Guide to Madeira
Advice to help you make the most of your holiday
Uncover Madeira's best attractions with this guide from our experts
Comprising four islands off Africa's northwest coast, Portugal's autonomous Madeira archipelago has a subtropical climate and dazzling scenery which draws in holidaymakers all year round. Madeira, the biggest of the four islands that gives the chain its name, serves up rough volcanic landscapes overlooking pretty marinas and Romanesque architecture. Getaways here suit adventure seekers as much as beach and culture lovers. Use Saga's Madeira guide, and you’ll be all set to start an enthralling holiday.
An expert perspective on where to go
Craft your own itinerary using our guide and take your pick of the archipelago’s top attractions. Plus, look out for our advice on what regional delicacies to order and which of Funchal’s museums you should be frequenting.
When you're arriving in a different country, it helps to have top tips and recommendations up your sleeve. Our guide aims to help you make the most of your Madeira holiday. At the end of the day, you're able to return to old favourites or newfound delights, reaping our wisdom whenever you please.
How to explore Madeira
Things to see and do
The best food and drink
Weather and climate
Events in Madeira
Holidays in Madeira
No trains operate on Madeira island, so your best bet is either travelling around by bus or taxi.
Travelling by bus in Funchal
Buses run between 5.30am and 12:30am throughout the week. However, this differs on Sundays and public holidays. Check up on timetables via the Horarios do Funchal website to help plan exact trips. Please note that this website is in Portuguese, although your web browser may be able to translate this for you.
Travelling by bus to eastern Madeira
If you want to travel outside of Funchal, there are several different bus operators you can travel with. To travel east to the city of Machico, go on an EACL bus. Tickets cost €2.75 each way and services run throughout the course of the day, differing on Sundays and public holidays.
Travelling by bus to western Madeira
To travel to Ribeira Brava on the west of the island, take the Rodoeste bus. One-way tickets for this route are €3.75. There are numerous services throughout the day, with journey times taking around an hour, depending on traffic. Again, services can vary if you’re travelling on a Sunday or public holiday.
Travelling by bus elsewhere on Madeira
The island’s SAM buses can take you to other island hotspots such as Canico, Canical, Porto da Cruz and the Santo da Serra Golf Club. Prices can change based on location and day of travel, and it’s advisable to buy a Flexicard to save having to pay separately for individual journeys.
Travelling by car in Madeira
If you’d rather drive yourself around Madeira, then car hire options are available. Simply speak to a member of staff on arrival and they’ll be more than happy to sort it out for you – just ensure you bring the relevant documentation. It’s important to remember that the roads in Madeira are often narrow and twisting, so be prepared for this fact before you put the keys in the ignition.
Travelling by taxi in Madeira
You will find taxi ranks in Funchal, while taxis can also be booked from the reception area of your hotel. The city itself isn’t too big, so unless you’re planning on taking a longer trip outside of it, most journeys will be between €5 and €15. This can vary based on time of travel and which taxi company you use.
Bike rental in Madeira
You can hire bikes for a day at prices of around €20 per bike in Funchal. And if you like the fresh air, but don’t fancy the exertions of pedalling, then tuk-tuk tours operate daily at a price of €15 per person.
Useful transport links
Use the following links for information from Madeira’s travel providers. Some of the sites may be in Portuguese, but your web browser may be able to translate this for you.
Buses: Horarios do Funchal
Buses: SAM - Sociedade de Automóveis da Madeira
Bike hire: E-Bike Madeira
Tuk-tuk tours: Tuk Madeira City Tours
Please note that all prices are accurate at time of publishing.
Whether you’re wanting to see Madeira’s inland allures, take a boat to one of the other islands or scour Funchal’s coastlines, there’s no shortage of things to see and do with your time here.
Funchal – religious sites
The Cathedral of Our Lady of The Assumption, or the Cathedral of Funchal, is a Gothic church in east Funchal. It was built in the late fifteenth century, while the statue of Pope John Paul II in the churchyard is a more recent addition from 2005.
The Santa Clara Covent is possibly the island’s best-known nunnery. Tours cost just €2, but be aware that the convent closes between 12 and 3pm as some nuns still reside in the building. Uncover how nuns live, with added commentary from a guide, and see a few remarkable paintings while you’re at it.
Funchal – museums
You’ll find the city’s Sacred Art Museum located in the Episcopal Palace of Funchal. It holds a collection of paintings, sculptures and other works made between the 15th and 19th centuries. Scout out the Flemish paintings for an insight into early 15th- and 16th-century life in Madeira. Thanks to their size – strikingly big for European works of art – you’ll have no trouble finding them.
The Universo de Memorias, a museum of memories, is a great way to learn about the history of the Madeira archipelago. Take a trip way back to its volcanic birth some 14 million years ago, then journey up to more recent events. You can learn in an interactive way here, then see sublime views of Funchal and the surrounding areas from the panoramic terrace upstairs, which is equipped with telescopes. The museum is open every day excluding Christmas.
Praia da Calheta – beaches
Madeira, unlike its neighbour Porto Santo, isn’t blessed with sandy beaches. Due to the island’s volcanic landscape, most beaches are pebbly and lined with basalt rocks. That isn’t to say you can’t enjoy a beach holiday here, though. Madeira has artificial beaches like Praia de Machico, a half hour drive from Funchal. The sands here are imported from Morocco’s beaches, and this place proves a popular hangout spot for tourists in the summertime.
Pico do Arieiro – natural beauty
This is the third-highest peak in Madeira with a summit boasting views over the entire island and, weather permitting, Porto Santo, which is situated 30 miles to the south. You may want to take refreshments as it’s roughly a two-to-three-hour round trip. There’s a road with plenty of other picturesque viewpoints, too, so you can always drive if you don’t fancy the walk.
Camara de Lobos – natural beauty
Take a trip through the tranquil countryside, culminating at the panoramic viewpoint of Eira do Serrado. From here, you can look down upon the famous Valley of the Nuns, which is situated at the bottom of a volcanic crater.
Cabo Girao – natural beauty
A short drive from Funchal, Cabo Girao is a small mountainside village with shops, restaurants and a notorious cliff skywalk. At 589 metres high, the Cabo Girao Skywalk is the highest in Europe and isn't for the faint-hearted!
Sao Vicente – caves
Formed by an eruption around 890,000 years ago, these caverns were the first volcanic caves in Portugal to be opened to the public. A tour lasts half an hour, during which you can see volcanic stalactites, lava accumulations and other underground natural spectacles. At the end of the tour, you’ll come across the Volcano Centre, an educational space designed to educate visitors on the formation of the caves.
Monte – stunning views
This tiny village overlooks Funchal and was formerly a health retreat for Europe’s elite. Today, it’s a popular viewpoint for tourists looking to get out into the mountains and out of the island’s capital.
Faial – gardens
An hour or so away from Funchal, on the northeast of Madeira, is the Teixeira Family Museum, outside the parish of Faial. It was founded by Anaclet Teixeira de Freitas, a Latin American entrepreneur and native Madeiran, to celebrate the legacy of his family. The museum features a series of gardens, a wine house, a chapel and palm trees from Egypt. It’s worth putting aside at least a few hours to exploring the tranquil grounds here.
In Madeira, the diet revolves around meats such as beef, pork and chicken, and fish including tuna and cod. Tuna is cooked over a wood fire in traditional Madeiran fashion, then served with green salad and a rose for aesthetics. Other local specialities include the imposing-looking espada fish, also called the black scabbardfish. It’s usually eaten with boiled potatoes, a salad and (somewhat surprisingly) a fried banana. Meats, meanwhile, are often skewered, marinated in garlic and served with fries and salad.
Madeira’s sunny climate lends itself to a number of reputable vineyards. Varieties of wine tend to be drier whites and sweet reds made from grapes such as Complexa and Tinta Negra. You might have heard of the fortified drink produced here, Madeira wine. It comes in a variety of different styles – some sweet, some dry – which are either consumed as an aperitif or by themselves. Alongside this, you’ll see wine from mainland Portugal as well as international bottles.
Beer and spirits
Popular lagers in Madeira include Coral, which is made in Madeira. You’ll find this on tap in a lot of bars in Funchal, with bottles of Sagres also being a popular choice. As Madeira is an autonomous part of Portugal, you can expect to see popular Portuguese lagers such as Super Bock. In terms of spirits, you can buy a lot of the products sold in the UK at a reasonably cheap price here, including brandy, whisky and vodka.
Visiting Madeira in the summer
August is the hottest month on the island with average temperatures of around 23 degrees Celsius. There’s usually around eight hours of sunshine per day, so it’s worthwhile packing some sunblock to avoid sunburn. It doesn’t rain much in summer, but there’s no harm in bringing a light waterproof, along with light garments for city days, wind beaters for alpine walks and warmer clothes for colder evening temperatures.
Visiting Madeira in the spring or autumn
Temperatures in both spring and autumn remain fairly stagnant, rarely dropping below 17 degrees and occasionally reaching the early 20s. It stays sunny throughout most of the day, although there tends to be a little more rain in the autumn than spring. Fill your suitcase with light, casual t-shirts and shirts, shorts and something a little weightier for when it gets a little chillier.
Visiting Madeira in the winter
One of the best things about Madeira holidays is the temperature rarely dips below 15 degrees. January and December temperatures still average at around 18 degrees Celsius, reaching highs of the early 20s. The most rainfall does tend to happen in January, but that’s nothing an umbrella and anorak can’t beat. Other than these two essentials, pack shirts, jeans and maybe the odd jumper in case temperatures drop.
There’s plenty of events – both religious and secular – occurring throughout the year. Here’s a few highlights on Madeira’s calendar.
Cantar os Reis (January)
Also known as the Singing of the Kings, this festival is held every January and celebrated on the 12th night after Christmas. The bulk of the event is in Funchal, but outdoor concerts are also held in other locations like Ribeira Brava and Camara de Lobos. Join in with this exquisitely Madeiran winter tradition, and enjoy the novelty of hearing carols in the temperate outdoors.
The Madeira Flower Festival (spring)
Held two weeks after Easter, this festival sees central Funchal fill up with colourful flower-packed floats. The night before the Sunday parade, thousands of children head to Avenida Arriaga, where they form the Wall of Hope, which is made from thousands of flowers. You can’t help but feel the overwhelming positivity that lines this festival and, without a doubt, makes it one of Madeira’s happiest events of the year.
Madeira Day (1st of July)
This national holiday celebrates Madeira gaining autonomy from mainland Portugal, which occurred in 1976. Official ceremonies involving song and dance are held across the island, while many families tend to celebrate with outdoor picnics.
Monte Festival (August)
A big religious event in the Madeiran calendar, the Monte Festival takes place every August in the hills of Monte. The Nossa Senhora do Monte Church is decorated in flowers to honour the patron saint of Funchal, Our Lady of Monte. Pilgrims then go on to create a procession which leads to the church, before engaging in song and dance, and partaking of food and drink.
Columbus Festival (September)
The world-famous explorer Christopher Columbus is renowned for his role in Portugal’s Age of Discoveries. His ties to Madeira ran deep, too, due to his marriage to Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, daughter of an important captain in Porto Santo. He lived there for several years and his first child was said to have been born here. Festivities last a week long, during which performers stage a re-enactment of Columbus’ arrival to Porto Santo harbour.