A ‘floating garden’ just 600km off the coast of Africa, this Portuguese paradise is the go-to for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike! Lapped on all sides by the bright blue waves of the Atlantic and blessed with year-round sun, the island’s stunning subtropical climes are just one of a very long list of reasons that Madeira should make it onto your bucket list.
Dramatic coastlines, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, towering mountain tops and ancient forests are somehow squeezed into a space just 35 miles long and 13 miles wide. Great news for the intrepid explorer of course, as you’re never far from the action! From the soaring heights of Pico Ruivo to the vintage villages that maintain their time-honoured traditions, Madeira is full of unmissable adventures.
This year, I was lucky enough to get to grips with the luscious landscapes for myself on a 10 day trip to the idyllic island. Here’s some of what I got up to…
Day 1 – Fabulous Funchal
Ready and raring to go, we made our way into the island’s capital, Funchal. Unfolding over a series of flattened terraces and steep hills, the only flat part of the city falls along the seafront. Colonial architecture sits next to more modern creations, while 15th century churches watch over the sun-baked walkways and exotic gardens.
Nestled at the foot of Funchal’s natural amphitheatre, lies the charming cobble streets of the Old Town. We bee-lined for the area of Rua de Santa Maria and quickly stumbled upon a collection of 200 ‘painted doors’ that local artists had turned into creative canvases. Every time you turn a corner a new set of Madeiran masterpieces are unveiled, from traditional styles to Banksy-esque techniques – it’s hard to pick a favourite!
Day 3 – Cabo Girão
Madeira is an island with countless claims to fame, but the soaring cliffs of Cabo Girão are one of the most memorable spots to visit. Standing at a whopping 580m above sea level, the solid rock face is Europe’s highest cape. We cautiously made our way across the spectacular skywalk, where just a sheet of glass separated us from the terrace fields below. It might feel a little unnatural at first, but once you get used to the sensation of seemingly walking on air – the panoramas are more than worth it. Undoubtedly the best view in the house, miles of aquamarine blue waters culminate in crashing waves at the base of the cliffs. Although I have to admit, looking directly down was a little hair-raising at times!
Day 4 – Gardens and Toboggans
After getting to grips with the main part of town, we decided to take to the skies and explore higher ground courtesy of the continuously running cable car system. A short 20 minute ride above rooftops later and we were dropped off at the magnificent Monte Palace and Tropical Gardens. From here we paid a quick visit to the nearby Botanical Gardens (smaller of the two) and strolled through some seriously gorgeous green spaces. Overflowing with bougainvillea, immaculate floral designs and the biggest cactuses we’d ever seen, our little adventure finished with sweeping views over Funchal Bay.
After a short refuel at a local café for some much-needed lunch, we made our way through the gates at Monte. Nothing could quite have prepared us for the sheer scale of this place, and we were quite grateful for the map that accompanied our tickets! The grounds occupy an area of 70,000 square metres and boast a museum, Chinese garden, Buddhist sculptures, works of art dating back as far as the 2nd century and a beautiful central lake. We spent the biggest chunk of time at the latter, watching the various water features and man-made streams that circle the scene on an aqueduct.
Nearby, the iconic Nossa Senhora de Monte (Our Lady of Monte church) watches over the entire parish. A small staircase leads up to the 15th century chapel, where you’re free to go in and have a look around. With all the sights well and truly seen, it was time to make our way back into the heart of Funchal…
What goes up, must come down
Although we could have very easily taken the cable car back, we decided to forgo the typical transport method for a taste of something far more traditional – a wicker toboggan! Dating all the way back to 1850, the basket-based shuttle system was the fastest way for locals to reach Funchal when it was first set up. Now a bucket list must, the heart-racing downhill journey is one of the most unique experiences Madeira has to offer.
We whizzed along narrow streets on wooden runners, accompanied by two men in rubber-soled shoes – our only means of navigating junctions and braking when we reached the bottom! The 2km course down the mountainside from Monte is a real holiday highlight, if not a tad terrifying when it dawns on you that you’re literally sitting in a basket…
Day 7 – Hiking Pico do Aieiro to Pico Ruivo
As self-confessed nature lovers, hiking the trail between Pico do Aieiro and Pico Ruivo was high on our list of priorities! Standing at an impressive 1,862 metres above sea level, there’s several ways to make your way to the top of Madeira’s highest mountain. The most popular and challenging route starts on the island’s third tallest peak, Pico do Aieiro, and winds over steep ridges, through pitch black tunnels and down some of the steepest slopes we’ve ever seen.
If that sounds a little on the scary side, you can take a much easier trail from the east via the village of Achada do Teixeira. We opted for both to see as much as possible, trekking from Pico do Aieiro to Pico Ruvo, and onto Achada do Teixeira afterwards. A decision we were very happy with once we saw how steep some of the ladders would have been to come back down! All told, we took around three and a half hours to reach Ruivo’s peak, which included countless picture-snapping stops and a leisurely lunch of a pre-made picnic at the midway point. There’s a reason this is one of the top-rated attractions on the island and the experience was easily our favourite of the entire holiday.
Psssttt… Daily coach tours visit the viewing platform of Pico do Aieiro, so it’s possible to see some of the sights without hiking.
Day 9 – Northern wonders
Madeira might be a compact island, but its uphill nature and dramatic mountainscapes means getting from A to B can involve a series of scenic roads and surprisingly long travel time. If, like us, you’re looking to cover as much ground as possible, the flurry of four-wheeled tour companies make a great companion for day-trip devotees.
As Funchal’s south east location makes visiting the east a little easier, we set out to explore the hidden wonders of the north west instead. Too far to reach by public transport, an adrenaline-pumping jeep journey is the perfect way to get up close and personal with Madeira’s best kept secrets and wild roads. Swinging by all the beloved tourist treasures, we took in sights at Ribeira Brava, Paul da Serra, Ribeira da Janela and Porto Moniz. Not to mention the fairy tale Laurisilva forest found deep in the heart of the island, where ancient trees have contorted into eerie shapes over their 20 million years of existence. We lucked out with our visit, as the whole area was covered in a blanket of mist, intensifying the beautiful scenes even more!
Lava pool lounging
The pools at Porto Moniz were a welcome interlude to the day. Here you can take a dip in the natural, lava-formed lidos that have been pounded into submission by Atlantic waves. Popular with visitors and locals alike, there’s handy changing facilities, as well as plenty of ice cream parlours and eateries. We didn’t have time for a refreshing seawater swim, but spent a good chunk of time watching the waves swell against the shore. The sound was simply heavenly!
When it comes to dramatic coastline, Madeira’s perfected the art of gravity-defying outcrops and edge of the world sensations. We stopped by the impressive rocks rising from the ocean at Ribeira da Janela, from which the region takes its name. Jutting from the electric blue sea, the volcanic structure dominates the scene. Getting to the black-pebble beach is pretty fun too! Scramble up a rocky staircase, clamber through a cave-like walkway and you’re free to navigate the rocky shores for yourself.