Holidays in Madeira – A practical guide for an amazing first visit
Hey there, nice to see you again! We’ve been to Madeira for the first time and fell in love with this Island. After six days full of adventures, we flew home with an urge to come back as soon as possible. In this post, I’ll give you some helpful information for your holidays in Madeira so you can enjoy your time there as much as we did. Enjoy!
Info for reference: we went in January 2022 and spent six days on the Island 🙂
Ok, wait, never heard of that Island before? Or not sure where exactly to find it? Don’t worry – I gotcha! Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal located in the Atlantic ocean (520km west of Morocco). Besides its culture and gastronomy, the Island is especially famous for its flora and fauna. Some are even classified as UNESCO world heritage sites. The landscapes are genuinely fascinating. You’ll see for yourself when you read on.
How to get to Madeira
Besides visiting Madeira during a cruise stopover, the most common way to travel to Madeira is by airplane. Why is this worth mentioning you might as? The Airport of Funchal is considered one of the most dangerous ones in the world. (Currently, it’s the 9th most hazardous airport worldwide and the 3rd most dangerous all over Europe) The runway is relatively short (even though it’s been extended a few times over the years) and surrounded by mountains on the one hand and the ocean on the other hand. As a passenger, the view during the approach is priceless. However, as a pilot, you must undergo additional training to land at Madeira’s spectacular airport. Constant weather changes, strong winds in the final, and a 150° turn towards the runway make videos of harsh landings, bumpy approaches, and go-arounds trending on youtube. With that being said, don’t be surprised if your ride home arrives late – it might have had to go around a few times before touching down.
How to get around
The island isn’t huge so getting around is easy and quick. If you stay in Funchal, most spots can be reached within 50 to 60min, even if you need to go to the other side of the island. If you really want to explore Madeira, it’s best to get a rental car. There are public buses available, but depending on your destination, it might take you quite long and/or you wouldn’t be able to reach certain areas at all.
Driving in Madeira
Let me tell you, the streets in Madeira drove me crazy during our first days! But let’s start at the basics: The highways of Madeira are called VR and connect all the main parts of the Islands within each other. They are usually limited to 90km/h or even slower and offer scenic views. Now here’s the thing: Madeira’s streets can have some crazy-ass narrow slopes. We once took a wrong turn after following google Maps’ quickest route suggestion… well, that was a terrible idea. Imagine driving uphill on a narrow street with a 32° gradient – and if that’s not enough, let’s include some sharp turns and traffic. We had to stop and roll backward down a hill multiple times to let someone pass by. My heart stopped a few times. Enough horror stories, let me give you some tips on how to avoid drives full of anxiety during your holidays in Madeira:
For more information, make sure to read my in-depth DRIVING IN MADEIRA Guide | how to beat these tricky roads like a boss next!
Even though the ocean surrounds the island, beaches are relatively rare in Madeira. The island is characterized by rocks and cliffs, making the landscape so beautiful. Besides that, the natural beaches in Madeira offer black sand or a mixture of sand and rocks. Some of the black sand beaches would be Prainha in Canical, Praia do Clube naval do Seixal, Praia Formosa Funchal, Ribeira Brava or Praia da Lagoa. Some cities like Porto Moniz also provide natural pools to swim in the ocean. In addition, there are two beaches (in Calheta and Machico) with golden sand, which gets imported regularly from Africa.
If you’re down for some long, golden sand beaches, you might want to take a day trip to Porto Santo?
10 Best things to do in Madeira
1 – Plane Spotting
I might be a little biased here (I work in aviation), but plane spotting was one of the most extraordinary things we did in Madeira. A few spots offer a great view, but one in particular lets you get as close to arriving/departing planes as probably nowhere else (at least in Europe). You can get so close and look into the cockpit; the first officer was even waving at me and my camera, lol.
The spot I’m talking about is located right here: 32°42’26.7″N 16°45’54.7″W
For other locations and information, you can check the Spotterguide website. If you don’t already have Flightradar24 on your phone, I’d highly suggest downloading that one as well, since it’ll show you exactly when and from which side the next aircraft will be arriving. Have fun!
2 – Hiking
Madeira is perfect if you love a good hike. Many trails are really spectacular and offer some decent views of the island. We did two hikes (PR1 Vereda do Areeiro and PR8 Vereda do Ponta de São Lourenço) and unfortunately had to postpone our third one (PR9) because it was mostly raining in the second half of our trip. If hiking is your main priority, you might want to plan your stay in the summer or autumn months since there will be less rain. Also, make sure to inform yourself about the intensity of your hike and the gear you might want to bring. We met so many tourists (Especially on the PR1) without proper shoes doing the 700m in height in jeans, sandals, and with no water. No wonder many stopped halfway and turned around. Be wise, be prepared. Some parts are uneven and slippery, especially when it rains, so good shoes are necessary. Other than that, most hikes have parking at their starting point and signposted well. We loved it, and I can’t wait to be back and finally do some Levada hikes!
PS: If you want to know more about the PR1 hike, you can read my guide about hiking on Vereda do Areeiro!
3 – Pico do Areeiro
Pico Do Areeiro is the 3rd highest peak of the island and offers an insanely beautiful view. Since this peak is 1818 high, you can look down on the clouds and truly feel on top of the world. This spot is lovely for sunrise or sunset! It’s accessible by car and offers parking and a visitors center with a souvenir shop and toilets. There are view platforms for tourists to enjoy the sights or start the PR1 hike to pico Ruivo and back. Remember, it gets a little chilly up there, and the streets are steep and curvy. An absolute MUST see during your holidays in Madeira.
4 – Seixal Black Beach
I always wanted to step foot on a black sand beach, and even though Madeira isn’t offering many beaches, the beach in Seixal finally allowed me to tick that off my bucket list. This beach is relatively small but offers a beautiful view while walking on fine, black sand. We visited the beach on a rainy day in January and found it empty. Even though it’s been way too cold even to dip our toes into the ocean, it’s been worth the visit! There is a dedicated parking area above the beach which is easy to find. From there, you walk down the rest of the hill. I imagine this spot to be quite crowded on a warm, sunny day. So if you’re in the mood for a beach day with fewer tourists, try Praia da Lagoa or Praia Formosa in Funchal, for example.
5 – Fanal Pond
Fanal Pond or “Posto Florestal Fanal” is also called fairy-forest because of its unique, mysterious look. Fanal Pond is easy to reach, and there is a dedicated parking spot just at the entry of the forest. Nevertheless, it would help if you were careful when driving up to the area since it can get quite foggy the closer you get. Don’t forget to look out for the cows living in and around the forest. You might already meet some on the streets! The Laurisilva forest is magnificent (and therefore well known) when covered in fog. Unfortunately, it is hard to predict when to expect those conditions. I’ve read other blogs that talked about driving up there three times during their holidays in Madeira until they finally experienced its misty side. We went there mid-day in January (it’s been a rainy day for most of the northern island part) and had the thickest fog; we had to be careful not to step into cow poop, lol. Besides just stopping by, there are also some hikes in and around Fanal Pond. (e.g., Vereda do Fanal or Levada dos Cedros)
6 – Funchal City
Funchal is the capital of Madeira and home to most inhabitants and most of the touristic infrastructure. Since Madeira is a volcanic island, the city of Funchal has not only beautiful promenades on the coast but also houses in up to 1200m height. The old town of Funchal is the perfect place to stroll or sit down for some coffee. Make sure to also stop by at Rua de Santa Maria to admire some Street Art and visit Mercado dos Lavradores for some fresh fruits. The waterfront and the harbor will let you get a glimpse of some cruise ships and invite you for a walk in the sun. Since Madeira is also known for its flower and plant diversity, you should check out some of the gardens (e.g., the Monte Palace tropical garden)
An absolute bucket list experience would be going up the mountain in the cable car and riding down with a toboggan slide. (I’m still mad we couldn’t do that due to the sh*tty weather!)
7 – Natural pools
Do you want to take a dip in the sea? Why not in one of the natural volcano pools! Porto Moniz is especially famous for the so-called natural swimming pools. The “piscinas naturais” in Porto Moniz are the most famous spot for natural volcano pools. A little further east, the Piscinas Naturais Velhas are also highly frequented and said to be even better because they are still a little more rural.
Nevertheless, there are some more natural pools that are less crowded, like the natural pools in Seixal, for example. Remember Seixal because of the black beach? Across the road, you’ll find a small natural pool area that looks very unique.
In Funchal, you can find the natural pools of Doca do Cavacas close to the Praia Formosa.
8 – Madeira Waterfalls
Madeira is the perfect place to visit some beautiful and unique waterfalls. The most famous one over social media might be the Cascata dos Anjos since it’s falling directly on the road and lets you pass underneath (or through) it. It’s in the south part of the island on the ER101. On the Levada das 25 Fontes trail, you will visit the Risco and the 25Fontes waterfall. Caldeirão Verde waterfall can be found on the Levada Caldeirão Verde trail and is said to be one of the most spectacular ones on the island. The Véu da Noiva waterfall can be admired from the Véu da Noiva lookout, which offers an insane view of the cliffs and the ocean as well.
There are many more waterfalls than just the ones I mentioned. I’m sure you’ll encounter some beautiful ones during your holidays in Madeira.
9 – Cristiano Ronaldo
I have to admit: I couldn’t care less about soccer – I still wanted to include this, though, in case your travel buddy is a soccer and Cristiano Ronaldo fan. Cristiano Ronaldo was born and raised in Madeira, and the people of Madeira couldn’t be more proud of their soccer star. Besides the airport of Funchal being named after the soccer star, they also built a museum (Museo CR7) and a hotel (Pestana CR7 Funchal) in his honor. In front of the Museum is another statue of him where people like to take pictures. Most tourists do so while placing their hand between his legs, so his private area is a lot shinier than the rest of the statue. I really don’t know what to think about this, lol.
10 – Porto Santo day trip
Porto Santo is also referred to as Madeira’s “little cousin” and offers a beautiful 9km golden sand beach. With 11,6 x 6km, Porto Santo is a relatively calm and less touristic spot. Nevertheless, the beach attracts many visitors, especially during the weekends and summer months. Porto Santo is also known to be an excellent diving spot. If you’re done with your beach activities, you could visit Casa Museu Cristovão Columbo – a museum in the house where Kolumbus probably once lived.
How do you get to Porto Santo? Take the ferry from Funchal, which leaves in the morning and brings you back in the evening. There are also flights from Funchal to Porto Santo (around 15min flight time), yet the ferry is the most common way to visit the island.
Madeira honestly offers so much more than only the things I mentioned. From dolphin watching, wine tasting tours to tours in a 4×4 – you name it. Make sure to check out tripadvisor or Get your Guide for some fun adventures during your stay in Madeira.
Best time to visit Madeira
Madeira is an all-year destination, and the temperature doesn’t change much. Nevertheless, the winter will have a lot more rain pouring down, especially on the north side of the Island. The weather in Madeira is changing fast and depends on the area you’re in, even though the Island is tiny. You can have a rainstorm on the north coast while there’s sunshine on the south side beach promenades. A drive around Madeira might let you experience every possible weather scenario (except snow) in one hour 😂😂😂
So no matter when you choose to spend your holiday in Madeira, bring an umbrella and a rainproof jacket!
Fun Fact: Madeira is known for epic holiday celebrations, so why not plan your holidays in Madeira e.g., during New Year’s Eve or Carnival?
Best place to stay in Madeira
The best place to stay for your first holiday in Madeira would probably be in the area of Funchal. This is because most hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, and gas stations are located in the greater Funchal area. An Airbnb is also an excellent option for staying in Madeira; just check availabilities in your surroundings (e.g., gas stations, supermarkets,…).
We chose the Alto Lido Hotel in Funchal for our stay and loved it. We booked our stay with breakfast only because during the day, we were out on adventures anyway. There is a supermarket (pingo doce) around the corner where we got some snacks for our hikes, and in the evening, we explored our surroundings and tried the local restaurants. The area our hotel is located is also known as the Hotel Area of Madeira and called Lido. The area of São Martinho offers a wide variety of hotels and restaurants and a lovely promenade.
Here’s a quick overview of the restaurants in Funchal we’ve been to:
Probably our favorite restaurant we tried. This one is a little “upper class,” yet they offer a fantastic dinner deal we simply had to take. For 35€ you can go for an entire three-course menu, including the drinks. Every course was insanely good, and the drinks (especially the local wine) were great. They also offer the local delicacy, “Peixe com banana.” I’d totally recommend this place for a date night where you don’t want to worry about the prices and choose whatever you want. We will be back there during our next holidays in Madeira!
Estrada Monumental 306, 9004-538 Funchal, Portugal
We read about this one on TripAdvisor and decided to try it out on our last night. The quality of the food was excellent, and the hot stone dishes were tasty and a lot of fun. The price for the amount and quality of the food is relatively low. The only thing we would criticize here would be the service. They were a little un-attentive and seemed very bored and unmotivated. But hey, we all have bad days, so try for yourself!
Rua Gorgulho Centro Comercial Eden Mar Lj 3
Funchal, Madeira 9000-107 Portugal
This little café has some great Pastel de Nata! Their outside seating is tiny but adorable, and they were incredibly friendly. We loved it for coffee in the afternoon, but you can also get some sandwiches or breakfast here.
Estrada Monumental 296
9000-001 Funchal, Portugal
Some of the best Indian cuisine I ever tried outside of India. Delicious!
Rampa do Lido 8 Loja A
9000-106 Funchal, Portugal
This restaurant was our first stop when we arrived. Their meal was a great start into our trip and the fish of the day I got that day (salmon) was to die for! They offer nice outside seating, great local food for an excellent price. We even got some complimentary Poncha!
R. do Gorgulho 11
9000-107 Funchal, Portugal
We had a hard time deciding on restaurants because they were all rated very good, and every single one offered great (and fresh) meal options. No matter where you eat – get some garlic bread and try some Poncha! Enjoy!
Here we are – you reached the end of the post. If you made it this far: thanks for reading! I hope you found some helpful tips for your trip. I also hope you enjoy your holidays in Madeira just as much as we did, the scenery is truly fascinating. Have a safe trip!
As always, stay happy and healthy!