Madeira AKA the “Hawaii of Europe” is a volcanic island off the coast of Morocco (but technically part of Portugal). Madeira is an island paradise with lush rainforests, regular sunshine and stunning beaches. The main differences between Madeira and Hawaii is that Madeira is much less well-known and consequently less expensive than Hawaii, truly making it a hidden gem. Madeira also is not as consistently warm during the winter months and gets a bit cooler at night than Hawaii. However, given its picturesque landscape and generally comfortable weather, Madeira is a great year round destination. Here is our guide on the top things to do on Madeira.
FYI: We visited Madeira in February for a week and found it to be a great winter getaway from the dreary and cold US midwest. The temperature was mainly in the upper 60s/low 70s (Fahrenheit), and it was sunny all but one day when we had intermittent rain/clouds. On the rainy/cloudy day, it was in the upper 50s (Fahrenheit). We stayed on the southern side of the island in Arco da Calheta where it is consistently warmer year round than the northern side of the island.
We took this trip when our daughter was 18 months old. For more information on traveling and exploring with a baby, please see our Top 10 Baby Travel Tips, How to Hike with a Baby and Flying with a Baby posts.
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Top Things to do Madeira: Hike 25 Fontes Levada Waterfall Hike
The 25 Fontes Levada Hike is one of the most popular levada hikes on Madeira and for good reason. With two impressive waterfalls to see along the way and sweeping rainforest views throughout, the 25 Fontes hike is not one to miss while visiting Madeira. The 25 Fontes and Risco waterfalls you see on this hike are truly astounding.
The 25 Fontes Levada Hike is 6.5 miles round trip with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain and is an out & back hike. This hike is located near Rabacal (in the middle west part of the island). For more information on this hike, please see our guide on How to Hike Levada das 25 Fontes on Madeira.
Top Things to do Madeira: Hike Levada do Caldeirão Verde
The next thing we recommend is another stunning Levada hike. The Levada do Caldeirão Verde hike is one of the most magical and picturesque levada hikes on Madeira. From sweeping mountainous rainforest views, to hiking through narrow caves to stunning waterfalls, this hike does not disappoint. This hike was recommended to us by several as the ‘best hike on Madeira’ and we would agree. This overall flat hike is not overly strenuous or technical and with astounding views. The Levada do Caldeirão Verde hike in Madeira is a must do hike while on the island.
The Levada do Caldeirão Verde is an out & back hike that is 8.5 miles round-trip and is essentially flat the entire journey. This hike is located near Santana (in the North Middle part of the island), For more information on this hike, please see our guide on How to Hike Levada do Caldeirão Verde on Madeira.
Cost: Less than 5 Euro to Park
Top Things to do Madeira: Hike Ponta de Sao Lourenco Trail
Next thing we recommend doing on Madeira is hiking the Ponta de Sao Lourenco Tail. The Ponta de Sao Lourenco hike takes you along the colorful and rugged easternmost tip of the island that extends into the ocean that is often referred to as “The Dragon’s Tail” of the island. The scenery is more barren here with interesting rock and cliff formations. It is unlike anything else you will see on the island. Definitely be sure to do this hike while visiting Madeira.
Ponta de Sao Lourenco Trail Logistics
The hike is 4.6 Miles round-trip with 1,351 feet of elevation gain and is out & back. If you do not want to hike the whole trail there are some very pretty views of this rugged coastline about 0.5 miles into the hike. This hike has a lot of up & down but only felt a bit strenuous on the last climb to the summit that is quite steep. Otherwise, the hike goes by quickly as scenery changes often enough, and you have plenty to look at along the way.
Note, do not expect to have this hike to yourself. Although not the easiest hike on the island, it is relatively short and very unique so a lot of people hike at least part of it. Ideally, arrive early to avoid issues parking and as many people as possible. We had no trouble parking at the trailhead around 10am but when we finished the hike at 12:30 PM, cars were double parked and parked very far down the road with many circling waiting for a spot to park. It was bananas!
Also, note that this hike is completely out in the open meaning that there is zero shade on this trail. Ideally, hike at sunrise to avoid the sun and heat. However, this was unrealistic with our baby so we hiked it on a mainly overcast day to avoid the sun and heat. You do get an ocean breeze periodically during the hike.
Top Things to do Madeira: Visit Camara de Lobos Fishing Village
This small fishing village is very picturesque. It is not surprising that Winston Churchill loved to come and find inspiration here. In Camara de Lobos, you can walk around the waterfront and city center, admiring the architecture and charming little town. We highly recommend not eating on the waterfront though as you will get better food, prices and service a bit further away from the hustle and bustle. We ate at Vila da Carne Carne Restaurante (a couple streets off the main waterfront) and had the best Espetada we have tasted. Here, you can dine on a beautiful outdoor patio that overlooks the picture-perfect waterfront.
Note that this is a great spot to stop for lunch or dinner after going to Cabo Giro (next to do). However, do not expect to have this village to yourself. This is the only spot (other than Cabo Girao) that had a lot of tourists during our time on Madeira. However, it’s popular for good reason due to its undeniable charm and we still think it is worth a visit. Visit here early in the morning if you want to avoid a lot of other people.
Top Things to do Madeira: Stop at the Highest Sea Cliff in Europe at Cabo Girao
Our next thing to do on Madeira is to stop at the highest sea Cliff in Europe at Cabo Girao. Here, a glass floor separates you and an almost 2000 foot (greater than 500 meter) drop into the ocean. It is very neat to stand on this viewing platform and look down. Our daughter loved that she could see the ocean and cliff from so high up. Plan to spend 15 minutes here (unless it is a particularly busy time when you may have to wait longer to get on the platform).
Top Things to do Madeira: Drive under Waterfall at Cascata dos Anjos
The next thing to do on Madeira is a quick stop but a fun one! Cascata dos Anjos means Angels Waterfall and this waterfall pours over your car on the road. The road is not well maintained or trafficked but rather easy to access near Ponta del Sol. Our daughter thought it was quite funny to drive under this waterfall so we did it several times. It’s like a free car wash. You also can walk under this waterfall but beware you will get completely soaked.
Top Things to do Madeira: Hike Levada do Moinho to Levada do Nova
The Levada do Moinho to Levada do Nova hike is a peaceful loop trail along two different levadas that leads you to two different waterfalls. One of the waterfalls you can even walk behind! Although not a very popular hike, it was one of our favorite hikes on Madeira. Beyond the waterfalls you see on this hike, the valley mountain views here are incredible. The Levada do Moinho to Levada do Nova hike is a hidden gem on Madeira.
The Levada do Moinho to Levada do Nova is a 5.6 miles round trip hike with just under 500 feet of elevation gain and is a loop trail. This hike is located near Ponta del Sol (middle south part of the island). For more information on the hike, please see our guide on How to Hike Levada do Moinho on Madeira.
Top Things to do Madeira: See Traditional Santana Houses
Early inhabitants of the island built these houses and the largest collection of them is in Santana. These houses are charming and fun to walk through. There are little shops in each house here where you can buy traditional sweets, drinks, clothing, flowers and other souvenirs. We liked sampling different traditional cookies at the house with different sweets. Sam tried a traditional passionfruit poncha here too that was delicious though very potent. There is also a small local farmer’s market across the street.
Tip: If stopping for lunch or dinner around here, do not eat right by the houses. Drive 5 minutes either way for less tourists as well as better food and service. We ate at Santana in Nature about 5 minutes away near the Miradouro do Cortado viewpoint and had a nice relaxing meal that felt very local (staff did not speak English).
Top Things to do Madeira: Stop at the iconic Madeira panorama spot of Miradouro do Cortado
After visiting stopping at the Santana houses, stop at the iconic Madeira panorama spot of Miradouro do Cortado. This viewpoint is one of the best spots to see water and mountains (and sometimes purple flowers). It is near the Santana Houses and definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.
Tip: Miradouro means scenic viewpoint in Portuguese. Anytime you see a sign indicating Miradouro, feel free to follow it to a viewpoint. However, there are truly an endless number of these on Madeira and you will get just as scenic views hiking and driving throughout the island. We would not advise stopping at every one of these because you could spend your entire trip just doing that.
Top Things to do Madeira: Monte Palace Botanical Gardens in Funchal
Our final Madeira recommendation is to visit the Monte Palace Botanical Gardens. We did not spend any time in the bustling Funchal (main city on Madeira where the airport is located) other than to visit the stunning Monte Palace Botanical Gardens. These gardens are rated as one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world with a huge variety of pretty flora. Due to the location of Madeira, plants from all over the world have been brought here. These gardens are 5 acres and the paths here make for some leisurely strolling. Our daughter really enjoyed walking around the gardens here and seeing all the different pretty flowers.
Cost: 5 Euros/Person. The entrance fee was waived for us when we arrived 1.5 hours prior to closing but this was plenty of time to explore. If interested, there is a cable car you can take into the stunning valley/mountainside here that is an additional cost.
Top Things to do Madeira: Other Things To Do
Although we did not have time for the below activities, here are some other things to do in Madeira if you have more time.
- Sunrise or Sunset at Pico de Arieiro (High mountainous viewpoint, 60 second walk from the parking lot, may be more windy and cold atop mountain, plan to go at sunset instead of sunrise to avoid potential total fog and be able to scope out the NetMadeira webcam)
- Miradouro de Véu da Noiva (Viewpoint, waterfall that leads straight into the ocean, short walk from parking lot to viewpoint, cannot access waterfall due to landslide)
- Sexial Black Sand Beach (Black sand beach near Miradouro de Véu da Noiva, best to visit in summer months as it is located on theon colder north side of island)
- Walk to the waterfall at Garganta Funda Viewpoint (Viewpoint of tallest waterfall in Madeira at 459 feet (140 meters), 5 minute walk to see, better to see in winter because more flow, located very far on the west side of the island and may be a long drive to access due to lots of windy roads winding)
- Hike to the island’s highest point at Pico Ruivo (Highest point on Madeira at 1,862 meters above sea level, Achada do Teixeira trail is 3.4 miles round-trip with 1,571 feet elevation gain and an out & back trail to reach it, often snow cover during winter months and may not have panoramic sweeping views with cloud cover)
- Hike Verada de Balcoes (0.6 miles flat trail, mountains covered in thick forest and can see to the ocean on a clear day, the roads to this hike closed during our visit)
General Madeira Tips
Must try Food/Drinks on Madeira
Food/drinks to be sure to eat/drink while on Madeira include:
- Bolo do Caco: Garlic bread that is served or offered as an appetizer at almost every restaurant in Madeira, we ordered this at most meals to eat before our main meal.
- Espatadas: Beef Skewers served on a spit that hangs over your table. We had the best Espatadas at Vila da Carne Restaurante in Câmara de Lobos.
- Poncha: A traditional, very sweet alcoholic drink that typically served in a small glass and made from sugar cane. It’s delicious but very potent. It tastes like rum and orange juice mixed together.
Have Quality Rain Gear
It only rained one day during our visit. However, Madeira is a tropical island and it rains frequently. Even if it was not raining on many of our hikes, we needed rain gear to stay dry when we had to hike through different areas with large water runoff. We highly recommend having good rain gear for your visit to Madeira. Here is the gear we use, love and recommend.
- Baby Rain Suit
- Men’s North Face Waterproof Hiking Pants
- Women’s North Face Waterproof Hiking Pants
- Men’s North Face Waterproof Rain Jacket
- Men’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots
- Women’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots
- Women’s Waterproof North Face Rain Jacket
Narrow and Winding Roads
The roads in Madeira are narrow and winding almost everywhere on the island. Be mindful of this fact and be very careful driving. Local drivers often take these narrow roads very quickly but be more cautious than them. Many parts of the roads become one lane due to cars parking directly on the road (legally) due to limited space for parking. The freeway also has very short entrance ramps and you often have to wait to get on the expressway (we have never seen this anywhere else in the world). We highly recommend renting a compact car as there really is not room for bigger cars on most roads and this will make parking easier for you too.
For some prone to motion sickness, including Natalie and Baby G, these roads were a bit nauseating at times. See our How to Prevent Motion Sickness While Traveling and Flying for some tips on dealing with this motion sickness.
Where to Stay on Madeira
We recommend staying near the Ponta del Sol/ or the Calheta area or the Santana area. Both are located near many of the activities we recommend. However, both of these areas are on opposite sides of the island. We opted to stay on the southern side of the island as the weather is warmer and more stable year round. Arco da Calheta is where we stayed for the week and we found the location to be very nice/central.
We hope this guide helps you plan things to do on Madeira. Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
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