You’ll find there are plenty of things to do in Funchal, Madeira Island’s capital city. Some of the city’s most worthwhile attractions are way above sea level and best reached by cable car but the journey is part of the fun. Thankfully, old town Funchal is relatively flat and easy to explore on foot. Just try not to twist your ankle on your first day, like I did.
In no particular order, here are some of the highlights of Funchal that Mike and I discovered during our trip to Madeira, plus some practical travel tips for getting around.
Check out the added bonus at the end!
Note: See my Madeira accommodation guide if you’re looking for the best place to stay on the island.
1. Smell the flowers and taste fruit at Funchal market
As I mentioned in my post about food and drink in Madeira, the Mercado dos Lavradores (Workers’ Market) is a feast for the senses. Flowers, fruit, vegetables and souvenirs are beautifully displayed in an attractive space full of atmosphere. Look out for the display cabinet with vintage scales on the upper floor and if you’ve got time, take advantage of the café on the terrace.
If you’d like to get a more in depth understanding of local food and wine, you can visit the market as part of a 3-hour food and wine walking tour of Funchal.
Tip: By all means sample the glorious varieties of local fruit but if you do decide to buy, haggle hard. You can often find the same fruit in supermarkets at a fraction of the cost.
2. Check out the fabulous street art in Funchal old town
Funchal’s artE pORtas abErtas project began in 2010 and breathed new life into Santa Maria, the historical centre of the city, by turning disused doorways into works of art. These days, almost every other door in Rua de Santa Maria is testament to the creativity of local artists.
If the profusion of trendy bars and restaurants is anything to go by, the urban art project has succeeded in drawing more visitors into the ancient streets. I, for one, loved it and have the photos to prove it. I’ll limit myself to sharing my favourites with you here.
3. Discover the art-filled Monte Palace tropical gardens
If you only have time for one set of Funchal gardens, make it the ones at Monte Palace (open daily from 9.30 to 6 pm, accessible by cable car – see #4). You will need about half a day to do them justice. In fact, if you only have time for one experience in Funchal, I’d recommend coming here.
Scattered among the tropical foliage and blossoms, you’ll find all manner of artworks including azulejo (painted tile) panels depicting the history of Portugal in colourful bite-sized chunks, decorative ceramics and a panoply of sculptures thanks to the Berardo Foundation.
The museum (open from 10 am to 4.30 pm) is devoted to a collection of African stone sculptures and the most magnificent collection of minerals I have ever seen.
Tip: When you get to the Koi pond, look for the underwater viewing panel.
4. Marvel at the views from Funchal cable car to Monte
Monte is Portuguese for Mount so unsurprisingly, this part of the city is high above sea level. It’s possible to catch a bus uphill (or down) but the cable car makes for a far more thrilling journey.
As you rise above Funchal, you’ll get voyeuristic glimpses into private gardens and dramatic views down through steep gorges. The 3,200-metre ride itself takes 15-20 minutes and is both relaxing and thrilling at the same time.
Tip: Buy a return ticket to save money. It’s 11 euros to go one way or 16 return for adults. More info here.
Tip: If you want to come downhill in a basket instead, note that these toboggan rides don’t go all the way to the bottom of the hill and the waiting taxi drivers are in the habit of ripping tourists off. Insist on them using the meter – the taxi journey should cost around €8-€10 euros but some have been known to charge €20 or more.
5. Discover the joys of Funchal harbour and waterfront
Our first venture into the centre of Funchal took us to the harbour. Cruise ships dock here but we arrived just in time to watch passengers embarking the Santa Maria, a replica of Christopher Columbus’ 15th century ship, and being greeted by a costumed sailor complete with parrot. We considered boarding as stowaways but simply didn’t have time for the 3-hour voyage.
If the historical and theatrical nature of this sailing trip doesn’t appeal, you’ll find plenty of other boat and catamaran tours leaving from Funchal marina, just a little further on from the harbour.
Several catamaran cruises take you to see dolphins and whales. See full details and availability of this one.
Why not get up close and personal with dolphins in their natural habitat and swim alongside them in crystal clear waters on this 2 hour swimming with dolphins tour.
Funchal harbour is also used by local fishermen, as evidenced by piles of nets and the squawking of excited seagulls watching a catch being unloaded. We paused to observe the process as ice pumped from the next-door factory along a chute and into the same sacks that the fish were being shovelled into.
From the harbour, it’s a pleasant stroll along the seafront, past the Santa Catarina gardens (see #10), to the marina where you’ll find several cafés and restaurants.
Tip: If you’re walking into old town Funchal from your hotel on the outskirts, make sure you avoid tunnels. I know from experience that they aren’t pleasant to walk through!
If you’d rather get around by sightseeing bus, there is a hop-on-hop-off service in Funchal with a choice of two routes to take you to the city’s most important locations and viewpoints.
6. Go for a dip at one of the Funchal ‘beaches’
Madeira Island is not really a beach destination but there are plenty of swimming pools and concrete or rocky lounging areas if you need to swim or sunbathe. The larger hotels in the Lido end of Funchal tend to have their own pools but you can also pay a small fee to use the public ‘beaches’ and pools at Poças do Governador.
If you need golden sands, you’d be better off heading for Machico – see this post for other places to visit in Madeira.
7. Photograph the patterned pavements of Funchal
One of Portugal’s precious features is its calçada (patterned mosaic pavements). On the mainland, the designs are usually picked out in black basalt and white limestone but in Madeira, the local volcanic stone is used.
Not only are the stones, and therefore the colours, different in Funchal, I was delighted to see a variety of new patterns. This is my absolute favourite and can be found at #8 below.
8. Gawp at the amazing collections in the Universe of Memories
We were lured through the gates of the Universo de Memórias on Calçada do Pico by the promise of tea and scones in the garden tea house, not realising that the house itself is packed with treasures.
We didn’t have time for both refreshments and a visit before the museum closed so we opted for the guided tour. It was the right decision, although my advice would be to allow time for both if you can (open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 5 pm, guided visits every 30 minutes, 3.50 euros).
The 19th century house is charming with its stained glass windows and original ceramic and inlaid wooden floors. The architectural features are, however, completely overshadowed by the myriad of paintings, ornaments and oddities that cover every other surface. Each item is part of a collection built by João Carlos Abreu, Madeira’s former Minister of Tourism and Culture.
There’s far too much to take in during a single 30-minute visit and photos aren’t allowed inside. I can still call to mind a couple of the horses from the room dedicated to his 600-piece collection of horse sculptures and paintings.
9. Visit a traditional Madeiran manor house at Quinta das Cruzes Museum
It seems fitting that the last residence of João Gonçalves Zarco, the man who discovered Madeira, should now be a museum. The typical Madeiran quinta (estate) contains period furniture and ornaments as well as a collection of silverware and ceramics.
I found the black and white photographic exhibition to be more interesting than most of the first floor exhibits. The images provide an interesting glimpse into aristocratic life on the early 20th century as well as local industries.
If you’re short on time, you could skip the museum and stroll around the pretty gardens instead. Or take a tuk tuk tour of Funchal’s historical centre which includes a toboggan ride.
10. Relax in Santa Catarina park
If you don’t have time to go to Monte but still fancy some greenery when you visit Funchal, the city centre Santa Catarina park is a soothing place for escaping the bustle and enjoying the ocean views.
From the café, you’ll see distant green mountains surrounding the city beyond the central pond with its fountains and swans. There’s also a children’s playground if you need one and a cute little chapel.
Best of all, it costs nothing to enter unlike many of Funchal’s other gardens.
Added bonus: Visit the Santa Clara convent
For the past few years I’ve heard many tourists complain that they have made the trek to see the convent only to find it closed due to refurbishment. Finally, it’s open again to visitors!
Originally built in the 15th century, these buildings played a very important role socially. For the nobility, who were often away for long periods of time, it was a place to put their unmarried daughters and widows were given security both religious and financial.
After a lot of investment, the convent is now fully refurbished and you can see a collection of paintings and sculptures, noticably the azulejos covering the nave depicting the famous ‘Santa Clara pattern’.
Opening hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 12:30 pm and 2 pm to 5 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Practical tips for getting around Funchal and Madeira
If you take the airport bus into Funchal, ask for a timetable (on board or at the tourist information centre) so you can work out whether or not you should buy a return ticket (5 euros 1 way, 8 euros return).
Alternatively, you can book a private airport transfer in advance.
There’s plenty to do in Madeira beyond Funchal old town so make sure you have time for some Madeira day trips – see this post for ideas and information
Before leaving the airport, pop into the tourist information office to pick up a map of Madeira and Funchal as well as the leaflet with bus stop information.
If you plan to use the bus in or around Funchal, use Horários do Funchal (available online or as a free app) to find bus routes and times. Buy a rechargeable Giro card as soon as possible from the marina area and load it with trips for urban travel. This is considerably cheaper than paying for tickets on board.
Books to help you explore Madeira
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 guide books 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).
If you’re driving in Madeira, it’s wise to have a paper map of the island as well as GPS navigation – try this Madeira map.
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