Exploring Portugal’s Funchal, Madeira: Advice from an Almost-Local
If you’re looking for warm weather, delicious wine, good food, and an escape from everyday life, Southern Europe has plenty to offer. But for something truly unique, Portugal’s Madeira Island and its capital Funchal are hard to beat. Since I never had the pleasure of skipping over to Madeira while I lived in Spain, I asked blogger and frequent Funchal visitor, Edyta of Say Yes to Madeira, to share her thoughts on the island that means the world to her.
What do you love about this Funchal? What makes it special to you?
Funchal is the biggest city of Madeira, which, for those who do not know, is an island belonging to Portugal, located 1000 km from the coast of Europe and only about 520 km from the coast of Africa. Funchal is a perfect base for our active holidays in Madeira. I love it with all my heart, because it is a perfect mix of “easy, close to home and no cultural shock,” but warm and exotic at the same time!
We live in the Netherlands, but we visit Madeira every time we need some sun but do not have enough days off to take a faraway trip. We usually stay in the Old Town of Funchal. During the day, we usually head to the mountains, take one day hikes or walks on the levadas (famous aqueducts specific to Madeira), swim in the famous lava pools, discover new observation decks… while at the end of the active day, we return to Funchal, take a shower, change and head to the Old Town, where we have a great choice of delicious restaurants and meet our friends in one of the great poncha (local alcoholic drink) bars.
It is also the place where we hosted our destination wedding last year, so it is truly special for us.
What’s your all-time favorite place in Funchal?
Definitely the Old Town (Zona Velha) of Funchal. Doors of that part of Funchal are painted by local artists; each door is different. It is a great place to eat out in one of the restaurants on small, charming streets and get a drink while listening to live fado music being played in a nearby fado restaurant.
If a traveler only had 24 hours in Funchal, what are some places you’d tell them they absolutely can’t miss?
Within Funchal, that would probably be the Old Town, but that can take just an hour or two. I know that many tourists also like to stop by at the Cristiano Ronaldo monument or visit his museum. Some are brave enough and take a popular sled ride down the Monte hill. There is also a cable car, which can take you to Monte and one of the tropical gardens, which will offer you the best views of Funchal Bay.
There are a couple of beautiful spots in Funchal area that I would recommend: Cabo Girão viewpoint, which is a glass floor observation deck on a 580m-high cliff, a secluded hidden gem, Faja dos Padres, or a spectacular Eira do Serrado Viewpoint with a breathtaking view of the Valley of Nuns.
Is there any food that you MUST try when you’re there?
Madeira is a real heaven on earth for all meat and seafood lovers. While in Madeira, you simply need to try lapas – limpets (aquatic snails) baked on a special frying pan with garlic and butter, splashed with fresh lemon, usually served with a little garlic butter – my absolute addiction.
Another popular local dish Madeira is famous for is espetada, which is simply beef on a skewer (metal stick or laurel twig), seasoned with salt, garlic, and bay leaves, grilled on wood or charcoal.
Most of the local dishes contain meat or seafood, so vegetarians and vegans might have a hard time in typical Portuguese bar or restaurant. They will be rewarded, however, with a choice of the fruit Madeira has to offer: delicious small bananas, passion fruits, tabaibos, nesperas, dragon fruits, anonas, English tomatoes, banana passion fruits, fruitas deliciosas, guavas, mango, and many other.
Love the fruit selection! Where would you recommend tourists stay when visiting?
Hotels in Funchal are definitely nice. Many of them are very luxurious, but they can be very expensive. If you like modern hotels with amazing views but located outside of the hotel area in Funchal, I would recommend Savoy Saccharum. If you travel on a budget, you will also be able to find hostels or very affordable little hotels, where prices start at 25-30 euro during the high season. Those who like camping can stay on entirely free-of-charge campgrounds in spectacular locations.
What are the most photo-worthy or Instagrammable spots? Any fantastic lookouts or otherwise photogenic spots?
There are so many! Madeira is truly spectacular. One of my favorite spots can be found around 30 minutes by car from Funchal, and it is the Pico do Arieiro summit. On a good day, you are above clouds, and the pictures are spectacular. You can easily get there by car, so it is a very popular spot for engagement or wedding sessions.
In Funchal itself, I would recommend the murals and painted doors of the Old Town or one of the beautiful botanical gardens, full of exotic flowers and trees.
Are there any must-see museums or monuments?
One of the many Cristiano Ronaldo monuments in Madeira. You might find them funny. There is one at the airport, and one just in front of his museum in the center of Funchal. In the Cristiano Ronaldo Museum, you have a chance to take a picture with a virtual hologram of him, posing next to you. There is also a big mural of Ronaldo in the area where he used to live.
Wow, he sure is popular there! What tips do you have for travelers looking to avoid the crowds?
Funchal gets crowded every time the cruise ships arrive in the Funchal Port. It also gets very busy around Christmas and New Year (due to the famous Funchal firework show) and during the Flower Festival/Parade in May.
When it comes to things to avoid in Funchal, there is one more thing you should definitely avoid. Avoid making ANY purchases in the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers’ Market) in Funchal. Do not avoid the place altogether, but if you go there, you must be assertive. Do not buy anything from the pushy sellers, especially on the second floor. Fruit and vegetables there are extremely overpriced, so do not let them cheat you.
What should visitors know about transportation around Madeira?
Madeira is a small island, and Funchal is a rather small city. There are no trains, no trams, no metro, and unfortunately no Uber in Madeira. Funchal is a bit particular when it comes to public transport, due to the fact that it lies in a mountainous area, with often very dangerous roads. Cycling isn’t very popular due to the terrain. You can either walk or take a cab, one of the tourist cars (like a tuk-tuk), or a public bus. There are also a couple of cable cars which can take you up to northern parts of Funchal.
Thanks so much for your insights, Edyta! In her words, “If you find Funchal an interesting location for your elopement, destination wedding or travel adventure, feel free to check out my blog, Say Yes to Madeira. Please be warned: seeing the beautiful videos and pictures might result in a sudden urge to pack your suitcases and book your next dream holidays in Madeira!” And be sure to follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest as well.