Madeira… Madeira… what comes to mind when we think of this place? First of all, wood, because ‘Madeira’ means wood in Portuguese. The island was named so in 1419 because it was covered by an impenetrable forest.
On our list of things to see in Madeira, Funchal is definitely first. It is in fact the capital of the islands as mentioned and the largest city. It owes its picturesque name to an herb called fennel ‘Funcho’, used to make the traditional fennel sweets ‘rebuçados de funcho’ that you will find all over Madeira.
On your day in Funchal you must start at the Mercado dos Labradores: it is the largest on the island, expanding over three different levels. It is one of Madeira’s most popular attractions, which will satisfy sight, smell and taste. The highlight of this market, among spices, flowers, meat and fish, is definitely the exotic fruits.
Let yourself be tempted by the Monstera deliciosa, known as the ‘banana pineapple’ because of the flavour reminiscent of these two fruits, or try the Carob or ‘banana passion fruit’ because of its banana-like appearance and passion fruit taste.
Then continue with a stop at the Funchal Botanical Garden. You get there via a cable car, which is ready to give you your first great naturalistic highlight: a beautiful view from above among the many colours of the garden. Here there are more than 3000 types of plants from many areas of Europe and the world.
From the garden you can also treat yourself to another adrenalin-pumping experience, that of going down with the local cestinhos. No, you haven’t misunderstood… the word has the same meaning as Italian!
These are large wooden and wicker baskets in which you sit and are transported downhill about 2 km to the centre of Funchal. On a visit to the capital, you cannot miss one of the most Instagrammable spots on Madeira: Ponta do Garajau, one of the most romantic places on the island. After a flight of steps that will take you to the highest point, you can admire the ocean in all its splendour. For a top photo, we recommend coming at sunset.
Pico Ruvio is the highest peak on the island and one of the unmissable things to see in Madeira. It is the third highest peak in Portugal and getting to the top is one of the most beautiful experiences you can have in the country. The panoramic views and hiking trails that take you up will truly make you dream in their alternation of unique landscapes of waterfalls, forests and nature.
Let us reassure you right away. The route to the summit is accessible to all, although, as in all uphill treks, it can be more strenuous in some sections. The easiest path starts in Achadas do Teixeira and is about 6 km long for a total of 3 hours of walking. Our advice is to go early in the morning, almost at sunrise. At this hour you will find the clouds all around the mountain creating an almost magical effect.
The beauty of this place is linked to the crazy view that the peak offers, but also to the paths that lead up to the summit. Prominent among these is the path between Pico Ruvio and Picco Arieiro, the third highest mountain on the island. This route is often referred to as the most beautiful trek in all of Madeira and its duration is generally 3½ hours. However, according to the accounts of many hikers, it takes about 5 hours and it is easy to get lost in this wonderland and stop to admire unique views. In short, the trail is so beautiful that it deserves a constant photo stop to capture the many small streams flowing into waterfalls, the volcanic rocks always shaded by lava veins, the jagged peaks and many types of beautiful flowers.
Another of the most beautiful things to see in Madeira is Porto Moniz. Very often travellers choose these islands as their destination because of the beauty of the photos taken among its natural pools. Madeira and its islands are of volcanic origin and the pools of Porto Moniz originate from lava that flowed after a peak of activity more than a million years ago and poured into the sea, eventually hardening and creating the walls of these natural pools.
The natural pools are divided into two zones, an old and a new one. The old part is more exciting and natural and its magic comes mainly from a small island topped by a lighthouse right in the middle of the area.
The new one, on the other hand, offers a mix with the modern, featuring sunbed and umbrella rentals and several restaurants where you can sample the local cuisine that we will tell you about in a moment! North of Porto Moniz you can see and visit the Fort of São João Baptista, built in ancient times to protect the islands from potential pirate attacks.
What we see today is a more modern structure, the result of work (begun in 2000) to restore and reconstruct the missing pieces to restore the fortress to its original beauty. This fort now houses the Madeira Aquarium where you can see manta rays, moray eels, triggerfish and many other fish found in the islands’ waters.
It seems that São Vicente took its name from the numerous crows that inhabited these lands when the first settlers arrived. Watching these birds, they remembered the story of the Spanish martyr Saint Vincent, whose remains were defended from the attack of ferocious beasts by a crow sent by God. For this reason, defending the city today is an altar dedicated to the saint in which a beautiful painting of him is preserved.
São Vicente is one of the greenest villages in all of Madeira, but it is also characterised by its volcanic beauty, that is, shaped by the forces of volcanoes and the erosion of the rocks on its slopes. In fact, the town is home to some wonderful caves formed by the eruption of an ancient volcano. Today they can be visited and are an opportunity to take a trip to the centre of the earth and learn more about volcanic events thanks to the ‘Centro do Vulcanismo’.
This is a small information point where you can find out more about Madeira’s geology and the changes that led to its current appearance. Also not to be missed in the city is the Indigenous Garden, a very large park with a surface area of 2,200 m2, home to dozens of species of local flora and trees indigenous to the island, such as the Dragon Tree.
Câmara de Lobos
Câmara de Lobos is another place on Madeira’s must-see list. It is a small fishing village, seemingly frozen in time and in its romanticism of colourful boats moored in the harbour.
This seaside town was one of the first settlements of settlers in Madeira, which is why it still retains many 15th century squares and churches, such as the Capela De Nossa Senhora Da Conceição. It is the oldest on the island according to locals and was built in 1420 by order of João Gonçalves Zarco. The ceiling and walls of this church are decorated with frescoes of the life of Saint Anthony.
This is no coincidence, of course: he is the patron saint of sailors and consequently Portuguese fishermen go here to pray before setting out to sea. But the charm of Câmara de Lobos does not come from its history so much as from the nature that characterises it: the landscape expresses a kind of restlessness, made up of high cliffs in the middle of the coast, deep chasms in the ground and majestic mountains in the central part.
Here it is possible to do one of Madeira’s most typical activities: levada, or walking. In fact, it is possible to do the Levada Do Norte that goes from Ribeira Brava to Cabo Girão. The main characteristic of the levadas is that they are unique on each island and offer breathtaking landscapes. In this case, for example, water channels weave through the laurisilva forest to irrigate the plantations in a route of almost 12.5 km.
The Madeira archipelago consists not only of the island of the same name but also of other groups of islets, such as Ilhas Desertas, Ilhas Selvagens and Porto Santo.
The latter is one of the smallest but also one of the most fascinating islands, although very different from how we have described Madeira itself so far. It is indeed less green and more arid but boasts one of the most beautiful beaches in Madeira and also in Europe.
We are talking about a very long, sandy strip that stretches from Ponta da Calheta and ends in the north with the Porto Santo Sailing Club. It is located on the south side of the island and constantly enjoys a wonderful climate, mild and pleasant even in winter.
Not to be missed in Porto Santo is the Columbus House, which has now become a museum. It was here that the navigator married and lived for several years. In his house museum, one can relive the Portuguese conquests of the past. You can also learn more about the history of navigation and instruments with maps of the time. There are portraits and works of art related to Christopher Columbus and his life.
One of the most beautiful sights in Porto Santo that should not be missing from your list of things to see in Madeira is the Miradouro da Portela. It is one of the most famous viewpoints on the island. If you buy souvenirs here, you will almost always find it painted or engraved on mugs, key rings and glasses! The main feature of this spot are the Moinhos de vento, or windmills, one of the icons of Porto Santo, but also the panorama seen from above on the beach and most of the island.
Excursions in Madeira
We have covered Madeira’s main towns and villages in our list of things to see, but there is plenty to do on the island in terms of hiking. Madeira boasts many scenic spots, trails and treks that are not to be missed.
Among these, the first one we recommend is the route to Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço. It is one of Madeira’s most classic hikes, but at the same time it is a unique and unmissable experience that will give you many enviable photos of the ocean or the ever restless and moving seas to the north of the island.
Among the must-see viewpoints in Madeira, we recommend Cabo Girão. It is one of Portugal’s most beautiful attractions: a viewpoint located on the highest promontory, not only in the country but in the whole of Europe at 580 m above sea level. In recent years it has been renovated and a small glass part, called skywalk, has been added, which makes the spot even more unique. The view from here is insane and provides a unique panorama of the ocean but also of Câmara de Lobos and the city of Funchal.
One last little excursion to make in Madeira that we recommend is Ponta do Pargo. It is located at an altitude of 312 metres in the west of Madeira and offers an exciting view of the ocean and the landscape stretching from the lighthouse of Ponta do Pargo to Achadas da Cruz. One of the most beautiful spots to photograph from here is definitely the lighthouse, which encapsulates all the need for security in this unusually rugged and arid part of the island.
What to eat in Madeira
As we have seen, there is no shortage of attractions in Madeira, but an integral part of the island experience is the cuisine! Here is a list of dishes that cannot be missed on your table on the island:
Espetada da Madeira: the most typical dish on the island. It is a skewer of meat served with laurel branches, other spices and with a plate of bread underneath, which soaks up all the sauce released from the meat for tasty dumplings;
Bolo de caco: don’t let the name scare you, it will be one of the tastiest breads you will ever try in your life. It is traditionally baked on a basalt stone called ‘caco’ and we recommend you try the one with butter and herbs, the most typical and popular among tourists.
Scabbard fish served with banana: this is also one of the island’s main dishes. Although it seems an odd combination, it is a delicious dish.
Picado de Madeira: this is a dish of beef served with olives and vegetables but surrounded by a bed of chips.
Cozido madeirense: a stew of pork, sweet potato, rice and vegetables, perfect for those with a heartier stomach.
Bolo de mel: a must-try dessert. It is partly reminiscent of pan pepato and is a cake made with brown sugar and honey, walnuts, almonds and sultanas.
To accompany the dishes you will enjoy, a good wine is a must. In Madeira, the choice of wine is very easy given the excellence of local products, especially liqueur wines. There are several brands of fortified wines that you can try, so we recommend Blandy’s and Cossart Gordon. Beware, however, of their alcohol content, which is usually around 20°, much stronger than what we Italians are used to drinking in a meal.