I’ve just got back from a 5 day trip to Madeira island and WOW – I’m blown away by this amazing place.
Often referred to as the ‘Hawaii of Europe’, Madeira is a volcanic island off the coast of north west Africa, and is actually a region belonging to Portugal. We honestly had the best time here, and it exceeded all of my expectations as an adventurous holiday destination for active millennials (+ those who love ‘Instagrammable’ views and locations)!
We fit a LOT of different activities into our 5 days in Madeira, so I thought I would share a guide to visiting the island, plus a list of my top must-do things to include on your Madeira itinerary too.
Table of Contents:
Where is Madeira?
Madeira is technically an ‘autonomous region of Portugal’, but you’ll actually find it just off the coast of north west Africa, closer to Morocco than Europe, and sitting in the Atlantic Ocean between the Azores and the Canary Islands.
It’s an archipelago of 4 islands & islets, comprising of some uninhabited nature reserves, and the idyllic Porto Santo island. Madeira island itself is just under 741km2 in size with around 263,000 inhabitants.
Madeira is a volcanic island, so the landscape is a mixture of dramatic mountains, steep valleys, and a black sand & rock coastline – and the subtropical climate here means it’s incredibly lush and green too (but more about that in a moment)!
Travelling to Madeira
Despite the fact Madeira looks like a mixture between Peru, Bali and Hawaii, it’s only a 3.5 hour flight away from the UK!
We travelled with Jet2holidays who offer a great range of package holidays to Madeira, and everything was super easy and efficient. They have flights from all over the UK, so whether you’re looking for holidays from London Stansted airport, Bristol, or Manchester, for example, they’ve got you covered!
In off-season, flights to Madeira with Jet2 can go as low as around £59 each way, and I love that Jet2 still let you take on a mini suitcase as part of your hand luggage too (as many other airlines have now stopped this!).
COVID19 Madeira Travel Advice
As of writing this (April 2022), there currently aren’t any travel restrictions to visit Madeira from the UK! We didn’t have to show our vaccine passports or proof of negative tests anywhere either, but please check the local travel advice from Madeira and the country you’re travelling from as well.
What is the weather like in Madeira?
Being just off the coast of Africa, Madeira has hot summers of around the mid-twenties degrees Celsius, and mild winters that typically don’t drop between 10°C, raining occasionally.
Because of the incredible hills and mountains on the island, different areas of Madeira tend to have their own microclimates! During our visit in March (one of the coolest months), we experienced balmy temperatures of 22°C by the coast, and 5°C temperatures with fog, wind, and even snow up in the mountains.
We were also told by locals that the north east side of the island is usually cooler and cloudier, the the south west coast is pretty much always warm and sunny!
When is the best time to visit Madeira?
February and March are known as Madeira’s coolest months, with October to March being the wettest. If you’re looking for hot sun, July to September will be your best options, but for an off-peak, quieter visit, the Spring months of April to June would be ideal.
It’s also known for being particularly beautiful in Spring! A lot of the plants & flowers in Madeira bloom all year round, but in Spring everything really comes to life. It’s also a great time of year if you plan to go hiking and be more active, so you won’t be sweating in the humid high temperatures!
How many days do you need to see Madeira?
Whilst we packed our itinerary into 5 days, I would definitely suggest staying in Madeira for at least 10 days if you want to explore the different main parts of the island. This also means you’d have time to stay in more than 1 location, which would be preferable if you want to do both the north and south coasts.
Other than that, it totally depends how many activities you typically like to fit into a day when you’re on holiday! Some people prefer to have more relaxation time, while others like to be constantly on the go.
What to pack for Madeira
Depending on what time of year you visit Madeira and what activities you’ll be doing, you might find yourself needing to pack for all weathers!
As I mentioned, during our trip in March we ended up experiencing cold & wind in the mountains, and hot beach-weather by coast.
Light layers including a light raincoat and a rucksack to carry them in is definitely a good idea as the weather can change very quickly as well due to the many different microclimates around the island.
How to get around in Madeira
If you’re just going on a weekend break to Funchal (the capital city), you can definitely get away without needing a car in Madeira as there’s so much to do in and around the city, and cable cars, buses (and other very fun methods of transport as you’ll find out below!) too.
However the rest of the island is quite spread out, so hiring a car could be a good option to make the most of exploring. Madeira has had new roads, tunnels and motorways built in the last 20 years to make everything more accessible, but some of the routes still involve windy, narrow mountain roads.
As we were on a group trip, we ended up having shuttles and tour transfers around the different areas of the island to access different activities, which is another option if you don’t want to hire a car!
I’d definitely recommend booking some guided group tours / hikes while you’re in Madeira anyway, so you’ll be sorted for transport for those days.
Where to stay in Madeira
During our trip we stayed at the NEXT at Savoy Signature hotel in Funchal, which you can book as part of a package with Jet2holidays. This hotel was in a fantastic location; right by the sea and just a 5 minute walk into Funchal centre.
This ‘4 star plus’ rated hotel is super modern and boasts both an outdoor saltwater pool, and an outdoor freshwater pool on the rooftop, along with a spa, gym, several bars and restaurant.
I stayed in one of their ocean view rooms and it was stunning! It’s very recently been renovated so everything feels new, and the view from the balcony was beautiful.
The bar & pool areas feel modern but super chilled, and the decor is INCREDIBLY ‘Instagrammable’ if that’s your thing! And if you get a chance to eat in the Recharge restaurant during your stay, do NOT miss this – the food was unreal.
I had the tuna poke bowl (fresh tuna caught off the coast of Madeira is a delicacy!), followed by braised rib with truffle mash, and we all agreed that the mash was the best we’d ever had!
Jet2holidays offer a range of different accommodation options in the Funchal area, which I’d definitely suggest as there’s plenty to do in Funchal (as you’ll see below), and it’s a good, central location for tour pick ups.
It’s also only around 20-40 minutes from the airport too (depending on which side of the city you’re on)!
27 Best Activities & Things To Do in Madeira
1. Sunset Boat Tour in a Solar Powered Catamaran
On our first night arriving in Madeira, we got a transfer over to Calheta on the south west coast of the island, to join Onda Solar Tours on a sunset boat trip from the marina.
The special thing about this company is their catamaran is solar powered! This means not only is the experience more eco-friendly with low emissions, it also makes the trip so much more peaceful than when you have an engine-powered boat.
They run a few different tour options, including the sunset tour that we went on, where we experienced one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen! They occasionally see dolphins and whales too, and it’s generally amazing to see Madeira from this perspective.
2. Try the traditional local ‘honey cake’
You’ve probably heard of ‘Madeira cake’ but this is NOT the same thing. In fact, ‘Madeira cake’ as we know it in the UK isn’t even Madeiran; it was actually just named after Madeiran wine, which they’d often serve with this light sponge cake.
Meanwhile, Madeiran ‘honey cake’ is a very traditional delicacy that is much darker, denser and sweeter. It’s made with Madeiran honey (which, fun fact, isn’t made by bees! Madeiran honey is made from local sugarcane that they grow on the island) and fruit, nuts and spices.
Madeiran honey is a big part of the gastronomy on the island, as it’s used in Madeira wine, rum-based cocktails like Poncha, sauces, syrups and more.
The honey cake is not only delicious but also keeps for a really long time! Left out of the fridge, it’s good to eat for months. Apparently it should always be broken with your hands, and not with a knife, too.
3. Visit the Funchal market for fresh fish, fruit & flowers
In the center of Funchal you’ll find the Mercado dos Lavradores – the fresh product market selling all kinds of things. The fruits and flowers available to buy here are amazing, but can get expensive so be careful if you’re offered to try them and ask around for different prices.
If you want to see the fish market in full action, head there early on a Friday morning!
4. Try exotic locally grown fruits
While we’re on the topic of fruits, you’ll be amazed at how many weird and wonderful exotic fruits there are on offer here. Madeira has a lot of bananas, which are really nice and sweet, but can get expensive, and plenty of passionfruits – but if you look hard enough you might also find pitangas (tomato/cherry type fruits that look like tiny pumpkins), ‘custard apple’ (this is officially my new fave fruit; vanilla-y pineapple in flavour), or even the fruit of the cheese plant/Monstera (yes these plants grow fruit in these regions!).
5. Walk through the mist at Vereda do Fanal
If you do a quick Instagram search of Madeira, you’ll probably see lots of photos of people exploring this misty, spooky valley in the mountains, as it’s known for its thick fog and eery, gnarled trees!
We didn’t do this during our trip, but I’d definitely try and incorporate this into a hike.
6. Stop for a coffee and handmade chocolate
There is an independent chocolate shop in the heart of Funchal called UAU Cacau that creates the most beautiful selection of chocolates! We stopped in here to try a couple and get a coffee (a very Portugese-style coffee – basically espresso with or without milk), but I ended up buying a few boxes for friends & family too, as they’re really great value!
7. Visit the Monte Palace tropical gardens
One of the main attractions in Funchal, you can find these incredible tropical gardens in the suburb of Monte, which you can get a quick cable car to from Funchal center.
Once at the top, head to your left and you’ll see the Monte Palace sign and office where you can buy your entry tickets. These gardens are HUGE and well worth the entry as you could easily spend half a day wandering around here.
The gardens contain exotic plants, artworks and features from all over the world, including heavy influences from South Africa, Peru, and even Japan!
8. Toboggan down the mountain with the ‘Carreiros do Monte’!
This is an absolute MUST DO activity for your Madeira itinerary! Plus, it’s directly outside one of the Monte Palace tropical gardens exits as well, so very handy for getting back down the mountain to Funchal.
If you’re wondering what on Earth is happening in these photos, you’d be forgiven. It’s a 100+ year old method of transport that is basically the quickest way to get down from Monte!
It involves a wicker basket sledge or toboggan that you sit in whilst two men (the ‘Carreiros’) push you down the smoothed streets. It’s SO much fun!
They somehow use their feet and a couple of ropes to brake and steer the sledge from side to side (avoiding traffic!), while you scream and giggle your way down the mountain.
9. Swim in a natural sea pool
We didn’t have time to go in search of these, but there are a few dotted around the island! If you’re in the Funchal area, try heading to Piscinas naturais to enjoy the natural sea pools with amazing views over the ocean.
10. Explore by cable car
There are a few different cable cars you can get in Funchal, including the one that goes up to Monte for the tropical gardens and toboggans I’ve mentioned, however one we didn’t do (but that looks epic) was the Cabo Girão Cable Car, which looks both spectacular and scary!
11. Book a special dinner at the Nini Design Centre in Funchal
Built into an old fortress at the edge of Funchal’s marina, the Design Centre of Nini Andrade Silva is an exhibition centre slash restaurant, and is home to award-winning interior designer, Nini’s, collection of unique pieces.
It’s well known for its restaurant specialising in modern, fine dining food in an innovative setting. Perfect for a special date night!
12. Watch the sunrise over Pico Ruivo
On one of our days in our trip we woke up early with the aim of heading to Pico Ruivo (one of Madeira’s mountain peaks and the highest point of the island at 1862m above sea level) to watch the sunrise.
This was part of our ‘jeep tour’ of Madeira with Madeira Mountain Expeditions, and while we sadly didn’t get to catch the sunrise (thanks to thick fog and wind at the mountain peak), we did have the BEST day exploring the rest of the island and the various viewpoints via a really fun method of transport.
I’d definitely at least try to catch the sunrise on this tour if you can, but even if you miss it, rest assured you’ll have a great day exploring regardless.
13. Eat ‘black scabbard’ (Espada) or fresh tuna
If you love seafood you’ll be well at home in Madeira. One of their delicacies is the ‘black scabbard’ (known as Espada) fish, which is a deep ocean fish caught on lines at 1000m deep. If you see one whole, they look kind of creepy, and apparently they swim vertically in the ocean too, which must look really eery if you were down there…
There’s also plenty of fresh tuna in Madeira, so if you love a juicy tuna steak, or even sashimi, you definitely have to try it here.
14. Hike around the Ponta de São Lourenço coastline
We visited one of the view points here during one of our tours, but it looks incredible to hike around too. It’s the far eastern point of the island and has some truly epic cliffs and rock formations here.
If you’re into geology, this is also a great spot to see the lines and grades of volcanic rock and lava that have been formed here.
15. Choose your favourite door design in Funchal Old Town
If you’re staying in the Funchal area, you definitely have to visit the Old Town, with its cobblestone streets and historic buildings. One of the best things about this area are the painted doors, which showcase different artists in a variety of different styles – go here and pick your favourite!
If you’re looking for a guided tour of Funchal, including wine tasting, fruit tasting and more, I can’t recommend Celia from the Madeira Official Tourist Guides enough – she was brilliant (plus speaks multiple languages too)! It’s best to choose a guide from this official list as they have trained for years and are extremely knowledgable.
16. Discover the Santana houses
You can find these traditional houses in Santana on the northern side of the island. Whilst we didn’t get time to visit these during our trip, they look beautiful, and you can buy local products and traditional crafts here.
17. Taste Madeira wine and learn how it’s made
You can’t miss out on trying some Madeira wine on your trip. It’s one of the first fortified wines ever made and has lots of different varieties, from dry to sweet.
We went on a tour of Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal to see the process of how it’s made and stored, finishing off with a little tasting as well. I love a sweet dessert wine, so I brought a bottle home with me too!
The lodge is set up so that if you want to take a bottle with you from the shop, you can, or alternatively you can pay for the bottle there and they give you a voucher to exchange at Madeira’s airport in the duty free area. This means if you don’t have any room in your suitcase, you can grab your wine after you’ve been through security to take as hand luggage instead! So handy.
18. Explore the island by Jeep!
As I mentioned above, one of the best activities we did in Madeira was to go on a jeep tour of the island with Madeira Mountain Expeditions. They picked us up from our hotel in the morning, and we spent the day exploring all the different viewpoints along with lesser known country roads (which were very fun to roll through in the jeeps)!
We saw waterfalls, local farms with their crop terraces, plus lots of the stunning, dramatic coastline too, before heading to the Valley of the Nuns (mentioned below) which was just incredible!
If you book with them, ask for Ricardo! He was brilliant and so much fun.
19. See one of Madeira’s many waterfalls (+ stand under the Angel Waterfall!)
There are plenty of waterfalls to hunt down in Madeira, thanks to its subtropical climate and amazing landscape. One of the most well known that you may have seen online is the Angel Waterfall, which cascades down the mountain onto the road below!
Lots of people gather here to take photos of the spectacular falls, and cars/buses drive underneath for fun or for the necessity of driving through this area.
20. Get blown away by the views at the Valley of the Nuns
During our jeep tour, we visited the Valley of the Nuns, which is probably one of the most breathtaking areas of Madeira and one that definitely needs to be on your itinerary.
The landscape here is incredible, with tall mountain ranges and steep valleys, plus winding roads below creating a picture of something that looks more like South America.
The place to get the best view is definitely at Miradouro Eira do Serrado. It was so high up that I felt a little dizzy looking down, but worth it for the amazing scenes across the valley.
21. Try a chestnut-themed tasting menu at Sabores do Curral
While you’re in the Valley of the Nuns, you MUST visit the restaurant ‘Sabores do Curral’, which looks over the valley with amazing views.
But it’s not just the views that should bring you to this spot – Nun’s Valley is also known for growing chestnuts, and at Sabores do Curral you can get the full local delicacy experiences with a chestnut-themed tasting menu.
This food was some of the best we had on the trip – it was honestly delicious. First we were served honey roasted chestnuts followed by a chestnut soup, and for main course we had a spread of roast potatoes & vegetables, fried maize, with a pork & chestnut dish (tasted like Christmas Day stuffing!), and chicken in a madeira wine and mustard sauce.
Then for dessert we had chestnut and honey/toffee cheesecake and more, and these were unbelievably good too.
22. Order a glass of ‘poncha’
Poncha is a must-try if you visit Madeira as it’s their traditional alcoholic drink! It’s made with Madeiran honey (as mentioned above), Madeiran rum, plus orange or lemon juice.
It’s quite strong, but you can also get different flavours such as passionfruit or mango, made with local fruits too.
23. Take in the views at Ponta do Garajau
This is a fantastic spot for taking photos and admiring the coastline and cliffs of Madeira. At this small peninsula you will also find the Cristo Rei statue of Jesus, who – if you look closely at the back of his head – was actually struck by lightning a couple of years ago!
24. Try snorkeling, surfing, or even canyoning!
There are loads of outdoor things to do in Madeira if you’re looking for an active holiday. From snorkelling in the clear blue water, or surfing some waves on the north coast, to climbing the amazing rock faces or canyoning down mountainous watercourses.
There are plenty of companies that offer this so take a look at where would be nearest to you!
25. Have ‘bolo do caco’ become your new favourite food
One of my favourite foods EVER is garlic bread, which is basically what you can expect if you order bolo do caco at any restaurant in Madeira.
It’s a flat circular bread cooked on a stone slab, typically served with garlic butter, and it’s DELICIOUS! The reason it looks like a cake is apparently because landlords in Madeira used to charge a tax for local people to bake bread in their homes. So naturally they got around this by baking a bread that looked like cake and that everybody started calling cake (‘caco’)!
26. Hike around the countryside and see the Madeiran ‘Levadas’
If you’re after an active, adventure holiday, you must do at least one hike during your visit to Madeira. We went on one with Madeira Adventure Kingdom, where our guide also showed us the local ‘levadas’.
The Madeiran levadas are channels of water that run all through the island’s countryside, used traditionally to transport water to different villages, and also used as an irrigation system to water the farmland and terraces too.
There are over 1400km of known levadas around Madeira, and while some are no longer in use, the rest are mostly used now by farmers and also going to hydroplants to produce power (30% of the island’s power is generated from these!) or to treatment plants to create clean drinking water.
27. Try a fish ‘experience’ at Maktub
On our last evening in Madeira, we got a transfer to Paul do Mar on the south west side of the coast to visit a restaurant called Maktub.
This quirky surf bar / pub by the sea is an experience like no other and 100% worth a visit on your trip. Think cool reggae Caribbean vibes and the freshest food you’ve ever seen!
We had the ‘fish experience’ where the team cut and prepped the fresh tuna and red snapper fish right in front of us, serving incredible tuna sashimi, ceviche, and buttery red snapper for us alongside plenty of passionfruit mojitos.
Great fun and amazing food!
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