(Please note that to see more photos of our trip and to get more ideas of places to visit in Madeira, please visit our Instagram account: @sylsteveeurope)
(Please note also that this blogpost is very detailed and was designed to provide as many tips as possible for anyone coming to Madiera as a visitor.)
WE LOVE MADEIRA! As I am writing this, we are on day 12 of the Madeira portion of our six month trip through Portugal and France. We will be on this beautiful island for 10 more days: so many more hikes, levada walks, towns, and restaurants to explore! But let’s backtrack a bit…
Thankfully, our exit from Canada and entry to Portugal and Madeira went smoothly (please be sure the read the bottom of my previous post for important info regarding documentation to come here).
Upon arrival in the Funchal airport in Madeira, we were greeted warmly by Javier of Auto-Rent-A-Car who drove us to his office in Funchal where we picked up our standard Renault Clio. Fortunately, Steve knows how to drive a stick shift, because automatic cars here are impossible to find (and outrageously expensive). By the way, if you ever visit Madeira, yes, you need a car to get around and explore the island. No, this is not a biking destination: the hills are way too steep. (Btw, we were told by fellow travellers that we met here later that much better deals can be found on Rentalcars.com)
In a very short time, we have fallen in love with many aspects of Madeira. Madeirans are extremely friendly people and the food and breathtaking natural surroundings and hikes are unparallelled.
Food: Being surrounded by the Atlantic ocean, it is no surprise that fish is a main staple here. When you walk up to a fish counter in any supermarket, you have a vast array of fresh fish to choose from. Steve once asked (with the help of Google Translate) what fish is the freshest and the fishmonger replied “Tudo!”. Steve has learned to grill fish to perfection on the charcoal grill at our rental property, and, combined with the fresh vegetables all grown on the island, we have been eating extremely well. Tomatoes taste like real tomatoes. The oranges, mangos and passionfruit burst with flavour.
Every now and then we treat ourselves to a meal at a restaurant and most meals, with wine, will cost no more than 30 euros (app. $42). One thing that has surprised us is that the Madeirans seem to like to boil their vegetables and serve them soft when served with a meal. Boiled potatoes, too, is a common presence on dinner plates. I haven’t seen many grilled vegetables, or vegetables cooked “al dente” which is the way we are used to serving them. Salads are always delicious and served with only oil and vinegar, enhancing the natural flavours of the fresh ingredients.
Grocery stores: On Madeira Island there are two main grocery stores: Pingo Doce and Continente. You can get pretty well anything you need in these stores, including fresh fish (be sure to ask them to clean out the fish first). Most towns on the south side of the island have one of these stores. They are harder to find on the north side. We were surprised to discover that most towns do not have specialised stores like for fish, meat, fresh produce, etc. It seems that the two large chain stores have taken over the small businesses.
Language: Most Madeirans in the service industry (especially in tourism) speak very good English. Outside of the service industry, many people have at least a passable knowledge of English, but if they don’t, a few hand gestures and the use of Google Translate will get you through most interactions. Here are some useful phrases (tap links to hear pronunciations by tapping the speaker icon. You will likely be prompted to log into your Google account. Use the back button after listening to return to this page):
- Good morning/day = Bom Dia
- Good afternoon = Boa tarde
- Good evening/night = Boa noite
- Thank you = Obrigado (if you identify as a man); Obrigada (if you identify as a woman).
- You’re welcome = De nada
- Hello/Hi = Olá
- Goodbye = Adeus
- Bye = Tchau
- Yes = Sim
- No = Não
- Do you have… = Você tem…
- Sorry = Desculpe
- Excuse me = Desculpe-me
- How much is this? = Quanto é este?
- I don’t speak/understand Portuguese = Eu não falo/compreendo português
- Delicious = Delicioso
- What kind of fish is this? = Que tipo de peixe é este?
- One = Um
- Two = Dois
- Three = Três
- Four = Quatro
- Five = Cinco
- Six = Seis
- Seven = Sete
- Eight = Oito
- Nine = Nove
- Ten = Dez
Tip: Download the Google Translate app onto your phone and save these phrases and others you need by tapping the star symbol. Practice them whenever you can (waiting in line, waiting for food, etc.) by tapping the star symbol at the bottom of your screen. Your saved list will come up.
Hiking: Just wow. Madeira is a mecca for all outdoor and hiking enthusiasts. Every hike we do, we think it’s the best one we have ever done, until we do the next one!
Choosing what hike to do can be a little overwhelming because there are so many.
A must-have is the WalkMe – Madeira app. You can filter hikes by level of difficulty and distance. There’s also a nifty “To do” list that you can save, and a “Done” list that you can add your hikes to. This app has most of the popular trails but not all. AllTrails app has additional trails.
Another great source of information for hiking is to ask other people that you meet on the island (travellers and locals) what their favourites hikes are.
These are the hikes/walks/levada that we have done so far (and we have loved them all):
- Lido Promenade Funchal: Lovely stroll along the Funchal port with seaside restaurants and bars.
- Câmara de Lobos to Funchal promenade: This is a 2 hour walk each way which has beautiful sections but some sections you need to walk along a road with the cars. The route is not clearly marked so you may have to ask locals for directions.
- Levada das 25 Fontes: An extremely popular hike, be sure to visit the Rabaçal Nature Spot Cafe either at near the beginning or end of your hike (depending where you start).
- Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço: Probably our favourite. Also called “The Dragon’s Tail”. This also has a nice café near the end.
- Levada do Paul: Breathtaking views but extremely dangerous. We had to stop half way. Worth going as far as you can!
- Levada do Moinho/Levada Nova: We loved this but got confused at the end of the Moinho trail: we couldn’t find how it joined to the Nova trail. Had to backtrack and go up some stairs to find it.
- Fanal Forest: A magical forest of ancient trees. People like to take pictures in the fog but we went on a sunny day and loved it! You can drive directly there and walk around (which we did) or you can hike there.
- Vereda do Larano: GORGEOUS coastal views! We drove to the Teleférico da Fajã do Larano (just outside of Porto da Cruz), parked our car on the narrow road, and walked east, continuing along the road we just drove on, which eventually narrows to the Vereda do Larano. You can continue to hike right to Machico, but we just stopped after an hour, had our picnic lunch, then returned to our car. In Porto da Cruz we passed by A Pipa restaurant with huge line ups and regretted having already had lunch because the food looked amazing! We visited the Casa do Rum instead, and had delicious passionfruit ponchas.
Here are some terms that you will come across while hiking or looking at maps:
- Boca = Mouth
- Câmara = Chamber
- Caminho = Path
- Cascata = Waterfall
- Fajã= Flat surface by the sea
- Farol = Lighthouse
- Lagoa = Lagoon
- Levada = Aqueduct
- Miradouro = Viewpoint
- Pico = Peak
- Ponta = Point
- Porto = Port
- Praia = Beach
- Ribeira = Stream
- Saída = Exit
- Vereda = Trail
Miradouros: There are many breathtaking miradouros (viewpoints) in Madeira that you can drive to if you don’t feel like hiking (click here for a map). Anytime you pass a sign for a miradouro while driving, you should always stop and take a look! For a spectacular view of Funchal, check out the glass-bottomed Cabo Girão Miradoura in Câmara De Lobos.
Teleféricos: There are a number of teleféricos on the island (cable cars) and you should also try a few of them if you visit. Click here for a map. We spent a magical afternoon at Fajá da Quebrada Nova after descending down the Achadas da Cruz cable car.
Be sure to have a poncha at the beach bar, made by the wonderful Andreina.
(Note that some cable cars might not be operating in low season. Also, be prepared to hike up the cliff in case the cable car stops working after bringing you down – it happened to us!).
Our favourite towns: With the exception of Porto Moniz, all of our favourite towns so far are on the south shore.
- Funchal (pop. 112k)is the main city of Madeira is a 20 drive from the airport. It is a great city with wonderful parks, promenades and restaurants. Be sure to check out the Lido Promenade Funchal and the Funchal Farmer’s Market (closed Sundays and Mondays). Note that many travellers claim that some of the fruit sellers at the market have reputations for ripping off tourists. Stroll through Old Funchal (all around the market) and admire the architecture and cobble-stoned streets.
- Câmara de Lobos: Lovely fishing village just outside of Funchal. Great restaurants on the water. We loved the Pier One Grill Restaurant, and drinks in the outdoor terrace at Pestana Churchill Bay Hotel.
- Ribeira Brava: Vibrant town with many sea front restaurants and cafés. There is a nice fresh produce store on the main street (Mercado Municipal da Ribeira Brava) and a Pingo Doce around the corner.
- Ponta do Sol: This is the town that our villa is in. It is small with a handful of restaurants. Reputed to be the sunniest spot on Madeira.
- Jardim do Mar: Great place to watch surfers because the waves are huge, with a really nice promenade to walk along the water. We had a yummy lunch at Joe’s Bar.
- Paul do Mar: More great surfing views, but not much else in this town.
- Porto Moniz: Really nice town, more modern and spacious than other. Its main draw is the natural swimming pools amongst the hardened lava. One pool you have to pay to get in, the other (further east along the water) is smaller but free, which we liked better. Poça’s Café is a great spot for a drink or lunch.
Other favourite places:
- Palheiro Golf course: This golf course has breathtaking views over Funchal and is a great walking work out with all of the hills. Be sure to stop for coffee/tea and a snack at the Palheiro Village Tea house (get the Casa Velha cake) and drinks or lunch at the Clubhouse Restaurant with magnificent views. Steve says he had one of the best burgers in his life there.
- Palheiro Gardens: These gorgeous gardens are right next to the golf course and there are many walking trails that go through them.
- Ponta do Pargo Lighthouse and museum: A great spot for lighthouse enthusiasts, with beautiful views. You can drive here or park at Casa de Cha O Fio (Tea house with a stunning view) and walk down through a field with grazing cows, which is what we did – highly recommended!
- Restaurante dos Combatentes (Funchal): I loved the grilled sardines. Steve loved the meatballs.
- Casa de Cha O Fio Tea house: Magnificent views and best lemon cake in the world.
- Pier One Grill Restaurant (Câmara de Lobos): Great view of the bay and wonderful seafood. Get the Camarões (prawns) and the Lapas (a type of shellfish).
- Beira Calhau restaurant (on the walk from Câmara de Lobos to Funchal). Seaside views with delicious food. Get the grilled octopus with potatoes.
- Steak and Sun (Ponta do Sol): Best tuna steak I have ever had, cooked rare, cuts like butter.
- The Old Pharmacy (Ponta do Sol): Nice vibe surrounded by knick-knacks that you can purchase as souvenirs. The menu is not easy to understand, even in English. Ask the server what they recommend.
- Restaurante Borda d’Agua (Ribeira Brava): Great spot to watch the surf and have a drink.
- Poça’s Café in Porto Moniz: Perfect place to have a drink or a snack with a view of the beautiful natural swimming pool. Try the banana milkshake: delish!
Shopping: One of the things we love about Madeira is the limited commercialism. You will not find lots of tacky touristy souvenir shops everywhere. If you require anything specific (like electronics, hardware, eyeglasses, etc), there are a couple of large shopping malls in Funchal that has just about everything you can imagine. Madeira Shopping Mall and Forum Madiera are two that we have visited. If you need hiking gear, Decathlon is where you can find it (in Funchal).
Weather: Click here for a good overview of the monthly weather in Madeira. From November to May, the average temperature ranges from 18C to 21C. From June to October the average temperature ranges from 24C to 26C. Most of the rainfall occurs during the winter months, but even on days that called for rain, we have found sunny spots around the island (our stay here is from Jan. 9 – 30). The wind coming off the Atlantic can be significant, particularly when you are high on a hill.
Accommodations: Because of the strong wind, I would avoid places that are high on a hill or mountain, especially during the cooler months. We stayed in a wonderful hillside villa with a gorgeous view that was very reasonable priced, but many days we couldn’t sit outside because it was so windy. And the wind would howl inside the house at all hours. Some days we felt like we were in the middle of a hurricane! For this reason, the next time we come, we will try to find a place closer to the shore.
I also recommend staying on the south shore which has more sun than the north shore. I would look for a place in Câmara de Lobos, Ribeira Brava, or Ponta Do Sol. The closer you can get to the water in these towns, the better, because that is where all the action is. We had to drive into town every time we wanted to go to a restaurant and it would have been much nicer just walking.
Driving in Madeira: Because of the insanely steep hills and narrow streets, driving in Madeira can be very challenging. In fact, if you (or your travel companion) don’t feel comfortable driving a standard car, I would sadly advise you not to come to this beautiful island unless you have ample money for taxis and private tours. There is a bus system which I haven’t investigated.
On Madeira roads there are many roundabouts. If you aren’t use to them, they can be very confusing when trying to follow directions. My advice is to turn on Google Maps voice directions on your phone which will give specific directions like “Take the 2nd exit on the roundabout”.
When you use Google Maps to search for driving directions for a town like “Ponta do Sol”, you need to be specific about where you are going in the town or you will end up in some random spot somewhere in the vicinity of where you want to go. Instead, search for something like “Praia de Ponta do Sol” or “Ponta do Sol beach”. Or, use a specific address if you have one.
Because it is low season, we have not had any problems finding parking spots on the street everywhere in Madeira. Every now and then we need to use a parking garage and then things get complicated as we try to figure out the payment system. All garages we have used so far require you pay at a machine before you get back into your car. But the methods seem to vary: sometimes it’s a paper ticket, other times it’s a yellow plastic token. Sometimes you can validate your ticket at the store you were shopping at. Madeirans are very helpful, so just ask around if you’re not sure.
COVID19 in Madeira
Yes, COVID19 is here. Today, 1,583 new cases were recorded. That sounds like a lot for a population of 270,000 residents. Yet life goes on as normal here. Restaurants and stores are open and proof of vaccine is never asked for. Everyone has to wear a mask indoors and outdoors when around other people. Portugal ranks as the second country in the world for percentage of population vaccinated against COVID at 94% (in contrast, Canada stands at #7 with 84%) so the mindset seems to be “business-as-usual”.
There are many free walk-in clinics for COVID testing for residents that we see everywhere. Madierans are mandated to be tested once a week (perhaps this is why the rates are so high?). I don’t know if they allow tourists to use the free clinics.
Other random things you should know about Madeira:
- Currency is Euros. ApplePay is accepted everywhere.
- Good to have some cash too because some parking machines and stores/restaurants only take cash. The exchange rate is crazy-high at the ATM’s, so try to bring a lot of Euros with you ahead of time.
- Wifi is very strong in our villa and I assume it’s similarly good around the island.
- We bought SIM cards as soon as we arrived at a Vodaphone store. We paid 20 euros for 10GB. We need to renew this every month by returning to the store, which is rather inconvenient.
- Weirdly, there do not seem to be many bugs here. We have not seen one mosquito: As Canadians, we are very happy about this! Tiny little ants have appeared on our honey lid on the kitchen counter, but that’s pretty well it. We haven’t even seen flies!
- You will need European plug adapters for your devices. I ordered these from Amazon.com and they have worked really well.
- The tap water is perfectly safe here. If you are on a budget and you ask for water at a restaurant, specify tap water (água da torneira) otherwise they will bring you expensive bottled (it’s as expensive as beer and wine).
- Milk (leite) is not refrigerated in stores, so look for cartons on the shelves. You will have two choices: Gordo (whole milk) and Meio-Gordo (partially skimmed).
- Butter (manteiga) comes in plastic containers like margarine.
Phew! That’s it for now. We will be adding to this post as we discover more great things about Madeira and as we come up with more tips for future travellers. Do we recommend travelling to Madeira? 100%: Put it on your bucket list!
Have you been to Madeira? What have I missed? What are some of your favourite spots? Please comment below!