Madeira, Portugal Attractions
Basket sledding in tropical temperatures
One of Madeira’s unique means of transport can be tested in Funchal’s villa suburb of Monte: a ride on a basket sled. A wicker sofa on wooden runners is pulled by the carreiros, wicker sled drivers dressed in white, over narrow and steeply sloping asphalt roads. They skilfully maneuver the vehicle for kilometers downhill between walls and gardens to Funchal. You race towards the capital with considerable speed. It’s an experience like no other.
Lava pools in Porto Moniz
Before the settlement of Porto Moniz in the 16th century, this place was considered the most isolated spot on Madeira. You won’t find fine sandy beaches on the northwest coast, but there is a special kind of natural swimming pool here: a tongue of lava flowed into the sea thousands of years ago and when it solidified formed several pool-like basins that are connected by paths. In the midst of a breathtaking backdrop with sea surf, you can swim through the lava rocks and enjoy an unforgettable bathing experience.
Sanctuary of Monte
In the south of Madeira and north of the capital Funchal there is a good balance between locals and tourists. The popular excursion destination Monte offers a great view of the capital Funchal. The town’s landmark is the small pilgrimage church Igreja de Nossa Senhora de Monte. It is the resting place of the last Austrian emperor and dates back to the 18th century. This is also the starting point for the basket sleigh ride to Funchal. Also worth seeing is the Jardim Tropical Monte, located near the church. Exhibits from history, art and architecture are displayed between exotic plants in the botanical garden.
Cable car between Funchal and Monte
The cable car ride, which connects Funchal with Monte over almost four kilometers, takes just 15 minutes. The glass cabins allow a beautiful view over the south of the island. The journey takes you through gardens and houses and as you get higher up it becomes more and more rural. The destination of the journey is the district of Monte, which used to serve as a climatic health resort for the wealthy.
You can pass a head for heights test on the south coast at Cabo Girão. The steep coast drops down 580 m to the Atlantic. Cabo Girão is a magnet for visitors and you shouldn’t miss this view of the coastline from one of the highest cliffs in Europe, especially when the weather is good.
Madeira’s capital, Funchal, is situated in a natural bay in the south of the island and is surrounded by lush hillsides. Funchal is home to numerous attractions: a 16th-century cathedral, a museum of sacred art and a five-hectare botanical garden. Plant species from all over the world blossom in it and from some places you have a great view over the city. Every year in May there is a big blossom festival, with colorfully decorated floats and music groups parading through Funchal.
Madeira is known for its culinary landmarks, the fortified wines of Malmsey, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial. During a stay you can hardly avoid trying at least one glass of a variety that is also often drunk with pastries. The winery “The Old Blandy Wine Lodge” in Funchal organizes guided tours of the museum and the warehouses three times a day. These tours are also offered in German, among other languages. At the end, visitors can taste a glass of each of the four most important Madeira wines. There is also a big wine festival every year in September.
Madeira’s volcanic peaks
Millions of years ago, the volcanic island of Madeira was formed by a series of eruptions. Thus the mountains are cut by deep valleys. The highest mountain is Pico Ruivo de Santana in the center of the island. The ascent to the 1861 m high peak starts at the Achada do Texeiro car park. For this two-hour tour you should have good shoes and be free from giddiness. As a reward for the effort, hikers are rewarded with spectacular views. The lower Pico do Arieiro is a little easier to climb. An asphalt road leads to below the summit, which is why it is also one of the most visited destinations in Madeira.
Culinary specialties of Madeira
There are restaurants in abundance on Madeira, but you should definitely go to a specialty restaurant. Casa Madeirense, just a few steps from Reid’s Hotel, serves typical Madeiran cuisine such as black scabbard fish, mango shrimp, ox on a skewer, fish stew and side dishes with plenty of garlic bread and olives. In Santana, you can dine in country style at the Quinta do Furão restaurant with a view of the cliffs. Here the guests get an extensive wine list and you can get to know national dishes, such as the lapas (limpets).
Reid’s Palace Hotel
The epitome of a luxury hotel is the Reid’s Palace, which is beautifully situated over the bay of Funchal. Decorated in the style of a mansion and painted in pastel colours, it attracted the likes of Bernard Shaw, Churchill and Gregory Peck in the early 20th century. Reid’s Palace was one of the favorite places of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. From the hill you can enjoy a magnificent view of Funchal and the emerald green Atlantic. The hotel is surrounded by subtropical gardens. A trip to the hotel restaurant at tea time, where three courses of delicacies are served, should not be missed – if you are dressed appropriately.
Machico is the former capital of Madeira and the second largest town on the island. The historic town features a magnificent 15th-century parish church and the Chapel of Miracles, which is now a place of pilgrimage. In the past, the town’s watchmen stood on the Pico do Facho hill. Today you can admire a small but picturesque 18th-century fortress there.
Paul da Serra
In the west of Madeira near Porto Moniz there is a 1,500 m high plain that is reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. Above a laurel forest and tree heath area is the high plateau Paúl da Serra (translated: mountain moor). In the highlands, which store rainwater like a sponge, mainly grasses and ferns grow today due to the harsh climate and deforestation. Grazing cows sprinkle the landscape as a splash of color. While the wind blows in the hikers’ ears, they have a great view of the Rabacal Gorge, the waterfalls and the steep west coast.
Whales and dolphins
Due to its location in the middle of the Atlantic, Madeira is the scene of migrating whales and dolphins. On some days, these gigantic marine mammals swim so close to the shore that you could touch them. From the port of Calheta in the south-west, boats start for observation tours, and you can also join such a tour from Funchal. In addition to whales and dolphins, sea turtles also frolic in the waters around Madeira. There are observation boats that are accompanied by marine biologists and from whom you can learn all sorts of interesting facts about the way of life of the marine mammals. Observation boats repeatedly put the animals under stress, which should not be underestimated, and which has negative effects on their eating and reproductive behavior.
Madeira offers golf enthusiasts three beautiful golf courses with stunning views and the best playing conditions: the 27-hole Santo da Serra course (website: www.santodaserragolf.com ), the 18-hole Palheiro course (website: www.palheirogolf. com ) and the 9-hole course Porto Santo (Internet: www.portosantogolfe.com ). European golf tournaments are held in Palheiro every year. Porto Santo was designed by Spanish golfer Severiano Ballesteros.
The levadas are a network of ancient irrigation canals that stretch across the island, transporting water from the north to the south. Today the irrigation system covers a distance of over 2000 km and one can only marvel at the tenacity with which the first settlers built these watercourses. Charming footpaths lead along the levadas, which are described in all hiking maps.
On the northern Atlantic coast is the small town of Santana, which is well worth seeing and is known for its triangular wooden houses. The town’s landmarks have thatched roofs that reach down to the ground. In the past, only farmers lived in the colorful houses, today they house exhibition rooms that are popular with tourists. One of the most beautiful sights in Santana is the Madeira Theme Park: in four pavilions, the history and culture of Madeira is recreated using multimedia and puppets.
The Madeira Natural Park has existed since 1982 – a protected area that includes many parks and forests. It includes the laurel forest in the northern part of Madeira, which extends into the interior of the island. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered to be the largest and best preserved forest of its kind. The Selvagens Islands Nature Reserve is an ornithological paradise because it offers various seabirds the best conditions for nesting and breeding. Located on the south coast, the Garajau Nature Reserve is Madeira’s premier marine reserve. The rich flora and fauna around Santana has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is home to many endemic plant species.
The coastal town of Porto Moniz is located at the northernmost point of Madeira. A picturesque rocky island is in front of the place. Porto Moniz is best known for its natural swimming pools. At low tide you can take a dip in the crystal clear water crowned by a panoramic view. Other sights include the Church of Santa Maria Magdalena and the 17th-century Church of the Matriz. The town has a few restaurants serving local fish, crustaceans and barnacles.
Volcanology Center and Caves of São Vicente
On the north coast and in the Ribeira Valley lies the beautiful town of São Vicente, known for its caves and volcanology center. The largest cave system in Madeira is up to 400,000 years old and was created by volcanic eruptions. The lava flowed into the rocks, creating underground passages. During the guided hikes you walk 700 m along the impressive lava passages and you can see stalactites made of lava rock, moving rocks and lava accumulations, which are also called lava cakes. Just outside the caves is the São Vicente Volcanology Center. Interesting facts about volcanic eruptions and island culture are conveyed in an entertaining way.
Beaches in Madeira
Away from the hustle and bustle and ideal for those seeking peace and quiet, you will find beautiful beaches and bays that invite you to relax. The small island of Porto Santo has a beautiful and long sandy beach. Most of the beaches in Madeira are made of basalt stones and there are some bathing pools that are of natural origin. Some larger cities, such as Santa Cruz to the east and São Vicente to the north, have bathing complexes. Prainha, on the eastern tip of the island, has Madeira’s best sandy beach. There are small black sand beaches in Caniçal, Porto da Cruz and Seixal.
Sailing like in the 15th century
On board the Santa Maria you can sail the seas like Columbus and get a feel for life at sea in the 15th century. Dutchman Rob Wijntje faithfully recreated the Santa Maria. This replica serves as an excursion boat that cruises along the south coast twice a day. From the Funchal marina, the Santa Maria sets sail with her crew, who look a bit like friendly pirates. During the trip you have the opportunity to taste Madeira wine and honey cake and enjoy the breathtaking view over the sea and the island.
The tranquil island of Porto Santo can be reached from Funchal in just 15 minutes by plane or in two hours by ferry. Fields, vineyards, pastures and colorful allotments full of vegetable beds and fruit trees are typical of the island landscape. In Vila Baleira, the tiny capital, you can visit the house where Christopher Columbus lived. Today there is a small museum there. Porto Santo has a very beautiful, nine kilometer long sandy beach and life is very quiet here. The most beautiful view of the island is from the 517 m high Pico do Facho.
Embroideries, tapestries, basketwork and Madeira wine.
Some hotels have nightclubs with dance music, folklore performances and cabaret with international cast. They are not only open to hotel guests.
Specialties are Sopa de Tomate e Cebola (tomato and onion soup), Caldeirada (fish soup), Bife de Atum e Milho Frito (tuna steak with fried corn), Carne Vinho e Alho (pickled pork with garlic), Espetada (beef on a skewer), Espada (scabbard fish) and Bolo de Mel (Madeira honey cake). Drinks: Popular wines include Malmsey dessert wine (Malvasia), Bual and dry Serceal. Wine, spirits and beers imported from Portugal and Europe are also available.
There are numerous first-class hotels along the coast. They are often fully booked during the summer months and around Christmas time; it is advisable to book in advance. Almost all hotels have swimming pools.
Best travel time
Mild subtropical climate; warm summers and very mild winters.
Area (sq km)
Population density (per square km)
Population statistics year
Member of the EU
Main emergency number