Lapped by the sapphire waters of the Atlantic and floating off the coast of North Africa, the Portuguese island of Madeira is an archipelago to put on your radar. While only a dinky destination, it’s teeming with things to do and see. Mist-shrouded peaks, ancient forest, black-sand beaches and plunging lush valleys are just some of the natural treasures you can experience here.
And that’s only scratching the surface of what this year-round island has to offer. Electric carnival? Tick. Historic wineries? Oh yes. So without further ado, here are the top things to do in Madeira while on holiday:
1. Funchal Old Town
What better place to start than Madeira’s capital? Unearth Funchal’s magic among the tangle of narrow passageways in the city’s old town. Doors are painted with colourful murals, balconies are draped in blossoming flowers and wrought iron lamps provide a guiding light when evening falls. Stroll the twisting cobbled streets and look out for some of the area’s top attractions.
2. Botanical Garden
Discover a tropical oasis when you visit the Botanical Garden in Funchal. This enormous slice of greenery is set out across a steep slope and is brimming with towering cacti, exotic flowers and palm trees. Amble through, inhaling the scent of blooms, and admire the sweeping view out across the Bay of Funchal.
3. Porto Santo Beach
Take a day trip to Porto Santo island to discover one of the best gold-sand beaches. Stretching more than 9km and blanketed in glinting grains, Praia do Porto Santo is the prime reason visitors flock to this part of the archipelago. It’s an unspoilt stretch, where you can pitch up with a towel and plop down on the soft shore for a day of utter relaxation. When you’re ready to cool off, dip into the azure waters lapping Praia do Porto Santo.
4. Pico Ruivo
Conquer the highest peak on Madeira at Pico Ruivo! Follow the hiking trail from the side of Santana that winds for nearly 3km up the mountainside – it’ll take around 90 minutes to reach the summit, where you can soak up epic vistas of the surrounding lush ridges, often cloaked in clouds. As you follow the path up to the top, you’ll spot green-tinged valleys and ancient forest in the distance. Don’t forget your camera!
5. Levada walk – Caldeirão Verde
Madeira’s famed for its levadas – open canal systems created during the 16th century to distribute water throughout the island. Levada Caldeirão Verde runs along cliffs and mountains at 980m above sea level and you can wander alongside it. A 6.5km trail starts at Queimadas Forestry Park and takes you through tunnels, past waterfalls and deep into the island’s mountainous interior.
6. Monte Toboggan Rides
You can’t visit Madeira without having a go on one of its famous toboggan rides! Created in 1850 as a means for the people of Monte to travel to Funchal, the Monte Toboggan run whizzes passengers 2km down the hillside and throughout winding streets, all the way to Livramento in ten minutes flat. Hop into one of the two-seater wicker sledges and enjoy the ride! It’ll be directed by two men, called Carreiros, dressed up in traditional straw hats, white cotton clothing and boots which they use for braking, so you’re in safe hands. Just sit back and enjoy the ride!
7. Farmer’s Market – Mercado dos Lavradores
Uncover traces of the art deco movement at Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal’s farmer’s market that dates back to the 1930s. Stalls here are piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables produced around the island, so it’s the perfect place to stock up on locally-grown goodies. You’ll likely spot traders peddling their wares in traditional Madeiran clothing, adding an authentic touch to the experience.
8. Pico do Arieiro
Tick off another of Madeira’s mighty mountains at Pico do Arieiro. The island’s third highest summit is renowned for its glorious views at sunrise, so set your alarm early to witness the sky transform in a riot of colour! You’ll find the viewpoint at 1,818m, which is accessible by car.
9. Fajã dos Padres
Make a beeline for this dinky cove on Madeira’s south-west coast. But this isn’t just any cove. Surrounded by towering cliffs, Fajã dos Padres is a rich patch of land that’s brimming with vines, fruit and veg. It’s been here since the 16th century and is now home to a stunning shorefront restaurant, organic farm and private pebble beach. To get to this secluded spot, you’ll have to take a scenic 300m cable car ride down into the lush inlet – the views of the coastline along the way are incredible. Or you can reach it by boat, but you’ll have to book it in advance!
10. Embrace Madeira’s wild side
This island is an adventure-lover’s playground, so what better thing to do than unleash your inner explorer? On land, you can scale streams on a canyoning experience and learn how to navigate watercourses. While out in the ocean, you can master the Atlantic waves! Madeira’s a surfer’s paradise with incredible swells around the west side of the island. Prefer something more low-key? Hop aboard a boat and spend the day dolphin watching. There are more than 28 species that call this part of the ocean home!
Posted: 15th Sept 2020. Updated: 1st Jun 2023.