19 Unmissable Things To Do In Madeira
Madeira fascinated both of us. I think we both agree that this beautiful Portuguese island is our favourite place that we’ve visited together (so far). So green and full of nature, you can’t get bored here if you love the big outdoors. With so many things to do in Madeira, we didn’t complete this entire list on our last trip (10 days is too short!).
We will visit Madeira again one day, and we’ll work our way through the rest of this list in the process. If you go before us, let us know if there’s something else we need to add on!
To prepare for your trip to Madeira island, it’s worth knowing a few things about this gem in the Atlantic Ocean.
- Rent a car: we hitchhiked and travelled around by bus when we arrived and it was easy enough, but having a car would have been a million times more freeing. They’re fairly cheap if you ask around, especially if you’re renting for several days. Just be aware, the roads are steep, usually shrouded in an ethereal mist, and a tumble off the cliff will definitely kill you.
- Most places accept card: you can get by quite easily on Madeira island with just a debit card. It’s still a good idea to take some cash, especially if you’re heading a little off the beaten track. As it’s part of Portugal, they use the Euro.
- Bring hiking boots: if you’re gonna be exploring hiking trails (which you definitely should if you’re here) then you’ll need proper hiking boots. The trails can get super muddy, particularly if you’re waterfall hunting.
- Visit Madeira in summer: May to August is thought to be the best time to visit Madeira. We went in May and it was gorgeous. It was probably the greenest place we’ve ever seen, only for the locals to tell us without blinking that the Azores are even greener…
- Use Funchal as a base: Funchal is the capital and so it has more amenities available. It’s central with more transport hubs too. If you’re renting a car, it makes a great base for exploring the island. Machico is a quieter option that’s a bit more to the south.
19 Unmissable Things To Do In Madeira
1. Hike to Pico do Furado (Baia d’Abra)
If you want to feel like you’re hiking to the end of the world, Pico do Furado is the place to be. This open area has no trees and very little shade. In fact, we both burned as we went here on our first day, not expecting the Madeiran May heat to be so strong. How wrong could we be?
Take your hat, sunglasses and hiking boots. Oh, and your camera. This east coast trail is easy to get to by car, bike or bus. You can use the Moovit app to check bus timetables to Baia d’Abra.
It’ll take a few hours walking to reach the summit, but it’s worth it. There’s a little cafe on the way, but we’d recommend you to bring your own food as the prices are steeper than the walk. You also need to pay a Euro for the toilet.
2. Idle Your Way Through the Nuns’ Valley
This is one of those things to do in Madeira that most people know before ever setting foot on the island. The valley of the nuns, a.k.a Curral das Freiras, was founded for the locals to escape from pirate raids and hide in the centre of the island. Nowadays, this valley is a beautiful area full of hiking trails and astonishing views.
The village itself is worth a walk. There are a few traditional souvenir shops, selling interesting liquors. We bought a banana one that was good at first taste and got progressively more bananary the further down the bottle we got. They do free tasters if you want to pop to a few different ones…
We stayed atop the hill at Eira do Serrado for a few nights. While the room and view were super cool, we can’t recommend the food there. What was amazing about that place was the incredible scenery that occasionally vanished behind a thick veil of mist. The road there was also pretty spectacular, so long as you don’t mind feeling like you’re about to plunge to your death on every bend.
On the way back from Eira do Serrado, we hitchhiked through the mist to Laurissilva, our favourite place on Madeira island.
3. Get Into Nature at Laurissilva
Laurissilva isn’t on most people’s itineraries when they visit Madeira, but it should be. We are nature lovers and suckers for some peace and quiet. For us, Laurissilva was the perfect place to step away from the tourist sites, relax and reconnect.
We stayed at a remote place from Airbnb. The road to get there was an adventure all on its own – we barely saw another vehicle on the road. And once we went past the gate into the forest, it was just us. The apartment itself was nestled into the forest, more than 6 km from the nearest hamlet. There were no other buildings around, just a couple of wooden cabins for rent and acres of fresh forest.
Just five minutes walk from our Airbnb was one of the most unexpected and beautiful sites on our entire trip – a huge waterfall that doesn’t get any love on other blogs (because of how difficult it is to find). We were so happy to have the whole place to ourselves. As there are no shops or restaurants nearby, we brought food with us and cooked a local Madeiran delicacy…
4. Sample Madeiran Cuisine
Madeira island is quite different from the mainland. Not just in the nature and landscape, but also the Portuguese cuisine. One of the most popular local dishes on Madeira is black scabbard fish with banana on top, usually coated in a passionfruit sauce. While this combination might not sound appetising to some people (my dad included), we promise you it’s nice!
Any white fish will do and you can substitute passionfruit for something else if you can’t get hold of one. Other than that, the ingredients are remarkably simple.
Of all the things to eat in Madeira, espada com banana (banana fish) is just the tip of the iceberg. You can also try:
- Bolo de caco – One of the tastiest breads I’ve ever tried, bolo de caco is a garlic bread like no other. Thick, soft and stone-baked, this bread can be found all over the island as a delicacy. You can have it just with garlic butter or you can add a filling too.
- Lapas – Similar to clams, lapas are shellfish known as limpets in English. They’re usually served in the same pan that they’re cooked in with some lemon. Order it with bolo de caco for a double whammy of yumminess.
- Espetada – Espetada is meat served on a long wooden skewer made from a branch of bay laurels (the tree that bay leaves grow on). This gives it a strong and unique taste.
- Madeira wine – Not an instant crowd-pleaser, Madeira wine tends to come on slowly. Talking of wine, you can get all sorts of different wines on Madeira island for super cheap compared to most places in Western Europe.
- Poncha – an alcoholic drink that mixes a lot of tropical fruits. It’s a Madeiran local punch.
- Pastel de nata – a typical Portuguese dessert, these little custard tarts are just as popular here as they are on mainland Portugal. We liked them so much that we got the pastel de nata recipe so you can enjoy them at home too. 😉
5. Stop at ALL the Viewpoints (Miradouros)
If you’re driving around Madeira, you will find yourself stopping a lot. The scenery is absolutely unbeatable. Whether you’re on the road to Curral das Freirasor you’re driving along the island’s 90 mile coastline, you will see all sorts of gorgeous views. Similar to the island of Corfu, but greener and more tropical, Madeira island is full of amazing viewpoints that you won’t want to miss.
6. Explore the Botanical Gardens
There are a few botanical gardens on Madeira island. From the Monte Palace Tropical Garden to the official Madeira Botanical Garden, if you enjoy getting lost among a wide variety of exotic plants, either of these two will be worth a trip.
The Monte Palace Tropical Garden was the one that we chose to visit, nestled away at the top of the hill in Funchal. You can take a bus or a cable car. The cable car is faster and has a better view, but it’s also about €11 one way!
When you get there, you’ll need a good few hours to wander around. There are a few small museums in the park too, including a collection of African art, as well as a huge crystal collection. It’s the perfect place to come for the day if you want to find a cosy little spot away from the crowds and read. There are plenty of benches available.
7. Swim in a Lava Pool
One of the funnest things to do in Madeira is to swim in a lava pool. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Porto Moniz, where they have the most popular lava pools, but we did hear good things. There is also a pool in Funchal called Doca do Cavacas if you want to try it out without taking the jaunt to the north coast.
8. Photograph the Epic Street Art
The street art in Madeira, especially in Funchal, is worthy of a day all on its own. Among the old cobbled streets of Funchal, you’ll find painted doorways, large murals, and dazzling street art wherever you turn. If you head to Cristiano Ronaldo’s old neighbourhood, you’ll even find a giant mural dedicated to him.
You can also find beautiful street art in Machico and Camara de Lobos, among other places.
9. Get Lost in the Clouds
If ever you head towards the mountains on Madeira island, you’re gonna meet some stunning clouds. We could barely see our hands in front of our faces when we went up the road to the valley of the nuns. The same was true near Laurissilva. The island has a mystical mist that seems to shield its secrets, alluring the intrepid traveller to come further into the heart of the island.
The clouds signal adventure. While we don’t advise walking on the road in the clouds – as we ended up doing while hitchhiking – it’s definitely worth gawping at from a distance.
10. Visit the World Famous Fruit Market in Funchal
The fruit market in Funchal is famous for having odd fruits that aren’t really found elsewhere. However, there’s something else you should know about the fruit market. It’s expensive as f*ck.
We picked some grapes, a few bananas, and an unusual fruit that we’d never seen or tried. They tried to charge us €21 so we promptly left the fruit there and ate it with our eyes instead. In all honesty, I put it on the list as so many people recommend it as a must-do in Madeira, but I would avoid it unless you have cash to burn. There are better places to buy your fruit and veggies.
11. Go Whale and Dolphin Watching
If you go anywhere along Funchal bay, you’ll be approached about whale and dolphin watching tours. Several species of whale migrate through this area, so it’s a great place to spot a whole handful of different species. The same goes for dolphins, but they have quite a few native species too.
On our boat trip, we saw three different types of dolphin, but unfortunately didn’t catch a glimpse of any whales.
12. Take a Cable Car
Madeira is a cliffy place. Taking one of the many Madeiran cable cars to cut out the cliffs or hills has become a rite of passage for many travellers. Even in the towns, there are so many hills that the cable cars become just about the most useful form of public transport. You can often get stunning views and a super quick ride to the top of the hill, but they can burn through your wallet pretty quickly.
13. Take a Toboggan Sled Through the Capital
If you do take a cable car to the top of the hill in Funchal, you might want to take a toboggan sled back down. This traditional method of transport is now a tourist attraction, and if you want, you can whizz down the streets of Funchal’s old town in a sofa-like contraption, while two men in white skate down behind you to steer.
It’s an odd attraction, but it’s here.
14. Stalk Cristiano Ronaldo
As most football fans will know, Cristiano Ronaldo was born in Madeira. His childhood home is there, as is a giant museum in his honour. In the centre of Funchal bay, outside the Ronaldo Museum, there is a statue of the legendary footballer, the balls of which have faded due to the amount of ladies who grab them as they pose in front of it.
Madeira airport was also home to the infamous Ronaldo statue that became an internet meme. Unfortunately, that statue has been placed in storage and a new statue, by the same designer, has replaced it.
15. Do At Least One Levada Walk
The levadas are irrigation channels on Madeira island that you can walk along. They frequently end in a waterfall so they can make a nice walk! You’ll find many of these Levada walks scattered over the volcanic island. It’ll be worth your time to do at least one while you’re there.
16. Walk From Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo
The two highest peaks on the island, Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo are two of the best things to do in Madeira. If you love trekking, you’ll love the breathtaking scenery that surrounds these gorgeous peaks.
We only saw such scenery in pictures as our trip was too short to fit it in, but when we return to Madeira, this will be one of the first things I put on my list.
Both peaks are buried deep in the misty heart of the island, not that far from the Valley of the Nuns. Hiking trails are notoriously difficult to follow in this region as they can seemingly disappear into nothingness, leaving you following your intuition to get you to your destination.
We usually use Maps.Me for hiking trails as they tend to map them much better than Google Maps. Plus, they’re offline so long as you’ve downloaded the area in advance.
17. See the Traditional Santana Houses
Another one of the things to do in Madeira that Yelena and I will get to on our next trip, we almost stayed near these traditional houses but chose to stay in Machico instead (we don’t regret it). The Santana traditional houses are on the north-eastern side of the island, not actually that far from Machico. With a car, you could easily visit these little houses on your way across the north coast.
18. Watch a Waterfall Enter the Sea at Miradouro do Véu da Noiva
There’s something special about waterfalls that plunge off an island and into the open ocean. You can watch that spectacle right here. It’s one of the most beautiful waterfalls on the whole island, but there are so many waterfalls in Madeira that it’s difficult to narrow it down to just one.
Still, seeing it drop from the rugged coastline is one of the best things to do in Madeira.
19. Relax on Madeira’s Best Beaches
There are plenty of nice beaches in Madeira. Unlike our Corfu beach guide, we didn’t spend enough time in Madeira to explore all the beaches the beautiful island has to offer. We did get to swim at sunrise from Machico beach (long before it’s overrun with people), and we enjoyed the wavey coast of São Vicente.
You can also visit:
- Seixal Beach – a black sand beauty with a jungle backdrop.
- Ponta do Sol – one of the best places to swim in Madeira.
- Praia del Carheta – a man-made beach with imported Libyan white sand.
Enjoy Your Trip to Madeira
Let us know what things you get up to in Madeira! We’re already making a list of things for when we go back. It was one of the greenest, most natural and most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever laid eyes on. I can’t believe it’s so close to mainland Europe.
Also, the people are super friendly and welcoming too. We were given a bottle of wine by our host on the first night. We hitchhiked there and were welcomed by so many people. Everybody has a thirst for life and a warmth that can only come from a lifetime in paradise. We can’t recommend Madeira enough.