Floral scents waft through Madeira’s sea-washed air on this island often called Portugal’s most beautiful garden. Located in southwest Portugal, fragrant, sun-kissed, Madeira is literally the peak of an enormous volcanic mass. The island’s craggy spires and sheer cliffs of umber-dark basalt plummet sharply into the multi-hued blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira, Portugal things to do, naturally, begin with the outdoors.
Ocean waters are so deep near Madeira that large sperm whales are often spotted close to the shore. Spending only a day in this Mediterranean paradise, travelers will see and feel the island’s Eden-like ambience which inspired Portuguese national poet Luís Vaz de Camões to say that, “Madeira lies at the end of the world.”
Thankfully for us, it does not really lie at the end of the world and is actually only a 1.5-hour flight from Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city. Many major European cities have direct flights to Madeira making it one of the busiest airports in Portugal.
Madeira attracts those who love its warm and balmy year-round weather, beautiful landscapes, fantastic cuisine, affordable prices and friendly islanders. You’ll find everything from black-sand beaches and thundering waterfalls to manicured gardens and wild, rugged, volcanos.
If you’re heading to Madeira, we can help with suggestions for enjoying this piece of botanical paradise.
Pico do Arieiro Mountain
At 5,963 feet, this is one of Madeira’s highest mountains. On your drive to the parking lot located near the mountain top, don’t be surprised to see errant sheep and goats wandering across the road on their way to graze on stubbly gorse and bilberry.
After arriving, visitors can take a short climb to the lookout next to a giant NATO radar. There are often views of the clouds below (unless you’re actually in them), but on a clear day you can see the Curral das Freiras to the southeast. In the opposite direction, look for the huge Penha de Águia (Eagle Rock), a giant monolith on the north coast.
The trail from the lookout that crosses the narrow ridge leads to Pico Ruivo (6,102 feet), at the island’s highest point. It’s one of the best hikes on the island and though strenuous, it yields a treasure trove of magnificent panoramic views. Using a local guide is highly recommended.
Cabo Girão Sea Cliff Skywalk
This incredibly impressive sea cliff is a popular tourist lookout point and the highest cliff skywalk in all of Europe. It’s located in a rugged headland that looms menacingly over Madeira’s southern shoreline.
Peaking at an impressive 1,933 feet above sea level, this lofty, head-spinning promontory is a regular sightseeing tour stop on the island and a popular starting point for hikers.
The skywalk, a glass walkway, is found at the top of the cliff affording breathtaking views straight down to the crashing waves and rocks far below. The walk is not for the faint of heart, especially for those with vertigo or a fear of heights. But if you can do it, it’s one of the most fantastic and memorable experiences you’ll ever have. And as an added bonus, it’s free.
Mercado dos Lavradores
I love European markets and Portugal has no shortage of them, including Madeira. Spending a morning at the Mercado dos Lavradores (Market of the Workers) gives visitors a feel for the local food and culture. But go early, between 7 and 8 AM at the latest, to see this market come alive.
Flower vendors, fishers, and local terrace farmers sell an array of local produce, fish, clothing, flowers, baskets, ceramics, prepared food and crafts not seen anywhere else in Madeira. Check out the fish – everything from tuna to eel, that you’ll likely be eating later in the island’s local restaurants.
Quinta Palmeira Gardens
Situated just five minutes from the center of Madeira’s capital, Funchal, these lovingly restored gardens are one of the botanical treasures of Madeira. Once owned by well-known sugar industrialist Harry Hinton, most of the gardens were designed at the beginning of the 20th century. After an extensive restoration, they are more gorgeous than ever, featuring a large collection of exotic plants, some unique to Madeira. The gardens are filled with many curiosities, including a Manueline window from the Esmeraldo family house where Christopher Columbus once lived on the island.
Ride the Monte Cable Car
Cable car stations are located in old town Funchal. These are gondolas that include 39 cabins with a maximum capacity of seven passengers each.
On the 15-minute ride up, guests enjoy the stunning view of Funchal Bay and the picturesque surrounding landscape before arriving in Monte. While there, don’t miss The Monte Palace Tropical Garden with 100,000 exotic plants, a koi pond and serenely beautiful oriental garden. Also pay a visit to Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of the Mount) parish offering stunning vistas of Madeira.
Carreiros do Monte
So, you came up to Monte by cable car, mix it up on the way back and take the Carreiros down to old town. These ‘carreriros’ are without a doubt the most picturesque means of transportation on Madeira Island.
These are a set of toboggan wicker sledges mounted on two wooden runners.The 10-minute descent covering two kilometers is driven by two qualified operators carrying passengers while racing downhill in a thrilling ride. The views are awe-inspiring if you can keep your eyes open long enough to enjoy them.
Explore on the Levadas
Levadas are man-made aqueduct channels created to carry water for irrigation of agricultural fields around the island. Outdoor trekkers who follow these aqueducts will find themselves in breathtaking landscapes along the route.
The hikes vary by length and difficulty, and trail options lead past lakes, waterfalls, lagoons, and stunning sheer-walled cliffs. You’re not just enjoying the great outdoors; you are witnessing nature at its finest and getting some exercise to boot.
Curral das Freiras
Nestled in a vast mountain bowl a thousand meters deep, the small, whitewashed village of Curral das Freiras is one of Europe’s hidden gems and the most majestic place on the entire island.
Set in a crater-like depression, the ‘corral of the nuns,’ as its name translates, refers back to 1566 when nuns from the Santa Clara Convent in Funchal sought refuge in this remote spot while French pirates attacked and pillaged their city. At the time, there were no roads and the nuns’ journey was long and tortuous, not to mention dangerous, but they made it through and eventually founded the village.
The look-out point of Eira do Serrado affords breathtaking vistas of the surrounding mountains and a glimpse of the sleepy mountain village.
Tasting the Local Wines
Mention the name ‘Madeira’ and wine immediately comes to mind. For good reason. Madeira is wine country.
Guests can visit individual wineries, take a wine tour or visit any taverna on the island and get introduced to an array of luscious local wines, all fortified with grape brandy.
Madeira wines include the world-renowned, light-colored Sercial, the driest of the Madeira varietals and the golden-hued, slightly sweeter Verdelho. Another gem is the decidedly sweet Boal, a dessert wine good with cheese, and the sweetest of them all, the rich, fragrant Malmsey, which is served with dessert.