Geologically dramatic, bursting with exotic colour and warmed year-round by the Atlantic sun, Portugal’s most enchanting island is a place that keeps all its subtropical holiday promises. Pearl of the Atlantic, island of eternal spring…Madeira well deserves its fanciful nicknames and the affection visitors and locals alike feel for this tiny volcanic island that offers so much.
Repeatedly voted Europe's, and even the world's, top island destination, Madeira is a diverse place when it comes to holidaymaking. Black sand beaches, the frothing Atlantic, towering rock walls and gushing streams and irrigation channels make this an outdoor nirvana. But it's also a place of gentler pleasures such as wine tasting, visiting lush botanical gardens and watching embroiderers and wicker weavers at work. Hiking the levada irrigation channels is the top activity, with tens of thousands pulling on hiking boots to discover Madeira's secret interior.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Madeira.
Porto Santo's 7.5km long sandy beach is the reason most people head to Madeira's little sister. The sand is actually tiny pieces of coral that shelve gently into the cool Atlantic waves. The beach has virtually no development along it and has a wild feel, especially in winter when you can have the whole thing to yourself.
Now a museum, the Quinta das Cruzes is a quintessential old Madeiran manor house complete with gardens and a private chapel. Originally the home of João Gonçalves Zarco, the Portuguese captain who discovered Madeira, it was remodelled in the 18th century into a stylish home by the wealthy Lomelino family. The exhibits here examine the life of Madeira's well-to-do from the 15th to the 19th century in an aptly aristocratic environment, the high-ceilinged mansion packed with priceless antiques from across the globe.
Once a minor exhibition housed in small seafront building, Caniçal's Whale Museum was moved to a large multi-million-euro, ultra-modern complex in 2012, making it possibly the world's best museum devoted to the topic. The fascinating exhibition is divided into two sections – whaling on Madeira and whales – with an automatic commentary playing in your ears as you go. Count on spending at least 2½ hours here.
Built in 1940 by architect Edmundo Tavares, Funchal's art deco market is one of its top attractions as well as still serving as the island's best fresh food market. Adorned with azulejos (hand-painted tiles) from the mainland, this is the place to experience some of the unique produce Madeira grows on its terraced fields and plucks from the Atlantic.
Once a run-down area between the Mercado dos Lavradores and the Fortaleza de Santiago, in recent years the 'Old Zone' of merchant's houses and 19th-century fishermen's cottages has been transformed into Funchal's hottest nightlife and restaurant area. Most of the action takes place on Rua de Santa Maria that runs the length of the Zona Velha, packed at night with milling visitors and almost blocked with restaurant tables. It's also here you'll find most of the artworks belonging to the Open Doors Arts Project.
Around 3km west of Câmara de Lobos, Madeira's highest sea cliffs rise 580m to loom high over the village and the Atlantic's sapphire expanse. The panorama from the viewing platform is nothing short of spectacular. Spectacular that is, unless you look down – the platform floor is made of glass and hangs over the cliff edge – a knee-weakening, toe-curling experience! Many Rodoeste services heading west now climb up here from Funchal.
Funchal's 16th-century cathedral once oversaw the world's largest diocese – all of Portugal’s overseas territories from Madeira to Brazil to Angola – and its importance is reflected by the Manueline architectural style and artworks inside. Once your eyes have adjusted to the dim interior, look up at the ornate ceiling made of Madeiran cedar inlaid with shell, rope and white clay. The main altar dates from 1517 and features 12 Gothic panels depicting the Life of the Virgin and the Passion of Christ.
Anyone who says Madeira has no beaches should hop on bus 1 or 43 to the boulders and browny-black sand of this wild strand in Funchal's western suburbs. Cafe-bars, a car park and other facilities are all here and the salt-white Atlantic surf crashing onto dark volcanic sand is a sight you'll long remember.
High above Funchal, the villa neighbourhood of Monte is one of the most popular half-day trips from Funchal seafront. The Igreja da Nossa Senhora and the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens are the top sights here, but most come for a unique attraction – the wicker toboggan ride down to Livramento. Many take the cable car from the seafront up to Monte, see the sights then return by toboggan and bus.