Today, we’re talking about driving in Madeira, the charming Portuguese Island you’ll surely fall in love with. Trust me. It’s the perfect place to explore stunning nature, hike some beautiful paths and enjoy a dip in the sea. However, Madeira can get challenging when it comes to driving. Did you know the Island has some of the world’s steepest streets? Well, me neither… it’s time to learn from our experience and mistakes, so you’ll be less stressed than us!
Let me tell you how to conquer Madeira’s tricky lanes, what car to look for, and which rules to follow.
Is a car essential for exploring the Island?
Perhaps you’re already scared by reading about others’ experiences while driving on Madeira and contemplate whether to even get a rental car or simply take the bus. Well, let me tell you – even though it might get tricky sometimes, you wouldn’t want to miss a car if you’re down to explore the Island. Sure, many sights are accessible by bus. Yet those timetables can differ, and you might not be able to reach all the spots you’d want to see. So driving around in your rental car is definitely the most common way to explore Madeira.
How’s the parking situation?
Overall, the parking situation is relatively good around the Island. You’ll usually find open parking spots along the road, especially at the viewpoints. You simply park your car along the road (free of charge) – but please make sure you’re not blocking the already tiny lanes and always double-check if you’ve set your parking brakes on those mountain roads.
However, the situation in Funchal is totally different. Finding a parking lot in Madeira’s capital city can be tricky and very expensive. Make sure to look for the sign that states “estacionamento proibido, “- which means parking is prohibited. Don’t even think about parking your car in any of these areas; they’re swift when it comes to towing cars.
I’d recommend using the public parking garages. The prices are usually reasonable, and they offer many parking lots. Quick side note: Those parking garages are the definition of tiny, steep, and narrow. But more about that later when we’re talking about which car to choose.
Road conditions & driving tips
Generally speaking, the road conditions in Madeira are good, and it’s easy to get around on the more prominent streets. The highway (called “VR – Via Rápida”) is a great way to explore the Island and is in excellent condition. It’s safe to say: the bigger and more common the street, the better the conditions you’ll have. Driving the VR or, e.g., the ER101 is smooth and easy, especially since they connect the main points of interest and are part of the most critical infrastructure on Madeira.
BUT – as soon as you leave the more prominent streets for an adventure, especially the roads in the Islands middle towards smaller towns or up the peaks, it gets tricky. Let me tell you, I nearly cried when we once took a wrong turn on our way towards Pico do Areeiro (ok, well, I have to admit I’m getting scared quickly on the road). You’ll find yourself on narrow, steep lanes too small for two cars passing each other.
Be prepared to drive backward
…since sometimes that’s the only way to handle the oncoming traffic. We had to roll back down the hill several times until we reached a small area that fit both cars and let the other one pass. Therefore, you should also know how to handle your vehicle in an uphill stop-and-go situation. The parking brake will be your new best friend.
Check route alternatives ahead of your trip
We had to learn that the hard way. If you want to avoid driving the narrowest winding roads, check your route options beforehand. Don’t automatically choose the fastest route – those might include some very challenging roads. Instead, take those extra 5-10 minutes and stay on the VR and ER as long as possible.
Don’t rush and drive carefully
Since Madeira can be tricky to drive in some areas, people are usually quite chill. It’s common to look out for each other and go slow and cautious (a whole new world for me as a german, where people aggressively overtake you with 250km on the highway, not giving a single f*).
On rainy days, roads can get slippery, and the foggy areas have low visibility. Don’t stress and take it easy, just like the locals. Sometimes, people will honk before overtaking each other or entering very narrow curves. The possibility of overtaking other cars, especially trucks, is small when you’re not on the highway. Therefore, it’s normal to be stuck behind a slow vehicle sometimes. Don’t risk anything by overtaking in dangerous spots.
Driving the Via Rápida
The highway, aka Via Rápida, is a great way to get from A to B. One thing that differs from many other countries is getting onto the highway. You might also be used to driving onto the highway quickly and using the acceleration lane to speed up. However, that is not the case when driving in Madeira. The entry lanes to the highway are incredibly short and not meant to take on speed. You’d stop and wait for others to pass until you find a spot to squeeze in. Therefore, be cautious when you’re in the outer right lane: Sometimes, there will be people coming in at a slow speed. During busy hours, people usually drive left to give others the possibility to move onto the highway.
Madeira and its roundabouts
Driving in Madeira means using roundabouts all the time. Most of them have dual lanes, and you’ll usually go on the inner lane until you are ready to exit. It was unusual for us since we’re used to single-lane roundabouts. However, people are very considerate and let you pass once you want to squeeze through.
Never leave without enough gas
Fueling up your car on Madeira shouldn’t be a last-minute thing. Gas stations are rare outside of Funchal, and most of them close early in the evening. You’ll barely find ones that are open at night, so plan ahead before going on a trip. You should also keep in mind that driving uphill for multiple miles will use up more gas than you think. So if you plan a trip to, e.g., Pico do Areeiro, make sure to fuel up your car. We burnt up double the amount of gas you’d usually need for that distance due to the uphill winding roads.
What kind of car should you rent?
After discussing road conditions and parking spaces, it’s time to discuss the car you’d want to rent for your trip. My personal advice would be a small to mid-size automatic vehicle with enough power. Even though a 4×4 sounds excellent when driving hill roads and uneven lanes in nature, they are simply too big for everything. Also, you’ll have trouble parking them in the garages. The streets are easier to handle with a smaller car, especially once you reach the single-lane paths.
An automatic car with a strong engine will ease the uphill challenges of driving in Madeira.
We drove a Seat Ibiza, which was the perfect size to fit all our luggage and, at the same time, fit into the parking garages. Keep in mind, we did struggle at some point with this car, even though it’s not big! We booked a manual car because we thought saving on this wouldn’t be a problem. Even though it’s not a problem to drive a manual car, we’d go for an automatic one next time because it simply makes life easier.
As for every time you rent a car, make sure you book proper insurance that covers any unwanted costs.
Now that you’ve made it through these tips and facts, I hope you’ll have a better experience driving in Madeira. It definitely isn’t as bad as you’d think if you come prepared. We’ve been a little insecure the first days since we simply didn’t know about any difficulties driving on Madeira could offer. But, after three days, we were pretty used to it. Driving the Island is a great way to explore its beauty! As long as you’re prepared and know what to expect, it won’t be a problem!
I hope these tips helped you plan your (road) trip through Madeira. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments – maybe you even got something valuable to add? Put it in the comments for others to read!
As always, stay happy and healthy!
See you soon,