Among the Atlantic Ocean, closer to Africa than to Portugal, sits an oasis like you’ve never seen before. One of the most unique destinations, Madeira is an island of green forests and dramatic scenery. It is not often that a destination blows us away with exquisite things to do, but Madeira left us in awe. It is an island that perfectly combines true exploration, a laid-back atmosphere, and a rich cultural fusion of Portugal and Africa. To be honest, the island is so beautiful and diverse that we couldn’t believe our eyes. We were overwhelmed by the abundance of hikes offering jaw-dropping vistas of jagged coastal cliffs and tropical forests.
Often referred to as the island of eternal spring, Madeira’s climate is perfect any time of the year. It is a must-visit destination for adventurers with an abundance of things to do, from exploring lush mountains, canyoning, relaxing in natural ocean-filled swimming pools, or scuba diving. And thanks to diverse microclimates, there is a lot of delicious produce to discover. So, pack your hiking shoes, rent a car and get cracking on these six unbelievable things to do in Madeira.
Explore Exhilarating Funchal
You will most likely arrive in Funchal, the largest city and capital of the island. This is the perfect place to base yourself and take day trips during your stay. It is small, quaint, and walkable, with a unique Cathedral in the heart of the city surrounded by laid-back cafes with sprawling terraces.
To get the lay of the land, take a 20-minute cable car ride up to the Monte Palace. It was a wealthy estate, which now serves as a home to large tropical gardens.
After enjoying wandering around the gardens and to get back down, hop into a wicker basket that is launched down the hill while being steered by two locals. This breathtaking experience is called the toboggan ride and was the original transport to get downhill on the island.
Afterward, spend your time picking out delicious tropical fruit at the farmer’s market, Mercado dos Lavradores, like the banana passionfruit, the banana pineapple, or the Madeiran mini-bananas that are banned in the rest of Europe. And then, fruit snack in hand, photograph the painted doors in the old town.
A laneway called Rua de Santa Maria is decorated with doors that have been turned into artwork, like a public art gallery.
While studying the doors, we happened upon a cute restaurant, Gaviao Nova. Turns out, the meal we had was the best in Portugal! The staff was the most attentive and we loved meeting them all! Check out these beautiful creations!
Madeira Christmas Market | Visit one of Europe’s Best
Christmas is an important holiday in Portugal, but even more so in Madeira. The celebrations on the island stretch from the start of December until mid-January. And nearly every home and venue take Christmas decorating very seriously. If you are visiting Madeira during this time of the year, we recommend setting aside some time to just drive around to see the light displays of the amazing Madeira Christmas Market. And if you are staying over on a Sunday, you are in for a treat! Every Sunday of these festive weeks starts with a mass followed by a massive party in the streets, and then onto the Christmas markets.
One of the busiest streets in Funchal, Avenida Arriaga, turns into a Christmas market, or Medcadinho de Natal. The wooden stalls decorated with sparkly lights offer a wide range of regional products, handicrafts, and traditional food and drink. And the closer it gets to Christmas, the more festive the celebrations become.
Relax in Stunning Tidal Pools
Porto Moniz is located in the northwestern part of the island. Here, the coast is decorated with photogenic volcanic rock pools formed by lava and filled with ocean water. It’s a fascinating place to swim, especially when the currents are too strong for open-water swimming. Alternatively, you can take in stunning views from one of the restaurants in the area.
Discover Breathtaking Scenery Hiking around the Island
You can plan an entire trip around discovering Madeira on foot. Hiking trails are abundant on the island, stretching for nearly 1,864 miles of trails running along irrigation channels, lush forests, waterfalls, and cliffsides. The irrigation channels, known as levadas, direct water from the northern and western forested mountains to the dry southern slopes. Thus, hikes vary not only in difficulty but also by type of scenery and can be done alone or with a guide.
If you decide to explore on your own, you will need to rent a car to get around, which is incredibly easy and fast, thanks to the numerous tunnels that cut through the mountains. But driving yourself will also give you the freedom to go wherever you please, as many times as you please. Like deciding to pass ten times under Cascata dos Anjos waterfall that spills directly onto the road to get the perfect photo at sunset.
Lagoa do Vento Waterfall
A visit to this waterfall is the perfect adventure if you are short on time. The hike is just over 2 miles long, the views are rewarding, as well as the hike itself is stunning. You will get to climb stairs carved in the rock alongside levadas. And at the end, you are treated with a huge waterfall collapsing into a lagoon, which makes for impressive photos if you are traveling with a drone.
Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo
One of the most spectacular hikes on the island is to two peaks. Pico de Arieiro, sitting at 1818 meters high, and Pico Ruivo, the highest point of Madeira, sitting at 1862 meters. When you summit, the view is jaw-dropping. The mountain tops peeking out of the clouds in the distance, and you could be moments away from being swallowed up too. You can hike them from point to point or separately. But if you want to experience the surreal feeling without having to hike, the peaks are accessible via the road as well.
Vereda da Ponta de Sao Lourenco
This is one of the most popular hikes on Madeira. It takes you through a narrow stretch of rugged coastline on the eastern side of the Island. You can either greet the sunset or farewell the day overlooking the ancient volcanic erosion, which feels like standing at the edge of the world.
Take a Tour to Find Marine Life
With a swift stroke of your keyboard on Get Your Guide, which compiles all local tours, or a walk through Funchal, you can secure yourself an unforgettable boat tour. These tours will get you up close and personal with dolphins and whales. You will get to spend two to three hours on the water searching for marine life and enjoying the spectacular views of the island from the water.
Indulge in the Famous Madeira Wines
Remember those microclimates we told you about? They mean that just about everything grows in Madeira. Including wine, which is very unique on the island. Madeira’s most famous wine is sweet, like port, but there are unfortified options available too. Go for a wine tasting or pair different wines depending on your meal and order of seafood or traditional dishes with African influence. And make sure to have a bolo do mel, honey cake, for dessert.
Making Forever Friends
Over the last year, we have been fortunate to make several long-lasting friendships. While in Madeira, we were so lucky to have met David and Judith, two travelers from Tennessee. We loved the time we spent with them over coffee and look forward to future travels with them. You never know who you will meet when you travel with an open heart, ready for the blessings that travel brings you. Follow them on Instagram!
A trip to Madeira is a feast for your eyes and the soul. It’s an enchanting island of Portugal with so many unbelievable activities, diverse climates, scenery, and food and culture fusion like you’ve never seen anywhere else before. Madeira should be on every explorer’s bucket list, and we hope this guide just convinced you to add it to yours!
Merry Christmas from Madeira, Portugal!