Madeira Travel Guide
Madeira is a lush green island in the Atlantic Ocean to the north of the Canary Islands. There is also an archipelago by the same name that consists of Madeira island and three other islands. Apart from the sights of Madeira's capital Funchal, there are lots of different flowers and plants to admire and a multitude of hiking trails/levada walks of different difficulty levels. The coast is quite rocky, so if you are after wide expanses of white sandy beaches, you might be better off on the neighbouring Porto Santo island, but Madeira is perfect for outdoor pursuits and hiking holidays. Want to know more details about things to do in Funchal and other places to visit on Madeira? Then this post is for you!
Pico do Arieiro
Pico do Arieiro is just over 1800 metres high and is the third highest peak of Madeira. I would say it's one of the absolute must-see sights on the island. The sensation of being above the clouds and looking down at the white foam below is breathtaking.
The peak is very easy to reach as a road goes to the top, so you can rent a car and go there on your own or, if you're planning to go on an organised island tour, the East Tour will take you there. Alternatively, if you are into walking/hiking, there is a Pico do Arieiro - Pico Ruivo walk which is 12 kilometres long - this is classed as a full day walk, so consider your fitness levels before embarking on the walk.
Funchal is the capital of Madeira and also the largest city on the island. It is a cruise ship stop, so you will probably see one if not more ships docked in the harbour almost every day.
The name Funchal comes from the word 'funcho' meaning 'fennel' as it filled the area when the Portuguese settlers arrived. Even if fennel quantities may have diminished over time, Funchal is still a green city.
The Old Town area is reasonably small and walkable, but to venture up to Monte you might want to consider a bus or the cable car. There is a big market hall in the town centre, where you can taste and buy numerous kinds of passion fruit - be prepared to pay tourist prices there though. Even if you don't buy your passion fruit there, it's definitely worth a visit - just be prepared for the sales people to be actively trying to get you to purchase.
You should absolutely just go for a wander around in the city and see where your feet take you, but for more specific recommendations of things to do in Funchal keep reading because I have a few great ones for you!
Levada do Bom Sucesso
Levada do Bom Sucesso is a levada walk in Funchal that you can easily get to without renting a car or having to pay to go on an organised hike. The walk is between Monte and the area of Bom Sucesso (close to the botanical gardens). If you are starting in the Monte area, you can take the teleferico cable car up. There are signs directing you to the walk on Monte and occasional arrows along the way. On the map the route seems very short, but don't make the assumption that that means easy, because for an unprepared walker it's anything but. There are A LOT of steps, and the paths are muddy and can be quite slippery after the rain, so choose suitable footwear. There is also no option to get off the route early, so once you start, there is only the way forward or backward - make sure you don't get caught out by darkness when you set off.
Though it may seem that way from the above, I am not trying to discourage you from doing this walk, because it has spectacular views and even a small waterfall. It's a good taster before deciding if you want to go on an organised walk. If you start at Monte and finish in the Bom Sucesso area, the easiest way back to Funchal centre is probably the bus - there is a bus stop nearby (bus 31 or 31A).
Monte Palace Tropical Garden
Monte Palace Tropical Garden (not to be confused with the Botanical Garden) is a large garden housing exotic plants from all over the world as well as a couple of non-plant related exhibitions (when I was there, it was African culture and gemstones). As the name suggests, it is located on Monte, so to get there from the centre of Funchal you can either go by cable car (Teleferico) or by bus (20 or 21). Both are an experience, as the bus will be speeding up narrow roads often on the edge of the mountain.
The garden is beautiful and apart from enjoying the plants, ponds and the fresh air, you also get beautiful views over Funchal and the sea, so I would say that of the different Funchal things to do, this one is a must.
Funchal Cable Car (Teleferico)
Teleferico is an easy and picturesque way of getting from the centre of Funchal to Monte and/or to the Botanical Garden (you will have to change at Monte for the Botanical Garden cable car). While not exactly cheap (€10 single to Monte and €15 return), it does give you a lot of photo opportunities, with great views over Funchal. At the Teleferico ticket office you can also buy combi-tickets for cable car + Monte Palace Tropical Garden entry or cable car + Botanical Garden entry.
Santana was probably the most disappointing sight that we saw on Madeira. It is a town known for the picturesque typical triangular thatched roof houses. It is also the lunch stop place if doing the East tour (lunch was not included in the price of our tour).
While the houses themselves are lovely, there is very little else to see around there. And very few places to eat. When the tour guide started to offer group lunch at some restaurant, we declined thinking that we would easily be able to find something else, but as the bus drove off and we were left by the thatched houses, we realised that that was not the case. After exploring some side streets we did manage to find a very good restaurant in a 4-star hotel, but apart from that all we saw was one restaurant where all the other tourists crammed into.
There is also a small fruit and vegetable market where you can buy passion fruit cheaper that at Funchal market hall.
Baia d'Abra is on the eastern tip of Madeira and quite a contrast to the lush vegetation-filled rest of the island. Here you can really see the volcanic origins of Madeira.
There is a beautiful walk you can do here towards Ponta de Sao Lourenco, which is about 8 kilometres long.
To get here from Funchal, use the bus number 113 - they don't run very frequently though, so study the timetable (you can do so here) and plan your time before heading off. There's not much available in terms of refreshments, just a small stall by the bus stop, so again something to plan out before going there.
I hope this has given you a good idea of the must-see places on Madeira and some useful practical information. For further help with planning your trip, do check out my post on typical food to try and also the review of the hotel we stayed at.