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Madeira

Natural and botanical beauty are the hallmarks of Madeira, but this sun-drenched island also offers traditional villages, fresh seafood and stunning scenery. The bustling capital, Funchal, is where you will find everything from cable car rides to boat trips around the island. Madeira is affectionately known as the ‘Pearl of the Atlantic’. Hike through the lush, emerald green mountains at the heart of the island or sunbathe on the golden sands of Porto Santo on your holiday to Madeira.

Madeira’s largest city, Funchal is located on the south coast of the island. For a taste of Madeiran life, take a wander through its narrow streets. Sample authentic Madeiran dishes like sopa de tomate e cebola, a tomato and onion soup topped with a poached egg, in one of its many traditional restaurants. Quaint little art galleries, museums and markets can be found throughout the city. Just 6km east from Funchal is the quiet seaside village of Caniço de Baixo. An oasis of calm, the idyllic resort is perched upon a hill overlooking the sea. Take a stroll along the cliffs and admire the panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.

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When visiting Madeira don't forget to see and experience the museums, galleries, Bars, Lounges, Restaurant and vibrant cafe society of this area!

What to see

Madeira’s dramatic interior is a must for visitors, even if they’re not into adventure sports. Rugged peaks, plateaus, gorges, deep forested river valleys and cascading waterfalls merge with a wide variety of wildlife and bird life for unforgettable photo opportunities. There’s even a dense, primeval forest which is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as six protected nature parks.

Levada walks are a journey back to more traditional times as they follow the ancient stone Levada watercourses, still used as part of an island-wide irrigation system which keeps the rich, volcanic soil moist and productive. The walks are unique to the island, run through nature parks and forests, and are gentle enough for most amateur walkers.

The soaring cliffs of the island are buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean in all its moods, and boat trips here take visitors on whale and dolphin watching or deep sea fishing trips from several harbours on the island. The cliffs themselves seen from the sea are breathtaking, as are the views from the water of the mountains backing the coastal plains. 

Porto Santo, easily reached by boat or a short flight from Madeira, is Madeira’s neighbouring island. Eight kilometres of superb sandy beaches with an island attached, Porto Santo is Madeira’s best-kept secret for its historic main town, Vila Baleira, once home to Christopher Columbus, and its horseback riding, golfing and relaxing vibes.

The unique village of Santana lies on Madeira’s northern coastline and is home to tiny, thatched triangular cottages, built with stone and painted white.

The region is totally traditional, with its occupants living by means of craftwork and farming, and is overlooked by the mountains and the lush, green Laurisilva forest.

Top Places to Visit

Madeira has its fair share of historic sites and impressive landmarks, both manmade and natural, giving plenty to do and see during a holiday on this sunny island. One of the most spectacular natural wonders is Cabo Girao, literally the second-tallest cliff face on earth. It offers superb vistas from the viewing platform at its top. For those nervous about heights, the view of the rearing limestone from a boat is awesome.

For more natural splendour, the Sao Vicente Caves along a pretty river close to the village of San Vicente have impressive lava tubes, stalagmites and stalactites. The highest peak on the island, Pico Ruivo, thrusts its 1,800m jagged head into the clouds. Two trails lead to its peak, the tougher one from Pico do Ariero and an easier route from Achada do Teixeira. Two-thirds of the entire island is a protected reserve, with a number of unique ecosystems.

Once a flourishing sugar town, Funchal’s old city has a rich heritage of 15th and 16th century buildings in its three historically important districts, Santa Maria, Sao Pedro and Se. Sao Pedro holds the mansions of the sugar barons and the great Franciscan monasteries of Santa Clara and Sao Francisco, while Santa Maria has the earliest church on the island, built in 1430. Se is home to a magnificent cathedral, a fortress, the Bishop’s Palace and the Jesuit College.

Madeira’s many museums tell of the history and traditions of the islands, with the City Museum focusing on the development of Funchal over the past 600 years. The Sacred Art Museum displays historic, religious artworks and the Sugar Museum gives a fascinating account of the sugar industry and its effect on the island. The Quinta das Cruzes Museum displays antique artefacts and the famous Portuguese Faience pottery and Wine Museum traces the history of fortified Madeira wines.

Entertainment

It has to be said that Madeira isn’t famous for its riotous 24-hour nightlife, with its population as well as its visitors more than happy to live it up on weekends and enjoy quieter pursuits during the week. Even so, weekend activities more than make up for lost time, with a great selection of café-bars, pubs, discos and nightclubs. If partying until dawn is a holiday must, Funchal’s central district is the place to go, and there’s even a casino with its own nightclub in the basement.

One of the hottest clubs in town is Kool, opposite the popular Number 2 pub in the city centre. Next to the ferry terminal is The Pier club, set on the remains of an ancient fort and opening at midnight on Friday and Saturday. A row of harbourside clubs is found nearby. Many hotels on Madeira offer themed evenings with dinner shows centering on traditional music, dance and folklore, and the haunting Portuguese fado music, played in bars and pubs, is now on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Entertainment and nightlife outside Funchal tends to be restricted to hotel bars and beachside eateries, although Porto Santo comes alive on summer evenings with locals and visitors alike heading for the town centre. The old Bocas area’s narrow streets are home to quaint bars gorgeously set overlooking the old harbour and occasional disco nights. Taski is the most popular bar and the Cine-Café shows old films projected on a conveniently-placed wall.

Eating Out

The beauty of Madeiran cuisine is its traditional base and time-honoured ways of preparation and cooking. The islands’ year-round mild, warm weather, rich soil and networks of irrigation canals ensure fresh produce at all times of year, and the ocean offers seafood at its best, including tuna, lobsters, crabs and shellfish. Locally-reared meats include chicken, beef and pork. Starters aren’t usual here, although the delicious, hot local bread (bolo do caco) served with parsley and garlic butter is a great beginning, and grilled limpits (snails) with garlic and lemon juice stave off hunger pangs.

Sopa de tomate e cebola is a rich onion and tomato soup, and acorda is bread soup with garlic, eggs, herbs and lashings of olive oil. Espetada is a traditional grilled meat dish, skewered with bay leaves and grilled over wood chips, and carne de vinho e alhos is marinaded pork chunks cooked in wine vinegar, garlic and bay leaves. Tuna is marinaded, grilled and served with milho frito, deep-fried cornmeal patties, and bacalhau com natas is grilled cod served with sliced potatoes and cream. Delicious sweets and desserts here use honey, eggs and cottage cheese.

Funchal has a huge choice of restaurants at all levels, serving everything from regional specialities to selected international cuisines. Fine dining venues are found in or close by the five-star hotels, and the Old City is great for traditional Madeiran food. You’ll find Madeira’s wide selection of local wines everywhere, as well as the sweet or dry fortified Madeira, for which the islands have been famous for several centuries. 

Facts

Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago that lies between 32°22.3′N 16°16.5′W and 33°7.8′N 17°16.65′W, just under 400 kilometres (250 mi) north of Tenerife, Canary Islands, in the north Atlantic Ocean and an outermost region of the European Union. The archipelago comprises the major part of one of the two Autonomous regions of Portugal (the other being the Azores located to the northwest), that includes the islands of Madeira, Porto Santo, and the Desertas, administered together with the separate archipelago of the Savage Islands.

Madeira was claimed by Portuguese sailors in the service of Infante D. Henrique (Henry the Navigator) in 1419, and settled after 1420. The archipelago is considered to be the first territorial discovery of the exploratory period of the Portuguese Age of Discovery.

Today, it is a popular year-round resort, being visited every year by about one million tourists, noted for its Madeira wine, flowers, landscapes and embroidery artisans, as well as for its annual New Year celebrations that feature the largest fireworks show in the world, as officially recognised by the Guinness World Records, in 2006. The main harbour in Funchal is the leading Portuguese port in cruise liner dockings, being an important stopover for commercial and trans-Atlantic passenger cruises between Europe, the Caribbean and North Africa.

Madeira is currently the second richest region in Portugal, after Lisbon, with a GDP per capita of 104% of the European average.

When the Portuguese discovered the island of Madeira in 1419, it was uninhabited by humans, with no aboriginal population. The island was settled by Portuguese people, especially farmers from the Minho region, meaning that Madeirans, as they are called, are ethnically Portuguese, though they have developed their own distinct regional identity and cultural traits.

The region has a total population of just under 270,000, the majority of whom live on the main island of Madeira where the population density is 337/km²; meanwhile only around 5,000 live on the Porto Santo Island where the population density is 112/km².

Useful Links

Madeira Airport (FNC) / Car Hire Pickup Location
Official Madeira Tourism Board

Video Intro


Madeira 2013 (Mingan Gray Wolf) / CC BY 3.0

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