Madeira sure put a spell on me as soon as I arrived. It made me climb mountains and cliffs I never would’ve dared imagine climbing. I conquered my fear of heights, drove the wickedest roads and I met so many nice people! So I can truly say my stay at Madeira was simply wonderful for many different reasons! So of course I needed to share this Madeira travel guide with you!
Madeira travel guide: everything you need to know!
Where is Madeira?
Madeira is a Portuguese island situated in the Atlantic Ocean about 520 kms off the coast of Morocco. The island is the top quarter of an entire volcanic system and is formed by lava and rocks. Its cliffs rise from the ocean from a depth of 4000 meters!
How can you get there?
A lot of travel agencies offer travel packages to go to Madeira. But if you’re not interested in those and prefer to organize the trip yourself, you can book plane tickets via different airlines. I booked mine via Tui because it was the only possibility to fly direct from Brussels.
Where and how long should you stay?
I advise to stay at the South part of the island. The weather is better there and it’s easier to drive around. I stayed at Sao Martinho because this area was situated near the Via Rapida and Funchal. That way I was able to reach the “highway” quickly without having to drive through the mountains or small village streets.
My hotel, named Duas Torres, was located across the Forum shopping center with a giant supermarket, so that made it easy to buy food for a picnic the next day. It had its own parking lot, so I never had to look for parking space. It was also easy to take the bus to the center of Funchal, since the bus stop was right in front of the hotel. I had a rental car, but I wasn’t keen on searching for a parking space in Funchal, so that’s why I preferred to take the bus. It only took 10 minutes to reach the city center. If you do decide to go by car, like I did one night with a new friend and you park your car in one of the parking garages, please notice the opening hours. We stood in front of a closed garage gate and were lucky to encounter some locals who rescued us. (funny memory though!)
I stayed for a week which made it possible to do different hikes and drive around the island. But I’m sure you can easily spend 2 weeks there. There are countless hikes to do and many different villages to explore.
When is the best time to go?
Madeira has a very mild climate all year round with an average day temperature of 19°C in January and 26°C in August. The wettest months are February and December, the driest July and August. I went the last week of May since I really wanted to see some flowers. All mountains were covered with yellow broom flowers, which created a nice contrast with the blue sky. If you want to attend the flower festival, you should go at the beginning of May (but then it’s more crowded).
How to experience Madeira at its best?
If you really want to enjoy Madeira’s nature there are two important things you should remember: hike and rent a car! Don’t book bus tours. I think they are simply awful, taking you from one place to another with 30/40 other people. It’s impossible to enjoy the sounds and beauty of the lush nature when hiking in such big loud groups of people. I simply rented a car, woke up early and started hiking 2 hours before those troups arrived. Also a car gives you the ultimate freedom to go where you want to go! Taxis are expensive to do tours with and public transport is slow and doesn’t cover the complete island. How you can avoid the crowds? Read all about it here!
What do you need to know before you go?
A Madeira travel guide wouldn’t be complete without some advice from personal experience. Driving in Madeira is no joke. There are some very steep and narrow roads. Make sure to rent a car with a good engine, preferably a diesel. I often encountered a situation that got me sweating because I obviously took the wrong turn and found myself on a road as wide as my car, with no safety on the side of the road and nothing but a cliff beside me. There was no other solution than to keep driving until I found a spot that was a little wider so I could turn in like over 20 moves (1st gear, reverse, 1st gear, reverse…) constantly thinking; “Please make sure to set the right gear so you don’t fall into the abyss!”.
If you’re coming from the South of the island, driving via Monte to reach Pico do Arieiro isn’t a good idea either if you don’t like super steep and narrow roads… in stead drive via Camacha. It’s less steep and a more quiet drive.
Also good to know is that the ramps of the highway are extremely short. Since you have no priority, you’ll need to wait until you can drive onto the highway and start from first gear to enter (often on a slope).
If you suffer from fear of heights and vertigo, you’ll probably need to do some research to know which walks you can do. I’m afraid of heights as well, but somehow I managed to get over it and just go. If heights make you dizzy and you don’t feel secure, don’t take the risk and avoid hikes that are known for their challenging paths.
What to see and do?
Madeira’s number one activity is hiking! The most popular ones are the levada walks. These walks take you along the irrigation canals through the forests and canyons of Madeira. They often pass or end with impressive waterfalls. Madeira counts 2500 kms of levadas! Madeira is also very mountainous. So you can also hike from one peak to another above the clouds. I did 5 hikes which I all loved and you can read about them here: Hiking in Madeira: 5 walks you must add to your bucket list
Waterfalls are spread all over the island. Some can be spotted near the road, others can only be reached by hiking. If you like chasing waterfalls, Madeira is the place to be!
Whale and dolphin watching is another popular activity in Madeira. I didn’t do it, because I already did it at the Azores and I had other plans. But the chance to encounter a whale or a dolphin is pretty big!
Cable cars and miradouros offer fantastic views! I took the cable car at the Rocha do Navio to visit the plantations near the coast and to have a fantastic view on 2 waterfalls. I even got invited by a local farmer to visit his house and garden! (more about that soon) A very popular miradouro is the Cabo Girão. It’s very steep and you stand on a glass platform!
Swimming at the natural pools of Porto Moniz is also very popular.
Funchal is a small fun town to explore, especially the old city center and the Mercado dos Lavradores.
A more detailed post will follow soon on the blog!
Where to eat and drink?
In the old town of Funchal are a lot of charming restaurants. My favorite was the Cidade Velha Restaurant with a nice terrace near the São Tiago Fort. You should definitely try their Espada Tropical which is a white fish served with vegetables and fruit! Absolutely delicious! They had great Madeira wine (both sweet and dry) and the desserts were very tasty as well.
Another restaurant where the staff was super friendly is Santa Maria Restaurant in the Rua Santa Maria. They offer local dishes and even sushi! You can find great cocktails at cheap prices at the Flair Spot Bar in the same street.
If this Madeira travel guide is exactly what you were looking for or if you know someone who will visit Madeira soon, don’t hesitate to share!
If you like the pictures from my Madeira travel guide I suggest to follow my Instagram account where you can find a lot more!