for a round trip, but please check current prices online.
Taking The Fast Route Down.
The famous taboggan runs of Madeira are situated right here in funchal and is an absolute bucket list item all visitors to Madeira have to do! The starting point is right by the side of the cable car exit, so if you don’t fancy taking the slow way down, you can always go the fast route by sitting in what amounts to a big basket on a sled and powered only by gravity and of course two carreiros, or sledge drivers, wearing white uniforms and straw hats, hurtling down a closed off road that takes you back to Funchal, and being 6 years old again!
Just a quick note the taboggan rides don’t take you all the way back to Funchal, there is a further 20 minute walk down a steep hill to get to your starting point again. Taxis do wait here at the stopping point but they are expensive as you would expect, or there is a bus if you don’t mind the wait.
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens.
One of the main reasons to take the Funchal Cable Car, other than the views, is to visit the Monte Palce Tropical Gardens which are located right outside the cable car exit (and the start of the toboggan run road!)
This amazing attraction is a series of lush tropical parks and themed landscapes built into various steps around the mountain and connected by a series of scenic bridges over the coursing river and waterfalls. There is also a number of museums dedicated to Portuguese traditional crafts and tiles, natural rocks and crystals and more.
The gardens are a lot bigger than they appear from the entrance and you can easily spend a good half day if not more exploring it all at an easy pace.
Take A Day Trip (Or Longer) To Porto Santo.
Porto Santo, the smaller island in the archipelego just south of Madeira is the perfect companion to a trip to the larger island. Where Madeira is lush, green and action packed, Porto Santo is eternally laid back and uncrowded with the perfect stretches of golden, sandy beaches that Madeira is missing. If you are looking for a quiet escape from everything or just fancy a day or two on the beach then Porto Santo is the perfect day trip.
Valley Of The Nuns.
Surrounded by steep mountains, the village of Curral das Freiras (Valley of the Nuns) is an isolated and remote village, only accessible by hiking through a mountain path, and is another one of Madeira’s famous hikes that deserve a special mention. Historically this remote location was ideal for villagers who would use it to hide from pirates and raiders, and later to offer refuge to the nuns who would use it to escape with the convents treasures, hence the name. Now of course there is no need to hide from pirates but the spectacular location and traditional way of life makes the hike more than worth the effort.
Visit Mercado Dos Lavradores.
This traditional open air farmers market in the heart of Funchal is a bustling hive of activity where you can explore the sights, sounds and smells of Madeira’s specialty foods and crafts. You can buy fresh fish at the wet market, fresh produce and flowers grown locally on the island as well as a variety of arts and crafts. Be careful though as there is a very high tourist mark up here. The real reason to visit Mercado dos Lavradores though is the stunning building it is housed in. Built in 1940 with New State architecture, it is a genuine work of art in and of itself and the tile and paint panels that adorn the inside are worth spending some time enjoying.
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