Top 10 things to do in Madeira
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
For a small island Madeira really packs a punch! It is woefully under the radar and often tagged with an unfair reputation as being a haven for elderly sun seekers. We recently ran a Fam Trip there to see for ourselves what is on offer and were astounded by what we found! Here are our top tips for what not to miss in Madeira.
1. Put the fun in FUNchal
This cool little capital has plenty going for it. The old town is crammed full of historic buildings, churches, sleepy squares and black and white mosaic pavements reminiscent of mainland Portugal. Aside from the beautiful design hotels, alfresco cafes and swanky restaurants, there is a distinctive island flavour here that makes it very different. There is a living gallery of vibrant street art on the doorways of Rua De Santa Maria. You can taste a wide variety of weird and wonderful tropical fruit in the attractive central market. But the best fun is to be had on the back of a vintage motorbike (and sidecar) cruising the streets with the wind in your hair!
2. Raise a glass
Everyone’s heard of Madeira wine - the strong, sweet fortified wine. Once on the island you can’t miss the dramatic vineyards that cover the steep slopes and produce a surprising variety of excellent table, aperitif and dessert wines. The best way to understand Madeira wine is to visit a wine lodge. At Blandy’s, wine production has been in the family for centuries and they still use traditional methods in their atmospheric, historic building in the heart of Funchal. On a guided tour and tasting you’ll see giant barrels and dusty bottles - you can even try to buy one from your birth year - providing it was a good vintage!
3. Get high on the landscapes
With 147 named mountains and peaks surpassing 1800 metres (Ben Nevis is 1300m by comparison) Madeira quite literally takes your breath away. The best way to get off the beaten path is on a 4 x 4 jeep tour which will easily tackle vertiginous roads and get you to the best viewpoints. Ideal for photographers, painters or those who just want to gasp in awe and take it all in, the scenery here will stun you with its sheer scale and grandeur.
4. Sea creatures of the deep
The deep blue waters surrounding the island is also a delightful holiday spot for marine life. Dolphin and whale watching tours are a popular excursion from Funchal. Sightings of Pilot and Sperm whales, and Bottlenose dolphins are pretty much guaranteed year round, but many more species pass by depending on the season. Choose a responsible operator and you may even have the opportunity to get in and swim with them!
5. Set your pulse racing
Firmly dispelling the myth that Madeira is just for old people, is the growing wave of adventure sports for which the topography of the island absolutely lends itself. Canyoning is a thrilling way to experience Madeira’s pristine natural world whilst abseiling down waterfalls and jumping into crystal clear water filled ravines. The rush is amazing and it is surprisingly easy to do (there are different levels for all ages and abilities). Paragliding, mountain biking, and coasteering are other action-packed options to get that adrenaline pumping.
6. Follow a levada
Levadas are tiny water channels that criss-cross the island. Originally built in the 15th century for irrigation purposes, there are now over 200 levadas in Madeira, covering over 3000 km (the island itself is only 57km long so you can see how much of a feature they are!) The reason why tourists love them is because they appear in beautiful forest settings and have natural paths running alongside them. Hiking along a levada, listening to the water trickling beside you, is one of the most peaceful and serene activities on the island.
7. Look to the stars
Being slap bang in the middle of the Atlantic and with most of the island miles away from street lights, there is an opportunity here for spectacular star gazing. Pico do Arieiro, the highest accessible peak on the island, has a summit that sits above the clouds. A local expert from the Madeira Astronomy Association can provide telescopes and point out the constellations which (in the right conditions) are easy to spot in this dark sky area.
8. Swim in a Jurassic world
A tiny speck of volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic, Madeira is the perfect place to appreciate the force of nature. No more so that taking a dip in the rock pools that are dotted around the rugged northern coast of the island. With crashing waves all around you, these sheltered pools make you feel like you are entombed within the very bowels of an ancient volcano. Jagged black lava walls add to the atmosphere and contrast with the clear blue water. On a sunny day it must be heavenly. On a stormy one it was exhilarating!
9. Ride a toboggan without any snow
Madeira is very fond of cable cars. All over the island these essential modes of transport whisk you over terracotta rooftops or down steep cliffs in a matter of seconds. The one above Funchal takes you to the pretty village of Monte and its beautiful botanical gardens. Here you will also find a uniquely Madeiran experience. Dating back to the 1850s, ‘gondoliers’ in straw-boaters line up their wicker baskets to showcase their skills honed through generations. Expertly guiding the toboggans at speed down vertiginous narrow streets lined with bougainvillea, this once essential mode of transport is now a must-do tourist thrill with giggles guaranteed!
10. Discover your favourite Poncha
Poncha is a way of life in Madeira. Every hotel, bar, restaurant, nightclub and household serves this local tipple - deftly made by crushing fruit of your choice with a special wooden stick and then adding honey and aguardente de cana (a local rum made from sugar cane juice). Everyone has their favourite Poncha place. You just need to find yours!
When I started writing this I found it extremely hard to narrow it down to just 10 things. There are many, many more unique experiences to be had on these tiny islands (and that’s not taking into account the beautiful beaches and wildlife reserves of neighbouring islands Porto De Santo and Desertas or exciting local festivals). One trip is not enough! Don't just take my word for it. We received this wonderful feedback from one of the Fam Trip participants...
"I had an incredible time taking in this incredible island, surrounded by an amazing group of people and guides that overflowed with passion and knowledge of their country. Besides having tremendous fun I feel like I have gained immense amounts of knowledge about just how impressive this island really is. I was astounded how you could travel for 10 minutes across the island and it could feel like you were on the other side of the world, as the jaw-dropping mountains of the countryside weaved their way around tiny fishing villages and mountain towns packed with unbelievable places to eat and drink. Yet only a short journey away you could be in the action packed town of Funchal that in some places contained tranquil gardens and monasteries and around the corner you find a strip of bars next to an illuminated fairground with none of these ever feeling like they impeded on one another. Thank you very much for the opportunity and experience, I'm sure this will not be my last time in Madeira." Our Madeira Fam Trip was hosted by professional local DMC - DMC Madeira. If you would like more information about Madeira and a personal introduction to DMC Madeira, please email firstname.lastname@example.org