Madeira is an island in the Atlantic Ocean, about 520km (320 miles) off the coast of Morocco. While mostly autonomous, strictly speaking Madeira is a region of Portugal. With that comes an interesting cultural mix of Portugal's best bits and Madeira's self-made culture and lifestyle.
Madeira has long been a holiday favourite and having spent a week on the island, it's very easy to understand why. Before we visited, we had an image of Madeira of being a beach destination akin to Ibiza or the Canary Islands. That image couldn't have been more wrong. Madeira is actually packed with wonderful natural landscapes, a friendly and welcoming population, delicious food and stacks of fun excursions suited to all kinds of crowds.
In this post, we've summarised some of the reasons why you should consider visiting Madeira on your next holiday. All of the suggestions are based on our own experiences whilst on the island.
5 reasons why you should visit Madeira
We spent just over a week in Madeira and we still couldn't squeeze in everything that we wanted to do. What we did manage to do is highlighted below.
Funchal, Madeira's capital city, has so many things to see & do
When visiting Madeira, it's quite likely that your accommodation will be in Funchal. You'll therefore be spending quite a bit of time there. Thankfully, Funchal is jam-packed with awesome things to see and do.
During our stay in Funchal, we particularly enjoyed swimming in the ocean at Complexo Balnear Barreirinha, walking along the promenade eating Bolo de Caco and Pastéis de Nata, riding the cable car to Jardim Tropical de Monte and visiting the farmer's market (Mercardo dos Lavradores).
Find out more: There's so much more to discover in Funchal, that we created a whole other article that summarises all of our favourite things to see & do.
Seeing dolphin's is practically guaranteed
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 catamarans than other operators and they have strict policies in place that respect the marine life and ecosystem.
Around 30-45 minutes into our sailing, 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!
Finding Levada walks and getting into nature is easy
Madeira is an island that's full of greenery and stunning natural landscapes. Beautiful leafy forests and breathtaking geology are plentiful and combine to create a wonderful setting for walks suited to most abilities.
For those staying in Funchal and wanting to experience a walk along one of the island's Levadas (human-made irrigation channels that criss-cross the territory), we can recommend Levada dos Tornos, a 5km downhill hike which starts near to the top station of the Funchal Cable Car and leads you back to the city centre through woodland and the suburbs.
As you explore the island further, you'll discover more walks that you can embark upon. Each are well documented and sign-posted.
See Madeira's tallest peak from the island's third tallest peak
At 1,818 m (5,965 ft) high, Pico do Arieiro is Madeira's third highest mountain. Despite the height, getting to the peak is very easy by road with plenty of parking provided and even a restaurant and shop nearby. Since getting there is so simple, a constant stream of organised tours arrive throughout the day and the observation platform can be rather busy.
If you can see past the throng though, the views are stunning. On a clear day, visitors can see Madeira's sister island, Porto Santo, 48km (30 miles) away. Also visible is the island's highest peak, Pico Ruivo. Those of a more adventurous disposition can take the trail which starts at the summit of Pico do Arieiro all the way to the summit of Pico Ruivo.
You can explore the island in a 4x4 Jeep
With Madeira's economy hinging largely on the tourism industry, you can safely expect there to be numerous tour operators, each keen to take you around the island's main attractions. Most of the operators use mini buses or, less commonly, full-sized coaches for this purpose. While mini buses are fine for getting around (we used a few during our visit), there's something extra special about getting around by 4x4.
For starters, 4x4's a way more fun. We chose to explore the far western end off the island with Up Mountain Madeira, the only jeep tour company on Madeira to operate open-top ex-army jeeps. This monster of a 4x4 showed no signs of its age, nipping up steep narrow lanes and chugging through muddy forest tracks with ease. Only 4x4s are capable of going off road, so they're the only way to explore the island's more rural tracks and to get to the farthest reaches of the island without having to stick to the highways.
Our guide, Ricardo, was a real character and kept us entertained the entire day. He clearly loved his job and knew his stuff and it was a privilege to discover the island through his eyes.