Rainforest trails and cascading waterfalls, cosmopolitan cities and a bustling art scene – this is the magic of Madeira. Fancy a visit but wondering about the under-the-radar must-dos that the guidebooks might have missed? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Take Insta-worthy snaps of street art in Funchal
Strolling through Funchal’s cobbled streets, you’ll find street art-covered alleys and splashes of colour around every corner. It’s an Instagrammer’s dream and there’s no filters needed. Meander along the Rua de Santa Maria and Rua dos Barreiros in the Old Town and you’ll find an endless trail of creativity that might just inspire your inner Banksy. Here, many of the doors into houses, restaurants, businesses and galleries have been transformed into works of art by local designers. It will come as no surprise to football fans that Madeiran born Cristiano Ronaldo features heavily on the street art scene. Head to the Santo António Civic Centre to see an impressive mural of the island’s sporting hero.
See cartoon-like houses in Santana
This little island is big on culture, and tucked away on the north coast, you’ll find the picturesque village of Santana, an old-world Madeiran time capsule. Here, you’ll find some of the best displays of traditional island houses. These colourful, straight-out-of-a-storybook casas have whitewashed walls with brightly painted trims and thatched red roofs. Pop inside and see how Madeiran farmers used to live in the 16th century. Nowadays, you’ll discover locals selling handmade crafts and traditional products - perfect for souvenirs!
Cool off in wonderful waterfalls and natural sea pools
Bored of poolside lounging? Head to Porto Moniz on the north-west coast where you’ll find tidal pools carved into the cliff. These were formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, so lay back and soak up the scenery as the Atlantic froths at your feet. The island’s many waterfalls provide another unique way to cool off. The Levada do Caldeirão Verde hike is one of the best for waterfall-spotting. You’ll ramble alongside thundering cascades as they tumble over the clifftops. Remember, it’s during the winter months when there’s higher rainfall that these feats of nature really leap to life.
Hike to the island’s highest point
There’s no better way to experience Madeira’s vibrant green landscape than by foot. Its emerald hills are criss-crossed with hundreds of levadas – once small irrigation channels, these are now popular walking trails. There are hikes to suit every walker, but for the best views you need to head to the island’s highest point, Pico Ruivo. As you wind upwards, you’ll walk through UNESCO-protected pockets of forest in Laurissilva, sprinkled with electric-pink lilies and eucalyptus. You’ll be treated to spectacular views around every bend and when you reach the summit, you’ll emerge triumphant above the clouds. Sit back, take a well-earned breather and enjoy the top-of-the-world views.
Go dolphin spotting
Once you’ve explored by land, it’s time to head to the sea. The warm waters that surround Madeira are brimming with playful pods of dolphins. In fact, more than 20 different species have made it their home. There’s nothing better than seeing these beautiful creatures thriving in their natural habitat so take a boat tour and head out in search of them. Due to their inquisitive nature, you can often spot them swimming alongside you as you sail and showing off their acrobatic skills.
Sample poncha in a funky Funchal bar
Have you got a sweet tooth? Then Madeira’s boozy staple of sugar cane rum, honey, and fruit juice is a must-try. The traditional flavour is lemon, but there’s plenty of other tasty concoctions to try, from passionfruit to orange. But where’s the best place to taste this tipple? Madeira Rum House is a local’s go-to for a poncha-fuelled evening. Here, the drink is homemade and served all day long. Venda Velha is another favourite, a throwback to the shop-taverns of the early 20th century. Simply pull up a chair, pick a poncha and see where the night takes you.
Snorkel or scuba dive in a nature reserve
Madeira’s clear waters, volcanic landscape and mild year-round temperatures make it a diver’s dream. Spend your days exploring coves and caves and discovering long-lost shipwrecks. Garajau’s underwater nature reserve is a protected area, and the best spot on the island to admire the fascinating marine life. You’ll be in awe as schools of barracudas and seahorses swirl around you, and if you’re lucky you might spot a majestic manta ray as it glides along the seabed.
Looking to add a dash of adventure to your island escape? Then why not try tobogganing? It’s a local tradition in Funchal where toboggans have been a mode of transport for both people and goods since the 19th century. Take the seafront cable car from Funchal to the hillside neighbourhood of Monte, where you’ll be met by smartly dressed drivers donning all-white outfits topped with a straw boater hat. Hold on tight as they whizz you down a two-mile path from Nossa Senhora do Monte Church to the suburb of Livramento on wicker sledges. After an adrenalin-pumping descent, you’ll be desperate to do it all over again!
Enjoy the views at a miradouro
On an island this beautiful, you’re never far from a breathtaking view. Miradouro is the Portuguese word for observation deck and there’s many scattered around the island that are worth a visit. Get your phone memory cleared before you go as it’s impossible to avoid being snap-happy with panoramas like these. For valley views, head for the Balcões viewpoint where you can see across the Ribeira da Metade valley and the jagged summits of the island’s two highest peaks. If it’s sea views you’re after, then the Cabo Girão viewpoint is sure to impress. If you’re scared of heights, it’s best not to look down as it’s glass-bottom lookout showcases the dizzying drop below. Head there at sunset and gaze out at the dramatic end-of-the-world cliffs and the endless blue of the Atlantic as the sun melts into the sea.
So, that’s your to-do list sorted, now let’s get those flights booked!
Posted: 1st Jun 2022. Updated: 31st Oct 2023.