Located along the southern coast of Madeira is the island’s capital city: Funchal (pronounced “foon-sholl”). With over 110k inhabitants (40% of the island’s population), Funchal is not only the largest city on Madeira, it’s the 6th largest city in all of Portugal. Funchal offers a wonderful combination of walking streets, diverse topography, elegant gardens, markets, cafés and restaurants, all of which can be explored via some pretty awesome and unique modes of transportation!
We explored Madeira for 4 days & 4 nights, and more than 50% of our time was spent in and around Funchal. If you choose to stay outside of Funchal during your visit to Madeira, we recommend at least setting aside some time to visit this charming capital city. If all you have is 1 day, don’t worry – we’ve got you covered on the main highlights and hotspots.
And with that, sit back and enjoy Flora, Fauna & Funky Rides: a Funchal (Madeira) Travel Guide.
In This Post:
- Take a Cable Car up to Monte
- Explore the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
- Race Downhill in a Wicker Basket Car
- Peruse the Presidential Palace
- Ride in Style to a Seaside Dinner
- Alternate Route up to Monte: Botanical Garden Cable Car
1. Take a Cable Car up to Monte
Funchal is made up of 10 civil parishes (districts), each with anywhere from 2k to 20k residents, and all organized very much based on geography. At an elevation of around 3400 feet (just over 1 km), the parish of Monte offers some of the most incredible panoramic views of Funchal. The 2.5 mile walk from Funchal’s harbor (Porto de Funchal) up to Monte would take over an hour, but the faster, more relaxing and more picturesque way to get to the top is by riding the Funchal-Monte Teleférico (Cable Car).
A one-way trip takes around 15 minutes and the views on the way up are both beautiful & dramatic. Observe the rapidly changing neighborhoods below you, particularly the creative ways in which the locals have built flourishing gardens into the steep slopes of their mountainous home. Look outward over Funchal Bay and watch as fishing boats and larger charter vessels become smaller and smaller off in the distance.
- Open every day of the year, except for Christmas
- Hours of operation are 9:00am – 5:45pm
- Tickets are available for purchase at both terminals: Parque Almirante Reis in downtown Funchal (at the bottom) and Monte Station (at the top).
- Visit the website for ticket prices and answers to other frequently asked questions.
time of day: your decision of when to go should be based on the weather, since you’ll experience the best views when there are fewer clouds in the sky!
travelhelix tip: although 5:45pm is the published “closing time,” the last cable car “up” leaves 15-20 minutes earlier. We learned that lesson the hard way, as we tried to buy a ticket at 5:30 to catch the sunset from the top, but were told ‘sorry, you just missed the last car of the day!’
2. Explore the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
After you’ve taken your fill of pictures at the top, consider visiting the Monte Palace Tropical Garden, right next to the cable car terminal. Although the inside of the palace is not accessible to the public, the surrounding 17-acre (70k square meter) area offers plenty to do and see.
Inside the garden, peacocks and chickens roam freely amongst exotic plants from around the world. Black swans from Tasmania and white swans from Scandinavia swim harmoniously together around the central lake. Koi ponds, pagodas, Buddhist sculptures and bamboo decorate two Oriental gardens, lit up with lanterns by night.
Nestled within this diverse garden environment is the 3-floor Monte Palace Museum. The bottom floor features an exquisite collection of minerals and gems from South America, North America & Africa. The 2nd and 3rd floors feature an equally-impressive collection of stone sculptures from 1960’s-era Zimbabwe.
- Open every day of the year, except for Christmas
- Garden visiting hours: 9:30am – 6:00pm
- Museum visiting hours: 10:00am – 4:30pm
- Visit the website for info on ticket prices & guided tours
travelhelix tip: if you prefer not to take the cable car, you can also catch the number 20 or 21 bus from the center of Funchal to reach The Monte Palace Tropical Gardens.
3. Race Downhill in a Wicker Basket Car
Our experience in Monte was defined not by the cable car up or the gardens at the top, but by the trip back down. The mountaintop community of Monte happens to be home to one of the most unique and exhilarating forms of transportation you’ll find anywhere in the world.
let’s take it back…nearly 500 years: Monte was originally established in 1565 as a summer refuge for wealthy families. For nearly 300 years, when the aristocrats of Monte needed to make the long, steep trip down to central Funchal, they did what everyone else did: they walked. Around 1850, they said to themselves “there’s gotta be a better way…”
As is the case with many of the world’s greatest inventions, Monte’s carros do cesto (basket cars) were born of a desire to do things better…stronger…FASTER. These wooden street toboggans are essentially wicker baskets that glide on wooden runners. The wooden runners are regularly “greased” to enhance speed (like the blades of an Olympic bobsled).
Two drivers (called Carreiros) dressed in white clothes and straw hats, push these wicker baskets down the mountain & steer them around sharp corners. Going too fast? Sharp turn approaching? No problem! The Carreiros simply “hit the brakes” by pressing their rubber-soled boots into the concrete street.
Over 160 years later, Carreiros are still pushing these basket cars downhill through the streets of Monte, although the wealthy aristocrats have been replaced by fun-loving tourists. For us, “seeing it to believe it” was not enough. We had to experience it firsthand and the price (30-40€ depending on how many passengers) was well worth it.
Madeira: revolutionizing “high-speed downhill public transportation” since 1850.
Hopefully this video of our experience inspires you all to add this one to your bucket–errrrrr–basket list. CHECK IT OUT!
travelhelix tip: the ride lasts for 1.2 miles (2 km) and ends in the suburb of Livramento, roughly halfway down the mountain. From there, you can walk the rest of the way down to central Funchal, or catch a bus or taxi. If you go for a taxi, be prepared for a non-negotiable, flat fee (we were quoted 20€).
snack time? after that exhilarating toboggan ride through the streets, it may be time for a snack or a cold beverage. Back down in central Funchal, BeerHouse Madeira is a great option for a cold one, or try Sete Mares for a Poncha and some delicious Bolo do Caco (traditional Madeiran garlic bread).
4. Peruse the Presidential Palace
As an Autonomous Region of Portugal, Madeira has its own government and its own President. La Quinta Vigia, located in the city center of Funchal, is the Presidential Palace. We were walking through nearby Santa Catarina Park before stumbling upon this residence, and soon found ourselves wandering the gardens, appreciating some its many-feathered residents.
- Hours: Monday – Friday 9:00am – 12:30pm & 2:00pm – 5:00pm
- Closed: Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays
travelhelix tip: info online indicates that the property is “open to the public during working hours.” As we walked through the gate, a guard came out of his booth and told us there was an entry fee of 1€ per person, which we paid him directly.
5. Ride in Style to a Seaside Dinner
Funchal offers endless dining options. If you’re looking for a great combination of flavor & ambience, Restaurante Do Forte will not disappoint. Apart from the great food, the restaurant is also known for its “pick-up packages” which include round-trip transportation in your choice of a 1932 Austin 12, a 1959 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II or… a tuk-tuk!
For our anniversary, D surprised A with one of these packages. Hilarity ensued, and lasting memories were made. First, let’s rewind to the previous night:
reflections from D: about last night: the two of us are strolling just before sunset, capturing some incredible pastel photos of the surrounding Atlantic, and discussing what may be on the menu tonight. A notices a large yellow fortress at the end of the promenade and says, “let’s check that place out.” In classic D-style, I respond “yeah – let’s do it!” not realizing of course, that it’s the restaurant I’ve made us a “surprise” reservation at TOMORROW night – for our anniversary. We made it all the way to the entryway courtyard, at which point I dropped an incredibly awkward “wait – let’s get outta here. This may or may not be the place I’m taking you tomorrow night. Bye.” NICE ONE, D. Nice one.
Our anniversary evening began with a tuk-tuk pick-up from our hotel.
reflections from A: she went tuk-tuk over the Rolls Royce? This girl KNOWS ME!!!
Our driver, David, then took us up to the Miradouro Vila Guida, where we enjoyed a glass of sparkling wine along with stunning views over the harbor.
We then arrived at the restaurant just before sunset, where we enjoyed a fantastic 3-course dinner + wine pairings.
reflections from D: well let’s see, I somehow managed to knock SIX glasses off the table, but only TWO of them broke…that’s actually a pretty GOOD outcome, right?! Check, please.
After dinner, David drove us home in the 1932 Austin 12, which made for one of the most hilarious 12-minute drives of our lives.
Check out this quick video that captures our evening in both of these awesome modes of transportation:
Exhausted? Us too…
Still hungry? Fortunately, there are plenty of other incredible eating and drinking options around Madeira island. Y’a’ll enjoy…
WHAT WE MISSED
6. Alternate Route up to Monte: Botanical Garden Cable Car
Not to be confused with the Funchal-Monte Cable Car that we took from lower Funchal up to Monte, this alternate route offers a similar cable car experience, plus an extra mountaintop garden for you to enjoy: Madeira’s famous Botanical Gardens.
This nearly 9-acre (35k square meter) space was originally dedicated to the conservation of indigenous Madeiran plants and later expanded to exotic birds. Today, visitors can experience the “Parrot Park” which is home to over 300 exotic birds including Dwarf Parrots and Macaws.
- Open every day of the year, except for Christmas
- Hours are 9:00am – 6:00pm (although the cutoff for entry is 5:30pm)
- Discounted combination packages are available, which include cable car transport + entry into the Botanical Gardens
getting from Funchal to the Botanical Gardens: depending on where you’re coming from in Funchal, the walk up to the Botanical Gardens will take 30-60 minutes. From the Parque Almirante Reis terminal (for example), it’s a steep, 1.2 mile walk. You can also drive or take the #29, 30 or 31 bus.
When you’re done enjoying the Botanical Gardens, ride the Botanical Garden Teleférico (Cable Car) up to Monte Station, which takes around 9 minutes. The views are supposed to be equally beautiful & dramatic as you’ll find on the Funchal-Monte route.
travelhelix tip: if you’ve had your fill of gardens for the day, skip the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens at the top, but do not miss your opportunity to ride one of Madeira’s famous basket cars back down the mountain!