Madeira is a remote and geologically fascinating island, offering dramatic scenery, jaw-dropping cliffs, plunging ravines and a lush interior. The cosmopolitan capital Funchal is definitely worth considering for a sophisticated week-long or short break.
Located 310 miles off the African coast and a staggering 620 miles from the European continent, it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1418. Madeira is just 35 miles long and 13 miles wide, but this Atlantic island is known as a floating garden, with its sub-tropical Gulf Stream climate and fertile volcanic soil nurturing beautiful flowers everywhere you look.
In a bid to shed its image as a destination for older holidaymaker, plans are underway to open new boutique and designer hotels. Adventure sports and activity options from whale and dolphin watching to off-road jeep safaris are also being promoted.
Getting there/around Funchal
Madeira International Airport is 25km from Funchal. Scheduled services are available to the island, with plans for a new low cost airline to serve Funchal in the future too.
There’s good public transport and plenty of taxis around Funchal. It may be a remote island, but car hire rates compare with other European destinations.
Due to the hilly terrain, the island is generally not recommended for the less mobile, whilst Madeira’s steep mountain roads can be hard to take.
Beaches around Funchal
This is not a place for beach bums. Having said that, there are a few around, such as Praira Fromosa, reached by the two-mile ‘lido’ pedestrian promenade in Funchal linking three public swimming pools, and all flanked by lush gardens.
Most beaches are rocky, or black volcanic sand but 12 of them have still made it onto the EU’s Blue Flag list for cleanliness.
Or combine Funchal with Porto Santo, Madeira’s sleepy neighbour – reached via a 2.5 hour ferry trip, or a 15-minute flight – with unspoilt beaches.
Sightseeing around Funchal
To really get the picture, take Funchal’s panoramic hot air balloon ride, rising up to 150 metres.
On the ground, check out the horticultural heaven – including the Botanical Gardens, Pregetter’s Orchid Garden and the Santa Catarina Park.
The tropical gardens at nearby Monte can be reached by cable car – return options include toboggan. Once a mere answer to a vertical problem, the two-seater wicker toboggans are now a key tourist attraction. It’s like zooming down a hill in a giant basket.
Golfers will find two excellent golf courses outside the capital, 18-hole Palheiro and Robert Trent Jones-designed 27-hole Santo de Serra.
The Madeira Story is a clever new interactive museum in Funchal.
Walking is the reason many people holiday here. Amateurs and pros follow the routes of the levadas, a 1,500 mile network of irrigation channels stretching from north to south.
Family attractions around Funchal
Madeira’s lack of beaches means it’s not immediately attractive to anyone with young family, but hotels often have children’s facilities, swimming pools and plenty of green space to roam around in.
The Madeira Theme Park in Santana is the first of its kind in Portugal – divided into several zones, it cleverly illustrates Madeira’s culture and incredible natural history.
Diving, surfing, sea kayaking, canyoning and deep sea fishing are diversions off land.
Day trips around Funchal
Tour the island highlights such as Cabo Girao, the second highest cliffs in the world.
Walkers flock to Madeira where the mountainous, volcanic interior promises wild and wonderful rambling, such as Pico Ruivo, the highest point of the island, at 1,860m.
To get to the neighbouring island of Porto Santo, take the ferry from Funchal.
The Volcanism Centre at Sao Vincente helps interpret the amazing volcanic caves here, formed 400 years ago.
Eating out around Funchal
There are plenty of places to eat in Funchal and the hotels and quintas also boast fine restaurants.
Island dishes to look out for include the local soup, acorda, peixe espada (black scabbard fish accompanied by passion fruit, bananas and almonds) and espatada, skewered beef grilled with garlic and sea salt. There are also plenty of familiar international options.
Madeira wines range from dry (Sercial), through medium dry (Verdelho) and medium sweet (Bual), to the sweetest, Malmsey and visiting a vineyard is a must. The wine festival in September is a great time to be in Funchal.
Nightlife in Funchal
Funchal is not some provincial backwater, but it’s hardly party central either – come the weekend though, things heat up.
Funchal has lively bars at the marina, hotel entertainment, local bars hidden on back streets and even a casino. Trendy locals head to Vespas at the docks for weekend clubbing.
One of the biggest events in the calender year is the Atlantic Festival every June when spectacular firework displays illuminate the sky every Saturday night accompanied by music. New Year’s Eve parties are also memorable.
Shopping around Funchal
The classic Funchal souvenir would be something made of wicker – the villagers of Camacha are mainly responsible for this craft, but it’s sold all over the island.
Shop at the town’s Wine Lodges, or buy wonderful local flowers to take home.
Funchal packs in the malls too. Marina Shopping is the biggest, followed by Forum Madeira, which is handy for the main hotels in the Lido/Ajuda area. Familiar British high street fashio brands can also be found such as Zara and Mango.