Madeira is one of the Portuguese island and is just great for an active vacation with some deep-dive into the local culture. Madeira is also my most favorite island! It has a volcanic origin, amazing cliffs, unusual vegetation, beautiful mountains, delicious food, friendly people and great weather. There are so many things to do on Madeira, so I think it’s a perfect destination for an active holiday.
At the same time, I think that Madeira is definitely not for those who are searching for a time off on the sunny beach. There are no beaches, actually… or at least not in its traditional sense. This island is perfect for anyone who loves hiking, diving, good food and mountains. Here are some of the best activities and places to visit on Madeira, including a secret tip for a couple of swimming spots.
1. Go hiking on Madeira
Madeira is perfect for hiking! It doesn’t matter if you are experienced or a beginner — the island offers several amazing routes for anyone. Descriptions for all of them are available online and you can look up the difficulty level and the approximate time you need for every route.
While we were on Madeira we took the most hardcore (and the most fun!) hiking route on the island: from the top of second highest mountain Pico do Arieiro to the highest peak Pico Ruivo and back. It was really great and took us almost the whole day. Do that route if you are in a good health condition and have some experience hiking. The views are stunning and the satisfaction of the achievement is going to be great.
Important: Make sure to wear proper hiking shoes and have some warm clothes with you, because it’s windy and cold on the tops.
2. Take levada and forest walks
Forests on Madeira are amazing! They remind you of some magical places from your favorite fantasy movies. I was reminded of the Lord of the Rings. Quiet routes, trees hanging over your head and waterfalls. If you feel like taking a break from hiking and doing something more relaxing, this is one of your best options.
Take a walk along levadas, man-made channel that deliver water from one part of the island to another. It's quite fascinating, especially if you know most of them were built more than a hundreds of years ago.
3. Visit the botanical garden in Funchal
Madeira is famous for its unusual and very diverse vegetation. Many of the plants are hard to see anywhere else in the world. The botanical garden of Funchal offers a huge collection of different flowers, fruit trees and other plants. Unfortunately, these gardens are only accessible for a small fee, but I think that it’s worth it. The botanical garden is also a great viewpoint and a spot to take some amazing pictures of Funchal with the ocean on the background.
It is possible to take a cable car from Funchal to the garden and even higher, or buy the full package including the ride, the garden and some sights, but I thought it was ridiculously expensive for what it was. So, since we had a car, we drove around on our own and took advantage of the free parking.
4. Go up to Monte and enjoy the view
If you are visiting the botanical garden, you definitely want to combine it with going up to Monte. It is part of Funchal and is stretching up into the mountains. Monte has some interesting places including the White Church and other sights, but my favorite part was the view. It’s great for taking pictures! Or perhaps a picnic with a view?
5. Take a walk or jog on the promenade in Funchal
Exploring Funchal is fun, but you really need just a day for the whole city. There are some pretty squares, beautiful churches and, of course, some great gardens to rest and hide from the sun. Also, Funchal has a great promenade along the coast and it is just perfect for a walk before dinner. Also, Madeira attracts a lot of active tourists, it’s really common to see people jogging in Funchal along the shore. There are also some shops and cafes on the way, where you can sit down and watch the busy island life.
6. Visit the market in Funchal and enjoys fresh fruits
The market in Funchal offers a huge variety of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables. They are so delicious! If you are not sure what you see in front of you, just ask one of the stand-owners and they will gladly give it to you to try for free. People are so friendly on Madeira!
7. Try the speciality of Madeira – fish with banana, and other local foods
Black scabbard fish with roasted banana is Madeira’s speciality and it is so delicious! Sounds weird to you? Yap, that was my first reaction, too. But the dish is very tasty! The local restaurants usually serve it with seasonal vegetables, which makes the dish light but still filling. Make sure to try it when you are on Madeira.
You can definitely find any food on the island, also something that is quite familiar to you, but I recommend eating seafood and fish there. Ask at the restaurant what on the menu is cooked with local ingredients and enjoyed the freshness of the ocean. Don’t forget to taste the local tapas — crostini, beautiful and delicious bites. They are perfect on a hot day together with white wine or rose.
8. Rent a car and explore around the island
In my opinion, a car is really the best way to get around Madeira. Your own vehicle gives you flexibility and access to the places, where no buses or tourist groups go and, of course, you are much more independent on your own. There are several car rentals directly at the airport and you can either book it in advance or just go for it on the spot.
Driving on Madeira is not difficult. However, it is better if you have some driving experience and drive carefully all the time. There are some sharp turns, extreme hills, narrow streets and tunnels. But trust me, the infrastructure on the island is very modern and safe. It used to be much worse, before they build the tunnels connecting different parts of Madeira.
I personally had a couple of problems driving on Madeira, but that's because I had very little experience at this time. Nothing bad happened, but I had to roll back from a stiff hill a couple of times. Scary.
9. Explore the east and west coasts of the island
The east and the west coasts of Madeira are so different! It’s actually hard to believe they are located on one island. The east coast looks more like Mars landscape, and the west coast of Madeira is humid and full of vegetation. Both of them are great for hiking or just talking a walk.
If you are driving by car, don’t miss a chance to visit smaller towns and villages around the island, look around the streets and churches. You can stay there for lunch or dinner, because the prices there are slightly lower than in Funchal.
10. Try to swim, but don't expect a paradise beach
Madeira is not an island for a beach vacation, because there are simply no real beaches out there. There are stiff cliffs and access to water can be difficult or just dangerous sometimes. Santa Cruz is located not far from the airport and offers something like a beach. There is black (volcanic) sand, an easy access to water and some beach infrastructure, like showers and toilets.
Another cool place to swim on Madeira is Porto Moniz, where there are natural pools with no stream among cliffs. It is a fascinating place and I wish I knew about before I got there! I didn’t have my bikini with me, so I couldn’t swim there. Well... next time!
If you wish a real day at the beach while staying on Madeira, you can take a day cruise to the neighbouring island Porto Santo. It has a 8 km white sand shoreline and is perfect for beach relaxation.
11. Do plane spotting on Madeira
Funchal, or Madeira, airport used to be on the list of one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The difficulties were connected to the cliffs and ocean around the airport, weather conditions and the length of the runway itself. The runway has been extended twice and is now capable of accepting large aircrafts like Boeing 747s, but these planes land there on a very rare occasion.
They still keep the airport in the dangerous list at least for Europe, but in my opinion, it’s no reason not to go there. There has been no accidents ever since and the airport is quite safe. The pilots are trained for that airport and have no problems landing with any weather conditions.
The coolest part about Funchal airport is that it offers one of the most spectacular plane-spotting possibilities in the world! You can watch them landing and taking off from over, under or even next to the runway.
I especially liked a little swimming spot just under the runway, where it seemed like only locals were hanging out. It’s so cool: you can enjoy the ocean and the sun there, and also see some huge planes landing or taking off just 30 meters above your head.
Madeira is amazing for an active vacation with hiking, long walks along levadas, amazing foods and wines, sun and stunning, breathtaking views. I am so in love with this island and I hope to go back there soon. The climate there is quite mild, so it’s a great destination all year round.
About the author
Hi, I am Maria, blogger and founder of Globalmary.com.
I was born and grew up in Russia, studied in Sweden and now live in Hamburg, my most favorite city in Germany. I travel a lot and write about places I've been to. I share my best travel tips and experience about what it means to live a global life!
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