The ultimate travel guide for Madeira Island in Portugal
At the end of 2022 I spent two action-packed weeks in Madeira and it surpassed every expectation I had. Madeira is a travel guide that has been missing from my collection for far too long and I’m so happy I finally got the chance to visit. I have been lucky enough to travel to some special islands in my lifetime and Madeira is right up there with my favourites. In my humble opinion Madeira is one of the most underrated destinations in the world. This trip was truly one of my favourite ever adventures and I can’t wait to go back.
This travel guide has been a while in the making because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. As always, I don’t rush writing my travel guides. A lot of time and consideration goes into making them and they aren’t like any other you’ll find online. They are written from personal experience, not just regurgitated information you can find anywhere. I hope it can help you plan the very best trip to Madeira. Ready to get started? Let’s go!
The island of Madeira is truly unique. Imagine a tropical island mixed with Jurassic park and you’ll have a glimpse of whats on offer. Although Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal and home to the same friendly, welcoming Portuguese I have come to know and love on the mainland, the island has its own distinct vibe that cannot be found elsewhere in the country.
Traveling to the Azores too?
WHERE IS MADEIRA?
The largest island in the Macronesia archipelago, Madeira is situated off the coast of northern Africa. It is one of three islands; the other two being Porto Santo and Desertas.
HOW TO GET TO MADEIRA
Madeira is just a short hop from Portugal; a 1h30 hour flight from Lisbon. 3h45 from London and 7h50 from New York. The international airport Santa Cruz is Portugal’s 4th largest.
I always use SkyScanner to check for flights.If you are able to be flexible you’ll find some great value journeys there. A good tip on how to find the best price is to select an ‘entire month’ when searching; this allows you to pick and choose arrival and departure dates using a traffic light system.
HOW TO GET AROUND MADEIRA
I strongly recommend getting a hire car for at least some if not all of your trip. Without it your experience of the island will be limited. For me the best activity was the actual driving itself. The roads on Madeira offer breathtaking views and using a car is the best way to explore the island deeper.
As usual I used Zest to find my car. I’ve been using Zest for many years now and I have them to thank for most of my driving experiences in Europe, but especially in Portugal.
If you don’t hire a car you’ll probably want to base yourself in Funchal and take tours out of the city. There is a great airport shuttle that runs approximately every hour and drops off at more than a dozen stops in the Funchal area.
Love road trips? Save some of these routes for your next trip…
WHEN TO VISIT MADEIRA
Like much of Europe, the peak season is summer so Portugal (including Madeira) is busiest in July and August school holidays. Shoulder seasons (May, June, September, October) are a great time to visit the island but even if you can’t make those months you will still be able to enjoy the island. If you plan on hiking and getting up in the mountains then spring or autumn is best.
WEATHER IN MADEIRA
The weather in Madeira is, how shall we put it… unpredictable. It’s an island out in the Atlantic exposed to the elements. It can be quite humid; expect a mix of hot sunshine and rain showers, wind and maybe even the odd storm blowing through. The weather changes depending on where (or how high up) you are on the island so if you’re stuck in the rain don’t assume the whole island is the stuck in the same rain. It is usually warmer than mainland Portugal and both the air and sea temperature is very pleasant.
HOW TO LONG TO STAY IN MADEIRA
Madeira is one of those places you can stay for a long weekend, two weeks, or 3 months. There is so much to see and do that you can fill up your time no matter how long you stay. If it is your first trip a night or two is not enough, even for Funchal. Give Madeira at least 4 nights of your time, but if you have the luxury of more time then a week or 10 days would be ideal. I spent two weeks on the island and I feel like I could have doubled that time and still not have seen everything.
WHERE TO STAY IN MADEIRA
Most people flock to Funchal but although the capital is worth spending time in, it’s got nothing on some of the other spots on the island. For a genuine and authentic experience I recommend splitting your time between several bases. As usual I booked the majority of my accommodation through booking.com. They have the widest range of accommodation. Airbnb is worth looking at too. Many places do not have their own website but do consider booking directly if you can. The one thing I would say is always try to book in advance if you can. I booked my Madeira trip very last minute and I struggled finding good accommodation options that were still available.
Here are a few locations to consider when staying in Madeira.
The obvious and easiest choice is Madeira’s capital – Funchal. It’s only 40 mins from the airport and has the biggest choice of accommodation on the island. This is the best place to stay if you don’t have a car as most tours depart from here.
However I strongly recommend hiring a car and splitting your time.
This small but lively hub is on the north coast 15 minutes east from Seixal. I stayed here for several nights and started to really fall in love with it. You get a mix of mountains and sea in close proximity to each other and you are also close to Seixal and Porto Moniz.
Casa da Piedade This 8 room guest house is set in a tropical paradise. The rooms are spacious and well decorated and an excellent traditional breakfast is included. The pool and garden are a welcoming sight after a day on the road or a long hike. If you’re looking for a day or two to chill this is the place for you.
Garden’s Guest House This guest house is great value and includes a kitchen if you want to cook for a change. Balcony rooms have great views out towards to ocean.
MADALENA DO MAR
This cute village on the sea is a true hidden gem. Just a 10 minute drive from the popular digital nomad town of Porta do Sol but with its own local charm and authentic feel. The village is surrounded by banana palms making it feel even more tropical than Madeira already does.
I stayed in a small duplex which is no longer available but you can find more stays here.
If you are traveling with a small group, kids or you just like a lot of space I found this gorgeous house Casa da Madalena do Mar with unbeatable sea views.
I stayed in a “traditional” house in Santana which is no longer available. This is a great location for hiking though so consider searching for some other accommodation options in the area such as this gorgeous bed & breakfast with pool.
SPLURGE STAYS IN MADEIRA
Madeira has a wide range of accommodation to offer. I personally tend to choose apartments and unique guest houses when traveling in Portugal. However every now and again I like to treat myself to a ‘splurge’ hotel or spa. Here are my picks in Madeira based on great location and facilities.
CAMPING IN MADEIRA
A true highlight was spending a few nights wild camping in Madeira’s natural beauty and if you have the time and are able to bring or hire the equipment – then do it!
There are a dozen or so legal wild camping spots on Madeira but you must apply for a permit in advance (it’s free and easy) . I can personally recommend Chão das Feiteiras (great views of the peaks and friendly sheep) and Chão dos louros (more sheltered from the elements and with plenty of parking).
WHAT TO SEE + DO IN MADEIRA
The island is ALL about experiences so I have written a specific guide for this.
There is so much to see, do and experience in Madeira that it’s almost impossible to get it all done in one trip but these were my true highlights.
HIKE A PEAK (OR TWO)
Madeira has some of the most dramatic backdrops I’ve come across in my years of travel. Whether you’re a hiking addict or new to the activity you’ll be blown away by the trails in Madeira. The most popular (and for good reason) hike is the PR1 between Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo. There are several ways to do this hike. Most (including myself) do the out and back hike which is 23 km. I’m no hiking expert, but in my opinion the hike is moderately challenging and at least some fitness would be helpful. There were some parts that had me totally out of breath but wow, the views along the trail are truly unbelievable. For those of you not really into hiking still plan for a Pico do Arieiro sunrise during your trip. If you arrive early 30min to an hour before sunrise you can park right at the top. This means you only have to take a few steps to watch the magic unfold.
TAKE A DIP IN THE ATLANTIC
Another hike with jaw dropping views to consider is the PR8. Not only does this 14km (out and back) hike offer stunning views across Madeira but a couple of unspoilt beaches too. Unlike the mainland of Portugal the ocean here is warm and if you bring your googles you may even see a few tropical fish. There is a great cafe offering drinks and snacks at the midway point.
This is such a unique experience that I highly recommend spending at least a night of your trip under the stars. Wild camping is usually illegal in Portugal but Madeira offers a limited amount of wild camping spots at designated areas on the island. You can secure a permit here.
DRINK A PONCHA
If you’ve read even one guide on madeira you have probably noticed the name Poncha pop up once or twice. This kick-ass drink can be found across the island and is made up of sugar cane brandy and fresh juice (traditionally lemon). Poncha is notoriously strong so beware of the taster flights you can find in Funchal. You have been warned! Find a bar who will make it fresh in front of you for the full experience. My favourite Poncha experience was at Snack Bar Restaurante Boca Da Encumeada.
SWIM IN THE NATURAL POOLS OF PORTO MONIZ
Another popular experience in Madeira that you should definitely jump into. I was a little worried about visiting Porto Moniz as from everything I read it was very busy and a stop off for lots of tours. When I arrived my fears were confirmed – it was so busy, but much to my surprise I had a brilliant afternoon despite the crowds. The pools are such a unique shape that there are plenty of little cubby holes and crevices. I had no problem finding a secluded spot to swim in. The atmosphere was actually really fun. Lots of happy families plunging in and out of the (warm!) pools so I would definitely recommend this if you have kids too. I didn’t get to test my theory because I ran out of time but I bet if you arrived for sunrise you’d have this natural park to yourself. One more thing, if you take the short walk to the port you may be able to catch a glimpse of fisherman unloading their haul of scabbard fish – amazing!
DRIVE THE ISLAND
The best way to see this island is on your own wheels. The driving is utterly breathtaking and you’ll be able to discover corners most tourists will never see. I definitely recommend hiring a car for at least a day or two. Most of my favourite experiences were thanks to the flexibility I had from my hire car. Pin your most-wanted on GoogleMaps but don’t be afraid to go off-course too. One thing to keep in mind, some roads (especially sections of the ring road) may be closed due to weather/other dangers. Please respect these closures for your own and other’s safety, and for the protection of this beautiful island.
You may notice I didn’t mention the famous toboggan run in Funchal. I chose not to do this activity while I was there because personally I think it’s overpriced and just a touch too touristy for me. If I wasn’t solo then I think I would have been happy to shell out for the experience. The information is super easy to find online. Go forth and enjoy!
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK IN MADEIRA
Portugal is home to some of the tastiest fish and meat dishes you’ll find on planet earth and let’s not forget the freshly baked goods either. Madeira is no exception. What I loved about this island is that there are many specialities that you cannot find on the mainland. Through travel in Madeira my knowledge of Portuguese cuisine has grown a little deeper. Here are just a few of the many delicious dishes and drinks you need to try in Madeira.
Limpets. Yes, really. Probably not the sort of thing you imagine eating but these amazing gifts from the sea are a delicious mix between a clam and a scallop. They taste even better washed down with a glass of white wine next to the sea at A Taberna Madalena do Mar mentioned below.
ESPADA PRETO (black scabbard fish)
Esapada preto could easily earn the title “ugliest fish in the ocean” but these menacing looking creatures are surprisingly tasty. Traditionally eaten with bananas so look out for this dish on the menu.
BOLO DE CACO
The closest bread product I can compare this too is an English muffin. These traditional rolls are usually served toasted with homemade garlic butter. You can find them all over the island and you absolutely must order as many as possible. I’ve tried but failed to find anywhere on the mainland that sells these as good as in Madeira.
Beer mixed with pineapple ice cream. Say whaaaat?! Yes it is as wonderful as it sounds. Sweet, creamy and perfect on a hot day. This creation is officially a top 5 drink for me.
BEST RESTAURANTS AND BARS IN MADEIRA
I’ll start by saying this is not a comprehensive guide of restaurants in Madeira because there are simply too many to share. Also I think when it comes to restaurants we all have to be a little bit braver and seek out some hidden gems. Here are a few of my favourites I found while on the road…
Taberna Boca da Encumeada (Encumeada)
I accidentally found this when searching for my wild camp spot. It has a few outdoor tables (that were shrouded in mist when i arrived giving it a very eerie but cool vibe) and a bar with a tonne of character
A Taberna Madalena do Mar (Madalena do Mar)
This beachside shack gave me all the Thai vibes. Plastic chairs right on the rocks, excellent lapas and cheap wine! Take me back now!
Bar Dona Maria (Madalena do Mar)
A typical Portuguese snack bar. Uber cheap, drink with the locals, and do it with a view of the black sand beach and dramatic cliffs. Perfeito!
Gato Legal Coffee (Ponta do Pargo)
I’m a coffee snob. While I happily knock back Portuguese coffee in espresso form I’m a sucker for specialty coffee. After a bit of research I found Gato Legal and it perked me right up.
Calhau snack bar (Achadas da Cruz)
Nothing particularly spectacular about the food if I’m being honest, but the view? Oh my. Lovely spot for some lunch and a few beers. Don’t forget to ride the cable car!
Quinta do Barbusano (São Vincente)
Mentioned in my ‘best experiences in Madeira guide’ this winery is perched high above São Vincente and has a spectacular vista to sip wine in front of. I did a brilliant wine tasting here but they also have a great restaurant. Book in advance.
Mountain Spot cafe (Achada do Teixeira)
Kind of like you just arrived at a chalet in the Alps, except this is Portugal and you’re about to hike to the highest peak on the island. Great spot to shelter and fill up on some warm grub before or after you hit the trail. This is also the parking spot for the start of PR1.2.
Okay, how are we feeling? Have you got at least a small idea of how amazing Madeira is? I hope so! This guide is designed to help you start planning the perfect trip to Madeira but don’t stop here. If you’d like some help planning an action packed but realistic itinerary book a travel planning call and we’ll get you on the road and make sure you have a trip of a lifetime.
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I hope you found this Madeira guide helpful. Don’t forget to forge your own path too and find your own hidden treasures around the island. Happy adventuring!
All photos are taken by me. Please do not use without credit and a link to this page.