Located off the coast of Africa but also an autonomous region of Portugal, Madeira has its own unique identity.
Rugged and subtropical, home to both tropical fruit and legendary wine, seaside resorts and remote mountain villages, misty forests and rocky beaches, it’s the kind of place that makes your head spin – in a good way.
In particular, Madeira has much to offer the independent and intrepid traveler. Hiking, swimming, diving and surfing are not only accessible but exist at a variety of skill levels. And a unique and delicious food and drink scene awaits you between pursuits.
When should I go to Madeira?
Madeira is blessed with a subtropical climate, and the island experiences an average temperature of 70°F (21°C).
January sees the most rainfall, while the waters surrounding the island are at their warmest in September. If you're seeking peace and quiet, you may want to avoid the crush of tourists in August. Otherwise, Madeira is a great vacation option virtually year-round.
Is it easy to get to and around Madeira?
Madeira is linked to the world via Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport (yes, he’s a native of the island), a destination for international flights, including direct flights from New York City.
However, getting around the island is a bit more complicated. There is an extensive public bus transport system, but if you want to hit the more remote corners for hiking routes or beaches, you’ll almost certainly need a car. Several car hire companies have offices at the airport, although rates aren’t cheap.
Driving in Madeira has its challenges. The island is incredibly hilly, and its roads can be intimidatingly steep and winding. If you don’t feel confident driving in these circumstances, be sure to rent an automatic (more expensive than the standard European manual, but worth it in this case).
How long do I need in Madeira?
Because Madeira’s highlights are found at disparate points across the island, a stay of at least four days is necessary. Consider a night in Funchal to get oriented, and supplement this with stays in one or two more destinations elsewhere on the island – dedicate a day to active pursuits and, ideally, the following day to recover on the beach. Tack on at least another two nights if you plan to hit Porto Santo, the other inhabited island that forms part of the Madeiran Archipelago.
Top things to do in Madeira
Hike a levada or a vereda
Nearly all of Madeira’s rain falls on the island’s north shore, so to facilitate agriculture on the island’s south, its early settlers created a series of man-made aqueducts known as levadas. Madeira is home to more than 804 km (500 miles) of levadas, a feat of engineering recognized by Unesco. Today, the island’s levadas, as well as its veredas (a general word for a path) double as hiking routes, which often pass through spectacular scenery and landscapes that include waterfalls, cliffs, jungle and incredible viewpoints.
Levadas exist in varying degrees of difficulty and repair; check out WalkMe, a regularly updated guide, to see if the levada you have in mind is open and safe.
A popular, entry-level walk is the Levada do Caldeirão Verde, on the island’s west end. The hike spans a relatively easy 11.8km (7.3 miles) round trip, which passes through diverse scenery that includes a lagoon and waterfall. Another popular walk with an entirely different feel is the Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço, a 7.2km (4.4 miles) round-trip that tackles the island’s dry, rocky easternmost point and includes an opportunity for a refreshing dip in the ocean.
For those looking for more of a challenge, consider the trails that summit Pico do Areeiro and Pico Ruivo, the latter the island’s highest point, and a route that occasionally goes above the cloudline.
Ride a cable car
Madeira’s coast is home to fajãs, areas backed by cliffs that were previously only accessible to boats. That is until a series of cable cars were built. Originally used to shift goods and crops, today Madeira’s cable cars also transport tourists and day-trippers.
The Teleférico das Achadas da Cruz, on the island’s northwest corner, is 600m long, lasts five minutes and is one of the steepest cable cars in Europe. The destination is a vast, crowd-free rocky beach.
Also impressive is the cable car that descends to Fajã dos Padres, a rocky beach that is home to a farm and banana plantation, a cafe/restaurant and a dock for swimming.
Swim in a natural pool
The waters that surround Madeira have both an otherworldly azure hue and a temperature that’s accessible year-round. Unfortunately, the island’s rugged geography and stone beaches mean that accessing that water isn’t always easy. Thankfully, on a few different spots across the island, locals have taken advantage of lava outcroppings to sculpt oceanside swimming pools.
The most famous natural pool is in Porto Moniz, on the island’s northwestern corner, although with its extensive handrails, bathrooms and changing rooms, it doesn’t feel so natural these days. An even more dramatically-positioned version can be found at Doca do Cavacas, on the island’s south shore. For something much more natural, consider the pools in Seixal or Cachalote, both of which also have the benefit of being free.
Taste fortified wine
Madeira’s eponymous wine was created when barrels of the stuff spent months on ships baking in the hot sun. This happy accident caused the wines to oxidize, giving them an entirely new and desirable set of flavors and aromas. Today, seven houses on Madeira make fortified wines in this style, nearly all of whom offer tours and tastings. H.M. Borges, in Funchal, was founded over a century ago and is one of the more traditional houses on the island – they offer a visit and tasting with advance notice. Barbeito is one of the more progressive houses and offers a variety of tastings daily.
Madeira also used to be the most important center of sugar production in the world and there are still six operational sugarcane mills/distilleries on the island. Today, it’s the only place in Europe that produces agricultural rum – rum distilled from sugarcane juice rather than from sugar or molasses. North Mills Distillery, on the island’s north shore, is one of the only remaining steam-powered factories in Europe. Contact the distillery to arrange a visit and tasting, including a Rum Masterclass. In the island’s south, Engenhos da Calheta dates back to 1901, offers tastings, and is also a good place to buy bolo de mel, Madeira’s signature sweet that combines molasses, citrus juice, lard, Madeira wine and spices.
Much of the local rum makes its way into poncha, a drink that combines white rum, orange and/or lemon juice and honey and/or sugar, which is then whipped to a frothy consistency with a special wooden tool. One of the most popular places for the drink is Taberna da Poncha, located in a mountain town in the island’s interior.
Visit a beach
Specifically, a rocky beach. Madeira’s particular geography and location mean that the island’s beaches consist exclusively of round stones. Buy a pair of aqua socks to traverse this relatively challenging terrain, and take note of the haunting roar of tens of thousands of rocks spinning and shifting with each wave.
If you want sand, head to the man-made beaches at Calheta or Machico, or take the ferry to Porto Santo, which has a 7.5km (4.6 miles) fine-sand beach that’s considered one of Europe’s best.
Eat an espetada
Madeira’s signature dish is espetada, chunks of beef marinated in garlic and bay leaves, skewered on a laurel branch or metal skewer, and grilled. To serve, the skewers are hung from unique contraptions, and diners pair them with bolo do caco, a type of bread made in part with sweet potato that’s toasted and slathered with garlic butter; milho frito, cubes of deep-fried polenta; and a green salad.
It’s a delicious combination of dishes, not to mention the perfect post-levada-walk meal. It’s also a fun way to eat, with espetada venues in Madeira ranging from butcher shops, where you choose your cut and grill your own skewer, to old-school restaurants.
My favorite thing to do in Madeira
I love digging into regional food and the Sunday market in Santo António da Serra, a mountaintop village in the island’s east, is Madeira’s culinary scene in miniature. Vendors assemble in the early morning and bring a huge variety of tropical fruits – bananas, of course, but also passionfruit, guava, papaya, custard apple, pitanga, tamarillo and other fruit generally more associated with South America.
There are also beautiful vegetables, baked goods, dried herbs and local honey, among other items. A handful of stalls sell simple prepared foods, and a butcher provides a grill and tables for a DIY espetada. The market has a particular emphasis on drinks, with vendors selling pitchers of poncha, local cider, and even boozy coffee drinks, all of which are paired with dentinhos – snacks that can range from deep-fried pork rinds to a tiny salad of favas.
How much money do I need for Madeira?
Unfortunately, Madeira isn’t exactly a budget destination. Accommodation is relatively expensive, with relatively few hostels or budget options, and a rental car is needed to get to the more remote corners of the island.
That said, this is Portugal – food and drink are pretty good value.
- Hostel bed: from €60
- Basic room for two: from €120
- Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from €120
- Public transport ticket: €1.35
- Coffee: €0.75
- Sandwich: €1.50
- Dinner for two: €40
- Glass of poncha: €2.50
Does it rain a lot on Madeira?
The north half of Madeira can be relatively wet, but the south, including Funchal, only receives between 600mm and 1000mm of rain per year. In general, and especially outside of the relatively wet period between November and February, rain is only an occasional concern on Madeira.