Aesthetically African but culturally European, Madeira embraces the spirit of Portugal with its own additions. Aside from producing world-famous wine, Madeira is most famous for its diverse landscape made possible by the subtropical climate. Endemic flora and fauna, waterfall trails and picturesque villages that sit atop mountains all define this larger-than-life region. While the sea views are irresistible, you’ll find that the biggest enigmas lie inland. Here are our top picks on where you should go for your first time in Madeira.
Kick off your travel plans in Cristiano Ronaldo’s hometown
Before your journey into the wilderness begins, we recommend spending some time in Madeira’s capital first. More than just a base for travel, this city is an amalgamation of the archipelago’s best qualities. From the “painted door” projects nestled in cosy alleyways to an East Asian inspired Tropical Garden & Palace that resides over the city, Funchal is photogenic at all angles.
If you’re a Manchester United fan, you might have heard of Funchal before. This capital is the proud hometown of one of the world’s most iconic footballers: Cristiano Ronaldo. Visiting his own CR7 Museum is a must for any football fan in the area, especially since entry is only €5. Learn more about the powerhouse through photographs and interactive displays that only take half an hour to explore. Although you could kill time quite easily staring at all 200 of his trophies.
Visit a village that looks like Animal Crossing
Since you cannot actually live inside the world of Animal Crossing, a detour to Santana is the next best thing. You’ll find picturesque parishes across the entire island, but what makes this northern municipality one of a kind is the style of houses. Shaped almost like a tepee, these triangular shaped houses have a thatched roof with two window shutters on the front. As a final touch, they are brightly painted in white, red and blue.
Madeirans no longer live in these traditional houses, but they represent the island’s unique cultural heritage nonetheless. Beyond how they look, the design was purposeful and utilised local resources. It’s cottage-core but with an island twist.
Not far from here is the Quiemadas Forest Park, where you’ll find a variation of the Old Casas de Santana. This enchanted setting not only makes for the perfect picture, but a convenient rest-stop while hiking the rich laurel forest.
Step into a spell-binding forest
Madeira has several magic tricks up its sleeve, but none compare to the Laurisilva of Madeira. Praised by UNESCO as an outstanding relic, this is the world’s largest surviving area of Laurel forest. This rich vegetation type is confined to only three island clusters (Madeira, the Azores and Canary Islands), but this particular forest has some individual traits as well.
There are 500 species endemic to the region, including two types of birds — including the Madeira long-toed pigeon. But what makes this area so recognisable are the curved barks and branches that belong to Fanal Forest. This indigenous forestland has a diverse array of flora, with some trees believed to be over 800 years old. The forest itself is estimated to be 20 million years old.
You could spend hours imagining yourself as a Tolkien character uncovering the hidden depths of this earthy destination. But if you ever feel like crawling out of Middle Earth, consider a hike up the nearby Pico Ruivo. As the highest peak in Madeira, this trail is shy of 11km and well-suited to any trekker that likes to be challenged. Find out more here.
Chase the 25 Waterfalls hiking trail
Speaking of long hikes, you’ll want to pack some snacks (and a bathing suit) for this next itinerary suggestion. The official route’s one way there and back, but is kept in great condition as it’s one of Madeira’s most popular hiking routes. It takes around 3–4 hours to complete and is a moderate hike, so definitely not as daunting as Pico Ruivo.
Once you’ve seen the light at the end of the man-made tunnels (all part of the experience), you’ll be greeted with vantage points of the 25 Fontes Falls. This hidden gem gets its name from the lagoon being formed by 25 different water springs that descend from the Paul da Serra mountains: the archipelago’s largest mountain plateau.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can go wild swimming inside the lagoon. The water is quite cold, but it’s a welcomed refreshment after hours spent hiking in sunny Madeira.
Where to go for beaches
Madeira’s main island has plenty of strengths, but if your priorities are white sand beaches, you might want to look to Porto Santo instead. It’s the polar opposite of the main island, with a flat terrain of mostly white sand beaches. It’s perfect for anyone whose ideal holiday is unwinding at a luxury resort. But if you’re the type of person who gets bored easily, you’re better off sticking to the main island.
With that said, there are a few different beaches on Madeira’s main island which may catch your eye. They’re quite unconventional, but when has Madeira’s beauty ever been ordinary?
Ponta do Sol: Considered to be the “prettiest town in Madeira”, time spent in this seaside town is good for the soul. Its name translates to “point of the sun”, which is fitting since this area is the brightest on the island and transformed at sunset. Enjoy fresh seafood, long walks on the pebble beach and swimming in the mild sea at Madeira’s most easy-going destination.
Seixal: Ever visited a black sand beach, or swam in a natural rock pool? Madeira’s northwest coast makes this dream a reality, but keeps a humble attitude while doing so. The best things in Seixal are free and right by the sea.
Ribiera da Janela: Madeira’s inland is not the only thing that peaks. If you want to ride some waves while away, check out this up-and-coming surfer’s cove. Its large pebble beach and rock formations all give this seaside destination quite the edge.