Madeira Island – Ultimate Travel Guide
I’m not sure why, but Madeira Island was a destination that always ended up on the bottom places of my travel wishlist. When I finally visited it for the first time, in November 2020, I found myself regretting not having done so before. I was greeted by an island covered in green, flowers and exotic fruits, with gastronomy to die for and exciting walking trails that made me fall in love all over again with long walks surrounded by nature in its purest form.
This complete travel guide for the island of Madeira will provide you with all the tips you need to start planning your next adventure. In case of any doubts leave your comments at the end of the article, I’ll be happy to help!
Madeira, one of the islands that make up the archipelago of Madeira, alongside Porto Santo, Ilhas Selvagens and Ilhas Desertas, is located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 973 km from mainland Portugal.
Inhabited by around 300 thousand people, it stretches over an area of 741 km2, divided by 57 km long and 22 km wide. Also known as “The Garden of the Atlantic”, Madeira boasts an extremely mountainous landscape and its privileged geographic offers a mild climate all year round.
Brief History of Madeira
It is said that the discovery of the Madeira archipelago was a happy incident. The year was 1418. Portuguese explorers Bartolomeu Perestrelo, Tristão Vaz Teixeira and João Gonçalves Zarco saw their ships diverted from their route along the coast of Africa by a storm. The first island they encountered was Porto Santo, following days of being adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
A year later, in 1419, they were disembarking in Machico Bay, on the east coast of the Madeira island. Its name, “Madeira” originated from one of the most abundant raw materials on this island, wood (“madeira”, in Portuguese). It was not long before Portugal realized the potential of this new territory, and in 1425 its settlement began.
To enhance the success of agriculture on the island, the first settlers built water channels to carry the water that abounded on the north coast, to the south coast. These water channels would be named “Levadas”. In the 15th century, with sugar cane as its main trading product, Madeira Island, and in particular its capital, Funchal, became an important stop on European trade routes. Over the following centuries, the island would also add wine to the list of its main exports.
In 1976 Madeira became Autonomous Region, with its own regional government, apart from the mainland Portugal.
How to get to Madeira Island
There are plenty of European airlines (low cost included) flying to Madeira from countries such as The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Finland, UK and more.
If you’re departing from Lisbon or Oporto, you’ll find direct flights with an approximate duration of 2 hours. In Lisbon, you can choose from TAP or Easyjet and in Oporto, in addition to these two airlines, you can also choose Transavia. If you plan to leave from Faro, in the Algarve, you’ll have a stopover in Lisbon.
When to visit Madeira Island
Due to its mountainous landscape and privileged position in the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira enjoys mild temperatures throughout the year, which makes it a perfect destination at any time. You might, of course, get some rainy or windy days during the winter, but they are not that common. The bright side of those rainy days is that you will encounter the island in full bloom.
When it comes to celebrations and special events, Madeira boasts a full schedule throughout the year. Below are some of the main events organized every year on the island.
✪ February | Festa dos Compadres / Carnival
The Festa dos Compadres inaugurates the Carnival celebrations on Madeira Island. It is celebrated in the municipality of Santana from the 5th to the 7th of February and is characterised by the funny giant figures that parade in the streets. The party is based on the “judgment” of the “compadre” and “comadre” (godparent or godmother of one’s child), with the giant dolls being used as a form of satire and criticism of the local inhabitants. The official Carnival celebrations begin usually on the 10th with plenty of street entertainment and mask parades.
✪ May | Flower Festival
In May the island of Madeira fills up with color during the Flower Festival celebrations. Several works of art made of exotic and colorful flowers are spread throughout the island for visitors to admire. The highlight of the celebrations is the Allegorical Flower Parade, in Funchal, attended by hundreds of people.
✪ June | Street Parades
Just as in Lisbon, Oporto and other areas of Portugal, Madeira also celebrates St. Anthony, St. Peter and St. John’s Days through lively and colourful street parades that take place between the 12th, 13th and 23rd of June. These celebrations are lived with special enthusiasm in the parishes of Santo António, São Pedro and São João, in Funchal.
✪ September | Madeira Wine Festival
In September, Madeira celebrates wine, recreating old island traditions linked to this agricultural activity. The celebrations start in Funchal with the Folklore Week, ending in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos with the Harvest Festival. It’s a great opportunity to taste the delicious Madeira wines.
✪ December / January | New Year‘s Eve
The island is filled with people who cannot resist the opportunity to celebrate New Year’s Eve with one of the most beautiful shows in the world. The impressive firework that decorate the sky has been included in the Guinness Book of Records in 2006 as the biggest show in the world.
See Madeira’s full list of events and celebrations here.
Travel safely to Madeira
Since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, it is mandatory to comply with a series of new rules when travelling to Madeira in order to guarantee yours, the other passengers, and the local inhabitants’ safety :
- Present negative Covid test
Madeira has made agreements with several sample collection stations in Portugal, where you can take the Covid test for free, upon presentation of proof of flight. The test must be done within 72 hours prior to the flight. Check here for the sample collection stations’ list.
- Fill in the official forms
You must complete the Epidemiological Survey through the App Madeira Safe, within 48h to 12h before your departure.
Considering the unstable situation that we are currently living in, I also suggest taking out travel insurance with World Nomads, one of the most recognized travel insurance companies in the world. Just enter your details below and get a quote immediately.
Transports within Madeira
The most efficient and quick way to get around Madeira is by car. Although there is public transport on the island, traveling in your own car gives you a lot more freedom.
There are several car rental companies on the island, most of which have counters at the airport, making it extremely easy to pick up and drop off the cars.
To find the vehicle that best suits your needs, check out Rentalcars.com which presents you with a list of the different options available on the island, at very low prices.
Take the opportunity to hire superior coverage insurance through this website, because it’s very affordable, compared to the prices you would get directly from most of the car rental companies.
Where to stay in Madeira
On my last visit to Madeira, I stayed at the Hotel Turim Santa Maria, located in the centre of Funchal. The rooms are extremely comfortable, the breakfast has great variety and quality, and the location is five stars. There is also a rooftop pool that, unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to try.
The only drawback is parking: to park in the hotel’s private parking lot is €15 (regardless of the parking time) and parking spaces on the street near the hotel are also paid for. To save some money you can always use the free car park located about a 5-10 minute walk from the hotel.
- Funchal is a great choice if you have a very extensive travel itinerary and prefer to stay in the same place for the entire trip, making it possible to access all areas of the island quickly.
- If your plan essentially includes outdoor activities such as walks, canyoning, mountain biking and the like, the north and west areas of Madeira will be a good choice.
- For those visiting Madeira with the main objective of doing sea-related activities, such as diving, snorkelling or boat trips, the southeast area of the island is ideal.
You’ll find an extensive range of accommodation in Madeira. From high-end hotels to hostels or rural tourism units: it will basically depend on your personal preferences and budget.
If you prefer to stay in an apartment you can always look in AirBnb . If you haven’t already done so, take the opportunity to register through this link to get a credit of up to €40 to cash in on your first stay.
What and where to eat on Madeira Island
Well, where to start? I must admit that I am a fierce fan of Madeira’s gastronomy. From the wonderful grilled limpets with butter and garlic sauce, the unmissable “caco” cake with garlic butter and the swordfish fillets with banana and passion fruit sauce, to the traditional skewer on laurel stick (or metal) and the tuna steaks with fried corn: there is no way to leave Madeira on an empty stomach.
Below you will find some of the restaurants I had the opportunity to visit in Madeira and which, of course, I recommend.
Restaurante Santo António | Estreito de Câmara de Lobos
- Specialty: skewer on laurel / metal stick
Restaurante Só Espeto | Santa Cruz
- Specialty: regional skewer with bone
Restaurante By The Sea | Funchal
- Specialty: seafood and fish
Restaurante Avista | Funchal
- The most gourmet of all the restaurants recommended here. It was where I celebrated my birthday.
Taberna de São Vicente | São Vicente
- Specialty: swordfish fillet with banana and passion fruit sauce
Casa do Bolo do Caco | Funchal
- Specialty: steak in “caco” cake (bolo do caco)
Make sure to have a “Poncha”, Madeira’s traditional drink, before or after your meal. The only drawback to this drink is that it’s too delicious for the amount of alcohol it has. Made of Madeira cane brandy, honey, sugar, orange and lemon juice, it goes down like juice but goes up like brandy, so drink carefully!
Here are the two places where I drank poncha in Madeira and which I recommend:
Taberna da Poncha | Serra D’Água
- Undoubtedly a must-see spot on a visit to Madeira. With walls and ceilings decorated with hundreds of business cards left by countless visitors over the years, the quality of the Poncha is attested by the number of peanut shells left on the floor.
Bar Os Castrinhos | Funchal
- Usually, when we go to drink a beer at a bar or cafe in Portugal, it’s not uncommon for it to be accompanied by a plate of lupines (tremoços, in Portuguese) or peanuts. At the Os Castrinhos Bar , the snacks go a little further: in addition to the lupins, 3 to 4 small plates with delicious delicacies are also brought to the table. The Ponchas are delicious and the sunset view from the terrace is second to none.
What to see and do on Madeira Island
The island may not be huge, but the number of places to visit and activities to do are not at all proportional. From the famous walking trails to viewpoints with unparalleled views over the island’s coast, exotic local flowers and fruits and some of the best places for diving or refreshing dips, Madeira has so much to offer to those who its visitors.
I hope the info on this article helps to make your trip to Madeira a perfect one. If you have any questions please leave your comment below, I will be happy to help!
I travelled to Madeira on an invitation by Madeira’s Tourism Region. The opinions expressed in this article are, however, entirely mine, without the influence of others.