The Travelettes Guide to Madeira
Rising up from the Atlantic like a little miracle, it’s not hard to see that the island exists because it is a volcano… albeit one that is sleeping silently. For now.
And yet the same can not be said for the island. Madeira is a place that pumps and pulses with an energy I didn’t expect to find during my recent visit. Having become fairly well acquainted with Portuguese cities Porto and Lisbon, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Madeira. In many ways it’s still hard to explain the proud energy that exudes from this island. What I do know, however, is that it’s infectious. And infected as I am, already I want to go back.
Yes, Madeira is an island.
Yes, Madeira is Portuguese.
Yes, Madeira is one of many islands in the Atlantic promising year-long sunshine.
But more than all this, Madeira is Madeira and it’s a place you should seriously consider visiting. I hope this guide, which shows you what you can see, eat and do there, explains why!
Some come to Madeira and never leave Funchal, the capital city. Some come here and never step foot inside Funchal. Others come and never leave their beautiful 5 star resort with a view of the deep blue Atlantic Ocean – and I don’t blame them! – but the best way to see, feel and get the most of Madeira is by hiring a car so you can access as much of the island as possible.
We spent an afternoon exploring the island by car and we managed to take in the quaint town of Sao Vicente, famous on the island for “Arraial de São Vicente” its “Immigrant Festival” which celebrates the return of Madeirans who now live abroad; indeed, there are just under 270,000 living on the island but more than a million live in countries around the world. Before heading north, we followed the coastline west and stopped at the scenic Bride’s Veil and Seixal, a small fishing village with spectacular views of the ocean, and also a great little spot for a sunny few days!
Despite not having sand or even very swimmable beaches, the southside of Madeira still promises very special sunsets, and more importantly sundowners! We rocked up just in time for evening cocktails at Maktub in Calheta, a small but vibrant coastal town with a real surfer feel. There we toasted the end of a great day with one of its island famous mojitos as the sun went down; we weren’t disappointed by either the drink or the view.
Talking of views, Pico Do Areiro is one of Madeira’s most popular and spectacular view points.
At 1818 metres it’s Madeira’s third highest point but it is the highest peak you can reach by car. We spent a few hours there one morning watching the clouds sweep in and through this dramatic landscape. On our way down we stopped briefly in the UNESCO World Heritage Site laurisilva forests that Madeira is famous for; these laurels – or bay leaves – are indigenous to only the island of Madeira and form an essential part of its eco-system and cooking! (See below!).
If you don’t want to hire a car, a taxi for a day’s touring will cost you between 100 – 120 Euros (be prepared to negotiate!) though there are buses taking you to various places around the island, just be aware that they aren’t as regular as buses in cities if that’s what you’re used to.
Funchal is also worth a day or two of your attention thanks to its white house, terracota tiled roofs and black and white marble pavements. All of which are juxtaposed with some of the wildest, lushest tropical fauna and flowers. I also fell in love with the vintage shop fronts and typography.
Your first stop of the day should be Mercado dos Lavradores to try exotic fruits you’ve never heard of before (like “English Tomato” or “Custard Apple”) or simply stand and soak up the energy and atmosphere of the fish market next-door.
The island’s herbs and spices are among the most flavourful you’ll find anywhere in the world. Pop up to the second floor of the market to buy some and watch dried herbs being chopped up by hand ready for hungry locals and tourists. Here is where you can buy those aforementioned dried bay leaves from the famous laurel forests.
Alternatively, go ”door porn” spotting on Rua de Santa Maria in Funchal, the result of a street art project that had a large part in transforming the old town from dilapidated houses to up and coming homes to galleries, boutiques and restaurants.
While a little touristy, the cable car to the top of Monte is worth it just for the views of the city stretched out before you.
At the top, follow signs to the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of Monte) and you’ll not be disappointed when you climb up those stairs, not just for a new summit with new views, but also because the church inside is very beautiful.
To get back down the hill again, you have a few options. One is to walk which I don’t recommend if you have any back or knee problems as it’s a very long, steep descent, another is to get the cable car back or you can enjoy the thrill of a toboggan ride down in a wicker seat guided by two dark-eyed Carreiros dressed in bright white uniform, straw hats and special thick-soled shoes.
The shoes are important as they are effectively in charge of controlling your speed and direction down the hill and around corners that are lined with parked cars; a little disconcerting but a lot of fun! It’s a slightly over-priced activity but it’s a thrill a second, especially if you do what we did and have a drink in the bar where the toboggan drivers pass the time in between toboggans
Keep it in mind you’ve still got a couple of kilometres to walk at the end of the toboggan run or you can negotiate with the hungry taxi drivers tactically lined up there. (A small word of advice, they may over charge you or try to so be prepared to negotiate or alternatively assist on having the meter running so you pay a fair price.)
Because I was in Madeira to eat rather than shop, I asked my good friend Sofia who writes the local blog From Madeira to Mars who has lived on Madeira all her life to share her tips for shopping in Funchal and beyond! Be sure to follow her Instagram feed for daily Madeira inspiration.
“In Funchal, I love Dona Hortensia for accessories and vintage style and fashion lovers should check out Patricia Pinto; she’s a local designer and her clothes are beautiful (though perhaps not in everyone’s price range!). Also, there’s a tea house called Alfazema e Chocolate which sells local produce including these beautiful fabric bags by Jardim de Vidro. If you like handmade crochet treats, I can also highly recommend my friend (and fellow blogger) Patricia Lencastre. She makes beautiful clothes for children and adults.
In terms of markets, in addition to the market at Mercado dos Lavradores, there’s a regular flea market on the first Saturday of the month in Funchal Old Town and there’s also a good food and clothes market in Santo da Serra every Sunday.”
There is a bed for virtually any budget on Madeira from high-end luxury – I recommend the Cliff Bay Hotel – to value for money hostels and hotels. I stayed in the Porto Mare hotel, a very pleasant 4 star hotel just a 5 minute bus ride from the centre of Funchal with multiple swimming pools and a vast and delicious breakfast. I should add this hotel won’t be for everyone – the average guest was a few years older than me! – but if you’re looking for a relaxing place to be – and HUGE hotel rooms – this is the spot for you. They also offer free shuttle buses into town and back again.
For more conservative budgets, if you want to stay in the centre of Funchal I would recommend renting a holiday apartment. There’s a local company called Travel to Madeira that has some great properties for under €50 a night. Away from the capital there are some wonderful hotels that are very affordable, ideal if you’re renting a car. Sofia recommends Porto Bay Serra Golf for a little luxury for under €100 a night and if you like rural tourism she highly recommends Solar da Bica in the north of the island.
Eat & Drink
Funchal is full of great places to eat, many of them fantastic value for money. For obvious reasons, seafood features on all menus and it’s one of the only places you can eat limpets, a dish banned in most other countries! I enjoyed Madeiran interpretations of Portuguese classics like bacalhao (codfish) and I fell in love with bolo do caco, a delicious round freshly baked bread lined with garlic butter. I also came home with some Madeira chocolate in my suitcase, and I learned that honey, sugar cane and, of course, Madeira fortified wine are other local delicacies. If you’re interested in wine, a visit to Blandy’s Wine Lodge is a must.
You can’t leave Madeira without trying a Poncha and if you happen to have a designated driver I recommend you make the journey to Taberna do Poncha in Ribeira Brava, just twenty minutes away from Funchal.
Inside this unassuming roadside bar you can see poncha being made through a process of filtering fruit and honey with Agaudente de Cana, a local sugar cane rum. The walls are lined with business cards and the floor is covered in peanut shells, and you are encouraged to contribute to both (look out for my card!) and I definitely preferred the passion fruit poncha to the orange traditional one.
One of the island’s most famous meals is “espetada”, chunks of juicy lamb rolled in the famous Madeira bay leaves, garlic and salt and then cooked on an open wood fire. Traditionally the skewers should be laurel sticks, but most restaurants have stopped this practise in order to avoid the wrath of potential health and safety scares, but nearly all families and homes will still use the traditional sticks (which again you can buy in the market).
We enjoyed this dish along with traditional side dishes of fried corn in Vila da Carne in the fishing village of Camera do Lobos, which is just fifteen minutes away from Funchal, and a lovely little village to visit for a few hours with great views across a picturesque bay.
Funchal is predictably the biggest hub of nightlife on the island and Sofia has the following recommendations to get your night started!
“I love Barreirinha Bar Cafe in Funchal Old Town – by day or night! – thanks to its beautiful terrace by the sea. It’s the ideal place to drink poncha or mojitos with friends and share good views with friends. They also have live DJs on the weekend. It’s the perfect place to start the night! Later on you should head to Vintage for 80s music or to Copacabana Garden near the casino where there’s an open air gin bar as well as a nightclub. This place is always busy from 1 am! If you’re spending the evening by the pier, there’s “the trilogy” of bars; Marginal (for house music and techno), Jam for old school hits and Vespas which is the oldest discotheque in Funchal – go there for their Ladies Nights! I would also recommend Mini Eco Bar, a completely ecological bar, and Teatro which is next door to the main theatre – two great spots for drinks either by day or night!”
We also enjoyed a quick coffee stop at Mercearia D. Mécia in Funchal and the shop next door is where I bought my Madeiran chocolate!
An impressive number of European destinations already offer direct flights to Madeira, but very regular flights from Lisbon will also get you there. Madeira is also a popular stop on the cruise ship routes and we saw a few groups of young Danish sailors having fun in Funchal. Another reason to go, perhaps?!?
There’s also a long list of things I didn’t do in Madeira. I didn’t go over to Porto Santo, the neighbouring island that is blessed with the white sand beaches that Madeira lacks and I didn’t get out to sea to search for dolphins (almost always a guaranteed sight!) and I didn’t take full advantage of the good weather by just lying down in the sun by the tempting pool in my hotel.
Can you see now why I want to go back?