Natural Pools & Pastel Sunsets: Your Guide to Madeira Island
This complete Madeira travel guide includes the best of what we experienced: from food to accommodation to activities across the island. We look forward to returning someday soon, but in the meantime, we hope this guide helps you plan your own perfect Madeira getaway.
Two years ago, Madeira was simply not on our radar.
Then, one day in the Spring of 2017 our buddy asked us “have you guys thought about Madeira?” After some quick research, we went from “what’s a Madeira?” to “flights purchased!” in less than 20 minutes.
Our impulse decision to visit Madeira was maybe the best we’ve made during our time traveling together.
Come discover the Pearl of the Atlantic…the Isle of Timber…the Island of Eternal Spring.
In this guide:
- Madeira’s double-definition
- 5 fun facts
- Topography & climate
- Getting there
- Getting around
- Where most people stay
- Where we’ll stay next time
- Dining & imbibing
- Get familiar with Funchal: Day 1
- Explore the northern coast: Day 2
- Take a day trip to Porto Santo: Day 3
- Hike, surf, or relax: Day 4
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Madeira: island, archipelago or both?
The Madeira archipelago consists of Madeira island, Porto Santo island, the Desertas Islands and the Savage Islands (a separate archipelago nearly 200 miles away). The entire archipelago includes 24 total islands, 19 of which are uninhabited.
When you hear people talking about “Madeira,” it’s safe to assume that they’re referring to Madeira island. In this guide, when we refer to Madeira, most of the time we’re also referring to the island, although there are some exceptions:
- “one of the best restaurants on Madeira” → we’re talking about the island
- “Madeira is one of two autonomous regions of Portugal” → we’re talking about the entire archipelago
5 fun facts
- Madeira was settled in 1420, making it the first discovery of the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
- Roughly 270k people live on Madeira, but over 1 million tourists visit the island each year.
- July 1st is Madeira Day—commemorating the date when Madeira was granted political autonomy from Portugal in 1976. Today, Madeira has its own government and President.
- The annual New Year celebration on Madeira holds the Guinness World Record for the largest fireworks show in the world!
- The ukulele was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Madeiran immigrants in the 1880’s! In fact, it’s based on two guitar-like instruments from Madeira: the cavaquinho and the rajao.
Topography & climate
The island of Madeira is actually the top of a volcano, poking its head above water nearly 4 miles (6 km) above the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The last volcanic eruption was over 6,500 years ago.
The Madeira of today is tropical in feel and enjoys a Mediterranean climate with mild year-round temperatures. Most rain falls between October and April.
The center of the island is dominated by a mountain ridge that reaches just over 1 mile high (1.8 km) at its highest point: Pico Ruivo. In the winter months, Madeira’s mountains will usually experience some snowfall.
travelhelix trivia: with a total area of 286 square miles (741 square km), Madeira island is slightly smaller than Madrid, Spain. Different perspective: you could fit 5 Madeira islands inside Rhode Island.
By plane: Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport (FNC) is the 4th busiest airport in Portugal.
- It offers direct flights to over 30 European airports and nearby islands.
- The most frequent flights are to Lisbon: 8-12 flight options per day; 1 hour & 45 minute flight time
- The airport is in the eastern town of Santa Cruz, about 20-minutes from Funchal by car.
By boat: Madeira is also a major cruise destination. The main harbor in Funchal is the #1 Portuguese port for cruise dockings between Europe, the Caribbean and North Africa.
Renting a car is 100% the way to go on Madeira. The major roads and highways that cross the island are modern, smooth and safe.
travelhelix tip: we arranged a rental car through our hotel. The process was simple, and many hotels offer this service as a courtesy. A 24-hour rental was a convenient & cost-effective way for us to visit Porto Moniz, São Vicente & Câmara de Lobos all in one day.
Other modes of transportation around Madeira
- Bus: the company Horários do Funchal can get you pretty much everywhere on the island. This guide is pretty cool and can help you plan your own Madeiran bus trip.
- Taxi: also readily available on the island.
travelhelix tip: discuss taxi fares with your driver before you begin your trip, as certain destinations may cost a fixed rate (we encountered this in the suburb of Livramento).
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⌲ Accommodation & Satiation
Where most people stay
Located on the southern coast, Madeira’s capital, Funchal (pronounced “foon-sholl”), offers a charming combination of walking streets, parks, gardens, markets, cafés and restaurants.
Funchal offers accommodations to suit all travelers, ranging from apartment rentals to 5-star resorts. Many of the hotels and resorts are family-friendly. Most have swimming pools and terraces that are perfect for laid-back relaxation.
travelhelix tip: looking at a map, west of the harbor, many hotels appear to be right on the water. A lot of these hotels are indeed “oceanfront,” but they’re not “beachfront.” Most of them are built on cliffs a few hundred meters above sea level. Still, the views are spectacular, and the water is usually accessible via pathways and the oceanfront promenade that will take you all the way to central Funchal.
Where we’ll stay next time
Next time, we’ll stay at least 7 days, and possibly as many as 14. The island is large enough and diverse enough to justify splitting time between Funchal and 1 or 2 other villages.
Option #1: the pearl of the north is the coastal village Porto Moniz. You’ll learn more about Porto Moniz when you get to day 2 of our suggested itinerary.
The 4-star Aqua Natura Madeira offers elegant rooms, beautiful views, and manmade swimming pools filled with Atlantic saltwater.
reflections from DnA: we ate lunch here at Aqua Natura, overlooking the swimming pools, and shared the same thought: why didn’t we bring an overnight bag?!
Option #2: if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, yet still close to Funchal, try the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, 15 minutes west of the island’s capital.
Option #3: nearby Porto Santo island seems to be the right type of place to “take a vacation from your vacation.” You’ll learn more about Porto Santo when you get to day 3 of our suggested itinerary.
Dining & imbibing
Madeira is home to incredible cuisine that dazzled our senses of sight, smell and taste from morning till night. From grilled meat to fresh fish to the signature garlic bread that’s served with every meal, you’ll eat well on Madeira Island.
You’ll also drink well. It’s never the wrong time for Madeira wine. And on this island, you can even put a little booze in your milkshake.
Our complete travel guide to eating & drinking on Madeira will tell you everything you need to know.
Check out 7 Delectable Flavors and get ready…to get hungry.
⌲ Suggested Itinerary
Day 1: Get familiar with Funchal
We explored Madeira for 4 days & 4 nights, and more than 50% of our time was spent in and around Funchal. You can easily get lost here for a week, but you can also see the main highlights in a day.
Looking to plan an action-packed day in Madeira’s capital city? Look no further than our complete Funchal travel guide. It includes 2 cable cars, a downhill street toboggan and a tuk-tuk.
Check out Flora, Fauna & Funky Rides. Music videos are included!
A few of our favorite Funchal photos:
Day 2: Explore the northern coast
Our day-trip to the northern coast of Madeira was a memorable one. Below is a complete breakdown. Suggested times are based on our experience.
Complete day-2 breakdown:
- 8:00am – depart Funchal
- 9:00am – arrive in Porto Moniz
- 9:00am – 12:00pm – choose an activity in Porto Moniz
- 12:00pm – 12:45pm – take a quick dip in the natural pools
- 12:45pm – 2:00pm – lunch
- 2:00pm – 2:30pm – drive to São Vicente
- 2:30pm – 4:00pm – cave tour & Volcanism Center
- 4:00pm – 4:15pm – drive to Taberna da Poncha
- 4:15pm – 5:00pm – afternoon refreshment!
- 5:00pm – 5:30pm – drive to Câmara de Lobos
- 5:30pm – 8:30pm – wander & dine in Câmara de Lobos
- When you’re done – head home to Funchal
Take a dip in the natural pools of Porto Moniz
Depart early from Funchal and make your way toward tiny Porto Moniz, located on the northernmost point of the island.
Spend your time scuba diving, canyoning or visiting the aquarium. We spent 3 hours here, eating lunch, taking a stroll overlooking the ocean, and exploring the famous natural swimming pools.
The natural pools of Porto Moniz were formed by volcanic lava hardened into rock. The saltwater of the Atlantic flows into this 1-acre (3800 square meter) area, offering a great way for locals and tourists to cool off on hot days. A combination of natural lava rock & manmade walkways connects the network of pools.
travelhelix tip: Madeira may be a volcanic island, but it’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. These pools are COLD! Don’t forget to bring a towel. Air-dry at your own risk!
- Getting there: the direct route through the center of the island takes about an hour. You’ll quickly ascend curvy roads, drive through long tunnels built into the mountains, and finally descend upon the northern coast—surrounded by tropical beauty the entire time.
- When to visit the natural pools: when planning your trip, consider the season, day of the week, time of day, and the weather. Hot Saturday at 2pm in August? The pools will be packed. Cool Wednesday morning in April? You’re more likely to catch a bit of privacy.
Go spelunking in the São Vicente Caves
Las Grutas de São Vicente (the São Vicente Caves) were formed by an underground lava flow from a volcanic eruption over 400,000 years ago. If you like caves, this might be right up your alley. If you don’t like caves or if you’re claustrophobic, probably better to stay outside or grab a drink from the cafeteria!
- Getting there: head east along the northern coast until you arrive in São Vicente. This beautiful drive takes about 20 minutes.
- When to go: any day of the year, except for Christmas
- Hours: 10:00am – 6:00pm (arrive no later than 4pm)
- Tours & tickets: check the website for ticket prices & guided tours
travelhelix tip: the cave tours don’t begin at any regularly-scheduled times. Once a large enough group is assembled (ours was 25-30), a tour will begin. Our tour guide said she does 10-12 tours on an average day, so it’s safe to assume that a new tour will begin every 45 minutes or so.
The cave tour ended with a 20-minute experience in the Volcanism Center. You’ll explore educational exhibits about plate tectonics, the history of the Earth, and the evolution of Madeira.
It also includes a realistic elevator ride down to the Earth’s core at the beginning & a 3-D movie at the end!
Stop (and sip) at Taberna da Poncha
What’s poncha, you ask? Our food & beverage guide to Madeira will give you the full story. For now, take our word for it: you’ve gotta try some, and the best place to try it is at Taberna da Poncha in Ribeira Brava.
This timeless tavern offers the perfect blend of local charm and lively crowds. Peanut shells cover the floor, business cards line the walls and bartenders mix up fresh poncha, however you like it.
- Getting there: the drive from São Vicente takes about 15 minutes.
Enjoy the quiet calm of Câmara de Lobos
After a long day, the quaint village of Câmara de Lobos is the perfect place for some natural decompression. Wander the streets down to the harbor and you’ll observe fisherman returning from a long day of hard work. You’ll also see kayakers just getting started with some late afternoon exercise.
- Getting there: Google Maps says 15 minutes. But plan for 30 minutes in case you hit rush hour traffic.
Câmara de Lobos is home to 2 of our favorite Madeiran culinary creations: Nikita and Espetada.
- Nikita: an “adult milkshake” of vanilla or pineapple ice cream, pineapple juice, white wine and beer.
- Espetada: a skewer of meat smothered in garlic and grilled to perfection.
We enjoyed both delicacies during dinner at Casa do Farol.
This video snapshot captures everything you just read about Day 2 on Madeira!
Day 3: Take a day trip to the island of Porto Santo
Located 27 miles (43 km) northeast of Madeira, Porto Santo Island is an Atlantic oasis entirely devoted to tourism. Sandy paradise + mild climate + warm waters = the perfect destination for a day trip or extended stay, any time of year.
If you’re searching for something other than pure relaxation as an excuse to visit the island, Porto Santo parties hard in February for Carnival, celebrates the festival of São João in June, and stomps grapes during the last week of August for the annual Wine Festival.
Porto Santo is known as a laid-back place to relax by day, and a good place for nightlife on Fridays and Saturdays in the summer.
- Getting there by plane: Porto Santo Airport (PXO) has several daily flights to and from Madeira (15-minute flight time). Also: seasonal direct flights to Lisbon, Porto & other international destinations.
- Getting there by ferry: the daily Porto Santo Line transports passengers & cars between Madeira and Porto Santo (2 hour & 15 minute travel time). Check online for timetables, ticket purchases and discount packages (tickets + golf, cycling or spa access).
- Where to stay: Vila Baleira is the center of activity, home to most of its 5000 residents, and the starting point of a beach that stretches for 6 miles (9 km). Many options for vacation rentals & hotels. Most are located along the 2.5-mile stretch of beach between Vila Baleira and Cabeco Da Ponta.
Unfortunately, we didn’t make it out to Porto Santo, but we’ll absolutely spend a few days here during our next trip.
Day 4: Hike…surf…or just chill
If you’ve still got the energy, Madeira offers some other outdoor activities to help you burn off some of those Poncha & Nikita calories!
Hike alongside levadas
Arguably the most iconic engineering landmarks that can be found on the island are its levadas (aqueducts). In the 16th century, Portuguese settlers built levadas to transport water from the rainfall-heavy northwest to the comparably dry southeast. Over 500 years later, the levadas are still used to transport water and generate hydro-electric power for the entire island.
The total network consists of over 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas. Much of this network features walking paths and hiking trails through the lush Laurissilva Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
travelhelix tip: Madeira’s levada hikes range from relaxing 1-hour strolls to challenging full-day treks. Consult the official Recommended Paths Table, come prepared, and hike cautiously!
Surf some mid-Atlantic swells
With over 90 miles (150 km) of total coastline kissed constantly by mid-Atlantic swells, Madeira is well-positioned as a world-class surf destination. Few people visit Madeira for the beaches (better described as rocky, jagged cliffs), but surf connoisseurs should add this wave-haven to their bucket list.
This article provides a great list of the island’s top 11 surf spots, while this one offers some useful info based on season.
travelhelix confession: when it comes to surfing, we are far from professional. In fact, we are barely amateur. Our most extreme surfing story involves our experience in Byron Bay, Australia, where the 2-foot waves were equally as threatening as the bluebottle that stung our friend…
…the same friend that convinced us to visit Madeira. Full circle? We think YES!
PS—you could also just relax in Funchal. There’s plenty of cool stuff to do in the island’s capital!