Are you planning a vacation to Madeira? Great! The island in the middle of the Atlantic is an amazing place, with luxuriant nature and breathtaking panoramas. Its capital is Funchal, a city that emerged in the 14th century after the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers.
1. Guided walks in the old town
In 1419, the navigators Tristão Vaz Teixeira, Bartolomeu Perestrelo and João Gonçalves Zarco arrived in Madeira. In the beginning, this island in the middle of the Atlantic gained importance thanks to the cultivation of sugar and in a few years it became an obligatory stop for ships going to or returning from the Americas.
Guided tours are the perfect way to understand the idiosyncrasies of Madeira. Funchal is the main center and its foundation dates back to the 15th century. As usual, the routan touches the following landmarks:
Rua de Santa Maria, a street with dozens of painted doors. These works of street art have revalued a part of the old town. Numerous bars and restaurants serving local food are concentrated here.
Sé do Funchal, the cathedral and the most important temple of the whole archipelago. The architectural style is a mixture of Gothic and Manueline.
Mercado dos Lavradores, one of the most authentic places in Funchal. It was inaugurated in the 1940s and is decorated with typical Portuguese tiles. Its star products are strelitzia (the flower of Madeira, they also sell seeds) and tropical fruits.
Forte de São Tiago, the bastion that defended the port from pirate attacks. It now houses a contemporary art museum, temporary exhibitions and the Restaurante do Forte.
Colégio dos Jesuítas, a 16th century religious building.
Price: 10 euros or a little more
Duration: 2 hours or little more
Recommended for those who want to discover the history of Madeira's capital.
2. Food and wine tour in Funchal
In Madeira, Lusitanian recipes have come into contact with Creole and African cuisine. The result is a varied and tasty gastronomy that benefits from both fresh fish and inland meats. A guided gastronomic tour will give you the opportunity to taste the most famous specialties:
- Bolo do Caco, the typical bread of the island. On the outside, it is characterized by its circular and flattened shape, with a crunchy crust that shelters a soft interior. It is made with flour, sweet potatoes, yeast, water and salt.
- Madeira soup, with tomato, carrot and onion. If you eat it hot, it is served with a poached egg on top.
- Lapas grelhadas, the traditional appetizer. Be careful, they arrive at the table in a very hot pan. The mollusks are seasoned with a sauce based on garlic butter, parsley, lemon juice and a pinch of salt.
- Espetada, Madeira's most emblematic recipe. It is a delicious skewer of roasted veal with a few bay leaves. If you want to repeat, you will find the best at Polar restaurant (Rua do Pico da Torre 26).
- Sable, swordfish served with fried banana, passion fruit sauce and boiled potatoes.
- Bolo de mel, a cake made with sugar cane honey, cinnamon, almonds, Madeira wine, orange and other ingredients. It is a typical Christmas recipe although it can be found at other times of the year. In Funchal, the best is at Fábrica Santo António ( Travessa do Forno 27).
These gastronomic routes include the local wine, a robust variety made according to the estufagem method. The wine rests for at least three months in stainless steel tanks that maintain a temperature of 45º/50º. The guide will tell you the story behind this unique process.
- Price: more or less 70 €.
- Duration: about 3 hours
- Recommended for those who want to discover the local specialties.
3. Funchal and surroundings by bus 3 in 1
This route has the classic hop-on/hop-off formula: you can get on and off whenever you want. As for the schedule, the first departure is at 10:30 am and the last one at about 4:30 pm.
Both are suitable for those who want to make the most of their stay in Funchal.
Funchal and Câmara de Lobos
The bus travels through the capital of Madeira and its most famous spots. It then reaches the municipality of Câmara de Lobos. Here are the main stops:
- Avenida do Mar, where the marina of Funchal is located. From here depart some of the best boat trips in Madeira.
- Funchal cable car, connects the city with the Botanical Garden and the town of Monte. You can find more information and tickets on the official website.
- Funchal Cathedral, founded in the 15th century by Manuel I, the king who achieved the maximum expansion of the Portuguese empire.
- Bordal, a historic factory that produces sheets, handkerchiefs, towels and other embroidered products in the Madeira style. To get an idea, you can take a look at the Instagram profile.
- Madeira Casino, you will recognize it by its futuristic look. Indeed, it was designed by a famous Brazilian architect: Óscar Niemeyer. For more information I recommend you to check out his website.
- São Martinho Cemetery
- Pestana Promenade, the 4-star hotel born from the partnership between Cristiano Ronaldo and Pestana (also close to other hotels: Belmond Reid's Palace, Porto Mare, Praia Formosa, The Cliff Bay, etc.).
- Doca do Cavacas, scenic natural swimming pools
Leaving the city, the bus arrives at Câmara de Lobos, one of the oldest villages on the island. It surrounds a bay of calm waters that welcomed the first Portuguese explorers. Its most characteristic elements are the white houses and the xavelhas, colorful boats typical of the archipelago of Madeira.
If you arrive at lunchtime, I recommend Vila do Peixe, a restaurant that offers traditional dishes prepared with fresh fish from the island. It also has a version for carnivores: Vila da Carne. Both are located at Rua Dr. João Abel de Freitas 30.
- Price: from 20 € (includes the successive route)
- Duration: about 2 hours
Cabo Girão is a panoramic point about 15 kilometers from Funchal. It is one of the highest cliffs in Europe and at its top there is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.
The bus will take you here and in a few minutes you can reach the glass walkway that offers an unparalleled view of the ocean.
If you look down, you will see a very small area where some small crops skim the waters. In Portuguese it is called Fajãs do Cabo Girão and in the past it was only accessible by boat. Today, a cable car connects the summit to the beach. Note that this attraction is not usually included in bus tours.
- Price: from 20 € (includes the above route)
- Duration: about 40 minutes
4. Blandy Winery Tour
In Madeira, wine arrived in the 15th century when Portuguese explorers began to move inland. The island was covered in jungle and the first settlers had no choice but to burn the forests to make their way through the vegetation. The ash left a very fertile stratum, perfect for the cultivation of vines.
Subsequently, five grape varieties began to arrive from the mainland: Boal, Malmsey, Tinta Negra Mole and Sercial. Madeira wines rest in barrels for a minimum of 3 years following the estufagem method.
In short, the broth is heated through vats fitted with serpentines until it reaches about 50º. The result is a fortified wine with a slightly smoky flavor.
There is also another method: canteiro. In this case, the heat is natural and the wine has to rest in the barrels for 20 to 100 years. By choosing this route you can learn more about the process and, why not, buy some bottles in the store.
In Funchal there is a privileged place to taste it: Blandy's Wine Lodge (Avenida Arriaga 28). This historic winery organizes guided tours in different languages, including Spanish.
Tours are available only from Monday to Saturday. On Sundays and holidays, Blandy's is closed to the public.
- Price: starting at 10 €.
- Duration: from 45 minutes
- Recommended for those interested in fortified wines.
5. Funchal Mountains Tour
Pico do Arieiro is the third highest peak on the island. It is almost 2000 meters high and from the highest point you can enjoy an incomparable view of the sea. Most of the excursions will pick you up at the hotel and take you to the heights. From there, you will start a walk to another nearby mountain: Pico Ruivo.
The path runs through a landscape of bare rocks, shaped by the action of volcanoes. On days with good visibility, the view can reach Ponta de São Lourenço, the easternmost part of Madeira. As usual, the excursion starts around 9:00 a.m. and foresees small groups.
- Price: about 40 €.
- Duration: about 8 hours
- Recommended for those who practice sport regularly.
Are there other attractions in Funchal?
Of course! The urban routes do not include all the landmarks of the capital. Below you will find ... activities and places you can't miss on your vacation:
- Botanical Garden, a colorful viewpoint on the hills of Funchal. It was born with the intention of preserving the endemic plants and flowers, although nowadays it also hosts species from other continents. Next to it is also the Jardim dos Loiros, the home of some colorful parrots. The price of a standard ticket is around 5 € (Quinta do Bom Sucesso, Caminho do Meio).
- 3D Fun Art Museum, the museum of optical illusions, you will get some amazing pictures (Rua do Surdo 24).
- Fortaleza de São João Baptista do Pico, the old gunpowder warehouse. From here you can enjoy an incomparable view (Rua do Castelo).
- Nossa Senhora do Monte Church, you will recognize it by its black and white facade in baroque style (Caminho Padre José Marques Jardim)
- Carreiros do Monte, the most original means of transportation on the island (and perhaps in all of Europe). Two men called carreiros will transport you from the cable car stop to the Livramiento area. So far everything seems regular but I have omitted something: you will go down the mountain in a wicker basket with wheels!
Is it worth visiting Funchal at Christmas?
Yes, at this time of the year, the capital of Madeira changes its skin. The Christmas lights are turned on December 1 and from this day on, the streets are filled with concerts, nativity scenes decorated with flowers (lapinhas) and Christmas markets in the central Arriaga Avenue.
On December 23, the Night of the Market takes place. Locals flock to the Mercado dos Lavradores to do their last shopping and sing Christmas carols. On this occasion, some streets are closed to traffic and the bars stay open all night. It is an authentic island ritual worth living.
If you travel to Madeira at Christmas you absolutely must try vinha d'alhos, pork marinated for at least two days in garlic, white wine, vinegar and bay leaves. One of the best is made at the Cica Restaurant inside the Mercado dos Lavradores.
What is the best time to visit Funchal?
In Madeira, average temperatures are around 20º all year round. Therefore, there is no bad season to book your flight. The rest depends on your tastes and aspirations.
If you are passionate about traditional festivals, I recommend a getaway in May. Throughout this month the Festa da Flor is celebrated, a tribute to spring and the most colorful flowers of the island. Jasmines, tulips, lilies and other colorful species embellish Praça do Povo, the Flower Market (Avenida Arriaga), Largo do Colégio and other spots in Funchal.
If you plan to go to Madeira for whale watching, you should choose your vacations in spring. In this time of the year there is more life than usual; you will see sperm whales, false killer whales, pilot whales and fin whales as well as monk seals, turtles and dolphins.
The latter are very friendly animals and usually approach the boats they already know. If you feel like seeing them up close and, why not, swimming with them, I recommend you to read the article explaining how to see dolphins in Madeira.
Is Funchal a good destination for children?
Of course! Madeira is an ideal choice for a family vacation. The subtropical climate and the numerous outdoor activities make it a very popular destination for the little adventurers. If you want to know more, I recommend you to read the article explaining what to see and do in Madeira with kids.
What are the best restaurants in Funchal?
After a tour of the city, I'm sure you'll be a little hungry. No problem, Madeira's gastronomy is rich, varied and exotic. Here are a few restaurants where you can taste the island's recipes:
- Taberna Ruel, a simple restaurant in the old town. It includes daring creations - for example, swordfish fillet with banana or passion fruit - and traditional Portuguese dishes (Rua de Santa Maria 119).
- O Celeiro, famous for decorating with antique wood, tapestries and tiles (in addition to the food, of course). It's worth booking a table if you fancy a seafood cataplana or octopus a lagareiro ( Rua dos Aranhas 22).
- Beef & Wines, for meat lovers. More than a restaurant, it is an authentic gastronomic experience (Avenida do Infante 60).
- O Clássico, traditional Portuguese cuisine overlooking the ocean. Some of its specialties are oven-roasted snapper, rice with wreckfish and passion fruit pudding (Estrada Monumental 239).
- PVP - Pão, Vinho e Petiscos, a place specializing in the cuisines of Madeira and Alentejo, the Portuguese region just above the more famous Algarve. It has a good selection of wines (Rua Simplício dos Passos Gouveia 24).
How to get to Funchal?
Normally there are no direct flights between the island and the main airports in Spain. If you travel in summer and fly from Madrid, with a little luck you can find a direct flight between Barajas and Funchal.
However, this is not common and in the vast majority of cases you will have to make a stopover in Lisbon or Porto.
Madeira airport is one of the most unique airports in Europe. It is located in the municipality of Santa Cruz and its runway is built on land reclaimed from the sea.
Since 2017, it has been named after the most famous footballer and character ever born on the island - Cristiano Ronaldo. By the way, if you are a fan of the Portuguese star, I recommend you to see his statue and the CR7 Museum (both on Avenida Sá Carneiro).
Once there, you can get to Funchal with the Aerobus of the company SAM Madeira Bus (5 € one way, 8 € round trip), a rental car or a cab. The last option is the most expensive: it usually costs at least 30 €.
Tips for a tour in Funchal
You have reached the end. Now you know how to organize a trip to the island in the middle of the Atlantic - just a few last tips:
- If you stay 7 days in Madeira and you want to save some money, you can do some organized excursions and hire a rental car for the other days.
- The roads of the island are in good condition. You just have to be a bit careful when driving in the mountains.
- Supermarket prices are higher than in Spain or Portugal. All goods have to arrive via boat or plane, so it often pays to eat out and not cook for yourself.
- Madeira's climate is mild but very variable. I recommend you to always carry a raincoat.