Nestled a few hundred miles off the West African coast, the relatively petite Portuguese archipelago of Madeira is one incredible place to visit – and I don’t say that lightly! It was a true eye-opener on our last visit and a dramatic set of islands that really should be on your travel radar.
I’d heard about Madeira for many years but, for some weird reason, I never actually visited (which now, in hindsight, makes me quite sad). I really wish I’d known about the dramatic beauty, stunning vistas and ridiculous scenery that seems to flow across all the islands. Thankfully, we recently remedied the fact that we hadn’t visited with our very first trip – and I couldn’t be happier!
The first thing that struck me once we headed to Madeira was how unique it was, the islands are so different from any other island chain I’ve visited in Europe and one that is firmly seared in my memory as the Hawaii of Europe.
Anyway, rambling aside, take a look at some of the very best things to see, do, pack and eat whilst in Madeira.
How to get to Madeira?
Madeira is very well connected by flights from mainland Europe, the Azores and the UK. If you’re travelling from further afield, it’s really easy to connect in Portugal or hub cities like London or Amsterdam. If you ever need any tips on reaching the islands, just pop us a message, we’re always happy to help.
What to pack?
Madeira is a diverse region, which means it isn’t just swimwear and sunblock that’s needed (though, these are essential too) 🤣 Make sure you pack yourself plenty of layers and a windbreaker, the mountainous areas of Madeira change quickly in their range of temperatures, It might be a glorious 30 degrees at sea level but don’t be surprised if temperatures reach freezing at higher altitudes.
As you’ll no doubt be exploring the length and breadth of this stunning archipelago, make sure you grab yourself a quality bag to carry your gear, clothes, sunblock and plenty of water. We used the Osprey Trillium 45, mainly because it has 3 ways to carry your gear. As the terrain changes quickly and fast, we found it best to have a bag that alters with the environment. For instance, at the beach, we carried it as a shoulder bag as there was little weight inside, whereas in the mountains, carrying lots of water, we swapped to a cross body bag to make the weight easier to handle.
For instance, at the beach, we carried it as a shoulder bag as there was little weight inside, whereas in the mountains, carrying lots of water, we swapped to a cross body bag to make the weight easier to handle.
Where To Stay?
There are so many stunning places to stay in Madeira If you’re looking for a little luxury, head to Quinta Da Casa Branca that is a gorgeous property not too far from Funchal centre itself. If you’re looking for a central Funchal Hotel, Sé Boutique Hotel is perfect if you want to be right on the doorstep of historic Funchal.
What to see and eat?
1.) Head to the Valley of the Nuns (Camara De Lobos)
Around 40 minutes drive (from Funchal) is the gorgeous Camara De Lobos, commonly known as the Valley of the Nuns. This area gained its name after pirates used to purge and pillage the islands to such an extent that local nuns decided to hide and within the valley itself.
Nowadays there are no pirates (pheeeeew) 😆 but plenty of incredible scenery to see.
2.) See the view from Miradouro das Flores
Around 2 hours by boat from Madeira Island, Porto Santo Island has one impressive view point and cliff region to explore. Head over to Miradouro das Flores that overlooks the uninhabited and mysterious Cal Islet.
There’s plenty of hiking opportunities around the coastline here, so take some comfy shoes.
3.) Find the impressive Pico de Ana Ferreira
This impressive geological formation is the result of some volcanic heating and cooling, causing these impressive pillars many thousands of years ago. Of course, any geologist is going to drool over this place but it’s actually so incredible to see even if you’re not a geological buff!
Perched in the side of the mountains, it’s easiest to get here by car, transfer or a rental bike.
4.) Ride a Monte sledge
No visit to Madeira Island is complete without a hair-raising ride on a Monte Sledge. Powered by the will and might of two ‘drivers’ you are pushed down the hill inside a wicker basket with no wheels (just skis) that slide down the road.
It’s a surreal and historic practice that you have to give a go on your visit… though, be warned, you will go down sideways at some points! 🤣
5.) Visit a black volcanic beach
Being volcanic in origin, Madeira Island has some rather impressive black sandy beaches you should visit. If you’re looking for a little swimming with some dramatic island backdrops, head over Praia do Porto do Seixal. It really is gorgeous.
6.) Watch the sunset at Maktub in Paul do Mar
One of the best places to gorge on delicious food and watch the sunset is at Maktub in Paul do Mar. This incredible waterside venue has some of the best food we tasted on the island… and they make an epic cocktail, too!
Make sure to try some of their freshly caught fish dishes, the chef will cook you up a real treat, I promise!
7.) Porto Moniz Natural Swimming Pools
Set within the gorgeous, rugged coastline, these natural pools are the perfect place for an afternoon dip! Make sure to pack lots of sunblock as the sun can be intense, especially around early afternoon.
8.) Search for wild dolphins
Undoubtedly, the best ways to see dolphins is in the wild, totally free, no interaction with us humans and no pools in a theme park to gawk at. Spotting them in the wild is so much more rewarding than seeing them in a tank and Madeira is a perfect place for this.
We headed out on a small rib boat early in the morning and spotted a huge pool of around 50 dolphins, we couldn’t believe it! The whole experience was so magical to see, especially when two different species hunting for grub!
We headed out with Rotas dos Cetáceos Who really respected the natural environment and the dolphins themselves.
9.) Hike around Ribeiro Frio Natural Park
Madeira island isn’t just beaches and sunshine, with Ribeiro Frio Natural Park the perfect place to explore if you want to see a different perspective on island life. Hike one of the many routes that crisscross this park and discover the picturesque beauty of the island’s forests and rugged mountain environment.
10.) Have a Poncha (or two)
Arguably the most famous drink on the islands is Poncha. Most bars will sell it but be warned, it packs a hefty kick! Made from sugar cane alcohol, lemon juice and lashings of honey, this drink will knock your socks off!
11.) Explore the east side of Madeira island
One of the ways to explore Madeira Island is by Jeep, get yourself onto a jeep tour of the east side of the island and explore places like Pico do Arieiro; Santana; Porto da Cruz; Ponta de São Lourenço.
They are stunning places to visit and a great way to see a whole lot of the island (especially if you don’t have a huge amount of time).
We headed out with Madeira Mountain Expeditions and they were amazing.
12.) Have lunch overlooking the dramatic coastline
One of the nicest viewpoints (and some delicious food) to enjoy is at Quinta do Furão where you can dine on some traditional Madeiran dishes all whilst overlooking the dramatic cliffs and the rugged east coast of the island.
Most of the dishes they make are filled with local produce from the island and organic where possible.
13.) Stumble upon Balcões de Ribeiro Frio
After a little stroll through the mountains, starting at Ribeiro Frio, you will eventually reach the gorgeous viewpoint of Vereda dos Balcões, which is one sight you have to see.
If you visit on a crisp and clear day, you’ll be able to see the highest peaks on Madeira Island, that of; Pico do Areeiro and Pico do Gato, Pico das Torres, Pico Ruivo.It really is a breathtaking viewpoint!
14.) Hike around Pico do Arieiro
Pico do Arieiro is Madeira Islands third highest peak and one that can be explored by foot. Make sure to pack windbreaker and lots of layers and head out onto one of the clearly marked trails that scatter the area.
If you’re visiting in the winter months, please take extra care as snowfall can cut this area off in a moments notice.
15.) Explore the west side of Madeira Island by car
There’s so much to see in Madeira that it can be hard to fit everything into a trip.
If you have a car for the day, drive across to Cabo Girão; São Vicente and include places like the natural pools of Porto Moniz and black sandy beach of Seixal that I previously mentioned.
16.) Find the Santana historical houses
Although you might not spend a dizzying amount of time here, it’s a great place to see on your stop off to the other side of the island. Spend 30 minutes or so exploring some of these houses and learning a little more about their history on Madiera Island.