With its dramatic volcanic mountains and craters, Madeira island really is a paradise for walkers. You won’t catch me scaling the peaks of Pico do Areiro or Pico Ruivo any time soon but I have now done five fairly easy walks in Madeira. (Originally, this article contained just 3 walks but I’ve updated it to add two more.)
By easy, I mean doable for someone who’s not especially fit and doesn’t relish uphill climbs. Like me.
Even if hiking is the last thing you would normally do on holiday, the views and tiny amount of effort involved make it well worth doing in Madeira. You can pick a walk that suits your fitness level and according to whether or not you suffer from vertigo.
Get more tips about walking in Portugal in this article.
Easy levada walks in Madeira #1: Vereda dos Balcões
I’ll start with the shortest and easiest of these five Madeira walks, which is only about 3 kilometres in total and more or less flat.
Mike and I took the bus from Funchal and got off at Ribeiro Frio. From the bus stop, walk a little way downhill to find the track on the left, which is signposted for Balcões, just past the start of the Ribeiro Frio to Portela walk on your right.
A wide, level path takes you along the levada (irrigation channel), through a forest and past a very rustic café and (probably) an old lady selling knitted socks and honey before leading you onto a viewing platform.
And what a view it is!
Despite the clouds obscuring the peaks of Ruivo and Areiro, the magnificence of the mountains on the opposite side of the valley was awe inspiring.
As a viewing spot, it is doubly blessed with views of the ocean and Santana (famous for its triangular houses) in the distance.
When we arrived, there were only a handful of other people there, enabling us to admire the scenery at our leisure and take photos without getting other people’s arms and heads in the shot.
We had timed it just right because just as we set off to retrace our steps, the platform was invaded by a coach load of rather miserable looking Thomas Cook tourists.
Keen to see the back of them and puzzled by their lack of any apparent enthusiasm, we took a detour to avoid the stragglers and wound our way downhill through terraced vegetable plots until we reached the main road again.
Ribeiro Frio to Portela levada walk
With time on our hands before catching the bus to Funchal, we did a little bit of the Ribeiro Frio to Portela walk but since we couldn’t see any views through the trees, it felt a bit samey and we turned back after about 30 minutes. I’m sure it becomes more interesting if you stick with it.
Aside from a small fish farm and a couple of cafés selling souvenirs as well as refreshments, there isn’t much else to see or do in Ribeiro Frio so if you’re driving, you can make better use of your time elsewhere once you’ve done the short Balcões walk.
Tip: Get to Funchal bus station early if you want to catch the 10:00 am #56 bus from Funchal to Santana (and double check the times in case they’ve changed between now and when you go). There were so many people waiting for this bus that they had to lay on an extra vehicle but I’m not sure if they would always be able to do so.
There are also tours which include walks in this area – try this one or click one of these images for more info:
Easy walks in Madeira #2: Levada do Rei
Dori and I had originally hoped to walk the Caldeirão Verde trail but after reading about how dangerous it can be in wet weather, we opted for the much safer Levada do Rei near Ponta de São Jorge.
At the beginning of the trail, and at various points along the levada, you can see the jagged peaks of the ‘Picos’ in the distance. The path is quite narrow in places and we had to stop several times to let people pass – this is a linear walk so you will encounter fellow hikers coming from both directions.
At one point, you will have to crouch your way through a very short tunnel (no need for torches) and, depending on the amount of rain there has been, you may have to walk behind a waterfall.
For Dori and I, these minor obstacles were well worth overcoming to get to the end point of the walk, i.e. the aptly named Ribeiro Bonito (Pretty Stream), which is a small waterfall with pool and surrounded by boulders. The gushing water almost drowned out the chatter of the Madeiran chaffinches that were darting around.
Tip: Bring a poncho if there’s been a lot of rain recently and stop for refreshments at the café near the start of the walk.
Practicalities: You’ll need transport to get to Levada do Rei so if you don’t have a car, consider this half day Levada do Rei tour which includes pick up and drop off.
Best hikes in Madeira #3: Curral das Freiras, aka Nun’s Valley
The nuns who lived near the coast of Madeira used to flee to these mountains to escape marauding pirates and enemy troops.
Eventually, they got tired of the long, arduous journey back and forth and the hard work of establishing and managing crops and property in distant places so they decided to settle there, hence the name of the village that’s halfway up, or down, one of the ring of steep mountains surrounding the crater valley. Curral das Freiras means Nun’s Valley.
If you just want to take a photo of the spectacular scenery, there’s a miradouro (viewing platform) just past the café and accommodation complex at Eira do Serrado.
I wanted more and managed to persuade Mike to walk from Eira do Serrado down to Curral das Freiras .
The path starts to the right of the hotel and zig-zags through trees before opening onto incredible views. As it’s all downhill, we ended up with shaky Bambi legs after a while but it was worth it.
When you get to the tarmac road, turn right and follow the road until you reach Curral das Freiras village.
You’ll likely be accosted by friendly waiters and coaxed into Sabores do Curral, the first café/restaurant you come to. Luckily, it’s a good one, with a terrace and glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the valley and decent food – try their chestnut soup.
There are other eateries in the village if this one doesn’t tempt you.
Tip: If we’d gone by car, we’d have been faced with a horribly steep climb back up. Neither of us fancied that so we took full advantage of the public transport service from Funchal, getting off the #81 bus at Eira do Serrado and catching the return bus from Curral das Freiras. The journey costs about 3 euros each way (pay on board), takes about 40 to 50 minutes and is an adventure in itself with hairpin bends, narrow roads and sheer drops.
If you simply want to admire the views without the effort of walking, there are various tour options. You could combine Nun’s Valley with a thrilling ride in a wicker sledge on this tour or click on the images below for other options:
Related: To experience the novel thrill of venturing inside one of the volcanoes responsible for these dramatic landscapes, check out this post.
Easy to moderate walks in Madeira #4: 25 Fontes (PR 6)
With 25 springs, there’s lots of water on this walk although only a little is flowing in August.
Risco, a long waterfall that’s a short but worthwhile detour (PR 6.1, signposted from the main PR 6 trail ), had diminished from forceful gushing torrents to veritable trickles.
I was surprised to see some fish in the levada but the highlight of the walk is a pool which has 25 springs pouring into it.
Although the 25 Fontes is one of the most popular easy walks in Madeira, you can’t get there by public transport.
Since we hadn’t bothered with a rental car and Mike wasn’t interested, I decided to go with a tour company.
Having double checked and been reassured that it would be a small group of no more than 8 people, I was extremely put out when a full-sized coach turned up to collect me in the morning. Amelia, the guide, said she just did what she was paid to do and that any overbooking was down to the tour company.
Since my only options were to get on the coach or forfeit the chance to go on a walk I really wanted to do, I boarded, albeit grumpily.
It turns out that almost every tour company in Madeira does the 25 Fontes walk on a Saturday, many with groups as large as ours, which had 26 people instead of 8.
We arrived before the worst of the crowds but there are sections of the path where you’re walking along the levada walls and there is only enough space for one person at a time. Amelia managed this well, racing ahead to negotiate with people coming in the opposite direction to wait and let us pass.
Note: This is not a walk for everyone. Aside from the narrow sections, there are some pretty hair raising drops so if you do suffer from vertigo, think carefully about doing this walk and discuss your concerns with the guide or tour operator beforehand.
You might also want to think twice about this walk if you’re scared of the dark or get claustrophobic.
Instead of returning to Rabaçal through the forest, we walked through an 800 metre long tunnel which lead us onto open hillside with views of Calheta to meet the coach at a completely different place.
Tip: If you do decide to drive, it’s worth taking the council-run minibus from the car park at Rabaçal down to the start of the walk, if only to save you having to slog your way back up the hill when you’re done. It costs 5 euros for the return trip and you’ll need to get there before 10:45 and head back before 15:00. Take a torch, too.
You can book a 25 Fountains walking tour before you arrive in Madeira, check availability here:
Easy Madeira walks #5: Ponta de São Lourenço
The rocky headland that wiggles out from the east of Madeira island is called Ponta de São Lourenço. If, like me, you get a kick from rock formations and patterns, this is a great place to come. Don’t miss the alien landscape of bubbling rock at the top of the car park.
A clearly defined, and very popular, walking trail starts from the car park and leads you across the cliffs but be warned, it’s not one to do on a windy day. We made it to a certain exposed part a couple of km into the trail and the gusts of wind were so strong that I had to sit down. I’m guessing that once around the next corner the winds died down but we decided not to risk it and turned back.
On the hiking trail, you’ll see the coast from different angles and watch the boats making their way past the cliffs and between fish farms towards the islands.
Tip: Don’t miss the chance to see the headland from the other side. You can get to the Ponta do Rosto miradouro on foot by following the path on the left across the rocks from the end of the car park. If you’re driving, head back down the hill and take the first exit at the roundabout.
If this all sounds like too much effort, perhaps you should look into Exploring Madeira by Sidecar instead.
Other things to do in Madeira
While Madeira is great for walking, offers so much more. Take a look at what to do around Madeira as well as the best things to see and do in Funchal.
If you are wondering where to stay, my Madeira accommodation guide should help you choose suitable lodgings.
Madeira guide books and maps
Guide books for Portugal rarely go into any detail about the Madeira islands so you should consider buying a dedicated book.
Take a look at these via Amazon:
DK Eyewitness have thought of almost everything in their guide to the Top 10 (gardens, beaches, museums, walks etc.) Top 10 Madeira (Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide).
If, like me, your interests centre around food and walking, this guidebook may fit the bill Madeira (Walk and Eat) (Walk & Eat).
Dedicated wine buffs should consult this guide Madeira: The islands and their wines (The Classic Wine Library).
Another general interest guide book is the Lonely Planet Pocket Madeira (Travel Guide).
Portugal itineraries designed by Julie
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Hello! Thank you, this is a very helpful post. I used your information in my 1 week stay in Madeira in the beginning of December! Stunning views all over this island, I must say that 1-week didn’t felt enough, I would love to come back! Since I didn’t rent a car, I was lucky to find a new small company doing transfers to Pico Do Arieiro (picking me in Teixeira), 25 Fontes and Caldeirao Verde! Their prices are the most budget that I found and their concept worked perfectly for me! I don’t like to be following a big group of people as the guided tours do, so, having a cheap transfer and walking on my own was just awesome for me! I found their website on Google, the name is Pico Transfers.
I’ve just come back to make some notes from your article about Funchal for my trip and discovered this amazing post. So many useful tips! I thought we would have to rent a car to do some hiking, but now I see there is a way to reach some of the trails by using public transportation as well and that’s awesome! We will probably just need a car for the trail of 25 Fontes and we will definitely do it on any other day than Saturday 🙂
I’m saving this article, and the one about food too 🙂 Thanks!
Beware Levada 25 Fontes. It is not easy at all with so many hikers killed doing this walk, 3 in 3 months to July 2018.
Hi Julie, I will go in november with my mother and surely we’ll follow some of your suggestions. Looking forward to my trip! Thanks, Karin (Ponte das Tres Entradas)
You’ll love it Karin. Hopefully, we’ll get to chat in person before then 🙂
Most of our visits to Madeira have been at Easter or in the Christmas holidays, so crowds are rarely a problem. However, to counterbalance this, there’s the weather – after storms, trees can be down blocking paths, levada walls crumbled and so on. But, it can be a big plus that Funchal is the only Portuguese city where you can go out on Christmas or New Year’s Eve and find things open. Having said that I’d like to experience the island in summer one of those days.
By the way, the Ribeiro Frio – Portela walk must be one of the most spectacular on the island, and is neither strenuous (not much up / down) nor vertiginous.
Well that’s just bumped the Ribeiro Frio-Portela walk to the top of my list of things to do when I go back. It must be pretty amazing!
I know someone who’s visiting the island in November, Julie, and will love this post. I’m not sure if he follows you so I’ll pass it on. You make me wish I was going back. 🙂
We visited Madeira on a one-day cruise stop in April and it was just enough to convince us that we really need to try to come back for several days to see much more of this beautiful island. I love the idea of the hikes but a sidecar tour sounds fun too! Anita