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Exploring the best things to do in Madeira reveals a captivating history, beginning when the island was claimed by Portugal in 1420. With a wealth built on sugar and later, wine, it has long been an essential port of call for sailors crossing the Atlantic.

Nowadays, the island is a popular visitor destination for its mild climate and amazing mountainous scenery. Activities such as whale-watching or hiking are very popular, while Atlantic beaches, historic towns, and quiet seaside spots all have their own appeal.

Stroll the Madeira Botanical Gardens

Lush landscape of Madeira Botanical Gardens

Madeira Botanical Gardens

One of the most beautiful places in Portugal, the Botânico da Madeira in Funchal sits on a steep slope overlooking the city. Facing the Atlantic, this hillside setting provides different zones for many plant species.

These include endemic plants of Madeira and exotic species from around the world. Themed sections, such as the succulent garden and the medicinal plants section add even more variety.

One highlight is the tropical greenhouse, which shelters species that would otherwise not be seen on this European island. Another is the Laurissilva Forest, showcasing the laurel forest species unique to the island.

Snap Photos at Pico dos Barcelos

View from Pico dos Barcelos

Pico dos Barcelos

This hilltop viewpoint slightly north of Funchal has amazing views. At almost 1,200 feet high, it has a 360-degree panorama of Madeira’s coast and spectacular interior.

If you are a soccer fan, make an instant friend by asking your guide to point out the Funchal parish of São Pedro far below. This is the birthplace of legendary player Cristiano Ronaldo, top goalscorer of all time.

Understandably liked by photographers, the viewpoint and its landscaped grounds are also popular for scenic picnics. There are a number of short walking trails allowing you to appreciate the beauty of the remote island up close.

Sit With Churchill

Colorful shoreline of Camara de Lobos in Madeira, Portugal

Camara de Lobos

The lovely fishing village of Camara de Lobos (lobos means sea lions) is about three miles west of Madeira’s capital, Funchal. With its colorful xavelhas (fishing boats), seafood restaurants, and nearby vineyards, it’s a long-time visitor favorite.

In 1950, Britain’s wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill came here while vacationing in Madeira. A statue on the harbor-front depicts him enjoying his favorite hobby, painting.

The sculptor has left an empty chair for you to sit in, and take in much the same view Churchill was capturing. Afterwards, walk up the 800-feet Pico da Torre for an even more panoramic outlook.

Gaze Down From Cabo Girão

Cliffside view of Cabo Girão, Madeira

Cabo Girão

Not far from Câmara de Lobos, you will find some of the world’s highest sea cliffs. Standing nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you look down at your peril.

One of the best places to visit in Portugal, Cabo Girão has the highest vertical drop of any cliffs in Europe, as can be appreciated from a dizzying, glass-floored viewing platform. A better option for many is to enjoy the panoramic views over the Atlantic Ocean to the south.

Paragliders often take advantage of the strong winds here. You can have a similar experience by riding the teleferico (cable car) to the bottom of the cliffs.

Taste a Poncha

Glasses of Poncha


Sampling this local cocktail is another must-do experience for any visitor. Probably sharing the same etymological roots as “punch” (from the Hindi word for “five”), it has five ingredients. These are aguardente (“firewater”—a rum-like alcohol), honey, sugar, and both orange and lemon juice.

In recent years, more exotic fruits have found their way into the drink. However, the “best” poncho is still said to be served in Càmara de Lobos.

Soak Up Ribeira Brava

Visit Ribeira Brava, one of the best things to do in Madeira

Ribeira Brava

The south coast town of Ribeira Brava is a charming seaside resort. Its appeal starts with a beautiful black sand beach, washed by Atlantic waves.

Behind the beach, you’ll find many fine seafood restaurants, cafés, and shops. The town is also a jumping-off point for tours exploring Madeira’s highlands and forests.

Don’t miss the historic Igreja de Sao Bento, known for its beautiful architecture. The church holds a priceless collection of 16th and 17th-century paintings and wood carvings.

Read: Best Beaches in Portugal

Go Whale Watching

Sperm whale spotted in Madeira

Sperm whale

Madeira lies on several important migration routes for whales. Its nutrient-rich deep waters also attract many dolphin species.

Whale and dolphin watching is without doubt one of the best things to do in Madeira. While peak season for spotting either is from April through October, any month can bring sightings.

There’s never a guarantee of seeing these magnificent creatures, but a good guide will improve your chances. They will also point out many other interesting species, including the rich birdlife of Madeira.

Ride Funchal’s Cable Car

Ride the cable car, one of the best things to do in Madeira

Teleférico do Funchal

The Teleférico do Funchal is a scenic, 2.4-mile ride from near the waterfront up to the village of Monte. At around 1,500 feet, Monte is one of the prettiest areas of the capital.

The modern cable car replaced one dating to 1939 that is still fondly remembered. However, the amazing views over Funchal and out to the Atlantic remain the same.

At the top, you can take in even more panoramic views of “The Garden City” and explore Monte. Nossa Senhora do Monte Church, and the Monte Palace Tropical Garden are both within easy reach.

Explore Romantic Monte

Lush landscape of Monte


Monte is known for its traditional houses, woodlands, and lush gardens, the latter of which reach their height in the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. Many of the villas here were inspired in their design by the 19th-century Romanticism movement, which embraced nature.

Nossa Senhora do Monte Church is a central landmark, dating back to the 18th century. Its elegantly simple Romantic-style exterior hides a richly decorated Baroque and Rococo interior.

Exterior of Nossa Senhora do Monte Church

Nossa Senhora do Monte Church

The church also holds the body of Charles I, the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, who put Monte on the map with his patronage. The assassination of his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914 marked the start of World War I.

Experience a Tropical Garden

Pretty landscape of Monte Palace Tropical Garden

Monte Palace Tropical Garden

Leave more time than you might think for the Monte Palace Tropical Garden, which overlooks Funchal. Apart from the extensive grounds, great views, restaurant, and gift shop, there are a number of other surprises.

While Madeira is a paradise of nature, you might not expect to find a Japanese Garden here. This serene space features traditional contemplative elements, such as pagodas, bridges, and ponds.

Another delight is the Monte Palace Museum, with its displays of 1,000 African sculptures and other artifacts. You will also find an enthralling collection of historic Hispano-Moorish tile artworks around the garden.

Slide Down a Hill

Ride the toboggan, one of the best things to do in Madeira

Toboggan ride

Having taken the cable car up to Monte, you might be expecting to go back the same way. However, can you resist a thrilling toboggan ride down the narrow, winding streets to Livramento?

This traditional mode of transportation, one of the best things to do in Madeira, dates back to the early 19th century. Sitting in a two-seater wicker chair, with wooden runners, you’re guided by two carreiros (drivers).

One carreiro at the front steers the sled, while another at the rear controls the speed on the fast, mile-long descent. Both wear traditional white uniforms with straw hats, adding extra color to one of the most picturesque things to do in Madeira.

Enjoy a Wine Tasting

Wine in Madeira

Madeira wine

Madeira was once the last port of call for ships sailing to the New World. One legacy is the island’s namesake fortified wines, developed so as not to spoil on long sea voyages.

You can learn more about that history and the production process on wine tours. Of course, buying a few bottles of any Madeira you like on a tasting is part of the fun.

Some of the wines that Portugal is famous for range from dry white to sweet Madeiras, including Blandy’s, H.M. Borges, and D’Oliveiras. You won’t have to look very far to find some of their products.

Plunge Into Porto Moniz

Visit Porto Moniz, one of the best things to do in Madeira

Porto Moniz

On the northwest coast of Madeira is Porto Moniz, one of the best beach towns in Madeira well known for its natural rock pools. These piscinas naturais are filled by seawater, making for a unique, therapeutic swimming experience.

The pools were formed by ancient volcanic activity, where lava flows met the ocean. Much eroded by the passage of time, they form rugged, photogenic shapes.

These lava pools are now part of a complex that includes changing facilities, restaurants, and sunbathing areas. The average annual water temperature is a balmy 70ºF, so the pools are in use year-round.

Lose Yourself in the Old Town

Street view of Zona Velha

Zona Velha

The capital’s Zona Velha is a place of narrow cobbled streets, historic buildings, and lively atmosphere. Many of its houses, built in traditional Madeiran style, are covered in colorful Portuguese tiles.

Wander around to find shops selling local art, and crafts, and traditional restaurants. The fresh produce on display at the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers’ Market) is a magnet for photographers.

This is a good place to try traditional Madeiran cuisine, or relax in a café. Another highlight is the 15th-century Corpo Santo Chapel, much beloved by local fishermen.

Besiege Fort São Tiago

Yellow facade of Fort São Tiago

Fort São Tiago

The historic Forte de São Tiago, on the eastern edge of Zona Velha, is now also an art gallery and restaurant. Its strategic position overlooking the Old Town also delivers panoramic views.

Originally built to defend Funchal against pirate attacks, the fort dates to the 17th century. Its design is typical of military architecture of the time, and you can still see some of its cannons.

The 20th-century conversion to a cultural center was sympathetically done to preserve that long history. Inside, The Museum of Contemporary Art showcases works by local and international artists.

Admire 200 Painted Doors

Painted doors along Rua de Santa Maria

Rua de Santa Maria Photo by Stephen Colebourne on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Forte de São Tiago is at the end of Rua de Santa Maria, a picturesque highlight of Zona Velha. This street is the centerpiece of a project which has made many of its doors into wonderful works of art.

The brainchild of photographer José Maria Zyberchem, the “Art of Open Doors” project saw artists revive what was then a run-down part of Funchal. This then led to new restaurants and galleries, completely transforming the neighborhood.

The first door to be painted on Rua Santa Maria was at No. 77, by Argentine artist Mark Milewski. To date more than 200 doors have been added, with the project spreading to other streets nearby.

Stroll Santa Catarina Park

Lush landscape of Santa Catarina Park

Santa Catarina Park

This green oasis in the heart of Funchal was first laid out in the 19th century. Its mature trees offer shady respite and a picturesque lake adds to the tranquil atmosphere.

Walk around to discover a diverse collection of plants and some delightful ducks. Notable sculptures include the Monument to the Discoveries, and a bust of Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco, one of the founders of Madeira.

Many of the paths open up lovely views of Funchal and its harbor. Regular events, such as concerts and the annual Flower Festival, add more appeal.

Look Up in Funchal Cathedral

Exterior of Funchal Cathedral

Funchal Cathedral

Sé Catedral de Nossa Senhora da Assunção is the religious heart of Funchal. Dating back to the early 16th century, the current cathedral (replacing an even older church) was built in Manueline style, the Portuguese form of late Gothic architecture.

Treasures inside include the processional cross, a masterpiece in silver. Equally impressive are the detailed azulejos (traditional Portuguese ceramic tiles) that cover the walls.

Look up to see the local cedarwood ceiling, worked in Islamic-style Mudéjar decoration. Then climb the tower for views over Funchal and its surrounds.

Wriggle Your Toes at Praia Formosa

Black sands of Praia Formosa

Praia Formosa

One of the best beaches in Madeira and the largest public beach in Funchal, Praia Formosa is known for its natural setting, and black sand. It is well served with facilities such as hotels, restaurants, and a promenade.

Backed by cliffs, the dramatic setting is very much part of the beach’s appeal. The contrast of black volcanic sand against the blue-green Atlantic waves is striking.

The water is sheltered, so generally calm, and there are designated areas for water sports. Go snorkeling or paddleboarding, or take a leisurely stroll to enjoy the picturesque views.

Hike a Levada

Waterfalls in Levada das 25 Fontes

Levada das 25 Fontes

Madeira has a 1,000-mile network of levadas, ancient irrigation channels that run through the island’s landscape. The rugged paths alongside these levadas also make for endless wonderful hiking routes.

These walks will take you into the heart of Madeira, through rich forests, scenic valleys, and awesome views. The most popular Levada das 25 Fontes, also passes the many springs of its name.

The closest to Funchal is the short (two miles in total) Vereda dos Balcões walk along the Levada da Serra do Faial. This starts in the village of Ribeiro Frio, about 40 minutes from the capital, and ends with views of some of Madeira’s highest peaks.

Explore Camara de Lobos, one of the best things to do in Madeira

Camara de Lobos

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