Can you have a European island holiday sans all the trappings of island vacations? You know, scenery polluted by throngs of tourists and inebriated revelers who could have just stayed home to get plastered, yet still has the comforts of civilization plus awe-inspiring landscapes that will leave you breathless. Yes, it exists, and yes, and it’s easier to get there than you may think. And once you do, you will make the discovery of a lifetime.
In a Nutshell
An autonomous region of Portugal, Madeira is the largest island in an archipelago in the north Atlantic formed by a massive shield volcano. Situated within the African Tectonic Plate, Madeira lies 400 km north of the Canary Islands, 520 km west of Morocco and approximately just over 900 km south of Lisbon. Despite the proximity to Africa, the language, culture, and economy are solidly European. For those who want to visit a sight to be hold, they can easily secure requirements, like Portugal NIF, through online resources.
Discovered by the Portuguese in 1419 and settled in 1420, the sub-tropical island was a respite from a starving and black-plague beleaguered Europe. With lush laurel forests (the laurisilva forests are an UNESSCO World Heritage site) overflowing with flora and fauna, birds, and tropical fruits such as bananas, guava, and prickly pear not found in Europe. Part of the fabled Barbary Coast, Madeira was a favored spot for pirates, explorers, and a slave trade that, fortunately, did not last long. Sugarcane production propelled the local economy for centuries, and there still remains a rum distillery in the city of Cahleta. Wine production replaced sugarcane as the primary export, of which the sweet Madeira dessert wine is world-renowned.
Madeira enjoys a year-round temperate climate, soaring cliffs and mountains, and an infinite picturesque coastline that osculates between calm and sparkling to craggy rocks and crashing waves. On the precipice of Africa and Europe, Madeira beckons visitors with primordial forests, towering mountains and picture-perfect coastlines, to delectable gastronomy and an active foodie and bar scene. Getting here is fairly easy, with daily flight connections via Lisbon, as well as London, Paris and Frankfurt. For those on the American continent, there is a weekly non-stop from New York on Azores Airlines.
Ready to discover this captivating destination? We have compiled the essentials and more to maximize your stay. While we have nothing against kicking back and listening to the reverberation of the ocean as it hits the shore, there is a myriad of options to keep you busy for an extended or return trip.
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This is where you will begin and end your trip. With just over 100,000 inhabitants, Funchal feels bigger and busier than many cities its size. To get acquainted, start with strolling through the bustling old town (Zona Velha). You will quickly notice a melange of architectural influences, from Portuguese to Flemish, antique to modern. Considered one of the most churches beautiful in all of Portugal, the 16th century Sé Cathedral is a must stop, particularly for its cedar and ivory ceiling.
Once a shabby side street, Rua da Santa Maria is now an al fresco art gallery thanks to a public art program Arte de Portas Abertas. This collaboration has resulted in over 200 works of arts, most notably on doorways. Leisurely amble the cobblestone alleyway to relish the exuberant artistic display.
The Mercado dos Lavradores is a visual and olfactory must-see, even if you don’t buy or taste anything, it’s a visceral immersion into island life. If you are a football fan, you will want to visit the Cristiano Ronaldo museum. If not, you can explore a few other churches and monasteries, but the best activity by far is the active café and nighttime bar scene. Here you can not only savor local cuisine but relax alongside the locals, visitors and ex-pats who meet and gather for hours of conversation and camaraderie.
Food and Drink
Gastronomy is front and center here. It’s no surprise that seafood abounds with the local specialty of black scabbard fish with fried bananas on every menu and a must try for first timers. If you are a fan of octopus you are in luck – grilled polvo is very popular and scrumptiously prepared. If you are not a seafood fan, don’t fret, you have plenty of options. Beef is big here, particularly a local specialty called espetada. Exploding with flavor from garlic, bay leaves, and salt, the kebab-like espetada is grilled atop bay leaves and served on skewers hung on racks dangling above the table. No proper Madeiran meal is complete without a basket of bolo do caco – a time-honored handmade circular bread bathed and baked in garlic butter and parsley. Switch from savory to sweet with Madeira’s dessert specialty cake bolo de miel paired with a glass of their eponymous wine.
Sweet wine is not the only spirits game in town. Poncha is the potent local cocktail. Made from brandy cane sugar, honey, lemon, and various fruits, Poncha packs a punch with 50% alcohol. It’s yummy, though potentially deadly stuff. Consume with caution.
Cable Car and Monte Palace Garden
Board at Almirante Reis in Funchal for a 20 minute cable car ride to Monte, a mountain top suburb overlooking the city. Slow and soothing, this is the moment to embrace the stunning vistas of the sea and mountains as you ascend over tiled rooftops and pastel-hued villas before you exit at the botanical gardens.
When you reach the top, head to the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. Once a luxury hotel in the 18th century, it is now an immense and magnificent garden with exotic plant life from all over the world. Highlights include Chinese and French gardens, a waterfall, pathways lined with historic mosaics dating from the 13th to 19th century, and galleries with alternating exhibits. You will also see ducks and peacocks wandering about as well as ko carp.
When you are ready to descend back into town, you have three viable options; You can walk the mile or so downhill for a little exercise and close-up sightseeing, ride the cable car back down (best to purchase a return ticket on the way up to save some money), or take the plunge and ride in a manned wicker toboggan which are like over sized human baskets that started in the 19tj century to transport locals from Monte to Funchal. Admittedly touristy and a bit pricey, the 10 minute jaunt rolls you downhill to Livramento where you can walk or taxi into town for a well-earned lunch or dinner.
Skywalk at Miradouro do Cabo Girăo
Protruding 580 meters above sea level, the sky-walk at Cabo Girăo is the highest in the world after the Grand Canyon. While you can explore sea level by boat, the sky-walk is free and offers a once in a lifetime experience to gaze the majestic Madeira coastline from a new vantage point. When you are finished floating on a glass cliff, take the Rancho Cable Car down to Fajas de Cabo Girão. These fertile fields are used to grow vines and the cable car was originally used by the farmers to transport their produce. Plus, you’ll find a secluded beach to pass a carefree afternoon (weather permitting).
Lava Pools at Porto Moniz
Filled by natural, crystal clear salt water from the Atlantic, these natural swimming pools are formed from volcanic rock. Dramatic is no hyperbole for the majestic panorama. Its supernatural and archaic beauty is open to swimmers who wish to venture into the cool water pools constructed by the forces of nature. There is a special pool for the kiddies, as well as disabled access. Changing rooms with lockers, parking, a snack bar and sunshades make this ideal for a half-day outing. You can spend some extra time exploring the quaint town of Porto Moniz after the tourists have departed and watch the sunset behind the primeval rock formations.
The breathtaking scenery is the real reason you are in Madeira, and the very popular levada walks are the island’s unique system of getting up close and personal with nature. The levadas were originally developed as mini-canals or irrigation systems in the 16th century to distribute water from the rainfall heavy north to the drier and sunnier south. Zigzagging through the mountains and forests, the levadas cover a combined distance of 2500m. Walk through tunnels, past waterfalls, near a cliff’s soaring edge, or just meander the verdant forest pathways. There are trails for every activity level and can last an hour to a full day. Click here to find the levada walk that’s right for you.
If you feel golden sandy beach is essential to an island holiday ( Madeira does not have any), then you can make the 27 km trek by ferry or tiny plane to Porto Santo. Christopher Colombus lived here with this Portuguese wife, and there is a museum commemorating his tenure on this little slice of paradise. Besides long stretches of enticing beach with therapeutic waters, the capital of Vila Baleira has great dining options and opportunities for unhurried sunny days. Of course, there are ample hiking possibleness for those who cannot just chill on a beach.
Take a Jeep Safari
There is a lot to see and do here, especially for nature enthusiasts. If you have limited time, or prefer guidance and expertise, a jeep tour is not only efficient, it is the consummate way explore with a mountain guide with in-depth knowledge and experience to ensure you get the most out of your stay.
There are many reputable companies from which to choose, but I highly recommend Madeira Mountain Expedition. Their guides are multi-lingual and will show you places you likely would not discover on your own, plus you get a delicious lunch at a winery. It’s a lot of fun and well worth the cost.