Portugal is an incredible country. With direct flights to Lisbon from Miami, Kati and I have used it as a jumping off point to all of Europe. But Portugal itself is an incredible destination and worthy of exploring. Great wine, incredible cities and historic sites make Portugal a great destination for your summer holidays. But there is more to Portugal than Lisbon and Porto and with a little planning you can have an incredible island experience.
Some 500 km (320 mi) west of Morocco and 400 km north of Canary Island lies Madeira, an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean and an autonomous region of Portugal. The entire archipelago was named after its largest and most populous island, famous for its mild climate, scenic sights, and world-famous wine. Also known as the Garden Island and the Pearl of the Atlantic, Madeira has a colorful history, a culture of hospitality, and many unforgettable sights.
Madeira Archipelago is comprised of four main islands, of which Madeira and Porto Santo are the largest. To the south are located the two small rocky islands, known as Ilhas Desertas (Portuguese for ‘Desert Islands’ featuring a rugged terrain and pristine beaches. The archipelago’s capital and largest city, Funchal, hugs the steep southern coast of Madeira Island. It is also the starting location for tourists looking to explore the beauties of Madeira. You can book a flight to Funchal from most European capitals. There is also a direct flight from New York City, established at the end of last year. US citizens who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 can travel to Madeira islands without restrictions. You will only need to complete a ‘Madeira Safe’ online form 48 hours before your arrival. Unvaccinated travelers will have to provide a negative PCR test.
Welcome to Funchal: Madeira’s Colorful Capital
Since you’ll most likely be arriving to Madeira by plane, Funchal is the ideal starting point for your island adventure. This charming city is located in a natural amphitheater facing the coast. The scenery is stunning, boasting tropical gardens, diverse plant life, and many traditional buildings displaying the distinct Portuguese charm. You will fall in love with the city’s colorful architecture, narrow streets, and many restaurants where you can taste local culinary delicacies.
Madeira’s history begins in 1415 when a Portuguese expedition was blown off course and found a safe haven from the storm on an island they named ‘Porto Santo’ (Holy Harbor’). A year later, settlers arrived on the larger island, which was subsequently named Madeira. The island became an important trade nod, lying on the Atlantic Trade Route that linked Europe with the Americas and Africa. The island’s mild climate attracted wealthy visitors. Madeira was also famous for its sugar plantations. Soon enough, the island developed a unique local culture and a strong islander identity.
Madeira is best known for its lush gardens displaying a great variety of local flower species. The Funchal Botanical Garden is situated on the hills on the northern outskirts of the city. The garden is home to more than 2,500 plants indigenous to Madeira, as well as an exotic bird park and the Natural History Museum. Monte Palace Tropical Gardens can be found in the Monte District. Don’t miss visiting this small tropical paradise, the abundance of exotic plant species and water features will leave you in awe and make it well-worth a hike. There’s an option to take the cable car from Funchal if you don’t want to hike up the steep hills overlooking the capital. The more adventurous among you can ride a wicker toboggan back to the city.
Palácio de São Lourenço: this 15th-century fortress located near the city waterfront is an enduring testimony to local history. Once a target of raids by French pirates, today the fort houses a permanent exhibition relating to the military history of Funchal and Madeira.
Experience Madeira’s Best Wines
No visit to Madeira is complete without tasting the island’s world-famous wines. We recommend taking one of Madeira’s many wine tasting tours. It will make for a memorable day exploring the island’s colorful vine regions. You can book a tour in Funchal, starting from $50 or, if you want a complete experience, pay for a full-day Madeira wine tasting tour that will take you to the vineyards of Câmara de Lobos and Porto Moniz. It’s an excellent way to explore the island, gain a fascinating insight into local history and culture, and, of course, taste the unique Madeiran wine.
Levada Walks: The Best Way to Explore Madeira’s Natural Scenery
Levadas form a unique system of aqueducts that run through Madeira’s rugged interior. The water channels go around the hills and are essential to supplying water to local farms. Levadas form natural walking paths, ideal for exploring the island’s natural beauties. There are many different Levada walks available. We recommend you go on a popular Rabaçal walk which is about 6 miles long. Along the way, you’ll pass three levadas and discover many amazing waterfalls. The viewpoint (Pico de Rabaçal) offers an excellent opportunity to spend the afternoon enjoying Madeira’s wild beauty.
Climb the Pico de Arieiro and Rest Among Clouds
The adventurous among you will be glad to discover that Madeira offers many opportunities for hiking and mountain climbing. Pico de Arieiro is the island’s third-highest peak, standing at 1,818 (6000 ft) above sea level. If you’re not in the mood for a climb, you can reach the peak by car. The hiking path takes about 3 hours to complete. Pico de Arieiro is the sole place on the island where snow can be found during winter. The view is spectacular, not to mention that you can look down on the clouds enveloping the peak on most days. You can reach the peak easily if you’re based in or close to Funchal. If you decide to rent a car, there’s free parking at the top, as well as a café and a souvenir shop. The whole island has great infrastructure so transportation won’t be an issue.
Head to Porto Santo for a Beach Getaway
If you prefer a quiet day at the beach to hiking and climbing, Madeira won’t leave you disappointed. You’ll have to leave Madeira Island, though, and head to Porto Santo. The island’s white sandy beaches are a dream come true for every beach-loving tourist. Porto Santo Island is fairly small; you’ll have no trouble reaching its many beaches.
Ponta da Calheta is a beach located on the southern tip of the island. It is relatively secluded so if you come early in the morning you can have the beach all for yourself. The location is ideal if you want to watch the sunrise but you can also come to see the sunset. Either way, you’ll experience the very best of what Porto Santo has to offer.
Praia Porto Santo stretches some 8km along the island’s eastern coast. A large, well-connected beach, it can be easily reached from any point on the island. The water is usually calm and crystal clear, making it an ideal place to spend a quiet day, enjoy the fine white sand and go for a swim.
Our Final Word
Kati and I always recommend getting off the beaten trail and travel to lesser-known locations. Madeira is an incredible destination that gives you the island and beach life as well as hiking, lush gardens and historic ruins. When planning a summer holiday, consider Madeira. You will not be dissapointed.