When you’re in the remote Atlantic at the same latitude as North Africa, there are things you don’t expect in Europe.
On Madeira, possibly subtropical laurel forests, tended by a perpetual spring-like climate and soil, nearly all plants thrive.
Madeira’s natural landscapes can take your breath away, and best of all, they’re easy to spot on mountain roads or through historic irrigation channels known as “levadas”. You don’t have to venture into the mountains to enjoy the richness of nature as there are many botanical gardens with a wide variety.
The sea awaits for whale watching expeditions and diving in clear and gentle waters.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Madeira:
1. Ponta de São Lourenço
The easternmost point of Madeira is a nature reserve with huge volcanic rocks streaked with reddish hues.
For breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean and photos that look like the end of the earth, this is a worthwhile hike.
There are also factors about climate and soil that allow unusual flowering plants such as shepherd’s purse and immortals to thrive.
Beyond the occasional picnic table rest stop, there is no sign of human habitation after the new Quinta do Lorde resort.
On the way to lookouts like the stunning Ponta do Furado, you’ll be amazed at almost every turn.
2. Cabo Geelong
In 2012, a “skywalk” was installed on this 580-meter-high cliff on the south coast of Madeira.
This is only for the highly minded, as the platform overhangs the edge of the cliff and has glass floor tiles that give you a dazzling view of the ocean beyond.
If this is something you like, you’ll be happy to know it’s completely free.
When you look down, you will notice that the narrow strip between the cliff wall and the ocean has been divided into small farms.
On the east side of the platform, you will have a magnificent view of Funchal.
3. Pico Ruivo
If you’re up for the challenge, Madeira’s highest peak (1,862m) is walkable if you have the right shoes and keep abreast of the weather.
The hiker’s route starts in Pico do Arieiro and takes about six hours.
While the path to the top is shorter and more manageable (eg from Achada do Teixeira), this trail will give you the most beautiful views.
Words can only describe the stunning views along the way and at the top of the mountain.
The rocky mountainscape is dyed green with moss, ferns and heather, and you’ll want to stop for photos of birds and lizards along the way.
4. Levada Walk
Madeira’s topography means that most of the rainfall is in the north and northwest, while the southeast can be dry.
So from the 1500s onwards, taking inspiration from the Moors, dozens of channels were opened along the winding highland route to carry water to drier regions.
With their power, these channels make some dramatic and impassable locations approachable.
One of the best routes is Levada dos 25 Fontes, which takes you past the spectacular 100-meter-long Risco waterfall.
Meanwhile, the Levada do Caldeirão Verde was built in the 1700s to transport water from Madeira’s highest mountains to Faial, near the north coast, and through the wonderful São Jorge valley.
5. Funchal Cable Car
Along an old steam railway line, a modern cable car system takes you from Almirante Reis to Monte, the upper suburb of Funchal.
There’s usually a queue, but it’s always moving quickly, and then you’ll have 15 minutes to enjoy the view of the sea and the terraced hillsides of white houses.
There are many reasons to travel, from the photo-friendly views to the tropical gardens of the Palais de Monte or the chapel where Emperor Charles I was buried.
But something odd awaits you at the top; people in white outfits and gondolier hats take you into a basket sleigh and ride down the slopes to the heart of Funchal.
6. Panorama Drive
One of the many cool things about Madeira is that despite the rough terrain, the road system is great.
These routes pass through stunning natural scenery and save you the arduous hikes.
Most of them were built at huge expense and took years to complete.
On the north coast, you must experience the VE2 from São Vicente to Porto Moniz, with a nearly constant ocean view and clinging to a steep green coastline.
There are waterfalls along the way, and you can take a detour to Seixal for a dip in the rock pools.
Equally stunning are the winding roads, which are about half an hour’s drive from Funchal to Curral das Freiras in the interior of Madeira.
7. Parque Forestal de Queimadas
In the northern and lower reaches of Pico Ruivo, there is an enchanting subtropical laurel forest.
High humidity has clouded the woodlands, and the forest floor is covered with moss, lichens and ferns, as well as some of the largest leaves in Europe.
There is a full network of trails from which you can board several Levadas.
But you can also have a picnic at the sanctuary, which is designed to resemble a traditional Santana hut with thatched huts and wooden structures.
8. Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
The entrance to these exquisite gardens is the first thing you’ll see after exiting the Monte cable car station.
They are located on the terraced slopes surrounding the former Monte Palace Hotel, which was built in the Rhine Revival style at the beginning of the 20th century.
There are medicinal plants, herb beds, cacti, Scottish heather, European rhododendrons, native laurel and South African cycads.
You can also stop at the Japanese Garden, which has a pagoda and pond with koi.
Azulejos also appears in the foliage, most memorably telling the story of the Portuguese in Japan on a large panel of 166 tiles.
9. Vereda dos Balcões
There is a car park next to ER 103 in Ribeira Frio, where you can join the Levada da Serra do Faial and start the hike to this remarkable viewing platform.
The destination is glorious, but the journey is also memorable as you travel through the forest with orchids, Madeira mahogany, Madeira blueberries, and some exotic species like plane trees and English oaks.
The viewing platform is the icing on the cake, from the front row you can see the misty mountain circus over the Metade valley.
In the distance, pinnacles give way to rolling hills where crops are grown.
10. Madeira Movie Experience
Screened in the cosy cinema next to the marina, the film condenses six centuries of Madeira’s history into 30 minutes of entertainment.
There is an audio guide system with commentary in English, French, German, Dutch and Portuguese.
When there’s so much to see out there, you might be wondering how a video demo makes the list, but it’s a great introduction to the archipelago.
You’ll learn about discoveries, wars, famines and revolutions in the 15th century.
If you’re leaving a cruise ship, you can make it the first thing you do on the island and feel like an expert.
11. Pareiro Gardens
These gardens at Quinta do Palheiro estate, located 500 meters above the Atlantic Ocean, in the verdant hills east of Funchal, are proof that almost any plant can thrive in Madeira soil.
Since 1885, the property has belonged to the Brandywine family, who have long been involved in the island’s wine industry.
Before that, it belonged to the Portuguese nobleman Conde do Carvahal, who planted the tree and started collecting the famous camellia in his garden.
The terraces are lined with whimsical greenery, roses, cypresses, and thanks to the pleasant climate, hibiscus and bougainvillea bloom all year round.
Madeira has become one of the preferred diving destinations in Europe.
For this, you can thank the water’s high transparency and low temperature fluctuations.
The coldest water is 18°C in February (much warmer than most of Europe in summer!), and you’ll get a comfortable 24°C during the peak season around August and September. So, if you want to try out an SSI or PADI course, Madeira is the place for you.
It’s an honor to be able to glimpse a species in the wild that is normally only seen when browsing the internet! Hidden among the rocks, you should be able to see groupers, octopuses and moray eels.
Most dive centres organise trips to the Savage Islands to swim with monk seals, dolphins and turtles.
13. Boat tour
There are many companies willing to take you out into the ocean to spot whales and dolphins.
While you’re never guaranteed to see, the captain knows the waters and the signs to look out for.
For example, the sudden appearance of a flock of seabirds is often a sign that cetaceans are approaching.
About 20 different species of dolphins and whales have been recorded on Madeira, accounting for more than one fifth of all species in the wild.
Summer is the best season and with any luck you might spot pilot whales, sperm whales and Bryde’s whales, while bottlenose and spotted dolphins are common at any time of the year.
14. Madeira Whale Museum
There is a museum in Canisal on the east coast that tells the history of the whaling industry in Madeira.
This is based on Caniçal, where an expedition was not launched until 1981. The museum opened in 1989 and was modernized in 2011. You’ll get a candid portrait of the whaling industry, including tools, boats, and first-hand accounts.
This is of great ethnological value, as it was a way of life in Madeira’s past.
But there is also a section on conservation of cetaceans and marine life, full-scale models of whales and dolphins, and 3D footage of these mammals.
Another thing to do when you arrive in Funchal is to get acquainted with Madeira’s fortified wine of the same name.
Depending on the quality, the drink will be aged for many years in special warm conditions (some sold for centuries). Blandy’s Wine Lodge is off to a good start, bringing light to 200 years of winemaking in this archipelago.
If you book a premium tour and tasting, you’ll visit the cooperage where the barrels are made, learn how black grapes are turned into wine, and see aged vats made of Brazilian satin wood.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Madeira, Portugal
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