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 cruise ship 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
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.
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.
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.
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 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 a strange sight, most commonly enjoyed by the cruise ship 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?