Tucked away in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is still relatively unknown among tourists. And yet, this small island has everything you need for a perfect getaway. From gorgeous landscapes to culinary delights, and from extreme sports to lazy beach holidays, there’s something in store for everybody. Sounds interesting? Here are ten great reasons why you should consider Madeira as your next travel destination.
- What Makes Madeira Awesome
- The Scenery Is Stunning
- Madeira is a Pleasure to Explore
- The Hiking Trails Are Incredible
- You Can Watch Whales…
- … And Swim With Dolphins
- Madeira is Great for Surfing And Diving
- Plenty of Leisurely Activities
- Madeira is a Decent Beach Destination
- The Food is Delicious
- Madeira is a Year-Round Destination
- But Wait, There Is More!
- When to Visit Madeira
- How Long to Stay in Madeira
- Where to Stay in Madeira
- Getting Around the Island
- Final Thoughts
What Makes Madeira Awesome
Madeira is an island in the Atlantic that belongs to Portugal. While technically this means it’s part of Europe, Madeira is different from the Old World in virtually every respect. Even the well-seasoned travelers will discover something new and exciting here.
The Scenery Is Stunning
Madeira is an insanely gorgeous island. With its dramatic coastline, secluded bays, tropical rainforests, and majestic mountains, Madeira offers a variety of incredible landscapes all packed into a small area that is easy to cover.
The beauty of Madeira has long caught the eye of those coming here, earning it a handful of nicknames. The island of eternal spring, the Pearl of the Atlantic, and — my favorite — the European Hawaii. Having been to both, I dare say that the comparison is not at all unjustified.
But don’t just take my word for it. In the last seven years, Madeira has won seven consecutive World’s Leading Island Destination titles by the World Travel Awards, beating the likes of Bali, Fiji, the Maldives, and yes, even Hawaii.
Subjective as it may be, it is still a remarkable achievement. So one thing is for certain — for anyone who enjoys nature and amazing scenery, Madeira is a must-see destination. It just never stops to amaze you, no matter how long you spend there.
Madeira is a Pleasure to Explore
This brings us to the next point — Madeira is super fun to explore. The island is so tiny that it only takes an hour and a half to drive from its westernmost to its easternmost tip. This is perfect for setting up one base and seeing everything Madeira has to offer via short day trips.
What I love about Madeira is that driving here isn’t just a means to reach whatever picturesque spot you’re heading to. On the contrary, it’s pretty much a part of the experience. There are so many fabulous viewpoints along the roads that you’ll find yourself constantly wishing to stop.
Honestly, one of the best things to do on Madeira is to take a car and go somewhere without a specific goal in mind. Trust me, you won’t get bored. On the contrary, you’ll be amazed by all the incredible vistas along the way.
If you’re a confident driver who doesn’t shy away from twisty curves, the ER101 road along the northern coast is a must. It’s narrow and winding but the views will blow your mind. I can only compare it to the legendary Road to Hana in Maui, Hawaii.
It’s not an easy drive, mind you, but well worth the time and effort. One of the viewpoints I especially enjoyed is Miradouro da Beira da Quinta, but there are plenty of others. Don’t rush it, remember to pay attention to the road, and you’ll have a blast.
The Hiking Trails Are Incredible
Car isn’t the only way to explore Madeira. In fact, some of its most remarkable locations are only accessible by foot. So get your hiking boots ready. There are countless trails throughout the island, and you’ll be missing out on a ton of fun if you don’t try at least some of them.
By far my favorite hike is the PR1 trail connecting Madeira’s two highest peaks: Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo. It is tough, but if you’re up for the challenge, I highly recommend it. The views are otherworldly.
If you’re looking for something less strenuous, the PR8 Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço hike is a perfect choice. It’s not too demanding, mostly flat, and features some of the best views you will ever encounter in Madeira.
And then, of course, there are the levadas. This is something unique to Madeira — the old irrigation channels and walkways cut alongside, or even right into, the cliffs. Levadas are still in operation but have nowadays turned into popular walking trails.
There are more than 2000 kilometers of levadas on Madeira, so you have plenty to choose from. The two most popular ones, and also my favourites, are Levada das 25 Fontes and Levada do Caldeirão Verde.
All this is just a tiny fraction of what Madeira has in store for hikers. There are countless trails of varying difficulty. You could literally spend weeks without running out of options. To learn more, check out this article for further suggestions.
You Can Watch Whales…
Madeira is one of the best areas in Southern Europe to observe whales and dolphins in their natural environment. The ocean around the island is surprisingly deep, so there’s a fair chance of seeing these magnificent creatures from close range.
More than 20 species of whales visit the waters around Madeira every year, but the chance of spotting them is highest between May and September. Dolphins are present all year-round.
Tours run daily, and there are several companies to pick from. H2O Madeira and Lobosonda are the two popular choices. I’m not affiliated with either, but I did a trip with H2O and had a great experience (unfortunately we didn’t encounter whales on that occasion, only dolphins).
No matter what company you choose, I advise booking a speedboat tour. Speedboats are faster and can cover larger areas in search of animals. They are also less likely to cause motion sickness.
… And Swim With Dolphins
What’s even cooler is that in Madeira you can literally swim with dolphins! Both H2O and Lobosonda offer this, and it’s something I highly recommend doing if you get a chance. I’ve done it myself and loved it!
Here is how it works. During the whale-watching tour, if the captain notices a pod of dolphins approaching the boat, he or she will signal you to get ready. This only happens with two particular species of dolphins and only when the conditions and their mood are favorable.
Next, you slide into the water with the snorkeling mask on and grab onto the rope attached to the boat. The boat will then slowly drag you along giving you a close-up view of the dolphins playing around it.
I’ll be the first one to admit that it sounds a little scary, and I was somewhat anxious at first. But it turned out to be super fun and totally safe. Watching a dozen dolphins frolicking in the blue depths beneath was without a doubt one of the highlights of the trip.
Having said that, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, you will be swimming in the open waters. If you haven’t ever snorkeled before, it might be a good idea to sit this one out.
Secondly, I think it’s important to stress that you’re not actively engaging or otherwise interacting with the animals. You’re merely respectfully observing them from a somewhat closer range. If they decide to approach you, then only of their own free will (they didn’t for me).
Madeira is Great for Surfing And Diving
Although it’s arguably not its main feat, Madeira is a fine destination for surfers. There is surf both on the northern and southern coast and some fantastic point breaks. Throw in the stunning scenery and the ability to surf all year-round, and you’re in for a treat.
And if you haven’t surfed before, Madeira is a perfect place to give it a try. There are plenty of surf schools all across the island where you can get your first taste of the wave action.
For the accomplished surfers, the main points of interest would be Jardim do Mar, Madalena do Mar, and Paul do Mar, among others. You might want to check out this excellent blog post for more details.
But surfing is not the only water-related sport in Madeira. It is an equally outstanding location for scuba diving. The water is warm and very clear, and there are dives of varying depth and difficulty. The highlights include sunken battleships and abundant marine wildlife.
Plenty of Leisurely Activities
Everything up to this point was mostly leaned towards active tourism which might not be everyone’s favorite pick. Luckily, you don’t have to be a sports enthusiast or an avid hiker to enjoy Madeira. There is no shortage of more conventional activities.
Funchal is a vibrant capital with lots of ways to spend a day in a relaxed manner. The old town is a pleasure to stroll through while learning about Madeira’s history and chatting with friendly locals. There is even a shopping district with an excellent selection of local goods.
I also recommend Rua de Santa Maria, a charming pedestrian street with colorful art and lots of cozy restaurants to head to for a nice dinner with friends. Be sure to stop at Flair Spot Bar for the best cocktails in Madeira. Their mojitos are epic!
There are also quite a few museums in Madeira. Most of them are in Funchal, with the Christiano Ronaldo museum probably being the most famous. But there are others too, such as the Chestnut Museum deeper into the island or the Contemporary Art Museum in Calheta.
In Funchal, you will also find not one but several botanical gardens. The two prominent ones are the Madeira Botanical Gardens and Monte Palace Madeira. The latter hosts a variety of tropical trees and even includes a wine tasting at the end of the tour.
Madeira is a Decent Beach Destination
And while we’re on the topic of more relaxed activities, let’s not forget that Madeira is a tropical island. So if all else fails, you can always grab a towel and head to the beach.
To be fair, Madeira is not a top-class seaside resort destination. You won’t find any wide multi-kilometer stretches of golden sand here. Madeira beaches are mostly pebbly, somewhat underwhelming, and often hard to reach.
So if a sunbathing vacation is your primary goal, there are far better alternatives out there. The Canary Archipelago or even Madeira’s neighbor island of Porto Santo are just two examples. But for a simple place to relax at the shore now and then, Madeira has some good options.
To begin with, there are four sand beaches in Madeira: in Seixal, Prainha, Machico, and Calheta. The first two are natural, while Machico and Calheta were created with imported sand. Out of all these, Machico is my personal favorite.
Then, if you’re willing to endure pebbles, Praia Formosa, Ponta do Sol, and Praia Faial are all quite lovely.
Lastly, Madeira has several natural pools. The most popular (and for a reason) are those in Porto Moniz and Seixal. Originally formed by lava, these rock basins filled with crystal-clear water have been improved for easier access, and now you can spend hours lazily enjoying the sun there.
The Food is Delicious
It’s quite impossible to write a piece on Madeira without mentioning the food. It’s so good! If culinary delights are a part of what makes your trip special, worry not, Madeira has you covered.
I have to say upfront that Madeira cuisine is heavily based on fish and meat. So if you’re a vegetarian, you won’t have much to choose from. The situation is steadily improving, however, with more restaurants adding vegetarian and vegan options to their menu.
That aside, here are some of my favorite dishes to try in Madeira. For a starter, I suggest either tomato soup or fish soup. These sound rather common, but in Madeira, they are cooked slightly differently and are surprisingly good.
For the main course, my choice would be the fish. Some typical examples include the black scabbard with banana, caldeirada (fish stew), or tuna steak. In good restaurants, today’s catch is usually on display, and the staff will happily help you pick.
Lastly, for dessert, nothing beats the wild berry cheesecake or the traditional honey cake. Honestly, I’ll dare say that the cheesecakes they do in Madeira rival those in New York. Delicious!
These are just some of Madeira’s culinary delights. And if you throw in the recipes from the rest of Portugal, you’ll quickly realize why food is such an important aspect of a trip to Madeira. I mean, those pastéis de nata alone are a diet killer.
I’ll wrap up this section with one last tip. For a hearty delicious meal freshly cooked out of local ingredients, head to Abrigo do Pastor. This is easily one of the best restaurants in Madeira, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Book in advance and beware — the portions are huge.
Madeira is a Year-Round Destination
Because of its geographic location, Madeira enjoys a pleasantly mild climate during the whole year. In fact, that’s what earned it one of its nicknames — an island of eternal spring. While the weather varies slightly, it is never too hot or too cold.
This makes Madeira a perfect year-round destination. No matter when you decide to go, there is always something to see and do. Not all seasons are the same of course but most of the attractions will be available regardless of the month.
This means you can be flexible and pick the best possible time to travel depending on what you want to do and what your budget allows.
But Wait, There Is More!
I know I promised you 10 reasons why Madeira is a perfect travel destination. But as I was writing this article, I realized there are more. So as a bonus here are some other things that I love about Madeira and think are worth mentioning.
Madeira is a landscape photography paradise. If you’re passionate about photography and chasing those sunsets and sunrises, Madeira needs to be on your bucket list. The scenery is amazing and largely unknown to the masses, so you can still capture something outstanding. I wrote an extensive guide to landscape photography in Madeira, be sure to check it out.
Madeira is home to the most scenic Go-Kart racing track I’ve ever seen. Located in Faial and surrounded by majestic mountains, this 1,040 meters-long track is perfect for an adrenaline-filled competition with your friends on a sunny afternoon.
There are no helicopter rides in Madeira, but there’s paragliding. Madeira looks fabulous from the air. You can use a drone to capture that, sure. But how about seeing it with your own eyes? Just give it a try, I’m sure you’ll love it.
Madeira has its own variety of wines. Apart from the traditional wines, Madeira also produces its very own special kind of fortified wine called… well, the Madeira wine. Stronger than typical wines, it is known for its distinct taste and makes for a fine aperitif or even an after-dinner-sipper. And it’s a great souvenir to bring with you from Madeira!
When to Visit Madeira
As already noted, the weather in Madeira is reasonably warm all year round. The winter months from November to February are somewhat cooler with frequent rains, but still quite pleasant. Therefore, the decision comes down to your preference.
Summer is the peak season in Madeira. The days are long and sunny, and it’s the best time to hit the beach. The downside is that it gets crowdier, and prices go up. Also, most waterfalls tend to dry up during this period.
In winter, the island is less crowded, but the weather, especially in the mountains, can be a hit and miss. It rains more often, and overall, it might be a little chilly for a seaside vacation. But the waterfalls are in full power, and it’s the best season for surfing, with larger and fiercer waves.
So it’s a bit of a trade-off. For most people, May to September are probably the optimal months to visit Madeira. To save a little money and have the best of the two worlds, consider the shoulder seasons. And to enjoy Madeira at its quietest, come in winter.
How Long to Stay in Madeira
I would say a week is a minimum length to stay in Madeira to fully appreciate everything it offers. There is so much to see, do, and explore, that even seven days will fly by in an instant.
So if you can, I encourage you to stay a little longer. I spent nine days in Madeira and still didn’t cover everything I intended to. But hey, you don’t want to rush it in Madeira. It’s a place to relax and let it flow. If you can do that, you’ll have a great time.
If you’re a less adventurous type and not interested in nature and hikes so much, 4-5 days would probably be enough to get an overall impression and hit the main attractions. Less than that, and you’re doing yourself quite a disservice.
Where to Stay in Madeira
There are probably as many answers to this question as there are persons you ask it. Besides, it depends a lot on your plans and the things that are most important to you.
The capital city of Funchal is one popular choice. It’s centrally located, has accommodations for just about any budget, and there are several attractions nearby. With its charming old town, summer Saturday fireworks, and numerous bars, it’s also where all the action is.
Calheta is perfect for those who want to enjoy the sun, try water sports, or embark on whale-watching tours. There is a sandy beach, lots of restaurants, and several historic landmarks close by.
Surfers should probably pick Jardim do Mar as their home base. And those looking for solitude and peace (or lower prices) should consider the northern coast.
But my favorite area to stay in Madeira is Machico. The island’s former capital is less busy than Funchal but still lively and vibrant. There is an excellent sandy beach in town, and several amazing walks and hikes just a short drive away. Machico is where I stayed last time and would gladly do it again.
Getting Around the Island
If you plan on traveling around Madeira, I highly suggest renting a car. There is simply no way around it. Public transport on Madeira is rudimentary, and many locations would be difficult to access without a vehicle.
There are taxis of course, as well as packaged tours and shuttle buses to the more prominent walks and vantage points. That can work to an extent, but you won’t be able to cover everything. Also, you lose the flexibility in changing your plans as tours need to be booked in advance.
Money-wise, you might be able to save a little bit with such an arrangement, but taxis and tours aren’t exactly cheap. On the other hand, rental prices have been on the rise lately. So if money is important, you might want to run some calculations to check what the best course of action is.
If you decide to rent, book early to secure a better deal. Also, you’ll generally get lower prices with smaller local providers. We rented with Funchal Car Hire (not affiliated) and had a perfectly smooth experience, so I’m happy to recommend them.
As a travel destination, Madeira has far exceeded my expectations. It offers a truly explosive mix of leisurely activities, hikes, adventure sports, incredible scenery, and fabulous cuisine that will keep even the most seasoned travelers entertained.
Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a photographer, or even a beach lover with an occasional interest in beautiful nature, Madeira needs to be on your bucket list. It’s a fascinating place full of wonderful things to explore and you’ll instantly fall in love with it.
I hope that this article has been useful and you got some value out of it. If so, do me a favor and share it with your friends and on social media. And if you have any further questions, feel free to reach out in the comments below.
If you enjoy traveling, I have a bunch of other blog posts that might be of interest. Have a look at the menu or browse some of my recommendations below:
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- Algarve Photography Guide: Best Locations and Practical Tips
- Lisbon Photography Guide: 10 Fabulous Spots to Capture
- Sintra Photography Guide: 10 Best Spots with Practical Tips
- The Best Spots for Photography in Porto and Practical Tips
- Mallorca Best Photo Spots and How to Plan A Trip
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- Best Landscape Photography Locations in Patagonia
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