Madeira is the European destination missing from your bucket list.
Old-world charm, stunning vistas, historic sites, and incredible eats are all part of what makes Western Europe a must-see in every traveler’s eyes. But a trip to this little-known Portuguese island off the coast of Northern Africa made me wonder why it’s not at the top of everyone’s list.
Apparently, it’s been the escape from dreary UK weather for years, with British seniors escaping to the island in droves. It’s easy to see why. With year-round, gorgeously temperate weather (locals consider temperatures below 70 chilly), fantastic food, and otherworldly views, I quickly realized why the Brits kept it their little secret. Here are 10 reasons I fell in love with Madeira (and why you will, too).
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Sail Through the Streets on Madeira’s Traditional Mode of Transport
Start your trip to Madeira with a rousing ride on a traditional Monte wicker sled or toboggan. The traditional Madeiran mode of transport was thought to be used by the island’s wealthy and elite, who lived at the top of city in Monte, to quickly zip down to Funchal’s town center in the 19th century. And zip they do! With the advent of the automobile, the wicker toboggans were obsolete, but stuck around as a thrill ride for tourists. For just 25 euros, carreiros, the operators of the toboggans, will whip you through the storied streets of Monte, grooved from years of sledding. The curved and winding roads make for an exciting, yet safe ride that lasts about five minutes. But in your brief time in the toboggan, you’ll get incredible views of the island and can see clearly through the hills straight to the ocean.
INSIDER TIPThe toboggans can be reached by taking a ride on the equally thrilling Funchal cable cars that soar above the island. A round-trip ticket can be purchased for 16 euros.
Sip on Madeira’s Most Well-known Export
As a country, Portugal is known for its incredible wine, but Madeira wine might be its most notable. Often likened to port and sherry, Madeira wine can only be produced in Madeira (much like Champagne in the Champagne region of France). Additionally, Madeira wine is actually heated in a process that gives it its distinctly warm, nutty flavor. But that’s enough shop talk. If you’re wondering how it tastes, head to Blandy’s tasting room in Funchal. The family has been the country’s largest producer of Madeira wine since the early 1800s, cementing themselves as one of the OG producers of the delicious aperitif. Their beautiful, modern tasting room sits in the heart of the city, in an area that once held jail cells. Now, the sweet scents of Madeira wine, oak, and Palo Santo perfume the streets, beckoning you to the tasting room where you can imbibe on a variety of the producer’s offerings. (And yes, they’re delicious.)
INSIDER TIPRum tasting more up your alley? Try 970’s rum tour and tasting experience.
Take a Day Trip to Porto Moniz
A trip to Madeira wouldn’t be complete without a dip in its famed natural pools at Porto Moniz. Formed by volcanic rock, the pools are naturally filled with the Atlantic’s waters and offer sweeping, elevated views of the sea, surrounding beaches, and tide pools. A picturesque alternative to the standard beach day, Porto Moniz conveniently offers a changing area, children’s pools, and a small café where guests can grab a snack, a coffee or tea, or a shot of the island’s infamous Poncha (we’ll get to it) before taking another dip. We highly recommend making a trip to this beach area, the photos alone are worth it.
Tackle Your Fears (And Unleash Your Inner Adrenaline Junkie)
If the fun, yet fairly tame excitement of a Madeiran toboggan ride wasn’t enough to whet your palate, meet canyoning. Essentially a catch-all term for the act of rappelling, swimming, and hiking your way off a mountain (seriously), this terrifying, yet extremely fun extreme sport is a great way to kill a few early morning hours in Madeira. If we haven’t scared you away just yet, we highly recommend tours through Discovery Island Madeira. Their trained experts navigate you through the mountains safely and keep the tour high energy and exhilarating, even when you’re feeling less like Indiana Jones and more like a damp, cold bar rag. By the end of the tour, you’ll feel invigorated, euphoric, and completely badass–and be rewarded with incredible views from what feels like the top of the world.
Feast on Amazing Seafood
Seafood exists in abundance in Madeira since, after all, it is an island. You can find incredible freshly caught fish daily at the Mercado dos Lavradores in Funchal or treat yourself to a meal anywhere on the island where you can find a variety of unique seafood dishes. The island is especially known for scabbardfish, a deep-sea dwelling fish that locals liken to monsters. Scary looking? Yes. Delicious? Also, yes! These eel-like creatures often get served up with a passionfruit sauce, so look for “Espada preta” on Madeiran menus. Island staples also include amazing octopus dishes as well as limpets or lapas, a Madeiran shellfish similar to a mussel or clam that’s served with butter and warm bread.
Take a Shot (Or Two, or Three) Of Poncha
On a food tour on the island, my guide revealed she stopped drinking Poncha in her early twenties after she awoke from a long night of partying (and drinking Poncha) only to find herself in a bush. After one sip, it’s not hard to see why. Poncha, while delicious, can lead to random sing-a-longs in a foreign language, spontaneous dancing, and the kinds of “Woooooos!” usually reserved for bachelorette parties. It’s a deliciously simple concoction of sugar cane rum, honey, and lemon or orange juice and everyone on the island drinks it. Some variations even include passionfruit juice, a fruit synonymous with Madeira. All are potent. It’s widely available all over the island in any bar or restaurant you head into. But careful! You’ve been warned.
Hike Through Beautiful Rainforest Terrain
Believe it or not, Madeira is covered in subtropical forest or Laurel forest throughout the island and is one of three known surviving areas with this kind of subtropical density (including sister islands the Azores, and the Canary Islands). There’s a reason why it’s often dubbed “The Hawaii of Europe.” When you’re not spending your time on the island on the beach or in town, take a trek through the jungle where you can discover native wildlife (nothing hairy or scary, we promise), roadside stands selling coffees, liquors, and vintage clothing, and a bounty of 360-degree ocean views.
Eat, Drink, and Stay In Funchal, Amazing at Any Price Point
Funchal is the main city of Madeira, and in my opinion, the best place to stay on the island. It’s a central-enough hub that has everything you need and would find in any major European city plus, its a short drive away from other popular areas of the island. There’s so much to do, you can visit Madeira for a week and never leave Funchal itself. Best of all, it’s extremely walkable and you can find yourself in any of its neighborhoods in minutes. Restaurant-wise, we loved carnivore paradise Kampo’s hearty and flavorful small plates and were entranced and inspired by futurist meets fine-dinging spot The Wanderer and their gastronomic delights. For a quick and delicious bite, stop by Christalina Chique Bar just outside the farmers market and order the pork sandwich, it’s a must. It’s a long-time post-farmers market neighborhood staple (and word on the street, the best casual spot to grab a late-night, post-Poncha sando.)
Wondering where to stay? The island offers a range of resorts from affordable to ultra-luxurious. The Cliff Bay errs a bit more conservative and traditional, but won’t break the bank and has amazing pools (and a truly A+ breakfast buffet). Savoy Palace is trendy and modern, with delicious dining and gorgeous rooms. If you’re feeling like a splurge, the stately and historic Reid’s Palace might fit the bill, or opt for Quinta de Casa Branca, a truly magnificent property housed on a botanical garden that used to be the home of literal royalty.
When you’re not wining, dining, or Poncha’ing, hit Madeira’s streets and head to the marina for a lovely seaside walk, relax in one of its many cafes, and stroll the city center for wares and gifts to bring back home.
Eat Farm (And Ocean) To Table Style at Faja Dos Padres
About 40 minutes outside of Funchal proper, you’ll find the seaside farm at Faja dos Padres, a secluded secret just a cable car ride away. Here, you won’t find a crowded, tourist-packed beach, but a beautiful, expansive farm with exotic fruits and vegetables in a rustic, island setting. Its beachfront restaurant features simple, ultra-fresh food prepared with those same fruits and vegetables and seafood plucked straight from the ocean in front of you. Perfect for a daytime jaunt, Faja dos Padres keeps things super simple and feels like a hidden, bountiful oasis on the island.
Ring in the New Year, Madeira-style
Because of its year-round warm weather, Madeira is the perfect place to run to for a winter holiday. And there’s no better time than New Year’s Eve. The island is known globally for its New Years’ celebrations, with ships docking in the harbor just for the occasion. All of Funchal is decked out in thousands of lights, and it all ends with an incredible fireworks display across the island. The celebration is so huge, it’s even been recognized as the world’s biggest fireworks display by the Guinness Book of World Records. Escape frigid temperatures, tired parades, and overcrowded bars and spend New Years’ Eve in Madeira.