This past July was our first time visiting the beautiful island of Madeira. The best part is that we got to do it with my parents who flew out from South Africa. This was our first time in Portugal, and we also made sure to visit Lisbon and the Algarve as part of our trip. But today it’s all about the magic that is Madeira. An island full of culture, amazing outdoor activities, and delectable gourmet food, here is what I consider to be the ultimate first timers guide to Madeira.
About our stay in Madeira
We took a direct flight from London Heathrow to Madeira Airport, full name; Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport. Named after the famous footballer and Portugal’s most prized possession, Cristiano Ronaldo. The flight was about 4 hours long and pretty uneventful. Well, almost! Coming into Madeira and approaching the runway is pretty spectacular. Have you ever heard about the Madeira landing strip? It has been deemed as one of the most dramatic approaches to any airport in Europe. In fact, pilots need special training to operate flights on this route. As one of the shortest runways in the world, and situated in a narrow gap between the mountain and the sea, I feel that as part of my first timers guide to Madeira, I should warn readers that landing here is a daunting but wonderful experience.
When we arrived in Madeira we hired a car from the airport and made our way over to our apartment. Our arrival time was early morning so we had the whole day ahead of us. Our aim was to drop off our luggage, get a little settled and then explore some of the island. We rented a beautiful little two bedroom apartment through AirBnb. Situated in Funchal we had the perfect location for all that is hip and happening in Madeira. The view from our apartment was exquisite with sights of the city and sea ahead of us. As always, the area that is best to stay in will depend entirely on what you are looking for. But, if you want to be at the centre of it all then a top tip as part of my first timers guide to Madeira is to stay in Funchal, the islands capital.
We spent a total of five nights in Madeira, a truly unique destination. Funchal is a great central location for first timers. It’s also the place to be if you don’t plan on hiring a car. It’s fairly easy to make your way around Funchal on foot. Although Madeira is full of steep hills and Funchal is no exception, so be prepared to work those legs!
First timers guide to Madeira: What to see and do
Madeira is a beautiful island full of lush green forests, dramatic mountains and cliffs, deep blue sea, colourful flowers and all around breathtaking views. With just five days here, we had a very busy trip. As a first timers guide to Madeira, I would suggest spending at least a week here. Looking back, it felt a little rushed and I would love to have had more time to take it all in. Here are some of my favourite things to see and do in Madeira.
Take an adventurous road trip
We are very lucky in that we have some family friends who spend a few months in Madeira each year. They happened to be there during our trip and took the liberty of showing us around the island. We spent the first day exploring mostly the Western side. If you don’t have anyone to show you around you could book a tour or you could take the road trip yourself – and see where the road takes you. You can find incredible views and hidden gems just about anywhere on the island. If you are following this first timers guide to Madeira then you may want to get a little adventurous and just “wing it.”
Starting off in Funchal, we first made our way over to Ponta Gorda, followed by a stop in Camara de Lobos, checking the view at Cabo Girao, and finally a delicious serving of lapas at a beachside restaurant in Ribeira Brava. We then took a beautiful scenic drive through the mountains, all the way to Porto Moniz. If you have a look at a map of Madeira, it looks like quite a distance but the drive only took between 20 and 30 minutes. We also stopped off at a cute roadside cafe for a Poncha along the way. The Poncha is the infamous local drink of Madeira. It’s potent but delicious.
After exploring the area of Porto Moniz and its surroundings we made our way over to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is on the other side of the island, on the East. On our drive between here and Porto Moniz we stopped to take in some incredible views. We also stopped for a coffee break and a snack. Once in Santa Cruz we enjoyed a traditional and delicious Portuguese meal at one of the local restaurants. Later on in the afternoon since we were already on the East, we took the chance to explore the area of Machico, which is just next to Santa Cruz. It’s a beautiful seaside village and certainly worth exploring. I could go on forever about our road trip – I think Madeira is one of the most beautiful places to explore on a road trip.
Admire the view from the cliffs of Cabo Girao
Elevated at over 500 meters above sea level, these cliffs are some of the highest in all of Europe. Extended out of the side of these cliffs is a glass floor skywalk, only for the brave! If you’re afraid of heights, you probably not going to enjoy this much, but the view from here is incredible.
Also, there is no admission fee to visit the Cabo Girao skywalk and it’s always open. From the top of the cliffs are magnificent views along the coast and down to the town of Camara de Lobos. If you have some time to spare, you can ride the cable car down the face of the cliff to terrace fields filled at the base of the cliff. I hear that it’s beautiful down there.
Funchal Cable Car
Funchal has two unique cable car services which connect different parts of the city to Monte. Monte is a civil parish perched up in the hills overlooking Funchal. The highlight of the area is the incredible panoramic view over Funchal bay that you get from being 550 meters above the sea. In Monte you will find the Monte Palace Tropical Garden and the famous little church where lays the tomb of Charles I, the last emperor of Austria. You also have the option to take another cable car which runs from Monte to Quinta do Bom Sucesso and this is where you can find the Botanical gardens.
The cable car departure station is at Almirante Reis park, which is in Funchal Old Town. This is where you can purchase your tickets and begin the journey. The trip from here and up to Monte is about 15 minutes long and offers some magnificent views of the city. Rising 560 meters along the way, the scenery starts out in an urban landscape while floating above red rooftops and slowly changes to that of lush green mountains and valleys, with the bay of Funchal as a backdrop.
A one way trip up to Monte will cost you 11 EUR and a return trip will cost 16 EUR. If you opt for the one way option you can ride back down on the traditional wicker toboggan to get the adrenaline flowing. Dating back to the 1850s, these basket sleds were originally used as a fast means of transport down to Funchal for people living in Monte. Today, it’s a big tourist attraction and a must do on just about every first timers guide to Madeira. If you want to enjoy the unique experience of sliding down to Funchal at high speeds on narrow, winding roads it will cost you around 25 EUR per person. This option is open from Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm.
Lastly, if you would like to explore the botanical gardens, you can purchase a round trip option for 31 EUR. This includes entrance into the botanical gardens. We didn’t make it here and opted for the return trip between Monte and Funchal. But the botanical gardens is said to be quite a magical experience.
Sao Vicente cave tour
One of our days in Madeira, we decided to do the Sao Vicente cave tour. The Sao Vicente caves were formed from a volcanic eruption about 890,000 years ago and were the first volcanic caves to be opened to the public in Portugal on 1 October 1996. Visitors can partake in a guided underground route running for over 1,000 m. The height of the caves ranges between 5 and 6 meters. It’s a very exciting tour filled with interesting facts and unique lava rock formations. At the end of the cave tour you have access to the volcano centre where you can watch an educational video, engage with audiovisual displays and experience a simulation of the birth of the Madeira islands. This tour was well worth the 7 EUR fee. The staff here really go out of their way to make it entertaining and educational!
Another great thing about our trip here was the area itself! Sao Vicente is a charming little village found on Madeira’s north coast, situated at the end of the valley where the formation of the island started. The lush green, mountainous setting and coastal smell make for a truly beautiful setting. After our tour we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a cute little beachside restaurant. Sao Vicente was one of my favourite parts of our trip.
Swim in the natural pools of Lido
The Lido swimming pools are one of the most popular bathing areas and one of the best on Madeira island. You will find this one on just about every first timers guide to Madeira. Situated on the edge of the sea, visitors to the Lido pools have access to a large and small seawater pool, as well as direct access to the sea for those who prefer to swim in the ocean. There are sunbeds, lockers, changing rooms, a snack bar, and lifeguards on duty here, and it’s the perfect place to enjoy a warm summer’s day with a sea breeze.
Aside from the pool complex, Lido is the most famous area of Funchal. There are tons of hotels, restaurants, shops, cafes, pubs and bars to be found here. It’s a great place to spend an evening. The Lido promenade is lined with palm trees and bordered by the sea on one side and beautiful botanical gardens on the other. It’s a beautiful area and if I’m ever back in Madeira I would love to stay here.
Things to keep in mind
I fell in love with this island. It turned into a trip that was beyond my wildest dreams which is why I hope that this first timers guide to Madeira inspires you to visit this beautiful destination. But, before I wrap it up, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Hire a car
While we had absolutely no idea what to expect when it came to driving around Madeira, we were certain that we would need a car. And we weren’t wrong. If you’re only on the island for a couple of days and are happy to stay in Funchal then you could probably survive without a car. But, if you want to explore the rest of Madeira then you need to hire a car. Now, I can’t sugar coat it since this is a first timers guide to Madeira, driving here is a challenge. The roads are extremely steep, narrow, and windy and you really need to have your wits about you. Just think about a continuous maze of roads, winding up and down close to 90 degree hills. Thank goodness my boyfriend drove.
Nevertheless I would highly recommend hiring a car. We wouldn’t have seen or experienced most of what we did if we were relying on the bus service. Also keep in mind that you need to hire a fairly decent car. Although it may cost a little more, it is necessary and will be worth it. Thankfully we didn’t have any problems with our car, but it did struggle to get up the endless hills and mountains. If we find ourselves back in Madeira, we will invest in a better car!
It’s not about the beaches
This is a first timers guide to Madeira tip that I was thankfully aware of before our trip. I am a complete beach girl and try to revolve almost every trip around the beach. However, I also love the ocean and am quite content with being surrounded by the sea, even if there is no beach. But, if you are looking for golden sandy beaches and coconuts, then Madeira island is probably not for you. Most of Madeira’s beaches are pebbled and covered in black volcanic sand. Golden sand beaches can be found in Calheta and Machico where the sand has been imported to build a man-made beach. Although it’s lacking in beaches, the natural pools in both Lido and Porto Santo are wonderful places to go for a “beach day.” Madeira is all about the lush green scenery, the mountains and the sea.
I would go back to Madeira in a heartbeat! Have you been before? What are your thoughts?
Love and Light