Madeira is one of our favorite destinations in Portugal. Known as the pearl of the Atlantic, it has beautiful natural landscapes, adventurous hikes, natural pools, impressive waterfalls, delicious food, and an almost tropical atmosphere but in a European destination. Therefore, it is only natural that it is a popular destination among national and foreign travelers.
In this guide, we will help you plan an unforgettable trip to Madeira providing travel tips that allow you to travel freely, without stress, and make the most of what Madeira has to offer. And believe me, that’s a lot!
So, to make this information easy to understand, we created the 50 things you need to know before traveling to Madeira, scrutinizing the best destinations, the interaction with people, the best ways to travel, costs, ways to save, and much more…
About Madeira and the Madeirans
#1 With only 801 km2, the Madeira archipelago is quite small in terms of surface area. Of these 801 km2, almost the entirety corresponds to the island of Madeira with 742 km2. The island of Porto Santo has only 42 m2, while the desert islands have a little less than 15 km2.
#2 Located in the North Atlantic, Madeira is part of the African plate, about 700 km from the Moroccan coast, almost 1000 km from Lisbon, about 500 km from the Canary Islands, and 900 km from the Azores.
#3 Despite being relatively small, Madeira Island is very mountainous, with huge gorges that rise directly from the sea. The highest point of Madeira is the Pico Ruivo, with 1862 meters of altitude. Though, there are numerous peaks above 1500 meters, and the average altitude is 1371 meters.
#4 The Madeira archipelago is the second richest region in Portugal, after Lisbon and the Tagus Valley. Madeira’s GDP per capita is 103% of the EU average level.
In addition to producing some agricultural goods, having a good fishing sector, and some services, the economy of Madeira depends mainly on tourism. Sugar cane, banana, and tuna are some of Madeira’s best-known products.
#5 Despite the reduced area available and the difficulties caused by the orography, around 250,000 people live in Madeira, with a large majority living in Funchal or its surroundings in the south of the island. The north and center of the island are very sparsely populated.
#6 Portuguese is spoken in Madeira, but most people also speak English and even other languages due to the importance of tourism to the archipelago.
The people of Madeira have a very specific pronunciation and are sometimes quite closed. Despite sometimes causing some confusion, it is not difficult to understand the Madeiran pronunciation. There are also many words and expressions typical of Madeira. The best known is semilha, which means Potato (but not sweet potato), but there are many, as you can see here.
#7 Despite some exceptions (curiously always in highly touristy places), in our experience, the Madeirans are an extremely friendly and helpful people. For example, when we had problems with our car, people can to us offering help without us requesting.
This friendly way of being ends up making the whole travel experience even more pleasant.
#8 This reminds us of something that Madeirans usually don’t like very much… forgetting that Madeira is part of Portugal, and Madeirans are Portuguese. So, avoid saying “in Portugal” when referring to the mainland, as you are implying that Madeira is not Portugal.
It’s not a serious faux pas, but you can tell they don’t appreciate it. 🙂 Madeira is different and separated by the ocean, but it’s Portugal.
#9 Born in Funchal, Cristiano Ronaldo is the most famous of all Madeirans. He is considered the best Portuguese player of all time and one of the best players in football history.
The Portuguese international is also the player with the most official goals in history (over 800) and has won five Golden Balls. Madeira obviously takes great pride in its achievements, and in Funchal, you will find its Museum, a statue, and hotel. Madeira’s own airport is now called Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport.
Climate in Madeira
#10 Madeira’s climate is considered sub-tropical with hot and dry summers, while winters are more humid and cooler. However, there are several sub-climates due to the mountainous interior and the sea currents.
In general, we can say that the south of the island is hotter and drier, while the north is wetter and slightly cooler. The island’s mountainous interior is considerably cooler due to the altitude.
Another characteristic of Madeira’s climate is that the temperature variations throughout the year are relatively small, especially at sea level. As we said, winters are colder, but it’s rarely really cold. Therefore, it’s a great destination to escape cold northern Europe. Note, however, that temperatures are much lower in the mountains, and it even snows in some places.
When to travel to Madeira?
#11 Due to the great climate, Madeira is a tourist destination for any season, attracting tourists throughout the year. Since summer is naturally the high season.
Our favorite times to travel to Madeira is in May and June when temperatures are almost summer-like, the sea temperature is increasing, and the number of sunny days is high. As it is spring, it is also when the island is full of life and color, with lots of flowers and seasonal fruits.
Is it safe to travel to Madeira?
#12 In general, yes. It is quite safe to travel to Madeira. The island has low crime levels, and if we are talking about violent crime, then you’ll need to be really unlucky for something to happen to you.
Scams, pickpockets, and alikes shouldn’t be a big concern either. As in any other place, we must be careful, especially in tourist areas, but we are not aware of many issues in this regard.
#13 In fact, the only scam we ever heard about was in the Mercado de Lavradores, where prices are inflated for some tourists. Plus, sometimes the fruit offered to taste is not the same as the sold, and it has added sugar to taste sweeter. However, we did not even experience this in the market.
Anyway, be aware this may happen.
#14 Finally, in terms of safety, we have to mention that some people have disappeared from the levadas in Madeira, so we advise you to be extra careful.
The levadas marked and recommended by Madeira Tourism are almost always protected, but it is always necessary to be very careful. After all, we are in a mountain, and with huge canyons. Falling there can be very dangerous.
On the other hand, the greatest danger is taking unrecommended levadas and venturing into unfamiliar and dangerous places. We advise you to pay close attention, and follow official rules and recommendations. If you do, you will hardly take any risks.
Travel in Madeira
Tourists in Madeira
#15 As mentioned above, Madeira is an extremely popular tourist destination, both among Portuguese and foreigners. Before the pandemic, Madeira received around 1.5 million tourists every year, which is about six times the resident population.
Due to the all-year-round good weather, and the different events spread throughout the year, Madeira welcomes tourists throughout the year. However, it is in the summer that most travelers concentrate on the island; thus, at that time of year you will have more difficulties in getting away from the crowds.
What to visit in Madeira
#16 Despite being a subtropical destination with good weather all year round, Madeira (island) is not a beach destination. In fact, the island has relatively few beaches and none with natural white/golden sand.
However, we have to mention that in Calheta and Machico, there are beaches with golden sand, but they are artificial beaches with imported sand. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the beaches are quite inviting but not natural.
There are also some dark sand beaches, such as Prainha, near Ponta de São Lourenço and Praia do Seixal, in Seixal. Finally, Madeira has many “beaches” made of stone and goths, such as Praia Formosa and Porto da Cruz beach.
#17 On the other hand, there are plenty of seawater pools, some more natural and others more artificial. Some of them are absolutely stunning and have even been considered one of the best natural pools in the world several times
The Porto Moniz pools are probably the best known and most popular. Note that in Porto Moniz, there are two pools, one more natural and the other more artificial. It’s worth visiting both of them as they are in walking distance of each other.
Still on the north coast, the Natural Pools of Seixal are also stunning and are close to the beach mentioned above, so you can make a 2 in 1.
#18 Finally, and if you are looking for paradisiacal beaches, the archipelago has a solution for you: the stunning beach of Porto Santo. Yes, this is a beach with everything we are looking for in a beach destination.
With almost 9 km in length, the beach of Porto Santo is immense with golden and soft sand. The sea is turquoise, with pleasant clean water, reaching temperatures between 22ºC and 25ºC from July to early October.
#19 Thus, Porto Santo is Madeira’s beach destination of excellence. A great place for relaxing and unwinding as a family or for romantic getaways. Unfortunately, the island doesn’t have much else to offer. There are some walks, viewpoints, and the Columbus House Museum, but little else.
Anyway, it’s well worth spending a few days there, but more than that can be too much, especially for more active travelers.
#20 One of the things not to be missed in Madeira is visiting and exploring the laurel forest. It is one of the most famous things about Madeira and a major tourist attraction. Laurisilva is a type of subtropical forest that grows in areas of high humidity with stable and mild temperatures.
In Madeira, this type of forest develops between 300 and 1300 meters in altitude, covering about 20% of the island, especially on the north coast. It is truly an enchanted forest with unique species of both animals and plants.
Since 1999, UNESCO declared the Laurisilva of Madeira a world heritage site for being the best example of a laurel forest and one of the habitats in the world with the highest rate of plant diversity per km².
#21 The levadas are the best way to visit and explore the laurel forest. They take hikers to the forest’s heart through beautiful paths that follow the water lines and allow them to enjoy one of the most beautiful landscapes in Portugal. Walking along Madeira’s levadas is a unique experience.
The levadas are very gently sloping stone channels that transport water from the north of the island to the south. These were built over hundreds of years, between the 15th and 20th centuries. Initially, it would be to allow the irrigation of sugarcane plantations, wine, and other agricultural goods, but later also for electrical production.
#22 In Madeira, there are hundreds and hundreds of km of levadas. We have read that it is about 1400 km, but other sources say it is more than 3000 km. In any case, it is an impressive number and work. Some of these levadas are marked and signposted, making them perfectly safe for hiking.
Some courses are relatively short and easy to do, while others are much harder and longer. Some of the levadas take us directly to the heart of the laurel forest, others cross mountains through long tunnels, and in almost all of them, we find fabulous waterfalls and rivers.
#23 Madeira’s walks are really one of its main attractions, especially for those who enjoy nature and outdoor activities. In addition to the levadas, several paths present us with beautiful landscapes.
On the official website of Madeira tourism has a lot of information about all the recommended levadas and paths, including whether or not they are open. Some of our favorites are:
- Levada das 25 fontes
- Levada do Rei
- Levada dos Balcões
- Levada do Caldeirão Verde
- Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço
#24 Another excellent reason to visit Madeira is the waterfalls. There are beautiful waterfalls scattered throughout the island, some bigger and some smaller. The best known is probably the Véu da Noiva, a 30-40 meter waterfall that falls directly into the sea.
The Cascata dos Anjos is also well known and particularly popular on Instagram because it gives incredible images. This waterfall falls directly onto the road, where cars pass. While not especially pretty or tall, it’s a very distinct experience.
In addition to these, we have multiple waterfalls spread around the island that constantly surprise us. Some of the most popular are:
- Risco Waterfall
- Caldeirão Verde Waterfall
- 25 fountains waterfall
- Levada do Rei Waterfall
#25 Madeira has a very special relief, with huge gaps both on the coast and in the interior of the island that create fantastic landscapes but are also very difficult to work with.
Historically, cable cars were one of the best ways to transport people and goods from the sea-level fajãs to the top of the ravines. Today they are one of the island’s tourist attractions because they allow you to absorb the beauty of these extremes of the island through angles and perspectives almost impossible otherwise.
Madeira’s various cable cars offer fabulous views, but we have to highlight the following:
- Funchal-Monte Cable Car
- Achadas da Cruz Cable Car
- Cabo Girão Cable Car
- Rocha do Navio Cable Car
#26 One of the most popular cable cars in Madeira is the one that takes us to Monte, where the Monte Palace Gardens are located, one of the most emblematic places in Madeira.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Monte Palace was a luxurious hotel where many distinguished guests stayed. Princess Sisi of Austria is perhaps the most famous and important, but this hotel was one of the favorite resting places of the European aristocracy. Currently, Monte Palace is a museum and a garden, where we can find many exotic plants and flowers from different continents, as well as ducks, swans, peacocks, chickens, and Koi carp.
The Japanese gardens are perhaps the most recognizable part of Monte Palace, but the entire property is fabulous with ostentatious ornamentation and delightful details. We must also highlight the important collection of tiles that includes a panel of glazed terracotta tiles and a group of 40 panels that portray the history of Portugal.
#27 Madeira’s biggest tourist attractions are of natural origin, and that’s why the island is ideal for adventurous travelers, but all tourists should take a few hours to visit the center of Funchal.
The historic center is quite beautiful, with narrow streets, old houses, and many typical shops and restaurants. Some of the places and monuments not to be missed in Funchal include:
- Fort of São Tiago
- Lavradores Market
- Marina and Boardwalk of Funchal
- Funchal Cathedral
- CR7 Museum
#27 We’ve already talked about some of the best places to visit in Madeira and Porto Santo beach, but we have barely mentioned anything about the Desertas yet. The deserts are formed by three islands: Ilhéu Chão, Deserta Grande, Bugio.
Together they constitute the desert islands nature reserve, which is considered a biogenetic reserve by the Council of Europe.
Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s not easy to visit the Desertas. It is only possible to go with authorized tours, and even these tours are limited to a small area of Deserta Grande and can only be there for a few hours. If you still want to try, we suggest this tour.
What to Eat in Madeira
#28 As a tourist destination, Madeira has a diverse range of restaurants, especially in Funchal and the rest of the island’s south. The options are much more limited in the northern villages and towns but not necessarily of lower quality.
Thus, you will find several international food restaurants such as pizzerias, hamburgers, Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, and even African food.
#29 In addition to all the international offers, there is also traditional Portuguese and Madeiran food. Madeiran food has many similarities with mainland Portuguese. Many dishes, ingredients, and techniques are the same or similar.
In short, there is an obvious influence of mainland cuisine on Madeira and vice versa.
#30 However, there are many distinctive dishes that are typically Madeiran, and you will hardly find them anywhere else in the world. So, take the opportunity and try the traditional food of Madeira, namely the espetadas, the Black Scabbardfish, and the bolo do caco.
But there is more, much more. See here what to eat in Madeira.
#31 Skewers (espetadas) are one of Madeira’s most iconic dishes. Unless you are vegan/vegetarian, this is probably not to be missed on the island.
The Madeiran skewers are typically grilled on a laurel stick, which gives them a special aroma. In Madeiran skewers, the meat has to be of high quality and is cut into cubes of meat. It is usually accompanied by bolo do caco, fried corn, and salad.
The most typical place to eat espetada is in Camara de Lobos, but it is a dish present in many restaurants around the island.
#32 Black swordfish, or simply espada as it is known in Madeira, is the most typical fish in the region. In fact, it was once believed that it only existed in Madeira, but in the meantime, it has been discovered in other places.
Practically all fish restaurants in Madeira have a Black swordfish on the menu. The most common way to serve it is filleted (grilled or fried) with banana and sometimes with passion fruit sauce.
#33 Bolo do Caco is bread, not cake. You’ll find it all over the island, served as a starter or side dish, or even in sandwiches – the bolo do caco with prego sandwich is absolutely delicious.
Bolo do caco is a round, flat, thin bread (about 3 cm high). It has a light dough and a thin crust. In the past, it was cooked on stone (hence the name in Portuguese), but nowadays, it is cooked in a frying pan. It is usually served hot with butter and garlic.
It’s one of the most traditional Portuguese breads, and one of the most typical recipes from Madeira. It is now possible to find it also on the mainland, but it is rarely the same.
#34 Poncha is, without a doubt, the most popular drink among tourists in Madeira. It is an alcoholic drink made from Madeira Rum to which orange, tangerine, passion fruit, or lemon juice is added, as well as honey. After putting everything together, it is mixed with a specific instrument called “caralhinho”.
If the Poncha is made of lemon and instead of honey it contains sugar, then it is called Poncha à Pescador.
Currency and Costs of Traveling in Madeira
Currency and Payments
#35 Madeira is part of Portugal and, as such, belongs in the Euro Zone. So, if you come to another Euro region, you won’t have to worry about exchange rates, fees, or commissions.
#36 If you don’t come from the eurozone, you don’t need to bring euros with you either. The ATM network is huge, and you can withdraw money at any time, free of charge. In our experience, the costs and exchange rates are acceptable and almost always lower than the exchange rate before arriving in Portugal/Madeira.
#37 Most stores and restaurants accept debit card payments; however, some smaller ones may not accept credit cards due to the high costs for merchants.
#38 Our suggestion is to make as many payments as possible with a card as it is safer and avoids withdrawing money often/carrying a lot of cash. As in the rest of Portugal, withdrawals on the ATM network are free, but withdrawals on other networks such as Euronet have costs.
Costs of Traveling to Madeira
#39 In general, Madeira is slightly more expensive than the average for Portugal but much cheaper than the rest of Western Europe.
It is quite difficult to anticipate what each person will spend per day in Madeira, as it depends much more on the type of traveler than on Madeira. In our experience as backpackers, we spent around 50 Euros per day, per person. However, we have to point out that it is very easy to increase this value to 100 or 200 Euros if you want to stay in more expensive hotels and eat in restaurants every meal.
#40 Accommodation is probably one of the biggest expenses on any trip, and here is no exception, especially in high season, when prices double or triple compared to low season.
In Madeira, we suggest you use booking.com to book your accommodation as it has a huge variety of hotels, hostels, and even local accommodations at the best prices.
How to Travel in Madeira
#41 As Madeira is a relatively small and developed island, we might think that it is possible to visit it by public transport, however, we realized that would be a very bad idea.
In fact, there is good public transportation, but a large part of the tourist attractions are located in nature, far from everything, so they either have no access to public transport or are infrequent.
#42 So, we believe that it is best to rent a car or take tours if you don’t want to drive. This second option will, of course, be more expensive.
Given the popularity of many of the island’s attractions, it is not difficult to arrange private or group tours to visit them. Our suggestion to look for tours in Madeira is Getyourguide. There you can find many tours, which can take you to the best levadas, waterfalls, natural pools, and other places not to be missed in Madeira.
Renting a Car in Madeira
#43 Renting a car is the best way to visit Madeira. In addition to allowing enormous flexibility and taking us to almost any destination on the island, it also turns out to be cheaper. Especially if it’s a family, group, or couple trip.
With a car, we can go wherever we want, whenever we want, and stay there as long as we want. The only similar option would be to have a private guide, but this is exponentially more expensive.
#44 Driving in Madeira is not particularly complicated and follows exactly the same rules as on the mainland. The only issues to have some attention are that:
- Roads are quite narrow;
- There are many roads with brutal slopes, due to the natural conditions of the island;
- The Madeirans are a little impatient when driving;
Other Madeira Travel Tips
#45 Madeira is unforgettable, but who doesn’t like to take some souvenirs to remember the holidays? Or perhaps to re-experience some of the unique flavors of the archipelago… Fortunately, there are many things you can bring with you as Madeira has a unique culture. Some of our favorites are:
- “O Caralhinho” – the famous stick used to make Poncha
- Poncha – the well-known and already mentioned drink. If you try it and like it, you can bring it with you. They are for sale at the airport if you don’t buy them beforehand.
- fennel candies – although we haven’t talked about them before, they are very popular and typical in Madeira.
- Bolo de Mel – It is perhaps the most typical dessert in Madeira and has the advantage of being very durable. It can be preserved for up to a year.
- Madeira wine – one of the most famous and popular wines in Portugal
#46 Any accommodation will probably have free WIFI, so this shouldn’t be a big concern. Just confirm in the comments about the quality of the signal.
If you want to use mobile data, then any data card from an EU country will work in Madeira without paying extra. If you don’t have a European data card, you can buy data cards at any telecommunications store on the island.
Garbage and pollution
#47 In general, the island is very clean, both in the cities and in the natural areas. There may be some areas that are not ideal, but we don’t have much to criticize in that sense. Especially the natural areas are beautiful and practically immaculate.
The quality of seawater and the air is also high, which is not surprising as the island is very far from other territories.
#48 The electrical outlets in Madeira are the same as those in mainland Portugal, type C and F, with 230V voltage and 50 Hz frequency.
So, if you come from mainland Portugal or another country that uses these sockets, you don’t need an adapter. If you come from countries with other types of outlets, we suggest this adapter.
Documentation to enter Madeira
#49 As already mentioned, Madeira is part of Portugal and part of the Schengen area. Thus, EU citizens do not need any special documents to enter Madeira. All you need to bring is a valid identification document, either a citizen’s card or a passport. Don’t forget your driving license if you want to rent a car.
If you come from outside the Schengen area, see here everything you need to know to enter Madeira and the Schengen area, as well as the nationalities that need to apply for a visa.
Madeira Travel Guide
#50 Finally, if you want to buy a Madeira travel guide, we suggest this Lonely Planet guide which has a lot of useful information.