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Madeira - life on the island

Last year, Madeira won for the 8th consecutive time, the ‘World Travel Awards’ prize as ‘World’s Leading Island Destination’. So you there’s no doubt that there is a lot to do here! From a super cozy capital to dramatic landscapes, gigantic waterfalls and flowers along the road, this island has something for everyone.

I wanted to go to Madeira for a while and last year I finally went a few days (4 to be precise), so here it is the list of top things to do in Madeira based on my experience on the island.

Visit the opulent botanical gardens, Monte Palace

Monte Palace is located right in Funchal, in the city's north and occupies an area of 70.000 square meters. The garden has a famous collection of ceramic tiles, oriental gardens, and several water features. There is a luxuriant profusion of plants and flowers on display, that includes both indigenous and exotic collections.

Perhaps unexpectedly, traditional Japanese gardens have inspired a lot of the design.

Snorkel with dolphins

The waters around Madeira’s island archipelago are humming with life. It would be a shame not to discover at least a small part of it.

I did a little research before and got an experience from Airbnb. What caught my attention was that besides watching the dolphins and whales, under the guidance of an expert, you could make your encounter even more special and swim with the wild dolphins (the company provided us with wetsuits and snorkelling gear).

Of course, whale and dolphin sightings are not guaranteed, but the boats often rely on clifftop spotters — los vigias — to increase the chances, and most companies report a high rate in spotting the dolphins.

It truly is a magical sight when the gray-blue fins appear above the water, and when suddenly a gigantic dolphin jumps out of the water. During my boat trip, I often saw groups of many dolphins and that really is incredibly impressive.

As the boat slowly sails on, the guides give you a signal when to dive underwater while the curious dolphins are happy to come and say ‘hello’. At one point, I saw over ten dolphins at barely a few feet from me. They do not always permit swimming with dolphins. It depends which species you find. But if you can, grab your goggles and jump in!

This is an outstanding experience and I definitely recommend doing this when you go to Madeira.

Look out over the Vereda dos Balcões

Probably one of the easiest hike I took in Madeira, Vereda dos Balcões is a 1.5 kilometer path (as flat as it could be) that begins in Ribeiro Frio (which literally means “Cold Brook”) and has as destination the fabulous Balcões’ belvedere (you can see the mountains covered in thick forest, and you’ve got a view all the way out to the sea on a clear day), after a short but grandeur walk between the typical greenery of Madeira’s forest.

I was lucky and caught some friendly birds that were eating from the tourists’ hands (including mine).

Snap an iconic Madeira panorama at Miradouro do Curtado

If there’s any Portuguese word you’ll become personally familiar with on your trip, it’s gonna be Miradouro (translated “Scenic Viewpoint”). These scatter the entire Madeiran coastline on all sides, but one of my favorites was this viewpoint, which you’ll encounter driving from Funchal to Santana - Miradouro do Curtado.

See the traditional houses at Santana

Portuguese sailors claimed Madeira in the early 1400s, and some of the early inhabitants built small, triangular houses with thatched roofs, best observed today at the cultural site called Casas típicas de Santana in the Northeast part of Madeira.

At this location, you’ll find several houses that are free to see, including some you can enter. I really enjoyed wandering around these charming houses.

Pico Ruivo - climb the island’s highest point

Madeira flourishes with all kinds of ecosystems as it hauls its way to its highest peak. At the ocean’s edge on the south coast, it’s almost tropical. Higher up, beyond the terraced fields and bananas, it can have an almost alpine feel. But once you’re on the 1,862m peak of the Pico Ruivo, the atmosphere is more austere.

I wasn’t prepared to do this hike, but I’m thrilled that I did. The trail itself is extremely well-maintained (with what is basically a rock pathway all the way up) and the view is breathtaking! I was literally above the clouds. At the peak, you can gaze down at the majestic valley below and look at the clouds dancing around the peaks.

See a waterfall in the ocean at Miradouro do Véu da Noiva

This beautiful viewpoint at Miradouro do Véu da Noiva is situated between Seixal and São Vicente and allows us to view the beautiful Véu da Noiva waterfall that leads straight into the ocean and the incredible north coast of Madeira Island. The Miradouro is on the old coastal road that used to lead right through this waterfall. Undoubtedly, it is a great place to enjoy the artistry of nature.

Praia do Seixal - Kick back on a black-sand beach

This is an excellent place to stop after visiting the Miradouro do Véu da Noiva (mentioned above).

The small village of Seixal is an almost fantasy-like setting. The high cliffs on one side and the waters of the Atlantic on the other make this small town a very charming place for a variety of activities or simply for enjoying the astonishing contrasts and natural beauty of its surroundings.

As a volcanic island, Madeira has several beaches with volcanic rocks and stones, but the black sand beach at Seixal has smooth, fine sand (yes, it’s black and makes your feet look mucky, but you’ll be rejoicing all the same, mostly because of the view).

Swim in a giant rock pool

Don’t let the lack of white-sand beaches surprise you. Madeira sits at the top of a huge underwater volcano, 6.5km up from the ocean floor. But what the island has by compensation is spectacular - this includes oversized rock pools in which to swim. Most are raw and rudimentary, but at Porto Moniz they’ve been shaped with concrete to create smooth-sided bowls with steps down into the water and, in places, flat bottoms too. With the waves breaking nearby and sometimes washing over the pool’s leading edge, it’s the perfect place to tease the power of the Atlantic without actually being in its grip.

The pool area comprises an area of 3,800 m². The solarium area includes a children’s pool, a playground, access for people with reduced mobility, paid parking, snack bar, changing rooms, lifeguard and rental of sunbeds and umbrellas during the summer.

Farol da Ponta do Pargo

The Ponta do Pargo lighthouse is an active lighthouse, located on the westernmost point of the island, on a cliff at an altitude of 290 meters. Its construction dates back to 1922.

If you wanna take a break from the road, I recommend coming here for a breathtaking view while the wind whispers in your ear.

Drive under a waterfall at Cascata dos Anjos (or take a bath)

Cascata dos Anjos (“Angels Waterfall”) pours out over a now obsolete section of the old highway, ER101. Referred to endearingly as a “free car cash”, this waterfall will definitely do the job if your car is dusty!

Many people (including me) simply take photos under the waterfall. It’s certainly a unique experience and easy to reach. Bonus points if you reach the waterfall at sunset.

Visit the same village as Winston Churchill

A lot of famous people have visited Madeira over the years, but Winston Churchill really put it on the map when he visited Câmara de Lobos. This small fishing village now even has a hotel in his name (Pestana Churchill Bay - with 57 rooms inspired by the paintings of Winston Churchill). If you want to have lunch with a picturesque view, I recommend coming to Pier One (the hotel’s restaurant).

Step off the Cabo Girão cliff

Fun fact: Some people will tell you this is the second highest sea cliff in the world and the highest in Europe. It isn’t, but you'll feel like it is, because what better place to walk across just centimeters of glass separating you from a 580 meter drop?

Even if heights scare you, the views from this vantage point are great for looking along the coast.

Explore the old town of Funchal

Of all the places on the island, we probably spent the least of our time in Funchal and instead explored outside the city. But you should dedicate at least one afternoon or evening to walking through the old streets.

Explore the local cuisine

Here are some tips about some of the most popular specialties on the island.

Espada com banana (black scabbard fish with banana) is one of the most popular Madeira delicacies and it’s unique to the island.

Another unique Madeira food is the bolo do caco (a flat circular wheat flour bread with garlic butter and parsley).

Espetada is a Madeiran food speciality made from juicy, well-seasoned meat cooked over hot coals. Marinated hunks of meat, traditionally beef, are cooked skewered and served hanging on bay leaf sticks.

Queijadas are tasty pastries found in bakeries across the island, filled with cottage cheese.

Poncha is easily the island’s most famous drink. The rum-based beverage is made with honey, sugarcane and typically citrus juice. Allegedly invented in fishing village, Câmara de Lobos, this is the best place to try it.

A cocktail found on every Madeira bar menu is the iconic Nikita allegedly named after the Elton John song released the same year.

The other famous alcoholic drink is Madeira wine (a fortified wine made on the Portuguese Madeira Islands).

Other things to do

Although we didn’t have time for other activities, here are some more ideas you might want to try:

  • Take a toboggan ride from Monte - one of the top things on any list of things to do in Madeira is to take a toboggan ride from near Monte Palace down the street.

  • 25 Fontes Hike - Madeira’s most popular hike, featuring two beautiful waterfalls

  • Pico do Arieiro - the third highest peak on Madeira, and a must-see viewpoint when the clouds are low enough to form a layer between you and the world below

  • Levada do Caldeirão Verde - one of the most rewarding, moderate hikes on Madeira - Look over the Valley of the Nuns at Miradouro Eira do Serrado - Visit Fanal Pond in the mist for some incredibly unique photos

  • Photograph the rock formations at Mirador Illeus da Ribeira da Janela

  • Visit the tomb of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor (Karl I)

  • Visit the CR7 Museum to Cristiano Ronaldo - Visit one of the only white sand beaches at Praia da Calheta

  • Eat at a Michelin Star restaurant in Funchal (William - one Michelin star) or Il Gallo d’Oro - two Michelin stars)


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