The capital of Madeira is located on the south coast of the main island, and the hillsides of the central massif meander down to the sea. In Funchal, you’ll see abundant plant life sustained by volcanic soil and a climate of perpetual spring, plus three lush, colorful gardens to de-stress.
Two of them can be reached by cable car to the Monte block. To get back up the slopes, there is a high-speed option, running down the street on a wicker sled. The city is filled with whitewashed colonial buildings, some from the century when Madeira was discovered.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Funchal:
1. Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro
One of the many benefits of Madeira’s consistently spring-like weather is that gardens like this can bloom no matter when you visit.
The outstanding Palheiro Gardens, located in the English Colonial-style estates surrounding private residences, are home to some 3,000 species of plants from all corners of the globe.
Among the numerous flower beds and carved hedges are the Rose Garden, the Sunken Garden, the Camellia Avenue, the French Garden, the Ladies Garden and the Tea Room.
If you come here in late winter, you’ll see a preview of European summer, wisteria, and exotic species like Protea that’s already blooming.
2. Funchal Cathedral
In the city’s cathedral, you’ll travel back to the days of Portugal’s great seafaring.
The building was built in the early 16th century using polychromatic pyroclastic rocks quarried from the cliffs of Cabo Girão in the southwest.
If you gaze at the roof of the minaret, you will see that it is covered in classic glazed tiles.
The then Portuguese King Manuel I donated the cathedral’s silver procession cross as a masterpiece of ceremonial silverware.
The wooden choir booth is also special, depicting prophets, saints and apostles in 16th-century clothing.
3. Monte Gondola
One of Funchal’s unavoidable attractions is the cable car that takes you to the Perched Monte community at an altitude of 600 meters.
The gondola started operating in 2000, replacing the long-discontinued railway, which ran 4 kilometers on the slope and closed in 1943. Aside from the sights of Monte, your motivation for this 15-minute journey is for the scenery; Funchal, the mountains and sea dotted with white houses are your thoughts and photography.
4. Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
Meandering through 7 hectares of terraced fields is another botanical garden with exotic plants and cascading buildings such as Japanese pagodas.
Your path through the gardens leads to stunning glazed decorations produced in the 15th and 16th centuries.
And in the Japanese garden, there are also tile panels that tell the history of the trade between Portugal and Japan.
At the Palazzo Monte, you can see the African art exhibition upstairs, while downstairs is the mineral collection, which includes 700 specimens collected from mainland Portugal, South America, North America and Africa.
5. Santa Maria Street
Running east to west through Funchal, the Zona Velha is a lovely cobblestone street that follows a corridor of houses with painted doors.
Rue Santa Maria, one of the first painted neighborhoods in Funchal, has its roots in the 15th century and is now a top destination for shopping and dining.
The street was flooded in 2010, and as part of its reconstruction, the city launched the Open Doors art project.
So now what makes the route come alive are the peculiar brightly colored doors, painted with real finesse.
6. Igreja do Monte
One of the top attractions is this 18th-century church on the site of a 15th-century abbey.
On the high altar is a statue of Nossa Senhora do Monte (The Virgin of the Mountains), which is located in the original hermitage and has been revered since the first year of settlement in Madeira.
Also worth your time is the mausoleum of Charles I of Austria, who spent many years in exile after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Charles was the last emperor of Austria and the last monarch of Habsburg-Lorraine.
Be sure to climb the stairs to the roof between the towers for the full Funchal panorama.
7. Wicker Toboggan Ride
As soon as you arrive at the upper terminal in Monte, you are met by a group of men in rowers and white suits offering to take you back to Funchal at high speed.
Your mode of transportation will be unconventional, to say the least.
You’ll climb a wicker sleigh with greased wooden slides and be pushed down the Carro de Cesto road that winds up the mountain.
With a tradition dating back to the 1800s, you will descend two kilometers before continuing your tour in the suburb of Livramento in Funchal.
8. Madeira Botanical Gardens
Things to do in Monte is to take the second cable car to the Botanical Gardens.
The terminal is just a short walk from Mont’s Upper Station, and you can buy a coupon before leaving Funchal.
This second cable car is also a picturesque journey through the Joao Gomez Valley.
Like much of Funchal, the garden is etched into the hillside, and unfortunately the 2016 forest fires took their toll on the orchids.
But beyond that, there’s a lot to explore, including scenic lookouts, plantations of tropical and subtropical fruits like papaya, avocado, coffee and sugar cane, imaginative pruning areas and a variety of succulents.
9. Santa Clara Monastery
Founded by João Gonçalves da Câmara, this monastery is another rare sight in Madeira in the 15th century.
He was the second major captain of Funchal, and during his rule Madeira achieved economic and social development through the sugar trade.
The monastery bears witness to these changes and dates back to 1492 as a residence for the daughters of local nobles.
The monastery operated until its dissolution in 1834. On a guided tour, you will visit the abbey church (essential for its splendid tiled walls and frescoes) and the peaceful gardens in the cloisters.
10. Madeira Movie Experience
Sometimes you just need facts and these are what you get in a theatre in a shopping centre a few meters from the pier.
The Madeira Movie Experience condenses the archipelago’s volcanic origins and 600 years of human history into one 30-minute film.
Production values are top-notch, complemented by paintings, photography and archival footage.
You’ll learn more about the wars, political unrest and crises (famine and isolation) that shaped the island.
If you are visiting Madeira by cruise ship and have limited time, you should make this a priority.
11. Jesuit College
With its volcanic fountain, Praça do Município is one of Funchal’s most impressive cityscapes, next to the town hall and this striking Jesuit college.
This is a stunning building dating back to the 16th century with Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
The Jesuits were suppressed in the Portuguese Empire in 1759, so since then the college has assumed several different roles, serving as the headquarters of the invading British army, a Portuguese military base, and now the main building of the University of Madeira.
You can still visit on a special line that takes you into the church, which has great tiles.
12. Pico dos Barcelos
Moments east of the city are a set of hilltop platforms offering the ultimate view of Funchal.
Here at 355 meters, you can stop for a coffee or a cold drink at the newly renovated viewpoint.
If you look to the sea, you can see the entire Bay of Funchal formed by Ponta do Garajau, and make out the desert archipelago in the distance.
Inland, Funchal is a dizzying array of whitewashed houses scattered across the increasingly vertiginous slopes of the central plot.
13. Pico do Arieiro
Madeira’s third highest peak is an easy day trip from Funchal at 1,818 meters above sea level.
Car-free visitors can choose from dozens of companies that offer coaches or cars to the top of the mountain, which has a shop, café and several observation decks accessible from the walkway.
On a clear day, you’ll see Port St. Island 30 miles north.
You may prefer hiking, in which case you can park at a distance from the summit and follow the trail, which takes about two hours each way.
From there you can continue to Pico Ruivo, the highest point on the island.
Both peaks are much cooler than Funchal, so be prepared.
14. Day Trips
In Funchal, you can arrange a series of non-stop one-off experiences.
Some companies offer 4×4 and paragliding adventures, or you can do it yourself and follow the scenic road to Curral das Freiras, a village perched on the walls of a canyon.
Or try hiking the weathered headland of São Lourenço, the easternmost point of Madeira.
Meanwhile, the interior of the island is woven by waterways called levadas that channel water from areas of high rainfall to dry farmland.
These are cut from the rock, dating back hundreds of years, to create the perfect terrain for crossing Madeira’s subtropical laurel forests.
Suggested 4×4 tour:
- Madeira: Cliffs and Valleys Open Roof 4×4 Tour of Funchal
- Valley of the Nuns and Mountains 4X4 Tour
- Madeira by Open 4×4
- Madeira Southwest 4×4
This fortified wine is born in a similar way to Port. Grape essence is added to wine to preserve it during long sea voyages.
But that’s where the similarities end, as Madeira is then heated through an “estufagem” process for at least three months and then left to sit for several years before bottling.
For example, Vintage or Frasqueira Madeira must be aged in wooden barrels for at least 19 years and then in bottle for another year, while for Reserve wines, the minimum ageing period is a premium year.
If you want to be a true fanatic, Blandy’s has been making Madeira for 200 years and has hotels to visit in Funchal.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Funchal, Portugal
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