The capital of Madeira is on the south coast of the main island, decking the slopes of the Central Massif as they curve down to the ocean. In Funchal you’ll see the abundant plant life sustained by volcanic soil and an eternal spring climate, and there are three lush, colourful gardens to de-stress in.
Two of these can be reached via the cable car that lifts you up to the Monte neighbourhood. And to get back down the slope there’s a high-speed choice, careering down the streets on a wicker sled. The city abounds with whitewashed colonial architecture, some from the century Madeira was discovered.
Lets explore the best things to do in Funchal:
1. Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro
One of many benefits of Madeira’s constant spring-like weather is that gardens like this one can be in bloom whenever you visit.
The outstanding Palheiro Gardens are found in a British colonial-style estate around a private house, and have been planted with some 3,000 species from all corners of the planet.
Among the many flowerbeds and sculpted hedges are a rose garden, sunken garden, camellia avenue, French garden, ladies’ garden and also a tea room.
If you’re here in late winter you’ll get a preview of the European summer, with wisteria as well as exotic species like proteas already in blossom.
2. Funchal Cathedral
In the city’s cathedral you’ll be stepping back to the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
This building was constructed at the dawn of the 16th century using multi-toned pyroclastic rock quarried from the cliffs at Cabo Girão to the southwest.
If you gaze up at the steeple’s roof you’ll see that it’s clad with classic glazed tiles.
Manuel I, the Portuguese king at the time, donated the cathedral’s silver processional cross, held as a masterwork of liturgical silverwork.
The wooden choir stalls are also exceptional, and depict prophets, saints and apostles in 16th-century garb.
3. Monte Cable Car
One of those unavoidable attractions in Funchal is the cable car that hoists you up to the perched Monte neighbourhood 600 metres above sea level.
This gondola lift started running in 2000 and replaced the long-defunct railway, which ran four kilometres up the slope and shut down in 1943. As well as getting to the sights in Monte your motive for taking this 15-minute ride is for the scenery; Funchal, the mountains bedecked with white houses and the ocean are yours to contemplate and photograph.
4. Monte Palace Tropical Garden
Winding through seven hectares of terraces is another botanic garden, where exotic plants are accompanied by waterfalls architectural flourishes like a Japanese pagoda.
Your path through the gardens is decorated by stunning azulejos produced in the 15th and 16th centuries.
And in the Japanese garden there are tile panels recounting the history of trade between the Portugal and Japan.
In the Monte Palace Museum you can catch an exhibition for African art on the upper floors, while below is a mineral collection with 700 specimens gathered from the Portuguese mainland, South America, North America and Africa.
5. Rua Santa Maria
East to west through Funchal’s Zona Velha is a lovable cobblestone street along a corridor of houses with painted doors.
Rua Santa Maria was one of the first plotted in Funchal and is rooted in the 15th century, and now is a go-to destination for shopping and dining.
In 2010 the street was hit by floods, and as part of the regeneration the city started the Art of Open Doors project.
So livening up the route now are fanciful and brightly-coloured doors, painted with real skill.
6. Igreja do Monte
One of the sights at the top is this 18th-century church, on the site of 15th-century hermitage.
At the high altar is a statue of Nossa Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of the Moutain), which was in the original hermitage and has been venerated since the first years of settlement on Madeira.
Also worth your time is the tomb of Charles I of Austria, who lived out his years in exile after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Charles was the last Emperor of Austria and the last Habsburg-Lorraine monarch.
Be sure to climb the steps to the roof between the towers for an unbroken panorama of Funchal.
7. Wicker Toboggan Ride
No sooner have you arrived at the upper terminal in Monte you’ll be met by groups of men dressed in boaters and white suits offering to take you back down to Funchal at high speed.
Your mode of transport will be unconventional to say the least.
You’ll climb onto a kind of wicker sled with greased wooden runners and will be pushed down the Carro de Cesto road that winds up the hill.
The tradition goes back to the 1800s and you’ll descend for two hair-raising kilometres before arriving at Funchal’s Livramento suburb to continue your trip.
8. Madeira Botanical Garden
Something to do in Monte is to take a second cable car to the Botanical Garden.
This terminal is a short walk from the upper station in Monte and you can buy a combined ticket before you depart from Funchal.
This second cable car is also a very picturesque ride through the João Gomes Stream Valley.
Like most of Funchal the garden is etched into the hillside, and unfortunately forest fires in 2016 took their toll on the orchids.
But there’s a lot to uncover besides, with scenic lookouts, plantations of tropical and subtropical fruits like papaya, avocado, coffee and sugarcane, imaginative topiaries and a wide range of succulent plants.
9. Santa Clara Convent
Another rare peek at Madeira in the 15th century, this convent was established by João Gonçalves da Câmara.
He was the second ever captain-major of Funchal, and during his rule the Madeira archipelago came through economic and social development thanks to the sugar trade.
The convent testifies to these changes, and goes back to 1492 as a place for the daughters of local nobility.
The convent functioned until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1834. On your guided tour you’ll be shown around the monasteries church (essential for its glorious tiled walls and frescos) and the serene garden in the cloister.
10. Madeira Film Experience
Sometimes you just need the facts, and these are what you’ll get at the theatre in the shopping centre, a few metres from the marina.
The Madeira Film Experience condenses the archipelago’s volcanic origins and 600 years of human history into a 30-minute movie.
The production values are first-rate and aided by paintings, photography and archive footage.
You’ll come away wiser about the wars, political upheaval and crises (famine and isolation)that have shaped the island.
If you’re visiting Madeira by cruise ship and only have limited time, you should make this a priority.
11. Jesuits College
With its volcanic fountain, Praça do Município is one of the most impressive urban scenes in Funchal, and is edged by the municipal chamber as well as this striking Jesuits College.
This is a stunning building, going back to the 16th century and boasting Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
The Jesuits were suppressed in the Portuguese Empire in 1759, so since then the college has had a few different roles, as the headquarters for the invading British army, Portuguese military base and now the main building for Madeira’s university.
You can still visit though on a special circuit that takes you into the chapel, which has awesome tilework.
12. Pico dos Barcelos
Moments east of the city is a set of hilltop platform offering ultimate view of Funchal.
You’re at 355 metres here and can pause for coffee or cold drink at the newly renovated viewing point.
If you cast your eyes towards the ocean you’ll see the entire bay of Funchal framed by the Ponta do Garajau, and can make out the Desertas Islands in the distance.
While inland there’s the arresting sight of Funchal’s whitewashed houses scattered up the increasingly vertiginous slopes of the Central Massif.
13. Pico do Arieiro
Madeira’s third-highest peak is an easy day trip from Funchal, and crests at 1,818 metres.
Car-less visitors can pick from dozens of companies offering coach or car rides to the summit, where there’s a shop, cafe and several belvederes that you can access via walkways.
On clear days you’ll see all the way to the island of Porto Santo, 30 miles to the north.
You might prefer to hike, in which case you can park up some distance from the summit and take the trail, which requires about two hours each way.
From there you can continue on to Pico Ruivo, the highest point on the island.
Temperatures on both peaks are much lower than in Funchal, so come prepared.
14. Day Trips
In Funchal you could line up a non-stop array of one-off experiences.
There are companies offering 4×4 and paragliding adventures, or you could take matters into your own hands, driving the scenic road to Curral das Freiras, a village poised on the walls of a canyon.
Or you could try hiking the weather-beaten headland at São Lourenço at the extreme eastern point of Madeira.
The island’s interior meanwhile is woven by water channels known as levadas, conducting water from areas of high rainfall to dryer farmland.
These are cut from the rock, date back hundreds of years and create the perfect terrain for hikes through Madeira’s subtropical laurel forests.
Suggested 4×4 tours:
- Madeira: Cliffs and Valleys Open Roof 4×4 Tour from Funchal
- Valley of the Nuns and Mountains 4X4 Tour
- Madeira Peaks by Open 4×4
- Southwest of Madeira by 4×4
15. Madeira Wine
This fortified wine was born in a similar way to port; during the days of long sea voyages grape spirit was added to the wine to preserve it.
But that’s where the similarities end, as Madeira is then heated via the “estufagem” process for at least three months, and after that rests for years before being bottled.
Vintage or Frasqueira Madeira for example has to age for at least 19 years in the cask and then another year in the bottle, while the minimum ageing period is fine years for Reserve wines.
If you’d like to become a true aficionado, Blandy’s has been making Madeira for 200 years and has a lodge in Funchal for tours.