The best independent guide to Madeira
The best independent guide to Madeira
Funchal is the likeable capital city of Madeira. It is a historic and characterful city, which sits in a natural amphitheatre, with all districts facing down towards the waterfront and historic centre.
Funchal has an extensive history and an abundance of Portuguese charm, along with a wide variety of tourist attractions, including castles, gardens and cable cars.
Being the largest city on the island, it is also the centre for culture and tourism, and Funchal excels at both of these. There are world-class hotels, fascinating museums, fine restaurants along with buzzing nightlife.
Funchal may have a population over 100,000, but it has a small-town atmosphere, which is very safe and easy to explore on foot.
This article will provide an introduction to Funchal, either for your holiday or as a day trip.
Related articles: Introduction to Madeira – Madeira top 10 - 1 week in Madeira
Historic centre of Funchal, with its traditional buildings, ancient cathedral and two forts
The sledge ride down Monte hill in what is little more than a wicker chair, steered by two men dressed in white
The Jardins tropical, boasting diverse plant life set around delightful water features and imposing statues
There are three areas of Funchal of interest to visitors; the historic centre and waterfront, the hilltop district of Monte, and the coastal area of São Martinho where the majority of the hotels are situated.
The historic centre includes the main shopping street of Avenida Arriaga, the Lavradores market, Tiago fort, São Lourenço fort, the Se Cathedral and the cobbled streets of the Zona Velha. This area extends around the waterfront which overlooks the harbour and cruise terminal, and is where the majority of a day trip is spent - A suggested day trip and map is provided later in this article.
Monte is situated up in the hills above the city, and has a slightly cooler and wetter microclimate. Within Monte are three wonderous gardens, a beautiful church and the thrilling wicker sledge ride down to the centre of Funchal. Monte is easily combined in a day trip with Funchal, as there is a cable car between the harbour and Monte.
São Martinho is to the west of Funchal and is centred around the pebble beach of Praia Formosa and the Lido swimming complex. This is the area where the majority of the larger-hotels are based, and is a modern district offering great tourist facilities, such as bars, shops & restaurants.
Looking up from Funchal waterfront up to the Fortaleza de São João Baptista
There are many good reasons to be based in or near Funchal for your holiday.
Funchal has the widest selection of restaurants, shops and bars, along with being the hub for all public transport. Being based here means you will always feel close to the buzz of the city - there are many places on Madeira which are beautiful but do feel quite remote and distant from anything.
Funchal has the added bonus of having some of the best weather on Madeira, and has significantly less rain than the north or west, while being sheltered from the strong easterly winds.
Funchal may be a major city, but it is a very safe destination. There is almost no crime or significant issues, and is suitable for families or older visitors.
The area of Estrada Monumental (south São Martinho) has the atmosphere of a resort town, with streets packed with hotels, restaurants and tourist shops, but it is only a short bus ride to the centre of Funchal.
Our opinion: When friends or family who are new to Madeira are considering it for a holiday, we always advise them to be based in or close to Funchal.
The Se cathedral in Funchal
Madeira is a popular stop for cruise ships, and Funchal is a beautiful city to moor at. The cruise terminal is right at the centre of the city, and the historic centre can be easily walked to from the cruise port.
Funchal can be easily explored without the need of an expensive tour organised through the cruise company, and for a complete guide for a day trip to Funchal as a cruise ship passenger, please read this guide.
The interactive map below shows a typical day trip to Funchal. The suggested day would be divided between the historic centre and Monte, with riding the cable car up to Monte and catching the sledge back to Funchal.
Sights of the day trip 1) Avenida Arriaga 2) Praça do Município 3) Se cathedral 4) Palácio de São Lourenço 5) Lavradores market 6) Arte Portas Abertas (along the Rua de Santa Maria) 7) Forte de São Tiago 8) Funchal-Monte cable car 9) Monte Palace Tropical Gardens 10) Jardim Botânico (optional) 11) Senhora do Monte church 12) Monte sledge ride
Advice: The sledge ride ends 2km from the centre of Funchal, and it is either a walk, bus ride (ever 30-40minutes) or expensive taxi. The taxi drivers know they can rip off tourists and will demand as high as €30 for the 10-minute ride. Uber is a much cheaper option.
Madeira is known as the island of the eternal spring and nowhere is this more evident than in the flower gardens found in hills above Funchal.
The most famous is the Botanical Garden, which was created to protect the indigenous plants of Madeiran, and now has expanded to include over 2,500 species. Included in the complex is an exotic bird park, a small Natural History Museum and the much-photographed Jandins Coreografados.
The patterned gardens of the Jardins Coreografados
The Tropical Gardens are situated up the Monte district, and are the most enjoyable for a day trip. Within these varied gardens are an extensive selection of plants and water features, along with an art gallery dedicated to contemporary Zimbabwean sculpture and sculptures from the Berardo Foundation collection. https://montepalacemadeira.com/
The Tropical Gardens in Monte
The Rua de Santa Maria has been converted into an outdoor art gallery, with the doorways of abandoned buildings being repurposed as permanent art features.
This wonderful project has breathed new life into the area and includes over 200 works of art and murals from local artists. Further details can be found on the project's website: https://www.arteportasabertas.com/
Insight: This area livens up at night with some of Madeira's best tourist-focused restaurants, and there is a great atmosphere, but the waiters can be very pushy to get customers. If you purely want to see the art visit early in the morning.
The Mercado dos Lavradores (Workers' Market) is one of the highlights of Funchal. This covered market sells fresh produce and handicrafts, along with having a bustling fish market.
The Mercado dos Lavradores is always a hive of activity and a great location to find a bargain
Madeira is famed for its wine, and over 200 years of this heritage can be experienced (and tasted) at the wine cellars of Blandy's Wine Lodge.
Moored in Funchal harbour is a replica of the Christopher Columbus ship the Santa Maria, which provides 3-hour guided tours (€35 / €17.50 adult/child) along the coastline.
The replica of the Santa Maria is dwafed by the cruise ships which moor in Funchal’s harbour
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