Madeira holds a somewhat special place in my heart. My dad has lived most of his adult life in England but Madeira is where he was born, raised and where his parents and lots of family still live today. As a result, we have spent a lot of family holidays there over the years and there’s something wonderful about visiting a country that’s foreign but also familiar.
As well as spending time with family, we’ve ticked off a lot of the classic tourist spots in Madeira over the years so today, I thought I’d use my half-insider knowledge to direct you to a few cool spots that you don’t want to miss during your holiday to Madeira.
Top 10 things to do in Madeira
1. Head to Machico
From years of visiting Madeira, my memories of Machico are the strongest. It’s where my dad grew up, it’s where many of my family still live and there’s something about seeing this gorgeous valley that makes me realise how lucky I am to have somewhere that feels welcoming so far away from home.
As the third most populated area of the Atlantic island, Machico is said to be the landing point for the first men who discovered Madeira in 1419. Machico has changed a lot in recent years and the addition of a manmade beach has left the town full and vibrant on summer days. You won’t find golden sand anywhere else on the island so if you’re a beach worshipper, this is the place for you. There are a fair few restaurants along the seafront and some incredibly cheap local cafes where you can grab a coffee and sandwich for breakfast for a couple of Euros tops!
If you’re visiting during August, don’t miss an event at one of the local churches where a huge bed of flowers is laid out all the way along the roads – it’s pretty cool to see! You’ll also find the first of the many viewpoints that’ll be mentioned throughout this piece in Machico. The walk starts from the old tunnel that used to connect Machico with Canical but with a little effort, walking to Pico do Facho rewards hikers with an incredible view of the whole of Machico.
2. See the island from Cabo Girão
Yep, it’s another one of those viewpoints I was talking about but with the highest skywalk in Europe, Cabo Girão is a must-visit on any trip to Madeira. At an elevation of 580 metres, you can see spectacular views of the island’s slopes all the way down to the sea. There’s also a glass skywalk that’s not for the faint hearted as it juts out directly over the sea, waves crashing far below.
The easiest way to reach Cabo Girão is by car but if you don’t fancy driving on Madeira’s notoriously winding roads, you can book a tour or taxi to take you there:
3. Ride the cable car
Confession time: I’ve never ridden the cable car in Madeira. But in spite of this, it’s one of the capital’s most popular attractions so if you’re keen to see the city from another perspective, check it out!
Keen to grab your tickets in advance? Book the Madeira cable car here.
Starting from Funchal, you’ll watch the city slowly depart from above as lush vegetation begins to replace the teracotta-coloured buildings. The journey takes about 15-20 minutes altogether, ending in Monte where you can check out the traditional church before a more adrenaline-filled method of getting back to Funchal…
4. Take a Toboggan ride
From the 1850’s where toboggans were used by Monte residents as a fast way of getting to Funchal, to 2019 where you’ll find thousands of tourists lining up to whizz down the steep roads. The wicker baskets are steered by two traditionally dressed men in straw hats, white garments and rubber soled shoes to help them brake!
5. Check out Funchal’s painted doors
One of my favourite parts of Madeira’s fairly small capital city is the artistic flair that springs up in the most unexpected of places. Throughout the back streets of the Old Town, you find doors painted with beautiful, funny and poignant designs.
They’ve been here for many years now but I’ve only recently found out that the ‘Painted Doors Project’ was designed to bring life to a poor area of the city. It’s a great place to walk, with many restaurants to choose from in the area, so head to Rua de Santa Maria to check some out for yourself.
6. Madeira Shopping
Okay, so Madeira isn’t exactly known for its shopping but this is the largest shopping centre on the island and when it rains, you’re going to need some entertainment. Highlights for me include a big Zara (so much less crowded than my local Liverpool store), Bershka, Pull & Bear and Stradivarius where I’ve been known to come away with something pretty for cheaper than we’d get here in the UK.
There’s also a cinema, supermarket and food court that boasts McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and Pizza Hut. For veggies, GiGi Sumos offers vegan-friendly wraps, salad bowls and smoothies – this place was my saving grace after eating chips for what felt like three days straight.
7. Pico do Arierio
Ah, we’ve reached another viewpoint. This time, it’s a special one because as the third highest point in Madeira, you’ll literally be heading through the clouds to reach this peak. While it’s pretty cool to visit on a cloudy day, you’ll be utterly submerged in cloud so if it’s the view you’re after, I’d advise waiting until it’s clear and sunny.
You can either drive up to the peak (there’s car parking and a gift shop up top) or alternately, for the fitness enthusiasts out there, hiking it will leave you in awe of Madeira’s incredible geography. It’s an utterly spectacular hike that’s gone viral over the last couple of years and consequently, has become incredibly busy – particularly at the start. Take care as you should be physically fit with a head for heights. It’s not a technical climb but the beginning and end consist on steep steps that can be slippery on a cloudy morning.
You don’t need a guide to hike the trail – you literally can’t go wrong – but if you want to hike one way rather than having to return to Pico do Arierio, these sunrise Pico do Arierio to Pico Ruivo tours look like a great bet.
8. Santana’s thatched houses
Located quite far from some of the other main attractions on Madeira’s north coast, it’s been a long time since I’ve visited Santana. However, the memory of the brightly coloured houses with thatched roofs and traditional dancers sticks with me, even years later. As well as catching folklore performances here, you can visit Madeira’s theme park. It’s not your traditional theme park with rides, popcorn and queues for days but rather, an outdoor exhibition of the island’s history.
9. Whale and dolphin watching
Possibly the most exciting activity in Madeira for animal lovers, these tours are super popular but offer great chances of spotting dolphins just off the coast of the island. In fact, some tours guarantee that if you don’t see anything during your boat trip, they’ll give you a second chance for free! You can also look out for dolphins if you take the ferry over to Porto Santo during your stay as they’ve been known to pop up near the boats and play in the bubbles.
10. Explore the island
Now this last one sounds kind of generic but basically; make sure you explore outside of Funchal on your visit. There are so many cute towns scattered around the coast, each with its own unique charm and landscape, so it’s well worth renting a car to get out and about. The picture below is from the town of Canical – how beautiful is it!?
Madeira is such a popular destination with cruisers who spend just a day or two in Funchal but I hope this post has gone some way to demonstrating how many things to do in Madeira there are. If you’ve ever considered going, I really would recommend a visit to this underrated destination.
Have you ever been to Madeira?