Top

For centuries, Madeira was an obligatory stopover for European ships bound for and returning from Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and its cuisine has been influenced by ingredients, people, and techniques from across the world. First discovered by accident in 1419, it has a fairly temperate climate, and very pretty scenery. It’s only occasionally like Hawaii (most books we read said “the Hawaii of Europe” – clearly written by people who have only seen pictures of Hawaii). I’d call it more the Californian/Mexican Pacific Coast of Europe.

Is it touristy? Incredibly so. 85% of their economy comes from tourism. Given that, however, with the exception of hiking we found it generally uncrowded, full of lovely, helpful people, and extremely easy to navigate. It’s rare to encounter someone who doesn’t speak English, as well as French. We saw a diverse mix of travelers from all over Europe, with a healthy smattering of Americans. They were typically pensioners, or the more active flavor of younger tourists – people who travel to go on hikes and bike rides. There’s also a pretty good cat population – not Marrakesh level cats, but enough to make us happy. Prices are very reasonable (by European standards) – less than you’d expect to find in France or Italy.

Our trip was a full week – the flights out of Geneva dictated the duration (flights on Saturdays and Tuesdays), but we had no regrets. It’s the right amount of time to see just about everything, at a leisurely pace.

What worked about our itinerary?

  • The pacing was about right. Three-four well organized days in Funchal, 1-2 on the north side of the island, and 2 nights on the south side, away from Funchal, is a good mix.
  • Being a tourist and taking a boat cruise was fun.
  • Driving the backroads through the center of the island.
  • Renting a car (it just made everything so much easier). Get the smallest sporty car possible that is an automatic – even if you (like Galen) prefer a manual car.
  • Doing some indoor stuff in Funchal – in particularly the churches.
  • Bringing (some) cash. You can obviously just go to an ATM, but I was surprised how often cards weren’t accepted.

What did we not get right?

  • Travel in May. It wasn’t warm enough at all. Not unpleasant, but never warm enough to swim.
  • I’d do one hike and skip all the others. There are “Levadas” (called Bisses) in Valais that are dramatically better, without the crowds. The lines really were a problem, far more crowded than walking the streets of Funchal.
  • Eat so much “traditional Madeiran food.” There’s one menu, and you find it in 90% of the restaurants. This is not to say it’s bad – it’s generally very good – but there’s a limit to the potatoes and meat on sticks I find appealing. Galen enjoyed the food more – in particular the scabbard fish, which you’ll find everywhere. Seek out alternatives.

We did not see a surfable wave – or a surfer for that matter – the entire time. Wrong time of year, I think.

To summarize – a very nice island destination we’d recommend to others, but not over Corsica, Kauai, or the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s better than Maui. We won’t return, but enjoyed our time!

View the full map here.

Funchal

Funchal, the capital city of Madeira, is a pretty city cascading down the mountains to the sea. We found it easy to navigate on foot, with striking architecture (especially the use of volcanic stone) and friendly people. Two days/three nights was great – there’s enough to do, but any longer could start to get a bit dull (unless you add on a day trip to Porto Santo).

The Old Town of Funchal (Zona Velha) surprisingly was not nearly as charming as the area around the cathedral. Narrow streets designed just for tourists, with a ‘captive’ feel lacking much personality. Walk through, but I wouldn’t stay in this side of town.

In town – the churches do stand out. Our favorites (worth seeking out) are:

  • **Funchal Cathedral: 15th century, Gothic and Romanesque styles, with a gorgeous carved wooden ceiling and lots of gold decoration, one of the few structures that survives virtually intact since the early period of colonization of Madeira
  • **Igreja de São João Evangelista – 17th century, part of the old Jesuit college, and notable for a lot of gold paired with a loud and exuberant mix of tile
  • **The Saint Peter Church, completed in 1743, with stunning large walls lined with blue and white tiles – and again a lot of gold and a painted wooden ceiling.
  • The primary chapel of the **Convent of Santa Clara is perhaps the most harmonious – the tiles, decorations, and painted roof feel much more of a piece. It’s worth a (paid) visit to tour the convent, which has many more chapels to see.

We made it to two secular museums: the ***Quinta das Cruzes Museum, which is great – one of the largest “quintas“ with historic tradition in the bay of Funchal. Open to the public since 1953, it’s packed with drawings and paintings of the local flora and scenes, gorgeous furniture, and an impressive jewelry collection. It’s not a long visit, but the space and surroundings are lovely. Say hi to the cats, and make time for a break at the pretty cafe with a view over Funchal.

The **Natural History Museum is the oldest museum in operation in the archipelago of Madeira, in the Palace of St. Pedro. It’s a pretty building with a garden in the back, with historic “stuffed animals” of the region – especially birds and fish. It’s not a long stop, but I do like this kind of thing. The aquarium inside is currently closed for renovation.

It’s almost required to head up the hill to **Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, by the **Madeira cable car ideally. The cable car can have quite a wait, and it’s expensive,  but we enjoyed the voyeuristic overhead view of the area and would recommend it. The gardens are very pretty and PACKED with people – I didn’t love the experience, but it’s one of the top sites on the island, so it would be a shame to skip. Note that dining options around the Monte Palace are not great and you’d to better to plan your schedule to eat elsewhere – we had a perfunctory lunch at *Pátio das Babosas, which is the best of the options.

While you’re here – the **Carreiros do Monte are worthwhile – a wicker basket on skis, sliding down the street. It’s not particularly fast, but it’s silly and fun. (Also note at this point your day is getting expensive – the gondola, lunch, carreiros, taxi back up, and gardens will run around $200 for a couple).

Another low-effort, worthwhile visit is **Blandy’s Wine Lodge. We learned about Madeira wine, the guide was rather funny, and you get a decent tasting at the end. The building is in active use and smells great, and the building itself (a former prison, among other things) is historic and rather lovely. 

Our last morning in Madeira we took the ‘pirate ship’ from Funchal – the **Santa Maria de Colombo, a reasonably accurate historical recreation of Columbus’s largest ship on the first trip to the Americas (it’s quite tiny). We enjoyed this – it’s low key, you’ll likely see animals (we saw dolphins), and the sailing is leisurely and gives great views of the area around Funchal and Camara de Lobos. It’s a three hour tour, and runs twice a day. Bring a hat!

Food and Lodging

  • **Castanheiro Boutique Hotel was fine. It’s a great location, extremely central, with parking, a spa, a rooftop pool, and a rather good restaurant. It’s also rather corporate and caters to large groups, and lacks the intimacy we’d expect of a boutique hotel. There are 81 rooms. Pool has an unfortunate safety barrier that obscures the view. Breakfast is excellent, and our dinner at  Tipografia, in the hotel, was quite tasty.
  • **Restaurante do Forte is a time warp experience (in a good way) in the 17th century Fortress of São Tiago. It’s formal, not incredibly expensive, food is decent and leans towards the classics, and the staff give you a feeling of fine dining circa 1960 (which Galen loves). We liked it.
  • **Akua was a much more modern experience – part of Chef Júlio Pereira’s restaurant collection, focused on the products of the sea. It was a very bumpy start, with an awkwardly-designed menu (blending allergens with ingredients – my dish has “bananas” and “sulphites”?) and lack of fairly normal stuff and effort (no wine pairing, one wine by the glass? 45 minutes to get the bread? Another 35 minutes to get our first glass of wine?). Eventually our waitress recovered and did a good job of making the rest of the evening pleasant. Very fish-forward, creative and tasty food. Galen was annoyed they don’t say the name like Hawaiians would (a-kua); rather “aqua.”
  • Next door, *Taberna da Sé draws a crowd, but the food was decidedly below average.
  • **Golden Gate Grand Café (across from Blandy’s) serves high tea and expensive cocktails in a classic setting, a good place for an afternoon break.

Where to stay instead? If you can handle the big complexes, Reid’s Palace, the Savoy properties, and everything in that general vicinity gives you a pool vacation experience within reasonable walking distance – anything further would require a drive into town. We did like being very central though – Hotel Caju had some curb appeal and might be worth checking out. The Pestana Carlton Madeira and The Vine Hotel did not look like good choices. 

Ribiero Frio

Drive STRAIGHT UP the very steep hill from Funchal to get to the **Ribeiro Frio Balcoes (also called Levada dos Balcões, or PR11). We enjoyed the drive and the exceedingly easy walk – 1.5 km each way on a nearly flat path. The view is stunning, showcasing 3 of the major summits of the island: Pico Aério, Pico Torres and Pico Ruivo. We found parking and just avoided the significant crowds by arriving before 10am – it is clearly a major destination for bus tours.

You’re already here – so drive a little bit further to São Roque do Faial before leaving – it’s another very pretty vista over the valley and hill towns.

Back down the road towards Funchal, we had a decent lunch at **Abrigo do Poiso Restaurant, a roadhouse with a nicer restaurant (closed during our visit) and a more casual bar area. Food was fine, and it seemed to be popular with bikers and locals – perhaps a better option than the restaurants immediately circling the trailhead.


For our third day, we took the scenic route overland to Santana – one of the prettier drives we found on the island. Lunch on the way at **Adega do Pomar (in Camacha) was very good – one of the tastier meals we had, with great service. The food was traditional (meat, potatoes) but very well executed. Continue on the ER102 to Porto da Cruz.

Porta da Cruz

One of the cuter towns we found on the north side of the island, Porta da Cruz is a historic port as well as area for sugarcane cultivation. The aguardente factory, completed after 1858, was part of this industry. Today, the **North Mills Distillery Engenhos do Norte is a steam-powered rum distillery where they actively use vintage machinery. There’s no tour, you just watch the live production – we found it highly entertaining. You can also walk around the point to swimming areas and a protected pool (not open in late May). This area would be fine for a night or two, not particularly fancy, but pleasant and with enough dining and lodging areas to keep you entertained.

As you drive towards Santana there are two easy stops for good vistas – the Miradouro do Guindaste and the Fortress of Faial.

Santana

Our stop for the night was the **Quinta do Furao – it was nicer than I expected, and definitely worth a night or two. Santana itself doesn’t seem to have a lot of charm (the fake historical village is a dud), but if you head straight to the hotel you have a great cliff view, comfortable rooms overlooking the vineyards, a lovely poolside relaxation area, and very good food with a focus on locally sourced ingredients. Staff are pleasant – and we had the best poncha of the trip by far here.

A fifteen minute drive up into the interior valley from Santana is an extremely easy, though crowded, hike. The 13-km Levada Caldeirao Verde trail (the PR9) is billed as one of the most beautiful hikes on the island – and it is lovely. Nearly flat, through caves, and with occasional glimpses of the sea. What we didn’t love with the crowds, which were substantial (we were told it was actually a light day). Waiting in line on a hike isn’t my thing, and unfortunately this is the dominant theme on Madeira.

Boaventura and São Vicente

Continuing up the coast, we had a decent lunch with an excellent view (and two cats) at the **São Cristovão restaurant in Boaventura. The usual meat on sticks and potatoes options.

Our last stop before cutting across the island was São Vicente, which is not at all attractive near the water (the guidebooks said “quaint” – it’s more “tired bad cheap hotels”). However as you head out the VE4, the valley is one of the prettier high areas, with steep green mountains lined with vineyards. We saw a few cute boutique hotels (Quinta Vale Vitis and Solar da Bica); this area could be a good ‘away from the crowds’ getaway destination.

Calheta

Our final hotel stop (for three nights) was the lovely **Socalco Nature Calheta (we stayed in Casa do Ribeiro). Created by one of Madeira’s best-known chefs, Octávio Freitas, Socalco is a gastronomic destination with individual cottages in modern style, great views over the ocean, and friendly staff. It’s clearly popular, filled every night we were there.

I’d recommend this for the architecture and the experience – but wait until 2025, given the extremely loud construction in the area that seriously detracts from the experience. The food is good, but for the price point (a lot more than anywhere else), it’s not particularly remarkable. We had dinner twice and were a bit disappointed to be served repeats of some of the dishes.

Calheta itself I wouldn’t consider a worthwhile destination, aside from the hotel. It has an enclosed, fairly functional port – we had reasonably good sushi there for a change of pace at **Buddha & Sakura. On the bluff near Socalco you’ll find the **Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Madeira (Mudas) – an impressive structure with average art.

Seixal

Day 5 instead was a trip across the interior again – out the ER209 past the Fanal Forest and PR6 25 Fontes hikes (among others). This area is famous for its extremely moody, foggy, conditions – which it certainly delivered. It’s also freezing cold, the views are elusive, and crowds/traffic are intensive and the terrain not as diverse and lush as other parts of the island. Driving past was more than enough for us.

You’ll hit the north shore at Miradouro Ilheus da Ribeira da Janela – a tall and narrow rock formation. It’s actually more impressive from a side angle (from Seixal or points around there), to see to the more interesting eroded sides.

Continue east a short distance to Seixal – one of the most appealing villages we found on the north side of the island. The **Seixal natural swimming pools (Pocas das Lesmas) are famous, and rightly so – they’re impressive, weren’t particularly mobbed with people, and offer great views and what looks like a fun day of entertainment if it’s warm enough. 

The town itself has a few hotels and what looks like a large volume of holiday homes to rent, with various casual restaurants. It wouldn’t be a bad choice for a place to spend a day or two in.

We had a decent lunch at **Las Caraibas, on the west side of town. Normal food, very friendly staff.

Porto Moniz

Next up: the natural pools of Porto Moniz. A strikingly different experience from Seixal, and in my opinion, a skip. It’s extremely built up, with tour buses and trinket shops galore.

We planned our 5th day as a ferry ride back and forth from Porto Santo, with some beach time and a visit to the Casa Colombo-Museu. Given the weather – too cold to swim – and the prospect of a very long day, we skipped this. If I was doing it again, I’d add this as a day trip from Funchal, where the ferry departs.

Curral da Freira

Our last interior drive was to the Curral da Freira – “The Nun’s Valley.” The town itself isn’t worth a stop, but veer left just before the tunnel to Curral to **Miradouros do Paredão – it’s an easily accessed viewpoint with a panoramic view over the village. It’s very high, almost frighteningly so. There’s a hotel at the top too, which doesn’t look particularly appealing, but you can get a snack while you enjoy the view.

São Martinho

Rolling straight back south to the sea we had a surprisingly delicious lunch at **Doca do Cavacas on the far outskirts of Funchal in the São Martinho district – my favorite meal of the trip (we had the seafood rice). There’s an outdoor upper level,  indoor spaces, and a fish market, all looking over a swimming pool built into the cafes. The waves were huge – I’d guess this is a low-tide swimming area only, but it’s very worth it to go even when you have no intention of touching the water.

Câmara de Lobos

Câmara de Lobos, “The Bay of Seals,” gets top billing for being a picturesque fishing village, which it very much is not at the moment. There’s a lot of construction, a surprising amount of homelessness (which is evident on the island, but much more concentrated here), and general tourism insanity. Skip. 

Fajã dos Padres

We saw Fajã dos Padres from the sea, and it does appear rather cute – a destination I’d make time for on a future visit. The only way down to this organic farm is via a tram, and there’s a pretty restaurant and a few cabins to rent, along with a protected swimming area. There’s also an impressive looking hotel above it that could be fun to explore: Botanical Living Madeira

The Most Useful References I Found

Little Weekends Guide to Madeira 

Trip Savvy: One Week on Madeira

The Guardian: Madeira Hotels (Jan 2024)

Eater Dining Guide to Madeira

Decanter Guide to the Wine of Madeira