Church in Funchal

Madeira’s principal place of worship sits slap bang in the middle of the city, its tower dominating the skyline as it has since the early 16th century. Though of quite modest proportions, this was once a cathedral that oversaw the largest diocese ever created, one which encompassed all of Portugal’s overseas territories. Now it serves just the people of Funchal and Madeira, as well as featuring near the top of the list of every tourist’s must-visits.

Coming in from the bright sun outside, it takes a couple of minutes for your eyes to get used to the low-light interior of Madeira's top temple. The first thing you should do is look up – the Sé's intricately carved alfarje ceilings are the most elaborate on the island and are made of Madeiran cedar inlaid with shell, rope and white clay to magnificent effect. The other obvious highlight of the interior is the main altar, ordered by King Manuel I, it was crafted between 1512 and 1517. Fully renovated in 2014, its 12 Gothic panels depict the Life of the Virgin and the Passion of Christ.

King Manuel I went to town on the Sé, showering his favourite church with precious gifts. The baptismal font (on the left as you enter), the pulpit and the processional cross (now on display in the Museu de Arte Sacra) were all gifts from the monarch. Very unusual for Madeira is the memorial brass set in the floor of the north aisle. Confirming Madeira's erstwhile trading links with Flanders, where this sort of brass is common, it depicts wealthy 16th-century merchant Pedro de Brito Oliveira Pestana and his wife.

Leaving the dim nave, some parts of the Sé's exterior are worth seeking out. On the south side of the cathedral, look up to find odd barley-twist pinnacles, an architectural feature that belongs to the short-lived Manueline style (1490–1520). The Sé's clock tower has dominated the Funchal skyline for five centuries – sadly it cannot be climbed.