Exploring Madeira: things to do in Funchal

When holidaying on Madeira, chances are you will be staying in Funchal, as it is the most developed part of the island in terms of tourism. Cruise ships dock at its port on a daily basis, on their routes between Portugal, the Canary Islands and north Africa.

Although Madeira certainly isn’t famous for being a party island packed with the young and eligible, and although you will see many cruiseship tourists exploring Funchal on a day trip, most of whom will fit into the senior and retired age brackets, it doesn’t mean that the island or Funchal don’t have anything to offer that goes beyond a stroll along the sea promenade. Madeira seems underdeveloped for tourism in relative terms, compared to its Canary Island neighbours. And yet, you will find many great things to do in Funchal.

 

Funchal’s old town

Restaurants and art exhibition in Funchal's old town

Restaurants and art exhibition in Funchal’s old town

Looking to sample some local cuisine? Knock yourself out in one of Funchal’s many restaurants. Most are very reasonably priced and located in the town centre. In terms of typical Portuguese dishes, I highly recommend “espatadas”, grilled meat on skewers – fantastic.

Funchal’s old town is charming, with its cobblestone streets and obscure little bars, plenty of Catholic churches and even the odd art gallery.

Art gallery in the old town of Funchal, Madeira

Art gallery in the old town of Funchal

Funchal’s beaches

Madeira is not a place you go for a beach holiday. Firstly, the island is perhaps best described as a rock in the Atlantic (due to its volcanic origins), but at the same time having a very varied vegetation. The result is though that the shoreline is quite dramatic and getting close to the water often means being on a cliff rather than a beach. Most of Madeira’s beaches are pebble beaches. The sandy beaches on Madeira are quite small and not exactly something to write home about, but Madeira more than makes up for the lack of sandy beaches with its vegetation, natural rock pools, mountains and even desert landscapes.

Rocky beach in Funchal by the old fort

Praia de Sao Tiago, a rocky beach in Funchal, next to the Forte Sao Tiago

Botanic Gardens in Funchal

It is absolutely worth spending a few hours wandering around the elaborate botanic gardens. Along the walls of the garden you will find mosaics and informative panels telling the story of historic events that involved Portugal or the Portuguese. One section of the park is dedicated to all things Asian, with a Japanese-style garden and perhaps a rather cheesy attempt at an Italian scene with Romeo and Juliet’s balcony.

Japanese Garden at the Botanic Gardens in Funchal

Japanese Garden in Funchal

Madeira wine isn’t difficult to find even in the Botanic Gardens. The entry ticket includes a free taster of a Madeira wine type of your choice (from sweet to dry) at the cafe towards the southern border of the park.

Madeira wine at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge

The Old Blandy Wine Lodge is right in the middle of Funchal. Back in the 1840s Charles Blandy bought the annex part of the then monastery complex and converted it into a winery. You can take a tour at the lodge, learn all about the history of the winery, how Madeira wine is produced, and of course, do a wine tasting.

The vintage cellar at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge

The vintage cellar at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge

Toboggan ride

At the start of the toboggan ride in Funchal

At the start of the toboggan ride in Funchal

The wicker toboggan rides are perhaps one of the strangest tourist attractions I have ever witnessed. In Monte, a part of town near the Botanic Gardens up on the mountain, men dressed in white uniforms, straw hats and special rubber-soled boots will push you down the hill, navigating you through the steep and bendy streets towards the town centre. I have to say this was an amusing albeit rather strange sight, most commonly enjoyed by the cruiseship daytrippers. Although this activity is really not for me, those partaking seemed to be having a lot of fun. At 25 EUR per wicker toboggan, this is arguably a bit of a tourist trap.

What would you do in Funchal? Have you been there, and can you recommend any other interesting sights and activities?

Christina Hegele

About the author: Christina Hegele runs Sandal Road, a blog on her favourite destinations. It just so happened that 95% turned out to be about New Zealand. Follow Christina and her blog on Twitter, like her blog on Facebook, and subscribe to her Youtube channel. Alternatively, subscribe to her email newsletter at the top right of this blog.

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  9 comments for “Exploring Madeira: things to do in Funchal

  1. 12 March, 2013 at 09:20

    I was in Madeira a million years ago (well, 23 to be exact) and remember it as a beautiful island, especially the flowers and along the levadas. And having tea on the verandah at Reid’s Hotel. Bit challenging to drive there, though. Wonder if the roads have improved…

    • Christina
      11 April, 2013 at 22:07

      It is rather challenging to drive. I was driving along the high plateau and happily cruising along and before I knew it I was on serpentine roads with the steepest dropoffs and what seemed very low/flimsy railing… needless to say I was slightly anxious. Still, totally worth driving if you’re a confident driver.

  2. 15 March, 2013 at 15:37

    I always find it a bit disappointing to go to an island and then learn it isn’t a place to go to the beach. But looks like there is plenty to do here instead!

    • Christina
      11 April, 2013 at 22:07

      I know, it seems almost counterintuitive not to have beaches. But we knew before, and I loved it.

  3. Babs
    26 March, 2013 at 12:54

    The article is incorrect, the gardens photographed and named are NOT the botanical Garden but the Tropoical gardens at Monte, the botanical gardens are across the valley and totally differant.

    • Christina
      11 April, 2013 at 22:09

      Hi Babs! Thanks for your feedback. I was under the impression I was in the Botanical Gardens. Nonetheless, a very enjoyable afternoon with plenty of plants 😀 Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Steven
    26 March, 2013 at 13:04

    Thanks for the article. However, to rectifying “Portuguese dishes, I highly recommend “espatadas”, grilled meat on skewers” is a Madeiran not Portuguese dish. There are also a huge variety of seafood dishes that are amazing.

    Despite the fact that most of the beaches in Madeira are not sandy ones you have 2 or 3 small dark natural sandy beaches, two artificial golden beaches, plenty of pebble beaches, several Lidos all with pools filled with sea water for children and adults and all with direct access to the sea, many hotels have direct sea access, and you also have two beautiful beaches with natural volcanic rock formed sea water swimming pools.

    Also it should have been mentioned that the island next to Madeira, Porto Santo, has one of the best beaches ever, with 9km of golden sand which have healing properties for ailments as diverse as rheumatism, rickets and varicose veins. There are direct flights to Porto Santo with Thompson or you can take the ferry boat from Madeira for a beautiful two hour trip. Search google for pictures of Porto Santo beach and you’ll be impressed that you can be in such a calm, beautiful beach just after a short 3.30 hour flight .
    I was there in February and the weather was between 24 and 26C most days.

    Also not mentioned is the amazing subtropical endemic forest in Madeira – Laurisilva (forest of Laurels) , which is a Unesco’s world heritage site and trekking there is highly recommended, with some of the most unique walking paths in the world: http://www.bootsnall.com/articles/11-10/8-of-the-most-unique-walking-paths-in-the-world.html

    Finally the New Year’s Eve in Madeira is in the Guinness World Book of Records for the largest fireworks display in the world. It’s is truly one the things that one should experience before departing from this life journey. It’s like the all island is under fire, but not of guns, instead colourful, beautiful fireworks; it’s a exhilarating experience.

  5. Christina
    11 April, 2013 at 22:12

    HI Steven! Thanks for the tip on Laurisilva, I had not heard about it before. Sounds like it needs to be on my list for next time! I was going to include Porto Santo in my next post – this one was meant to be only about Funchal, but you’re absolutely right, the beaches look glorious! What would I give for 26 degrees in February!
    You seem to be rather taken by those fireworks… I am intrigued. That’s a pretty big call!

  6. Andrew
    26 September, 2016 at 14:58

    Hi C, I had a very enjoyable stay in Funchal earlier this year. Visited the gallery pictured (it was fantastic).
    I would like to contact them – do you have an address

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