The seaside town of Câmara de Lobos was one of Madeira’s earliest settlements in the 15th century. There’s a pair of churches from these times, and a cove where caravels would have been anchored 600 years ago. Those have been replaced by humble fishing boats, and despite the influx of tourists the town still makes a living from the ocean.
The precipitous topography is a big draw, whether it’s the half-kilometre high cliffs on the coast or deep chasms in a bowls of mountain peaks inland. There are heart-stopping viewpoints, remote beaches at the foot of soaring cliffs, heroic “levada” treks, Madeira wineries and remote villages on the radar.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Câmara de Lobos:
1. Cabo Girão
The cliffs just west of Câmara de Lobos reach giddy heights, and in 2012 a skywalk was added to Cabo Girão, 580 metres above the shore.
This is the highest cliff skywalk in Europe and most definitely not for anyone with vertigo.
You wouldn’t be human if the dark, plunging cliffs and distant views across to Funchal don’t make you a little weak in the knees: You can peer down to the small plots of farmland that line the shore half a kilometre beneath you.
The only way for the farmers to reach these plantations is by cable car!
The most picturesque spot in Câmara de Lobos might be the cove that first attracted Portuguese settlers to this stretch of the coast.
By day the waters are speckled with wooden fishing boats, and at night they go out to catch the weird-looking black scabbardfish, which dwells deep in the ocean, coming closer to the surface after dark.
On the harbour wall you’ll get a fine perspective of the inland mountains, rising sharply from the coast and notched with terraces for plantations.
You can cast your eye over the fleet of painted boats that have been pulled onto the foreshore and nurse a “poncha” (a type of punch) at one of the bars in the cobblestone streets behind.
3. Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião
There’s has been a religious building at this exact spot since the decade Madeira was claimed by Portugal.
The chapel here before the current church was built in 1426, but the town’s growing population required an expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries.
On the facade you can find the coat of arms of the explorer and colonist, João Gonçalves Zarco, who founded Câmara de Lobos in 1419. Baroque is the prevailing style inside, with a classic gilt-wood main altar.
In the chapel of the blessed sacrament (Santíssimo Sacramento) you can marvel at the 18th-century tile panels evoking the Agnus Dei.
4. Capela de Nossa Senhora da Conceição
This chapel by the bay is even older, and was completed in 1420 under the orders of João Gonçalves Zarco.
It’s a matter of dispute, but this could be the oldest chapel on the whole island.
Like the Church of St Sebastian it was given an opulent Baroque update in the 18th century when the walls and ceiling were decorated with marbling and lavish frescos by the Madeira painter Nicolau Ferreira.
These convey scenes from the life of St Anthony, the patron saint of Portuguese sailors and fishermen, as this is place where Câmara de Lobos’ fishers would pray before taking to sea.
5. Levada do Norte
A levada walk is one of those integral Madeira experiences.
Levadas are unique to the island, and are water channels often cut from the side of mountains and weaving through laurisilva forest to irrigate the island’s plantation and settlements.
The nearest to Câmara de Lobos also happens to be one of the best.
The 12.5-kilometre walk from Ribeira Brava to Cabo Girão will take around three hours and is easy-going as long as you wear a good pair of shoes as there are some tight ledges with long drops below.
The channel passes through a few tunnels (a torch is handy), as well as dense forest and majestic vistas over the regimented plantations.
6. Fajã dos Padres
Along from Cabo Girão is a stony beach accompanied by nothing more than a hotel, restaurant and strips of vine plantations.
This magical place is impossible to reach by road as it sits at the foot of those titanic cliffs, which are more than 250 metres high here.
The only way down is via a cable car that clings to the cliff face.
This runs from 10:00 to 18:00, but has longer hours in the evening for the restaurant and hotel guests.
In the quieter months only a few souls make it down to this beach and you can sunbathe on the stone pier meditating, over the endless ocean or those immense basalt walls behind.
7. Museu de Imprensa da Madeira
In a cavernous hall in Câmara de Lobos’ library is a museum all about the history of media in Madeira.
This has only been here since 2013 and is a kind of repository for hundreds of years worth of printing and lithographic machines, as well as cinema projectors and typecasts from the 20th century.
There are 48 vintage machines in all, and some are gigantic, like the 19th-century newspaper printing press.
In frames on the walls are some of the materials produced by these machines, like papers, posters and leaflets.
It’s an absorbing hour or so if the weather isn’t cooperating or if you’re into industrial technology.
8. Curral das Freiras
You cannot pass up the chance to see this village in the northern part of the Câmara de Lobos municipality.
Curral das Freiras (Valley of the Nuns) is at the bottom of a vast chasm, boxed in by cliffs and peaks up to 1,000 metres high.
It seems impossible when you see them from a distance but the almost-sheer slopes around grow vines and cherries on the narrowest of terraces.
There was a time when it would take hours to reach this village from the coast, and Curral das Freiras developed in perfect isolation; it wasn’t until 1986 that they could even receive TV signals here.
But with the advent of the road tunnel the village opened up and can be reached is only 20 minutes away.
9. Eira do Serrado
From this vantage point you can fully appreciate how remote Curral das Freiras used to be.
It is on the eastern rim at an elevation of almost 1,100 metres.
There’s a car park at the foot of stairway with 145 steps delivering you to this glorious lookout.
The razor-edged peaks, terraced slopes, and plummeting cliffs form a scene of real drama.
And if you can stomach looking down Curral das Freiras is a tiny cluster of white buildings far below.
10. Madeira Wine
This fortified wine has a compelling back-story as it was first mixed with wine spirit during fermentation back in the Age of Discovery to help it last longer on epic voyages.
And as Madeira was an important stopover out in the Atlantic expeditions would load up on barrels before continuing their journey.
Vineyards deck those south-facing slopes above Câmara de Lobos and the Barbeito winery will take you behind the scenes to see this timeless process, talking you through preparation, fermentation, storage, bottling, and giving the chance to try any of 12 varieties.
11. Boca dos Namorados
In Jardim da Serra in the mountains north of Câmara de Lobos is anther lookout that presents you with a different but equally stupendous scene.
The Boca dos Namorados is wreathed in high maritime pines and has a long ledge where you can gaze far down in the valley below, cradled by sky-scraping basalt peaks.
If you’re up for the hike of a lifetime you can strap your boots and venture down to Curral das Freiras from here.
But a more tempting alternative might be to cook lunch at one of the barbecues and take a picnic in this spectacular setting.
12. Praia Formosa
It’s quite an adventure to walk to this beach a couple of kilometres east of Câmara de Lobos.
The pathway hugs the coast and sections cut straight through the cliffs.
There are caves on the way, battered by the ocean surf, and after a little while you’ll come to this sheltered beach.
With large pebbles it’s more of a location to ramble and take in the scenery, or head to the small promenade where there are a couple of restaurants.
In calmer weather the beach is fine for bathing, but this can be a day-to-day proposition.
At any rate, the natural volcanic lido at Doca do Cavacas is very close and just right for swimmers.
13. Pico da Torre
You’ve seen the vertiginous slopes behind Câmara de Lobos from below, but you can swap positions and at this viewpoint 205 metres up the mountainside.
Here on the terraced slopes planted with vines, bananas and cherries, you’ll have an almost vertical view of the town and its cove, while the boats are no more than little flecks from up here.
The cross commemorates the Carnation Revolution in 1974, ending more than 40 years of authoritarian rule.
For all there is to do in Câmara de Lobos, Madeira’s capital is never more than 10 minutes to the east.
It’s a city that adapts to those soaring slopes, with a cable car to whisk you up to the botanical garden in Monte and wicker toboggans to send you careering back down again.
The old quarter by the harbour has a warren of streets laid with Portuguese pavement in cheerful patterns, and arriving at squares with restaurant terraces.
The ageless monuments in this quarter, like the 16th-century cathedral and the town hall, are all composed of that dark volcanic stone, which makes them all the grander.
15. Food and Drink
In the bars around the cove you have to order a poncha.
The name of this drink could be related to the English “punch”, and like punch it might have been borrowed from India.
The base is aguardente (distilled cane juice) and it’s mixed with lemon juice, honey and sugar, though other juices are sometimes added.
As for food, the scabbardfish hauled ashore by the town’s fishermen may not be pretty to look at but their fillets are delicious and normally come with crunchy fried corn and banana on the side.
This is one of many fish and seafood preparations, but octopus, tuna and shellfish like winkles and limpets are strong suits.