If you’re wondering what to do in Madeira, this travel guide will help you discover the sights beyond its capital city, Funchal.
It’s no wonder it’s been awarded Europe’s Leading Island Destination for 2023 at the World Travel Awards.
The subtropical climate of Madeira makes it mostly green and beautiful with an abundance of flowers, which is just one of the things I love about it. Its volcanic origins are evident in weird and wonderful rock formations, sheer cliffs with waterfalls tumbling down them and steep craggy mountains.
For such a small island, the landscape is surprisingly varied and well worth exploring, as are the small towns and villages. My selection of things to do includes some popular places to visit in Madeira and under the radar spots that you’ll need a car to get to.
Where appropriate, I’ve suggested selected Madeira tours that help you maximise your time if you don’t want to drive.
1. Explore Madeira by sidecar
Go on an adventure and discover this beautiful island in a different way. With its hairpin bends and old roads, driving around Madeira in a car can be a bit of a challenge. Put yourselves into the safe hands of the experts and get to know the island by motor bike and sidecar.
Ride along narrow winding roads through villages and around mountains with breathtaking scenery, listening to snippets of information and local history via headsets as you go.
Check out this scenic 3 hour Madeira island tour.
2. Dare to walk the glass platform at Cabo Girão
Not far from this little fishing town is the slightly nerve-wracking viewing terrace at Cabo Girão where you get to gaze down 589metres of cliff face through a glass platform. This amazing glass walkway offers incredible views of the Madeira coastline, Funchal and the town of Câmara de Lobos.
The viewpoint is free and opening times are 8.30 am to 8.00pm in summer and 8.30am to 7.00pm in winter. The Skywalk is a 2-minute walk from Village Cabo Girão.
3. Get lost in the cobbled lanes of Jardim do Mar
If you want a picturesque village full of cobbled lanes and flower-filled gardens, Jardim do Mar is the place to come. Backed by beautiful cliffs with views along the coast and overlooking the ocean, it’s a delightful place to get lost in. Street names are picked out in the cobbles themselves.
There are a few cafés and a glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the sea as well as a small ‘beach’ area.
Practicalities: With only one, very slow, bus a day from Funchal (Rodoeste), you’d be much better off driving to Jardim do Mar unless you plan to stay overnight – there’s a hotel and lots of little villas and apartments for rent. See Jardim do Mar accommodation options.
4. Walk behind a waterfall on the Levada do Rei
Dori and I were keen to do some walking in Madeira but the weather wasn’t cooperative for the first few days of our stay.
We finally got a perfect break in the clouds and rain when we did the Levada do Rei near Ponta de São Jorge. Given the dodgy weather, we chose this walk as a safer option than the Caldeirão Verde levada and I was more than happy with it.
Shortly into the trail, the clouds lifted to reveal the jagged peaks of the ‘Picos’ in the distance, glimpsed at various intervals between the trees as we followed the levada around the valley.
At one point, we had to crouch through a tunnel and walk behind a waterfall but it was worth it 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 and stop for refreshments at the café near the start of the walk.
5. Gaze at the mountains surrounding Nun’s Valley, aka Curral das Freiras
For many a year, nuns living on the coast would avoid marauding sailors by retreating to a hidden valley deep in the mountains. In the end, they got sick of running and settled there permanently.
The views from the miradouro at Eira do Serrado are incredible, making it one of the best things to see in Madeira. If you have time, it’s worth walking (see my post about Madeira walks) or driving to the village of Curral das Freiras for lunch with a view.
Practicalities: There are buses from Funchal or you could take a half day bus tour that also includes Câmara de Lobos or a Cliffs & Valleys Jeep Tour.
6. Feel the waves at Porto Moniz natural swimming pools
Dori and I were disappointed to find that the swimming pool complex in Porto Moniz was closed due to rough seas.
It looks like it would be fun, although I preferred the smaller pools to the east of the town with their clear turquoise waters and volcanic rocks. These were also closed due to adverse conditions but we were able to walk around the complex and watch the waves crashing against the rocks.
Tip: Call ahead to check that the pools are open if seas are choppy: +351 291 850 190 or the Tourist Information Office +351 291 853 075
The Cachelote restaurant/café in the midst of these secondary pools has a small exhibition dedicated to the local whaling industry in the 1940s. It’s free to visit and actually quite interesting.
Practicalities: To get to Porto Moniz, you can drive, take a long bus ride from Funchal or go on a guided 4×4 Madeira island tour through the mountains and across the Paul da Serra plateau to the pools at Porto Moniz or nearby Seixal. Get full details and check availability
7. Hang out at the harbour in Câmara de Lobos
For a harbour full of colourful fishing boats and lined with seafood restaurants, look no further than Câmara de Lobos, former hangout of Sir Winston Churchill. Easy to get to by bus or as part of a tour from Funchal, this small town is quite busy near the waterfront.
However, if you are willing to venture away from the harbour, you’ll quickly evade fellow tourists. There’s a wonderful, simple restaurant higher up the hill (O Polar) that serves delicious espetada (meat skewers) and a miradouro at Pico da Torre that offers great views.
Find out more about espetadas and other food to try in Madeira in this post.
If you’re looking for a full day guided tour that includes Câmara de Lobos, Cabo Girão, mountain scenery and the natural swimming pools at Porto Moniz, check this one out.
If you’d rather be with a smaller group, this Cliffs & Valleys jeep tour also goes to the beautiful Nun’s Valley and Cabo Girão (see below).
8. Learn about local traditions in Riveira Brava
Aside from the attractive promenade, lined with palm trees, Ribeira Brava has a pebble beach with a calm swimming area and an outdoor pool next to the shore.
Dori and I were more interested in a temporary marquetry exhibition being held at the Ethnographic Museum. We weren’t expecting to be impressed with the permanent collection so it came as a pleasant surprise, despite feeling pressured into watching a video about wheat farming.
A lot of effort has gone into showcasing the traditional activities of the island, such as fishing, farming and wine production and the displays are varied and interesting.
Practicalities: Rua de Sao Francisco 24, Ribeira Brava. Open Tuesday to Friday 9:30 am to 5 pm and 10 am to 12:30 and 1:30 to 5 pm. Tel: 291 952 598. Entry is 3 euros.
There are several buses a day from Funchal and it’s just off the main motorway.
9. See street art in Ponta do Sol
Ponta do Sol was indeed sunny when we arrived, although the pebble beach looked rather uncomfortable. You can enjoy good views of the coast by walking along the small promontory to the left of the beach.
Aside from the waterfront, the town itself is small, with a couple of streets of historical buildings containing cafés, restaurants and craft shops.
There’s also a surprising amount of urban art. One such piece, Parede da Memória (Memory Wall) by Patrícia Sumares, has 3,000 faces, made from molds of 250 models, both locals and tourists.
This full day tour of the west of Madeira includes a stop in Ponta do Sol as well as other highlights such as a drive through the mountains, a chance to sample poncha (rum and fruit juice) and swim in the natural pools at Porto Moniz (see above).
10. Visit a working sugar cane factory in Calheta
Calheta is popular with visitors thanks to its small sandy beach but for me, the reason for coming here is the Engenhos de Cana sugar cane factory (Av. Dom Manuel 29).
We arrived just before lunchtime so we saw workers feeding a last bundle of canes into the stripping machine before they downed tools and sat on the steps to eat their packed lunch.
As visitors, we were free to roam around the factory to see the stills, machinery and the bubbling vats of sugar before popping into the shop/bar to taste some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.
It looks disgusting, like a muddy puddle, but tastes quite refreshing. The more appealing end results are of course the rum and treacle, known in Madeira as mel de cana (sugarcane honey), both of which are on sale in the shop.
Buses from Funchal are infrequent so it’s best to drive if you’re not staying in Calheta.
11. Go inside a lighthouse at Ponta do Pargo
We had intended to do a walk from the church at Ponta do Pargo but the weather was against us. Instead, we had tea and cake at the Casa da Chá next to the miradouro then followed signs for the Farol (lighthouse) to yet another miradouro.
When we arrived, the doors were still open to an exhibition within the lighthouse so we ventured inside. We got chatting to the very friendly lighthouse captains who are responsible for keeping the lighthouse fully functioning. They were more than happy to explain the exhibition in English but the best bit was when one offered to take us up into the light tower.
He proudly showed us the brass and crystal bulb, made in Paris in 1920, and cleaned weekly to keep it in pristine condition. What a treat!
All lighthouses in Madeira are open to the public on Wednesdays but this one is open daily from 10 to 12 and 2 to 4:30 pm.
You’ll need a car to get here.
12. Take the cable car down a cliff face at Achadas da Cruz
While in Porto Moniz, I spotted a sign extolling the virtues of a cable car that runs down the cliff face to a fajã, which is a flattish patch of arable land beside the ocean.
Having taken one of these cable car journeys on my previous trip to Madeira, I was keen to try another. Dori was less enthusiastic but game. The ride was smooth and scenic and the views both up and down the cliff-length waterfall well worth the detour.
Once at the fajã, there’s little to do except follow the paved road between the cottages and veggie plots and the ocean or simply sit and watch the turquoise waves crashing against the rocks.
There’s a little café beside the cable car and a picnic bench if you just want to admire the views from the clifftop. You’ll need a car to get here.
13. Venture inside a volcano at São Vicente
I fell in love with the little village of São Vicente on my first trip to Madeira so this time, I used it as a base for part of our holiday. What appeals to me most is the verdant, dramatic landscape. It also has a pretty, but small, village centre and a strip of restaurants along the black sand beach.
The nearby São Vicente Volcanic Centre is well worth a visit. If you don’t have your own transport or time to deal with buses, consider this Full Day trip to the north coast from Funchal including the São Vicent Caves.
There are plenty of accommodation options in São Vicente.
14. Smell the roses in Arco de São Jorge
If you like roses and have a car, it’s worth making a point of visiting the rose gardens at Quinta do Arco, the largest collection of rose bushes in Portugal.
To get to the roses, you have to walk through beautifully lush gardens and a smattering of little holiday bungalows. Once there, simply follow the paths to find roses of all sizes, colours and shapes.
Practicalities: Open April to December from 10 am to 6 pm. Entrance around €4. Roses are usually in bloom from April to December.
15. Get your rock fix at 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 excited about rock formations, this is a good place to come. Even the bit by the car park is worth a look for the alien landscape of bubbling rock.
There’s a clearly defined, and very popular, walking trail from here 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.
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.
Suggestion: If you want to take a tour on or around this beautiful headland, there are plenty to choose from, including kayaking and hiking.
16. Laze on one of the best beaches in Madeira in Machico
Madeira island isn’t really a beach holiday destination – Porto Santo is the place to head if you want a seemingly endless sandy beach. However, if you need a fix of golden sands, Machico is your best bet. The small cover near the marina is relatively sheltered and offers views of the surrounding cliffs as well as a safe place to swim.
The town itself is small but quaint with a tiny fortress and an attractive church with an impressive Manueline carved doorway.
If you’re into history, pay a visit to the small town museum to learn about local sugar production, the romantic legend behind the name and snippets of local information, although the sometimes dreadful translations make it a challenge to understand these.
Practicalities: There are regular buses between Funchal and Machico and good road connections for drivers. Dori and I used this as our base for a few days.
Otherwise, you could look into a full day small group tour of the eastern side of the island which includes time in Machico.
17. Admire the ceramics at Santa Cruz market
This pleasant seaside town is a short hop from the airport and has a lovely promenade behind its pebble beach.
The market building is interesting for the murals as well as its stalls and there’s an attractive old church in the historical centre as well as several cafés and a sprinkling of restaurants.
Practicalities: Drive or take a bus from Machico or Funchal. Or use it as an alternative base. See Santa Cruz accommodations here.
18. Stroll the flower gardens at Quinta do Palheiro
Among the best things to do in Madeira is visiting flower gardens. The hilltop Quinta do Palheiro offers the chance to escape from the crowds as you wander around the various landscaped sections admiring the colourful blooms.
You have to pay to enter but the sunken garden and the Jardim da Senhora are lovely. There’s some topiary and fabulous views, too.
Practicalities: You can get there by bus (#37 and #36a) and there’s a lovely hotel onsite.
Winding alongside the Palheiro Estate and its nature reserve you’ll find one of the two golf courses on Madeira Island. If a round of golf would compliment a wander round the gardens, you can find out more about Madeira golf in this article.
19. Dolphin and Whale Watching
Climbing aboard a boat in the hope of seeing these wonderful sea creatures in their own habitat is always exciting.
A good thing about Madeira is that both whales and dolphins enjoy the local waters so there’s a very good chance of successful spotting. Dolphins are around most of the time but if whales take your fancy then early summer (May/June) and autumn are the best times.
You can take this 3-hour stylish catamaran tour from Funchal.
If you fancy swimming up close to these wonderful creatures then this swimming with dolphins tour will be perfect.
20. 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.
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 :
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 Walk and Eat Madeira.
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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