The best independent guide to Madeira
The best independent guide to Madeira
Madeira is a varied and fascinating holiday destination offering numerous unique sights and activities.
This is an island of jagged mountains, dense forests and traditional Portuguese villages, which will entertain visitors of all ages. Many visitors come to simply relax by the pool and embrace the pleasant climate, but there is so much more to see and do.
This article will provide a guide to the top 10 activities and the top 10 sights of Madeira, to inspire you to visit the island and get the most from your holiday!
Note: We have tried to include a range of sights and activities suitable for all ages. The first section (top 10 activities) are more designed if you want an active holiday, while the second section (top 10 sights and towns) are more if you prefer a sightseeing and touring holiday.
Related articles: Introduction to Madeira – 1 week in Madeira
Madeira is full of spectacular mountain roads, but one of the most scenic drives is along the coast between Sao Vicente and Port Moniz. This route follows the massive cliffs and steep river valleys of the northern coastline, where small villages perch and water gushes down the cliffs into the sea.
The road originally twisted along the side of the cliffs but now is much safer with the constriction of the VE2. Sadly, this new road has many long tunnels, but there are multiple places to stop and admire the dramatic scenery. The route ends in the pretty town of Port Moniz with its lava swimming pools.
Related articles: Port Moniz guide
The rugged coastline close to Port Moniz
The wicker sledge ride down Monte hill, is the most touristy gimmicky activity of Madeira, but it is unique and fun.
Historically the wicker sledges (known as Carreiros) transported goods from the top of Monte to the lower districts of Funchal, but since the 1910s tourists have been the main cargo!
The sledges do not follow special rails but zip down roads, with the drivers using their feet to steer, running to push over the flat sections and spotters keeping traffic safely out of the way.
The Carreiros depart from the Nossa Senhora do Monte church in Monte a hillside town above Funchal.
The wicker sledges that slide down the roads
The sea cliffs of Cabo Girão are some of Europe's highest, with a vertical drop of 580m. Extending out from the top of these massive cliffs is a glass-floored Skywalk, which looks down on the ocean, a long way below!
This terrifying skywalk has become the most popular tourist attraction of Madeira, and though often crowded with visitors, it is a must to see.
Related articles: The Cabo Girão Skywalk
It is 580m drop to the sea below
Pico Ruivo is the highest point of Madeira, and from the 1,862m summit are spectacular views over the jagged and dramatic mountain landscapes.
There is a scenic mountain trail to Pico Ruivo from Achada do Teixeira which follows the PR1.2 hiking route (2-3 hours return) and crosses high ridges to scale the northern side of the mountain.
There is an even more stunning hiking trail (and more challenging) the PR1, and this is at number 1 in our list of the top 10 activities.
Related articles: Pico Ruivo
The final steps up to the summit of Pico Ruivo
A holiday to a foreign country should not just be about seeing the sights, it should also be interacting and meeting the locals.
There is no better way than having a drink of the ridiculously strong alcoholic drink of Poncha in a non-touristy bar or café.
Poncha is based on aguardente, and is sweetened with honey and sugar, and flavoured with lemon. The sugar and lemon conceal the strong sugar fermented aguardente.
Poncha was first created in the town of Câmara de Lobos for the fishermen, but is now loved the island over.
A bottle of Poncha ready to make the bar jolly…
Madeira is a walkers paradise, with many beautiful hiking trails which cross the island. Many of these trails follow the man-made waterways (known as Levadas) that transported water from the wet northern side of Madeira to the drier and more fertile south.
One of the most interesting routes is the PR6, which snakes around the Rabaçal valley, with its many little streams, dense forests and numerous waterfalls. The highlight will be the 100m Risco waterfall, as water rushes off the high plateau on the Paul da Serra. This abundance of water, streams and waterfalls gives the hike its name, the 25 Fontes (the 25 Springs).
The start of the hike is at the Miradouro do Rabaçal, which offers great views over the lush Laurel forests.
The PR6 follows a Levada waterway as it meanders along the Rabaçal valley
The Pico do Arieiro (1,818m) is the third highest point in Madeira and is one of the finest locations to watch the sunrise. On the eastern side of the Arieiro is the Miradouro do Juncal viewpoint, with amazing views over the east of Madeira and the rising sun - so long as there is no cloud!
There is a decent road up to Pico do Arieiro, and is relatively safe to drive pre-dawn light.
Advice: The viewpoint is often shrouded in cloud or fog so always check the weather before departing, and always bring a coat as it will be cold and windy.
Related articles: Pico do Arieiro
The view from the Miradouro do Juncal
The deep, warm and nutrient-rich waters of the Atlantic Ocean around Madeira are popular feeding and migrating routes for whales and dolphins.
Pilot and Sperm Whales are found all year in the waters around Madeira along with Bottlenose dolphins, while whale migration tends to be May to June and September to October. Dolphins are much more frequently seen than whales.
There are many tours on offer around Madeira, but typical prices are €25 for a 3-hour catamaran tour or €45 for a two-hour speed boat tour.
Advice: The seas around Madeira can be rough, only book a tour on a calm day and if you are not prone to seasickness.
Two whales on the south coastline of Madeira
Madeira is regarded as one of the world's best destinations for canyoning as there are many deep river valleys offering waterfalls, cliffs, plunge pools and huge rocks.
During the guided canyoning experience expect to scramble down a river by climbing, swimming, abseiling, jumping and generally getting wet.
There are extremely difficult routes on the north side of the island, but most visitors follow the easy or moderate routes along Ribeira das Cales river (in Parque Ecológico do Funchal), the Ribeiro Frio (in Parque Natural do Ribeiro Frio) or the Ribeira do Lajeado.
Canyoning is always a fun experience while in Madeira, especially in the hot summer months. Prices vary but expect to pay €60 for 3 hours
The RP1 hiking trail (called the Vereda do Arieiro) is the best mountain hiking route in Madeira. This is a challenging 5-hour (15km) round trip, which includes stunning sections. There are high mount ridges with near vertical drops, paths that scale the side of cliffs and an endpoint of the Pico Ruivo, the highest point of Madeira.
The PR1 is a tough round trip; as going there is a very demanding 20-minute stair section to climb, and the return route is all uphill.
Warning: As this is a long hike in the mountains always be suitably prepared and check weather conditions before attempting the route.
PR1 route as is climbs through the mountains
On the far western coast of Madeira is the abandoned village of Calhau das Achadas, one of the most remote and isolated locations of Madeira.
This is a wild and windswept coastline, hemmed between massive cliffs and the ocean. If you want to escape the mass of tourists in the summer, this is the location to come to.
The village was originally only accessible by boat but since 2003 it has been connected by the Achadas da Cruz Cable Car cable car, which descends down the 430m sheer cliffs.
Riding the cable car down to Calhau das Achadas
Santana is the location of the traditional triangular thatched houses, which are seen on every postcard or promotional material for Madeira.
There are only a few locations of the thatched houses, but they are as charming and pretty as they appear in any of the images.
Santana does not have much else to see apart from a child's theme park, but if you want to visit all of the sights of Madeira, you will certainly want a photo next to one of these delightful houses.
The population of Madeira used to live in houses similar to this one, with its steep roof to keep the harsh winter weather out
The Ponta de São Lourenço is the headland that extends out from the northeastern tip of Madeira. This is a rugged region of massive cliffs, wind-blasted landscapes and powerful seas.
The Ponta de São Lourenço is unique to the rest of Madeira, as it is an arid region, and is devoid of any tall growing vegetation due to the ceaseless winds.
The entire headland is a protected nature reserve, and is another great area to escape the tourist crowds. A popular hiking route (2 hours return) is to the Ponta do Furado viewpoint.
The Ponta de São Lourenço headland as seen from the Pico do Facho viewpoint
Câmara de Lobos is a colourful fishing town, made famous by Winston Churchill, who spent many of his later years painting here.
The harbour area and town centre are picturesque, with fishing boats moored on to the harbour beach and cobbled streets lining the town. During the day, the lively bars that surround the harbour are filled with fishermen drinking Poncha, a strong alcoholic drink that originated from the town.
Note: The pretty appearance of Câmara de Lobos does mask the tough fishing lifestyle of many of its residents, and the deprivation found on the outskirts of the town.
Insight: Câmara de Lobos is at the base of the Cabo Girão cliffs and the two are often combined in a trip.
The colourful fishing boats of the difficult and dangerous livelihood
The Ribeiro Frio river flows from the steep mountains of the interior of Madeira, and this deep river valley is covered by ancient Laurel forests.
These Laurissilva forests, with their rich biodiversity unique to Madeira, are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and are protected by the Parque Natural do Ribeiro Frio.
The Ribeiro Frio Valley is a popular area for walking, and one of the best routes follows the PR11- the Vereda dos Balcões. This trail leads to the Miradouro dos Balcões viewpoint, with its panoramic views over the Laurel forests and the Ruivo mountain.
Along the Ribeiro Frio, named so because of the freezing mountain water, is a large government-run trout farm, where you can see tanks full of fish.
The lush Ribeiro Frio valley
Curral das Freiras sits at the bottom of a deep valley, surrounded on all sides by steep mountains. This secluded location in the centre of the island was used by the nuns for the Santa Clara convent to hide during pirate raids in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The town later prospered with the cultivation of Sweet Chestnuts, which grow in the forest that surrounds Curral das Freiras.
The main tourist attraction of Curral das Freiras is the setting of the town, and the Eira do Serrado viewpoint provides the finest views.
Curral das Freiras nestles at the base of huge mountains
Sitting on the far north-western side of the island, Port Moniz is famed for its lava swimming pools and remote setting.
Historically the town was geographically isolated from the rest of Madeira by huge cliffs, and was a centre for whaling (which continued until the 1980s).
This is wild a rugged region of Madeira, with the town squeezing between the giant cliffs and the ocean. The lava which once spilled from Madeira's volcanoes has formed jagged pools along the seafront and these are a popular location for swimming.
Port Moniz sadly lacks the historic buildings as with other coastal towns……
Related articles: Port Moniz
The lava pools of Port Moniz are filled by the high tide
Ribeira Brava is a likeable coastal town situated at the end of the Serra De Agua valley. During the winter months, water rushes down this valley and gives Ribeira Brava its name (Angry River).
Ribeira Brava has a pleasant beachfront promenade along the pebble beach, a modern lido complex which is popular with families and the pretty Igreja de São Bento church. The town centre contains cobbled streets and whitewashed houses, and Ribeira Brava is regarded as the prettiest town in Madeira.
If you are seeking a calm and personable destination for your holiday (or day trip), then Ribeira Brava is the place to visit.
The pretty beachfront of Ribeira Brava
Monte is a pretty hillside town sits high above Funchal.
The slightly wetter and damp micro-climate of Monet is a fantastic area for growing, and found in the town are three outstanding gardens, along the beautiful Nossa Senhora do Monte church.
Monte is connected to Funchal by a cable car (Teleférico Funchal-Monte) which glides over the entire city Funchal. For the return, the wicker Carreiros sledges (no.9 activity) will provide you an exhilarating downhill slide back to the city.
The three gardens in Monte are the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens (exotic plants species), the Parque Leite Monteiro, which surround the Quinta do Monte Hotel, and the Jardim do Monte just behind the Nossa Senhora do Monte church.
Note: The most famous garden of Funchal, the Jardim Botânico da Madeira is not technically in Monte but is accessed by the Teleférico do Jardim Botânico cable car, which has a station in Monte, and is often included in a visit to the town.
The Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, with its many water features, statues, and exotic plants
Funchal is the largest city of Madeira, and offers a delightful historic centre, a pretty harbourfront and a vast selection of restaurants, bars and shops. The city is surrounded by hills and forms a natural amphitheatre, with every district leading down to the waterfront and the historic centre.
There is a lot to see in Funchal, and a visit could include the Se cathedral, the Sao Tiago fort, the Praça do Município plaza and the Convento de Santa Clara. For museums, there is the Museu da Quinta das Cruzes, the Casa Museu Frederico de Freitas and the CR7 Museu, dedicated to Madeira’s most famous sportsman, Cristiano Ronaldo.
On a summers day, there is no more pleasant walk than along the water's edge from the harbour around to the Tiago fort.
While on holiday in Madeira you must devote at least one day to explore the charming historic centre of Funchal.
Looking up from Funchal waterfront up to the Fortaleza de São João Baptista