The first time I went to Madeira, when I came out of the airport the world seemed somewhat strange. It was November and an hour and a half earlier in Lisbon it was practically winter, whereas in Funchal the weather was sunny, the air warm and the sea extremely peaceful. There was vegetation all around us, hillsides were covered in green with splashes of houses here and there, large banana leaves and palm trees were dancing to the gentle breeze and the atmosphere reminded me of the tropics. Yet cars had a Portuguese licence plate, signposts and outdoors were in Portuguese, the architectonic style of the majority of houses was that of our houses… I was in Portugal, but at the same time it seemed to me that I was not.
As the days went by and I became more and more entangled in the island’s charms, this feeling began to vanish – maybe because I got used to it, or maybe because I was recognising the Portuguese soul in so many details – but never disappeared completely. Neither during those days nor when I returned for a longer stay, and it will certainly remain when I go back some day. Madeira is a shot of beauty concentrated in the form of an island, where landscape and weather change every few kilometres, sometimes drastically: it actually happened to me leaving Funchal when the sun was shining bright and some time later finding mounds of snow at Pico do Areeiro; once I was almost swept away by strong winds at Ponta de São Lourenço, then spent a warm, soothing afternoon in Santana and later on had to put on my coat to bear the chilly atmosphere of Ribeiro Frio.
Despite the fact that its area is only 740 km2, do not think that it will be possible for you to see the whole island in two or three days. It is true that we can go from Funchal to Porto Moniz in 50 minutes, as opposed to the four hours that this journey used to take before the end of last century. The construction of dozens of tunnels which started in the 1980s – until then, all 28 tunnels that existed only totalled 5 km in length; nowadays, they are more than 100 km long, distributed among the impressive number of 180 tunnels – has given both local people and visitors the possibility of ignoring the hilly relief of the island and going from one place to another more easily and rapidly. Even so, Madeira has too many places of interest, too much beauty to be seen in a rush. Therefore, here is my suggested itinerary for visiting some of the must-see locations of this island.
Santa Cruz – Lido – Funchal
The best option is to rent a car starting from Cristiano Ronaldo Airport and then begin your visit in the small but very pleasant town of Santa Cruz, where some streets are paved with the typical “calçada à portuguesa” (black and white cobblestones arranged in patterns) and others in the typically Madeiran fashion, with pebbles and small rounded stones. Palmeiras beach and the Mother Church of Holy Saviour, which is the second biggest church on the island, are not to be missed.
If you are staying in the area of Funchal where the majority of hotels are located, known as Lido, once you have checked in at the hotel go for a walk in the park near the pool complex, where you will find viewpoints that offer different perspectives of the ocean and the Gorgulho Islet, the icon of this area.
Afterwards, head into the centre of Funchal. On the way, in the garden of the Casino Park Hotel, say “hello” to the statue of Sisi, Empress of Austria, a work of the sculptor Lagoa Henriques, and continue to the Casino, built after an original design of Oscar Niemeyer.
Cross Santa Catarina Park, follow by Avenida Arriaga and visit the small, yet luxurious, Municipal Garden. Carry on down the avenue to see the Cathedral and then take a break to taste an absolutely de-li-cious and tender “prego” (steak sandwich) in a “caco” cake (which, as everybody knows, is not a cake but rather a typical Madeiran bread) at the open esplanade of the Apolo Café, right next to the Cathedral.
Then go for a stroll on the usually busy Avenida do Mar and at the end turn left to visit the Old Town of Funchal, which is now a trendy quarter with lots of restaurants, bars and coloured doors – an excellent place to finish your day.
Farmers’ Market – Madeira Botanical Garden – Eira do Serrado – Curral das Freiras
Start this second day at one of the most iconic places in Funchal: the Farmers’ Market. The prices are definitely for tourists, but the atmosphere is a true pleasure for the senses, which are invaded by the light, colours, sounds and smells of this very peculiar place.
While still in town, go to the Botanical Garden, another venue where your senses will continue to party. Fifty thousand square metres of gardens where you will wander amidst 3,000 plant species coming from many places around the world and divided into several different areas, the choreographed gardens being of particular interest. Located at an altitude of 150-300 metres, this garden offers to its visitors some of the most beautiful views over Funchal and the Atlantic Ocean.
Your next destination, which is only 12 kilometres to the north, will also reward you with an impressive view, though not over the sea. Totally unsuitable for those who do not like heights, the balcony of the viewpoint at Eira do Serrado floats on empty air more than 500 metres above the valley where the village of Curral das Freiras is nested, in the mountainous heart of Madeira Island. The scenery is absolutely stunning! Afterwards, drive down to the village and if the weather is inviting, chill out at the most recent “novelty” of the island: “Poço dos Chefes”, a sort of natural pool in the creek that runs near the village.
Machico – Prainha (Caniçal) – Ponta de S. Lourenço – Porto da Cruz – Santana – Ribeiro Frio
From Funchal head east to the town of Machico, which was the first capital of Madeira and is currently the second most populated town of the island. The old quarter is welcoming and the area by the sea is truly enjoyable, particularly the sandy beach created some years ago.
Going further to the east, the landscape changes after you leave Caniçal behind and green is replaced by the colours of dry land. It is worth stopping at the viewpoint of Prainha and going down to one of the few naturally sandy beaches in Madeira, which is also one of the loveliest. The sand is very dark, as is characteristic of sand of volcanic origin, but the beach is conveniently sheltered from the strong winds that usually affect this extremity of the island.
The road ends at Ponta de São Lourenço, an area which has been declared a natural reserve. The wind and the sea have carved beautiful rock formations here, which have warm colours that contrast with the fantastic greeny deep blue hue of the sea. The most fabulous view is probably the one we see from the viewpoint of Ponta do Rosto: several pointy islets in shades of grey and rust, surrounded by white frothy rings, projecting from the wind-rugged waters.
Going back on the same road, your next destination is also on the coast, though further north. Porto da Cruz is easily recognisable from afar due to the 580-metre-high Penha d’Águia, the unmistakeable cliff that borders the west side of the village. Quiet and almost sleepy, it has a pebble beach particularly appreciated for surfing, given that the pool complex right next to the beach is much more inviting for a swim. There are sugar cane plantations on the outskirts, where sugar cane syrup is produced at the mill that has been operating in Porto da Cruz since 1927.
Proceed further north to Santana. Although not a particularly attractive town as a whole – in my opinion, of course – this is the place where we can still see a few “palhaças”, the triangular thatched-roof houses typical of Madeira, nowadays maintained only for tourism. This is also where you will find the Madeira Theme Park, well designed and interesting for both kids and grown-ups, where you can spend some enjoyable time. Another place of interest is the Caminho para Todos, a wide protected hiking trail of only 2 km (plus the same distance to go back), accessible for the majority of people, which starts at Pico das Pedras and ends at Queimadas.
Go back to Funchal taking the road that crosses Ribeiro Frio. This natural park is another one of Madeira’s jewels, a green, cool oasis with thousands of different trees. The first mandatory stop on this road is to hike along the Vereda dos Balcões, which is less than 3 km long and has a viewpoint from where it is possible to see the various peaks of Madeira (including Ruivo and Areeiro). The second stop is just a little further down the road, to visit the trout fishing farm.
Funchal-Monte Cable Car – Monte Palace Tropical Garden – Senhora do Monte – Pico do Areeiro
Today’s tour starts once again in Funchal and your first destination is a wonder that goes by the name of Monte Palace Tropical Garden. Instead of using the car, I suggest that you go up in the cable car that starts at the eastern end of Avenida do Mar: a 15-minute ride at the extremely slow speed of 4 metres per second, watching the city unfold below your feet, replaced afterwards by green slopes, always with the sea as background.
In the garden, be prepared to spend several hours strolling around the 70,000 m2 of what has been considered as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, amidst pathways, greenhouses and lakes, works of art, exhibitions, fish and waterbirds, glazed tile panels and a plethora of other things that will catch your attention and please your senses.
When you finally decide (reluctantly, I’m sure) to leave this garden, make a stop at the Church of Our Lady of Monte, which stands nearby at the top of a stairway, then cross the park and take a look at the neoclassical marble fountain with a small statuette of the Holy Virgin, conveniently sheltered under the trees of Largo da Fonte.
To go back to Funchal you may choose the cable car again, take a bus near Largo da Fonte, or go down to Livramento on one of the famous traditional wicker basket sledges (if you decide that the experience is worth the money they charge and the long wait in the queue) and then go the rest of the way by foot or bus.
Take the remainder of the day to visit another iconic place in Madeira: Pico do Areeiro. It is 1818 metres high, the third highest peak of the island and the most easily reached by car. When the air is clear, it is possible to see tens of kilometres of the fabulous landscape that surrounds it, and it is also here where the famous trails leading to Pico das Torres and Pico Ruivo start. Before you go, I advise you to check what the weather is like up there, which you can easily see through this link to the webcam that has been installed on site: http://www.netmadeira.com/webcams-madeira/pico-do-arieiro.
Cabo Girão – Fajã dos Padres – Ribeira Brava – Ponta do Sol – Madalena do Mar – Mudas (Calheta) – Jardim do Mar – Paul do Mar – Ponta do Pargo
Today you will be travelling across the island’s south coast to the west of Funchal and the first stop will be at the famous Cape Girão, one of the highest capes in Europe: 589 metres up above the “fajãs” (small plains on the toe of cliffs, formed from landslides or lava flows) and the sea, which since some years ago we have also been able to see directly underneath our feet through the glass platform built on the viewpoint. Needless to say that the view is fascinating! I suggest that afterwards you go down by cable car to Fajã dos Padres and visit this quiet corner that is full of stories.
A few kilometres further on, Ribeira Brava is a simple, friendly small town. It has narrow streets, an esplanade area next to the beach and the fort – which is nothing more than a round tower – a main church and an ethnographic museum that is worth visiting.
Head to Ponta do Sol, famous for its warm temperatures but also – and especially! – because it is mentioned in a popular, amusing old song by Max, a 20th-century Portuguese singer who was born precisely on Madeira Island. Since this is the place which has the highest number of hours of sunshine in Madeira, it is particularly popular for beach holidays, although its beach has no sand whatsoever, only huge pebbles.
Madalena do Mar (which is for me the place with the most beautiful name in Portugal) is a town even smaller than its “neighbours”, but it has a very long seafront promenade parallel to a narrow strip of stones that local people call a beach, excellent for a stroll. This is also the region on the island where the well-known bananas of Madeira are produced in largest quantities.
Ever since a yachting marina and a white sand beach were built in Calheta, this location has been increasingly attracting more visitors, but my suggestion is that you go directly to visit Mudas, the Contemporary Art Museum of Madeira. Steadily standing on an abrupt cliff over the Atlantic Ocean, this building designed by the Madeiran architect Paulo David has a very particular atmosphere where tranquillity and sobriety are dominant, and it is a bright example of how architecture and landscape can fuse and jointly contribute to improve places. Due to its privileged geographic location, it is also an excellent viewpoint over Calheta and the sea.
Continuing on along the coast, the road will take you to Jardim do Mar and afterwards to Paul do Mar, two fishing villages which still preserve some of their quiet atmosphere from when they were not easily reached.
If you still have time and wish to feel as if you are on the edge of the world, follow the winding road that leads to Fajã da Ovelha and ends at Ponta do Pargo, the westernmost point of Madeira Island, duly marked with the lighthouse that goes by the same name.
Encumeada – Paul da Serra –Levada do Risco e das 25 Fontes – Porto Moniz – Véu da Noiva – São Vicente
My suggestion for the last day of this itinerary is to hike one of the most beautiful trails in Madeira, which has been named “Levada do Risco e das 25 fontes”. To get there, choose the road that passes through Encumeada and Paul da Serra and stop the car when and where you are able to do so. You will have the opportunity to see cows grazing on the green slopes – or even find them calmly pacing in the middle of the road – maybe sometimes hidden by flakes of white clouds which fly below the level of the road, puffed by a gentle wind.
Park the car at the viewpoint in Rabaçal and then go down (two kilometres on asphalt road) until you reach the shelter where the hiking trail begins. In fact, the trail Levada do Risco e das 25 Fontes consists of two tracks, duly marked, which total 10 km and will lead you to two spectacular waterfalls along the course of concrete ducts (the “levadas”) created by human ingenuity to capture water and convey it from springs to where it is most needed.
Once you have seen these beauties of Madeira’s interior, it is time for you to visit other ones, very different, on the north coast of the island. From Rabaçal to Porto Moniz you will not take much longer than half an hour and then you can rest, soaking in water, at the splendid natural pools (which have been “refurbished” for this purpose) fed by the waves that jump over the rocks. Stroll along the promenade by the sea and through the area where small pools are nested amidst the rock formations. If you are with children, the Centre of Living Science (“Centro de Ciência Viva”) is an excellent option for them to have some fun, as is the Madeira Aquarium located at São João Baptista Fort, which has been rebuilt in the image of the old fort, with the original stones.
To go back to Funchal, follow the road along the north coast, crossing tunnels sliced by open air road sections with a view to the ocean. About 11 km further on, stop at the car park by the viewpoint to gaze at Véu da Noiva, a waterfall that runs abundantly and directly to the sea.
Before you reach your final destination, stop in São Vicente, a town where there is no shortage of places of interest, from the volcanic caves to the museum compound Rota da Cal and the Indigenous Garden.
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This itinerary is only one of many that can be suggested for seeing the beauties, both natural and man-made, of charming Madeira Island. Many other places which are not mentioned here are also worthwhile visiting, so in your journey make sure to take time to calmly enjoy all the – expected and unexpected – surprises that you will certainly come across in Madeira.
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