19 May 2023

How To Spend Five Days in Madeira

The Portuguese island of Madeira — located some 500 miles southwest of the mainland, just over 400 miles west of Morocco — wasn't really on my radar until a few years ago. After a couple of friends had wonderful trips, it soared up my to-visit list. 

With its semi-tropical climate, stunning natural features and wealth of outdoor activities, from hiking to dolphin watching, there's plenty to keep you busy for a week or more. And that's without the food, culture and history of the capital, Funchal. I could only take five days, taking advantage of this year's bonus UK bank holiday, but this girl definitely had a lot of fun(chal).


Exploring the Zona Velha
Funchal's historic city centre is easily explored on foot and there are lots of sights and things to do from Quinta das Cruzes (an old Madeiran manor house turned museum) and the Madeira Photography Museum to the Church Igreja do Colegio (with its wonderfully ornate interior) and the Sé Catedral do Funchal. Look out for the painted doors too! I also took a two-hour walking tour with Madeiran Heritage's History Tellers. The program's guides are University of Madeira students and other volunteers, and the tours are very informative.

Cetacean spotting
Around 30 species of dolphin and whale can be spotted in the waters of Madeira — some only seasonally. I took a trip with Rota dos Cetáceos, who use small speedboats that allow you to get close to any dolphins or whales you come across, with a marine biologist on board to tell you all about the marine life. Our skipper described the sea as "like butter" that day. It was very bumpy at the front of the boat so I'd have hated to experience the rough version! 

During the 2h30 trip, we came across two pods of dolphins: a friendly group of common dolphins and then some more skittish bottlenose dolphins, including a one-month-old baby. I need to up my dolphin photography game but I put a couple of videos on my Instagram. And when there were no dolphins in sight, we had great views of south Madeira from the water.

The full Monte
Monte is a small village perched high in the hills above Funchal. While you're there, you can enjoy the great views and visit Monte Palace Tropical Garden (look out for the replica Santana house) and Igreja de Nossa Senhora (featuring the tomb of the last Habsburg ruler, Charles I of Austria). 

Monte also boasts two interesting modes of transport: I recommend taking the cable car from Funchal and when you're ready to return, head to the bottom of the steps leading to the church. There, you will find a host of carreiros waiting to push you down the hill in a sort of souped-up toboggan. It costs €30 (€25 for one person) — cash only. The ride takes about ten minutes and then it's a steep 30-minute walk the rest of the way down (or you can get a taxi or bus). It's a bit bonkers but one of Madeira's most unique experiences.

Flower power
Madeira's semi-tropical climate means that beautiful, colourful flowers abound. As well as the Tropical Garden in Monte, you can visit the Jardim Botânico da Madeira, which has impressive floral gardens and great views of Funchal. I was there during the Madeira Flower Festival and so there were lots of displays around Funchal, as well as live music and other events. The festival takes place in late spring every year, making it a popular time to visit Madeira.

Sun, sea and...pebbles
If you like pebbly beaches, you'll love Madeira — bring an extra towel for cushioning! I had a couple of pleasant dips at Praia do Almirante Reis in central Funchal and Praia Formosa, out to the west. The latter is a large public beach, which is good for swimming. If you prefer to lie on something more comfortable, head to Doca do Cavacas, where you can rent a sunbed and swim in the natural swimming pools.

I visited Complexo Balnear da Barreirinha, a beach club just down the hill from my hotel, a couple of times. It cost about €6 for entry and a sunbed for the day. Once you've soaked up enough sun, you can cool off by leaping into the sea from the dock or the diving board. If you're craving a sandy beach, consider taking a day trip by ferry to the nearby Porto Santo island.

Jeep tour around West Madeira
If you don't have a car, joining an organised tour is the most efficient way to explore the island. Most tours focus on either the east or the west side of Madeira. I thought west was best and booked a full-day jeep tour with True Spirit, which took in stunning mountain vistas, natural volcanic rock swimming pools, ethereal ancient forests and much more. Our guide, Gil, was great, negotiating the impossibly steep and twisty roads, sharing details about Madeira's history and culture and even climbing trees to show us some wonderful tropical fruits. For more details and photos, check out this blog post.

Sunrise above the clouds
At 1,800m, Pico do Arieiro is Madeira's third highest peak — and perhaps its most popular. Most of the East Madeira tours stop there and you can also do various hikes in the area. I was short on time and decided to get up early for once, booking a sunrise tour with Charismatic Mountain. I was picked up from my hotel just before 6 am and we drove in the dark to the summit of Pico do Ariero. Having learned on my other tour that Madeira has many microclimates, I wore my jeans and jacket for the first time of the trip — it was still a little chilly and windy at the summit (apparently nowhere near as windy as it can be).

But standing above the clouds, watching the sun come up over the verdant valleys and hillside villages was a magical experience and well worth the early start. Our guides also provided a picnic breakfast and hot coffee, which I very much appreciated. Afterwards, we went for a short, pleasant walk along one of the levadas (irrigation channels) in Serra do Faial (Paradise Valley). At around €60, the tour wasn't cheap but it was well organised and I would highly recommend it if you don't have a car.


For my speciality coffee and brunch recommendations, check out my previous blog post. In addition to the eateries listed below, it's well worth visiting the Mercado dos Lavradores. Look out for the pineapple-banana (banana-shaped(ish), but tastes more like a kiwi), the annona (custard apple), passionfruit-banana and tamarillo (English tomato). 

Madeiran menus often feature espada (black scabbardfish, a huge sea monster whose white meat is usually served as a fillet with banana and/or passionfruit), espetada (beef kebab cooked on a laurel skewer) and bolo do caco, a flatbread roll usually served slathered in garlic butter or as a sandwich (prego). The local beverage is poncha, which looks like Sunny D but is rather stronger, made with distilled aguardente de cana, honey, sugar, lemon and various tropical fruits.

Armazém do Sal is a good option if you're looking for a traditional Madeiran restaurant. They do a series of set menus and the 'taste of the sea' menu I went for featured a beautiful 'trout garden' starter, followed by tastes of four different fish, including black scabbardfish and parrotfish. The food was well presented and it was an enjoyable meal. I had black scabbardfish again at Doca do Cavacas, west of Funchal, where the food was great and the sea views even better.

At Santa Maria Hostel in the Zona Velha, I finally got to try espetada, which was delicious, and I enjoyed sitting outside in the pedestrianised Rua de Santa Maria. After dinner, I had a couple of drinks at Madeira Rum House — a passionfruit and rum cocktail, followed by a delightfully smoky dark rum distilled on the island. The music is great and the staff are incredibly friendly and welcoming. It was a great end to a lovely evening.

On my last night, I headed up the hill to the (fancy) hotel zone to dine at Avista. Located inside the Cliff Bay Hotel, it's the sister restaurant of the two-Michelin-starred Il Gallo d'Oro, which was a price point too far for me. Avista was excellent though. I sat outside in the garden looking out to the sea. The set menus are reasonable value but I went à la carte for maximum customisation. The food is cooked on a Josper grill and the black Iberian pork, served with a side of BBQ pineapple, was the star of the show, although everything, from the bread course and the poncha to the chocolate and raspberry dessert tasted delicious.

I stopped several times for an emergency bolo do caco at Bolo do Caco, Gelados in the city centre. I also went to two different branches of the popular bakery A Confeitaria, enjoying a pulled pork and cheese bolo do caco and a millefeuille de nata (highly recommended!). I didn't think I'd make it to the original Hamburgueria do Mercado, but came across a second location on one of the piers on the seafront and enjoyed a very fine burger with a view of the Funchal hills.


I had very little space in my suitcase but filled some of the gaps with ceramic gifts-to-self at the lovely Lillie Ceramics, run by two sisters originally from Finland. Another good spot for ceramic souvenirs is Caraval Art Center (stop by after you've had coffee). Livraria Esperança is a very cool second-hand bookshop, and when in Portugal, I always raid the colourful, inexpensive accessories at Parfois. For beautifully packaged sweet treats, check out Fábrica Santo Antonio. Local rum makes a good souvenir but locals suggest avoiding the ubiquitous bottles of premixed poncha as it's much nicer when mixed with fresh ingredients.


For packing tips, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel.


When I was booking my trip in early March, many of the hotels were already full — blame the Flower Festival! But I had a fab stay at the Arts in Hotel Conde Carvalhal. It's a steep ten-minute walk from the city centre — there are buses if your knees have had enough. It was very peaceful and I loved sitting in the fragrant gardens enjoying the views over Funchal. My room was large, comfortable and very well appointed, featuring a decent-sized kitchen where I set up my Aeropress. The staff are all lovely and helpful too. I had heard good things about Santa Maria Hostel (two women on one of my tours were staying there too and spoke highly of it) but the private rooms were all booked up.

Arriving and getting around
Madeira's Cristiano Ronaldo airport is about 10 miles east of Funchal. Its tiny runway and windy setting mean you may have a slightly...interesting landing. Both of my flights were fine, but most of the flights were cancelled the day before I left because of the wind, leaving many people struggling to find accommodation in Funchal. 

There is a public bus into Funchal (€5), which takes about 40 minutes, but its irregular schedule didn't work for me. Madeira doesn't have Uber, but I took a Bolt to my hotel, which took about 20 minutes and cost €20. Bolt is a second job for many drivers, which means it's much harder to get a ride during weekday daytimes than evenings and weekends. You can book regular taxis in the Bolt app too (and thus pay by credit card) — my return journey to the airport cost €29. 

There are three different bus companies in Madeira. I used the yellow city buses a few times. The far is €1.95 for a single (cash only and even €10 notes frowned upon).

Portuguese is the official language of Madeira but English is widely spoken. If you can learn a few words of Portuguese, like olá (hello) and obrigado (if you are male) / obrigada (if you are female), it always goes down well.

Madeira's currency is the Euro. Credit cards and contactless payments are accepted in many places, especially in tourist areas and larger establishments, but not everywhere so it's worth always carrying some cash. If you get caught out, you can usually find an ATM nearby, as was the case for many people arriving cashless at the Monte toboggans.

Power outlets
Portugal uses the 'type C' European plugs with two round prongs.

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