There are lots of reasons to visit Madeira. You may be holidaying in this Portuguese island off the north-west coast of Africa because of the fantastic outdoor pursuit options available. Alternatively, it could be the tantalising food that has drawn you to this foodie paradise. Whatever your motivation for travelling to Madeira, this seven-day itinerary will make sure you tick all the boxes and make the most of your time away.
Day 1 – Discover Funchal
Touching down in the island’s capital, Funchal, you’re likely to be struck by a number of things. The first is how relaxed it is, as Madeira has a hot climate and a laid-back vibe. The second may be how many of the elements that make up Funchal feel very Portuguese. These are tempered by a British influence, which gently pervades the destination.
Start getting to know Funchal and ease gently into your holiday with a stroll along the Avenida do Mar. This coastal promenade is lined with palm trees, pleasant cafes and stands selling the local Madeiran flatbread, bolo do caco, baked freshly each day. It’s a great way to fill a gap while on the move.
From here, make your way inland to the Zona Velha, or old town. Finding yourself in a maze of terracotta-roofed houses you may eventually end up at the cathedral, but wandering aimlessly is just as pleasant. Stepping inside the church, which is still widely visited by the residents of the archipelago, take note of the altarpiece. It is surrounded by a huge Gothic canopy, but the gilt work, sculptures and oil paintings put directly onto the wood really shine through. It was commissioned by King Manuel I of Portugal and has been in place since 1515.
Stop for lunch at the A Muralha restaurant in the old town, which has a very well-priced lunch menu and free Wi-Fi. It’s a great way to be introduced to Madeiran food, as many of the dishes on offer are classics and the staff are friendly and helpful when it comes to explaining the cuisine and recommending their favourites.
From Ruo do Oudinot in the old town, take the number 22 bus to the cable car station near the Botanical Gardens. This bus leaves every half an hour during the day and takes just over 20 minutes to get you to your destination. Once there, take the cable up Monte Funchal for panoramic views of the city and a chance to look inside the church of Nossa Senhora do Monte with its double towers.
While you could purchase a return ticket on the cable car, there’s a much more fun way to descend the hill. Wicker toboggans have been transporting the residents of this neighbourhood swiftly into the centre of the city since around 1850. It usually takes about ten minutes to complete the two kilometres down the hill. Don’t worry if you’re not good at keeping in control of sledges, two traditionally dressed attendants in straw hats will do the steering and the stopping!
Day 2 – Walk along the levadas
On your second day on Madeira, get up at a reasonable time to embark on a whole day’s walking. The island is famous for the levada irrigation channels that are used to hydrate the south of the island, which doesn’t get as much rain as the north. Throughout history, this network has allowed vineyards, orchards, vegetable gardens and banana plantations to thrive throughout the island. In modern times, they make wonderful routes to follow when setting out to hike through some of Madeira’s most stunning landscapes.
Before you set off for your walk, head to Mercado dos Lavradores, the market in the centre of Funchal. It opens at 7am and you can stock up on masses of fresh produce for your lunch later in the day. Bolo de mel, the local honey cake, will be a welcome sight when you stop partway through your walk to refuel. Whether you have a sweet tooth or not, you’ll find everything you need for a handsome picnic.
Madeira’s levadas cover more than 2,500 kilometres in total, but you can choose to walk for as long or as short a distance as you like. Exploring the Serra D’Agua Valley, for example, can be done at a leisurely pace, as many people take only half a day to complete the route. Walking from Ribeiro Frio to Portela is definitely a full day’s expedition, on the other hand, so be sure to judge your fitness levels accordingly.
As well as your picnic, pack essentials for all weather conditions into your backpack, including rain gear and sunscreen. Practical footwear of either walking boots or an alternative with good grip and ankle support is important to avoid injury.
Day 3 – Soak up some sun on the beach
For many people, it’s not a holiday without some time spent lazing around on the beach. After a day of walking the levadas, you’ve certainly earned some relaxation and there are plenty of beaches to choose from in Madeira, but there are a few things to bear in mind. The main one is that, not all of the island’s beaches feature sand; so if this is a priority then choose carefully. For those who are happy to stretch out on a sun lounger with pebbles underneath there is more choice.
Hop on bus 113 to Prainha Beach, for a landscape that is quite different from the rest of the island. The lush green of much of Madeira is replaced by black volcanic soil and the nearby Piedade Dunes contain limestone fossils. The fishing village of Canical is not far away, but there’s also a restaurant at the beach itself, so you can buy your lunch there, as well as rent sun loungers and parasols.
Buses on the 80, 107 and 142 lines go over to Calheta, where there are two sandy beaches, created with specially imported golden sand. They are great for families and have protected swimming areas that allow kids to really make the most of their beach time. Canoeing and windsurfing facilities are also available. The nearby marina means there are lots of options when it comes to dining.
Alternatively, take the two-and-a half-hour ferry crossing over to Porto Santo, which lies 50 kilometres off the coast. Boats leave from the harbour in Funchal at 8am and return at 6pm, although it is worth checking for any seasonal changes to the schedule. With more than nine kilometres of beautiful golden sand, it is well worth the extra effort for a day on Porto Santo’s stunning beach. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the sea is warm to swim in and its safe too.
There are several restaurants near the beach, making grabbing lunch easy enough if you haven’t packed a picnic. Mar e Sol is a particularly good option, as this family-run establishment serves up large bowls of fragateira. Nothing says a beach day like a mouthful of seafood stew. If you fancy a stroll, then head into nearby Vila Baleira and there are even more restaurants there.
Day 4 – Take in the coastal beauty of Camara de Lobos
If on your fourth day on the island you are ready to do some more exploring, make your way out west. From Funchal, you will soon find yourself in the small fishing village of Camara de Lobos, named for the sea lions that were once present in the sea off the coast. Now, you will find a charming village, pebble beach and plenty of natural attractions to keep you entertained all day.
Among these are the Cabo Girao cliffs, which are the second highest in the world, with a drop of 590 metres into the sea. For those who are feeling brave, there is a glass skywalk that takes you right over the edge to experience this stunning natural phenomenon with a bird’s eye view.
If you’d still like great vistas, but would prefer something more substantial beneath your feet, try the Pico de Torre viewpoint instead. At 250 metres high, it affords wonderful views over Camara de Lobos, the surrounding area, complete with vineyards, banana plantations and cherry trees, and then across to Funchal. It’s worth the climb to see all of the bounties that nature has to offer.
To really treat yourself, dine at the Vila do Peixe restaurant. Not only does it have superb views over the bay, but there is a huge selection of fish available. You pick your specimen before it is cooked and then it is served up to you at the table and charged according to weight. It is a good idea to book, especially in high season, as Vila do Peixe has a great reputation not just locally, but internationally too. If you are visiting on a Wednesday, you may also be treated to a performance by Madeiran folk dancers.
Before leaving Camara de Lobos, the adults may wish to partake in some poncha. This fiery local spirit is a speciality in the village and is distilled from sugar cane and usually served with lemon juice and honey. You’ll see it advertised at many of the bars around Camara de Lobos, so give it a try if you’re feeling adventurous.
Day 5 – See the sweet side of Santa Cruz
Just 15 minutes from Funchal lies the quiet laidback destination of Santa Cruz. Located on the east coast of the island, you’ve got verdant hills to one side and the tranquil ocean to the other. In between is SantaCruz, with its whitewashed churches, blue painted boats and friendly atmosphere. Spend the morning relaxing on one of the sun loungers on the pebble beach, before wandering along the promenade to enjoy lunch at a restaurant lining the shore.
Sugar cane has always been an important crop for Madeira and there are still a few factories that still process it in the traditional manner. One of these can be found in Santa Cruz and it’s a fascinating way to spend the afternoon. You will be given a guided tour of the factory and see exactly how the cane is converted into the sugar that we know and use on a day-to-day basis.
Not far from Santa Cruz is Machico, which was among the first settlements on Madeira to be founded. Explore the two forts that were used to help defend this part of the coast from pirates and be sure to find the oldest church on the island. As much of Madeira has pebble beaches, it’s worth taking your shoes off and feeling the sand between your toes at Machico, as it is home to one of the best beaches on the island.
Day 6 – Climb Pico Ruivo
The tallest mountain on Madeira at 1,862 metres is Pico Ruivo and for keen walkers, it is just crying out to be climbed. The only way to reach the summit is by foot, but there are two different options when it comes to getting there. If you are especially fit and up for a challenge, then tackle Pico Ruivo after first conquering Pico de Arieiro next door, which involves a fairly strenuous hike. Alternatively, take on Achada do Teixeira, which is shorter and more straight forward.
Depending on which route you opt for and the general speed of your walking, you’ll be away for varying amounts of time. Realistically, most relatively fit people will take between five and six hours to complete the 12 kilometres of the Pico de Arieiro option. Meanwhile, the Achada do Teixeira hike can normally be completed in between two and a half to three hours.
Even if you are opting for the shorter route and expect to descend the mountain in time for lunch, be sure to pack supplies. This means both plenty of water and some snacks, as unexpected events can mean things take longer than anticipated. Also, bring rain gear in case the weather suddenly changes and a torch for the tunnelled sections. Mountain guides are available and their services should be sought by those who are less experienced on the hills.
The paths up Pico Ruivo are well maintained and there are plenty of signposts. There is a small rest hut and shop not far from the summit, allowing you to recharge a little before the final push. At the top of the mountain, all of your hard work will be rewarded with stunning views over the entire island of Madeira. Be sure to look for the places you’ve already visited on your trip and where you’re heading tomorrow.
Day 7– Relax in the natural lava pools at Porto Moniz
On your final day in Madeira, treat yourself to a relaxing time in order to return refreshed. This means going swimming in the sea or taking a dip in a pool. In Madeira, you can combine both of these pastimes by heading to the small town of Porto Moniz. Here, natural lava pools have filled with sea water, providing great places to bathe. The contrast between the white horses produced by the crashing waves and the dark hue of the rocks makes it particularly stunning.
With great views over the natural pools and delicious seafood to match, the Orca Restaurant is a pretty good option for grabbing some lunch. Be sure to get a table on the terrace to make the most of the location and soak up the best of Madeira’s climate for the last time before returning home.