Madeira’s cosmopolitan capital, Funchal sits high on a hillside on the island’s south coast, and orbits around a pretty bay of warm waters and cultural heritage. The city’s name derives from ‘funno’ (fennel) due to its abundance on the island. Funchal has a real mix of old and new; modern boutiques, chic cafés and stylish seafood restaurants can be found around the marina area, whilst amidst the Old Town’s cobbled streets you’ll find colonial buildings and authentic tavernas where you can sample the local ‘espada’. There are also art galleries, a covered market and a 15th-Century cathedral. Take a dip at the lido, then sample the famous local dessert wine at one of Funchal’s bars.
Visit the Madeira Botanical Garden, famed for the vast range of 2500 exotic plant species originating from all over the world, including birds of paradise, dragon trees, sugar cane and medicinal plants. The colonial mansion gardens also play host to the Loiro Park, where you can see tropical birds including cockatoos and parakeets. Take the 15-minute cable car from Funchal to the small village of Monte for fantastic sea views. If you have time to spare at the top, wander around the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, while the more adventurous can take a toboggan ride back down to Funchal! In the Santa Catarina Park you can see the statue of Christopher Columbus and enjoy views over the bay of Funchal.
East of Funchal, the pretty village of Canico offers glorious sea views from its elevated setting. The village retains a local vibe, with a main square, cobbled streets and an 18th-Century church. The surrounding area offers excellent walking routes through the lush hills and valleys, and for activities there are a number of local golf courses as well as watersports. Divers will delight in the crystal-clear waters found at nearby Canico de Baxio and experienced divers can navigate a series of grottoes and caves.
Madeira is famed for its walking and hiking, with many visitors spending the entirety of their holiday rambling around the island. When talking about walking in Madeira, the word ‘levada’ will come up a lot. Levadas are mini-canals which are used as irrigation systems to deal with, and distribute water from heavy rainfall from the wet regions down to the sunnier regions. These winding canals make perfect paths to walk along as they are relatively flat and offer wonderful views of the interior of Madeira. As some of the paths can be steep with narrow ledges we recommend guided hikes.
Hiking is very popular in Ponta de São Lourenço, a nature reserve in the eastern part of Madeira and home to some wonderful volcanic rock formations, unusual plant species and great views of the Atlantic. The hiking trail here has been well looked after and has some steps and safety railings to help you along the way.
The annual flower festival, held in Funchal each spring, is one of the major events in Madeira. With colourful costumes, dancers, concerts, flower carpets, exhibits and parades, this is a fragrant and enchanting spectacle not to be missed if you plan to visit the island in spring. In 2018, the main flower festival will take place 19 Apr-16 May.
It’s not widely known, but this small island is one of Europe’s leading spa destinations. Whether it’s all the walking and hiking that leaves you in need of a follow-up massage, or you simply want to unwind on holiday, a spa treatment here is a must. For real indulgence a number of resorts, such as the luxurious Belmond Reid’s Palace and the beautiful Quinta Spendida Wellness & Botanical Garden offer wonderful spas. Honeymoon Madeira’s lovely scenery, sumptuous dining and laid back way of life make for a fine honeymoon choice. The Cliff Bay has excellent views from its clifftop location, direct sea access, a decadent spa and a Michelin-starred restaurant for that something extra special.
Food & drink
Local cuisine in Madeira consists of plenty of meat and fish, cooked in traditional ways to ensure a real taste of authentic Madeiran life. A favourite for walkers is the açorda which is made up of bread, garlic, poached egg, winter savoury and olive oil covered in hot water. If you opt for one of the wonderful local fish or meat dishes, you’ll want to add another local favourite to your meal, miho frito – deep-fried cubes of cornmeal that are the perfect accompaniment to most Madeiran dishes. If you’re a part of a group, you may wish to look into getting a picado which is a great sharing meal made up of beef and peppers surrounded by chips, which everyone just digs in to.
Madeira's hillsides are cloaked in vineyards and a wine tour is a wonderful way to explore the island's beautiful landscapes. Visit vineyards and cellars and enjoy tastings of Madeira's famous fortified wine – which is renowned for its longevity and is resistant to oxidation – as well as award-winning reds, whites and rosés.
What to do
Aside from walking, Madeira is also an ideal destination for a whole host of other activities. Its beautiful waters are teeming with marine life, so both whale-watching and dolphin-watching cruises are popular. You can also choose to just set sail yourself, as there are many boats available for hire – this is a great way to find hidden coves and beaches. If you’d rather be under the water, snorkelling and scuba diving are popular, with the latter offering everything from barracudas and monkfish to dolphins and manta rays, if you’re lucky!
Hiring your own vehicle in Madeira allows you to easily explore the island’s attractions at your leisure, taking in everything from small villages to rugged mountains and lesser-visited bays. Madeira’s roads range from dual carriageways and newly resurfaced roads to scenic winding roads and tunnels through the mountains. Due to the island’s small size, distances are never long. Stop off at charming Santa Cruz, close to Funchal and the airport, with its man-made beach and pretty promenade, and spend time in and around the relaxed fishing village of Canical on the east coast, gateway to wonderful countryside. Alternatively, you may choose to head out to the small town of Calheta on the southwest coast, approx. half an hour from Funchal, for that ‘off-the-beaten-track’ feel.