Visiting Funchal just to relax and soak in the sunshine would be a waste. That’s what we discovered when we spent a week in Madeira, a tiny Portuguese island off the the coast of Morocco.
Madeira isn’t an island for beach lovers and sun worshippers. There actually aren’t any natural sandy beaches to be found and the weather can be very changeable. Instead, it’s an island that’s full of local culture, fantastic cuisine and stunning natural landscapes.
You could go simply to relax over a few drinks if you wanted to, but with stacks of things to see and do all over the island, why wouldn’t you want to explore?
In this post, we’re focussing our attention on Funchal, the capital city. We’ve collated 23 awesome things to see and do during your stay in Funchal. Let’s go!
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At A Glance
Jump ahead to a section of our guide that interests you most.
- Admire the painted doors of Rua de Santa Maria
- Try Black Scabbardfish
- Drink Poncha
- Ride the Funchal Cable Car
- Explore Jardim Tropical de Monte
- Walk back to Funchal via Levada dos Tornos
- Explore Armazém do Mercado
- Go on a Cookery Workshop
- Watch Fado
- Drink Madeira Wine
- Relax at a Salt Water Spa
- Buy Souvenirs from Universal Store
Don’t forget, you can jump to the top of this guide at any time by clicking the arrow button in the bottom right of the page.
Swim in the Ocean
Address: Rua de Santa Maria 281, 9060-197 Funchal
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There are plenty of swimming spots in Funchal, but you’ll be hard pushed finding one more frequented by locals than Complexo Balnear Barreirinha (Barreirinha Swimming Complex). While you could quite easily visit a pebble beach for free, we think it’s worth paying the nominal entrance fee for the changing rooms and lifeguards. Pay a little extra and you’ll get sun loungers and parasols to use for as long as you like. The water here is clear enough for snorkeling. Visit on a weekday and you’ll wonder where everyone else is.
Adjacent to the entrance to the complex, you’ll find a rightfully popular bar called Barreirinha Bar Café that sprawls out onto the other side of the road. The atmosphere here is serene and sociable, particular as the sun sets. There are salads and burgers (with veggie options) and amazing seasoned fries, as well as a lengthy drinks menu.
Visit Forte de São Tiago
This brightly-coloured seventeenth century fortress was originally built to protect the city from pirates and has served multiple purposes since. It’s now open to visitors and houses some small exhibitions and a restaurant. In truth, you won’t spend very long here, but the views from the turrets and the various photo opportunities warrants the low entrance fee.
Walk along the Promenade
Strolling along the nearly 1km coastal path running from Jardim do Almirante Reis in the east to Santa Catarina Park (see below) in the west is a lovely way to spend an hour or so. Along the way, there’s plenty to see including a skate park, the base station of the cable car up to Monte, various food and drink kiosks and the Marina. Adjacent to the Marina is Praça do Povo, a landscaped garden where you’ll find a tribute to Nelson Madela and shady banana trees underneath which you can sit and take in your surroundings.
Visit Santa Catarina Park
This small municipal park is well looked after and is home to water features, statues and a small chapel. Look out for the free book exchange in a green, bird-cage-like structure. At the top of the park, you’ll find Santa Catarina Café on a terrace overlooking the ocean below, serving snacks and sangria.
Beneath the park is the CR7 Museum, honouring the career of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, who was born on the island.
Eat Pastéis de Nata
Whilst Madeira has a degree of political and cultural autonomy, the island is still Portuguese. It is therefore easy to get a flavour of the Portuguese mainland whilst you’re visiting Madeira. For the ultimate taste of Portugal, there is nothing that even comes close to being as Portuguse as Pastéis de Nata (otherwise known as Portuguese Custard/Egg Tarts).
Pastéis de Nata can be purchased from any bakery or coffee shop in Funchal. The best tarts have a crispy, crumbly pastry and a caramelised top.
Go Dolphin Watching
Madeira is gifted with beautiful, crystal-clear waters all the way around it. The calm and fertile seas to the south east of the island are home to all sorts of marine wildlife and its possible to head out and see it.
We were delighted to be welcomed aboard Magic Dolphin’s catamaran on one of their dolphin and whale watching tours. We chose Magic Dolphin as they’re family-run, have smaller, less disruptive catarans than other operators and they have strict policies in place that respect the marine life and ecosystem.
The ride out of Funchal’s marina was comfortable and the views of the island and the sparkling waters were fantastic. We initially sat on the wire nets that were strung between the two hulls, but we were free to move about the boat and we soon took advantage of this.
After around 30-45 minutes, a large pod of dolphins was spotted and we waited our turn to sail with them. The dolphins seemed to enjoy swimming at the helm as we sailed along and we were treated to an intimate display. If it weren’t inappropriate to do so, we could have literally reached out and touched them – they were that close!
According to the strict protection rules, we left the pod after ten minutes and changed direction, heading towards Cabo Girão, Europe’s highest sea cliffs at 589 metres above sea level. Here, the crew lowered the anchor and we were permitted to have a swim in the sea for a short time.
It had been a wonderful experience and one that we would totally recommend. The Magic Dolphin crew were professional, informative and friendly. You chances of seeing dolphins off the coast of Funchal are very high and, provided you position yourself right at the front of the boat, the views are unbeatable.
Visit Mercardo dos Lavradores (Farmers Market)
The covered Farmers Market is super touristy (particularly when there are cruise ships in port) and pricey, but we still recommend a visit. For starters, the fruit and veg market is a great place to see the huge variety of native fruit species that grows on the island. Stall traders will offer you free tasters of the passion fruits, but we’re reliably told that sugar might be added to some to sweeten the flavour, so beware.
In the back is the fish market, a lively, working wet market where local restaurateurs genuinely go to buy seafood. Here you’ll see the island’s signature fish, the Black Scabbard, in all its glory.
Along the outside of the market, there are a few cafes and bars that are worth a look. Some have a very local atmosphere.
Eat Bolo de Caco
Bolo de Caco is Madeira’s signature bread. Made with sweet potato, these inexpensive circular loaves are cooked on a hot plate and served from hole-in-the-wall or stand alone kiosks dotted all over the city. While you can buy it as is, you’ll ideally want to get one with a filling. There are a couple of sweet and savoury options, but our favourite, by some margin, was garlic butter.
Bolo de Caco is best served warm. If yours isn’t warmed on the hot plate, don’t be afraid to ask.
Visit Jardim Municipal do Funchal
A beautiful, well-tended municipal garden that’s bursting with native Madeiran trees and brightly coloured flowers. Within its confines, you’ll find a pleasant outdoor cafe, a duck pond and an amphitheater where concerts are occasionally held. It’s a lovely shady spot to escape the hot sunshine.
Enjoy a pot of tea at Loja do Chá
We visited this charming tea house with its colonial-style decor twice during our trip – once for tea and Madeiran honey cake (see below) and another time for a generous afternoon tea. The tea menu is extensive, so take your time when choosing your drink and ring the bell on your table for service when you’re ready. The best seats in the house are on the intimate balcony on the first floor overlooking the square below.
Eat Bolo de Mel (the real Madeira Cake)
In the UK, Madeira cake is a firm, but light sponge cake traditionally flavoured with lemon. When we told our friends and family we were going to Madeira, it was the first thing they said they knew about Madeira.
Only, they didn’t, because the Madeira Cake that Brits know so well has nothing to do with Madeira. The only link is that Madeira Wine was often served with ‘Madeira Cake’ back in the day and the cake acquired the name from the wine.
In Madeira, their cake is quite different. Bolo de Mel is made with honey and is dark, sticky and spongy. On top, the cake is decorated with a few walnuts and almonds. While it’s not much to look at, it tastes great and we jumped at the chance to try it whenever we could.
Souvenir shops often give out free samples to entice you to buy a whole one. We ended up buying one from a supermarket and taking it home to perplex our family and friends.
Admire the painted doors of Rua de Santa Maria
Rua de Santa Maria is arguably Funchal’s main tourist street. It’s lined with restaurants and gift shops aimed squarely at tourists and competition is fierce with staff practically lining the street hoping to entice those passing by in. Unusually, the length of the street (and some adjacent streets) is also lined with decorative doors, each hand painted in a unique style. For the best view, unhindered by touts and seating, go in the early morning before the restaurants have opened.
Try Black Scabbardfish
Practically every menu on the island has Black Scabbardfish listed on it somewhere. Every restaurant has its own interpretation on how it should be prepared, but typically you’ll find a fillet of it served with either banana or passion fruit sauce. It sounds rather odd, but the meaty, yet delicately flavoured fish pairs really nicely with the sweetness of the sauce.
Poncha is Madeira’s signature drink and it can be sampled almost everywhere. The cocktail starts with high-alcohol rum distilled from locally grown sugarcane, and then sugar and honey is added. The mix then splits into multiple varieties – traditionally, either lemon juice, orange juice, or both are added.
Locals will tell you that Poncha is a cure for the common cold and, once you’ve tried it, you begin to wonder whether they might be right.
Ride the Funchal Cable Car
The cable car runs from Jardim do Almirante Reis on the promenade and takes passengers up 1,025 m (3,363 ft) to the village of Monte. It’s an unmissable, albeit rather expensive, trip. It’s quite a rarity to find a cable car system that runs over a city, so you’re afforded a rather unique perspective.
At the top of the cable system, you’ll find the entrance of Jardim Tropical de Monte (see below) and the village itself with its pretty square and photogenic church. You’ll also find Madeira’s famous wicker basket toboggans, whose drivers will whisk you back downhill to the village of Livramento. We couldn’t justify the high cost of taking a ride in the toboggans and we discovered you kind of end up in the middle of nowhere, so we gave them a miss.
There is an additional cable car system which runs from Monte to Madeira Botanic Gardens (not to be confused with Jardim Tropical de Monte). You can buy a joint cable car and garden entrance ticket from the base station which will save you a bit of money.
Top Tip: When a cruise ship is in port, the cable car can be very busy with queues going out the door. If you’re in town for a while, check to see whether a ship is visiting before you go on the cable car to avoid the crowds.
Explore Jardim Tropical de Monte
Jardim Tropical de Monte is adjacent to the top station of the Funchal Cable Car and is not to be missed. As previously mentioned, these gardens are not to be confused with Madeira Tropical Gardens which are reached by another cable car from further along the road and for which, you’ll see combi-tickets being promoted.
The gardens are wonderfully tranquil and very large, so make sure you dedicate at least a few hours to exploring them. Near the entrance, you’ll find an excellent cafe and a fabulous art gallery/museum housing crystals and African artwork. Amidst the leafy trees, you’ll discover babbling water features, bridges, themed gardens and, at the bottom end of the gardens, replica ‘Santana huts’.
Your entrance ticket entitles you to a free serving of Madeira Wine (not a sample, but a full glass), so don’t forget to claim yours at the cafeteria.
Walk back to Funchal via Levada dos Tornos
Most visitors buy a return ticket for the cable car, but we opted to walk back down to Funchal via Levada dos Tornos, a 5km downhill hike through woodland, along irrigation channels and through the lanes of the outer suburbs of the city itself.
Initially, the route runs through woodland which was destroyed in wildfires in 2016. It’s an eerie reminder of how destructive such fires can be. The terrain is mostly easy underfoot and gradually sloping, though there are a couple of steep staircases and special care must be taken when walking along the unprotected irrigation channels. The views of the city and the ocean along this section are particularly stunning.
The final sector of the walk runs through steep, narrow residential lanes. Residents smiled and greeted us as we walked through. It was a pleasure to see the non touristy and ‘normal’ side of Madeira.
Explore Armazém do Mercado
Housed in a repurposed warehouse, this collective of trendy boutique shops, cafes, a toy museum and art galleries is where to go in Funchal for that hipster vibe. The pop-up shops sell a variety of gifts, art pieces and toys while The Snug cafe and bar serves delicious food and drink in modern, comfortable surroundings. On the first floor, you can partake in Madeiran cookery workshops (see below).
Go on a Cookery Workshop
For an unbeatable introduction to Madeiran cuisine, we can’t recommend Madeira Cook Experience enough.
Our experience started at the Famer’s market where the knowledgeable and friendly hosts showed us around and introduced us to Madeira’s native fruit and vegetables and that day’s fresh fish. The primary reason for being there though was so that the chef could pick up some fresh produce for the cookery workshop.
Once we’d collected our ingredients, we headed to the kitchen where we set about preparing a three course meal for ourselves. The experience was hands-on, but relaxed. Each of the participants took it in turns to assist the chef whilst the rest of the group watched.
Whilst we prepared the food, another of our hosts industriously prepared freshly made Poncha (see above) to go with the meal.
At the end of the experience, we shared all the food, of which there was copious amounts. It was one of the best meals we had during our entire week in Madeira.
We loved our experience, not just for the food, but also for the opportunity to engage with local Madeirans. They were pleased to answer our many questions about Madeiran cuisine and culture.
Madeira Cook Experience can adapt the food that is prepared during your experience to dietary requirements and preferences, so don’t be afraid to ask when you book.
Another classically Portuguese experience that you can see for yourself whilst in Madeira is Fado. Fado is a musically genre that can be traced back to the 1820s. It is characterised by its mournful tones and melancholic lyrics.
You’ll discover Fado performances taking places in some bars during your visit. These performances will be free to attend, but you’ll be expected to pay for drinks.
Alternatively, Jesuits’ College occasionally put on free Fado concerts and we were lucky enough to catch one during our trip. Make sure you turn up early to secure a seat and bring some cash with you to donate in exchange for biscuits and Madeira wine.
Speaking of which…
Drink Madeira Wine
It is practically impossible to visit Madeira without being offered Madeira wine and equally nonsensical to decline.
Madeira wine is a fortified wine, a bit like Port and has a strong, bold flavour. We acquired an instant liking to it and drank quite a bit of it during our visit.
It’s a pretty strong drink, so drink it in small measures. For an even lighter taste of it, it’s really nice served with tonic water and some orange peel.
To find out how Madeira wine is made, Blandy’s tour is a popular tourist attraction.
Relax at a Salt Water Spa
After all of the sightseeing and levada walks, you’ll want some time to relax and recuperate. We did so at Thalasso Sea Spa, which is part of the VidaMar Resort Hotel.
We managed to snag a great value spa deal which included time in the spa’s salt water hot tubs and pools, a steaming hot hydrotherapy massage, followed by a traditional back massage out on the spa’s balcony overlooking the ocean waves below.
After your spa experience, you can enjoy food at one of the hotel’s on-site restaurants or you can walk ten minutes to Delhi, a fantastic and good value Indian restaurant which we really enjoyed.
Buy Souvenirs from Universal Store
Finally, it’s time to buy some souvenirs. While you can buy souvenirs pretty much everywhere, why not combine your shopping with an unusual experience.
We happened upon Universal Store completely by chance, but we’re so glad we did. We noticed a shop sign stuck to the outside of a church building and were so intrigued, we wandered in. Inside, we discovered a church had indeed been converted into a huge shop that was absolutely full of every kind of souvenir you could imagine.
Once we’d browsed the shelves, the friendly proprietor told us there was more in the basement and, sure enough, there was. Here, bottles of Madeira wine, some hundreds of years old and covered in dust could be found.
It was a bizarre but enjoyable experience. Prices were excellent and the owner seemed appreciative of the business, so please do make the effort and check this place out.
We hope you’ve found this travel guide to Funchal useful. If you have any suggestions for things to do in and around Funchal, please let us know in the comments below.
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