When you’re in the remote Atlantic Ocean on the same latitude as North Africa there are things that you wouldn’t expect to find in a European region.
On the Madeira Archipelago that might be subtropical laurel forest tended by an eternal spring-like climate and soils that allow almost any flora to thrive.
The island of Madeira has natural landscapes can make you gasp, and what’s great is that they’re easy to discover on mountain roads or via historic irrigation channels known as “levadas”. You don’t have to venture into the mountains to enjoy the natural abundance as there are a host of botanical gardens with a crazy assortment of plants.
And the ocean awaits, for whale-spotting expeditions and dives in clear, mild waters.
Lets explore the best things to do in Madeira:
1. Ponta de São Lourenço
Madeira’s extreme east is a nature reserve with immense volcanic rocks that are streaked with reddish hues.
It’s a hike worth doing for the moving views of the Atlantic and for photos that look like the ends of the Earth.
There’s also something about the climate and soil that allows unusual flowering plants like cardoons and everlastings to thrive.
After the newish Quinta do Lorde resort there’s no sign of human habitation save for occasional rest stops with picnic tables.
There’s something to take your breath away at almost every bend on the way to lookouts like the astonishing Ponta do Furado.
2. Cabo Girão
In 2012 a “skywalk” was installed on this 580-metre-high cliff on Madeira’s south coast.
This is only for people with a head for heights because the platform overhangs the edge of the cliff and has glass floor tiles that give you a clear, dizzying view to the ocean far below.
If this is your kind of thing you’ll be doubly happy to know it’s absolutely free.
As you peer down, you’ll notice that the narrow strip of land between the cliff wall and ocean has been divided into little farms.
And on the east side of the platform you’ll be treated to wonderful views of Funchal.
3. Pico Ruivo
If you’re up for the challenge, Madeira’s highest peak (1,862m) is walkable if you have the right shoes and keep up to date on weather conditions.
The route for sure-footed hikers begins at the Pico do Arieiro and takes around six hours.
Although there are shorter, more manageable paths to the peak (like from Achada do Teixeira), this trail will present you with the most beautiful scenery.
Words can only say so much about the majesty of the views along the path and on the summit.
The rocky mountainscapes are given a green tint by mosses, ferns and heather, and you’ll want to stop for photos of the bird-life and lizards on the way.
4. Levada Walks
Madeira Island’s topography means that most of the rain falls in the north and northwest, while the southeast can be dry.
So beginning in the 1500s and taking cues from the Moors, dozens of channels were carved along winding upland routes to deliver water to drier areas.
By virtue of their role these channels have made some dramatic and impassable locations approachable.
One of the best routes is the Levada dos 25 Fontes, taking you past the marvellous 100-metre Risco Waterfall.
The Levada do Caldeirão Verde meanwhile is from the 1700s and carries water from Madeira’s highest mountains to Faial near the north coast and coursing though the marvellous São Jorge Valley.
5. Funchal Cable Car
Following the route of an old steam railway line is a modern cable car system whisking you up from Almirante Reis to Funchal’s upper suburb of Monte.
There’s usually a queue but it always moves quickly, and then you’ll have 15 minutes to soak up the views of the ocean and the terraced mountainsides clustered with white houses.
There are plenty of reasons to make the trip, from the photo-friendly views to the Monte Palace Tropical Garden or the Church where Emperor Charles I is buried.
But something curious awaits you at the top; people in white outfits and boater hats ushering you into a basket toboggan for a ride down the slope to the centre of Funchal.
6. Panoramic Drives
One of many cool things about Madeira is that despite its rough terrain there’s a good road system.
These routes wend through astonishing natural scenery, saving you an onerous hike.
Most of these were built at great expense and took years to complete.
On the north coast you have to experience the VE2 from São Vicente to Porto Moniz, which has near constant ocean vistas and clings to the precipitous green coastline.
There are waterfalls along the way, and you can take a detour to Seixal to take a dip in the rock pools.
Also stupendous is the twisting road that climbs from Funchal to Curral das Freiras deep in Madeira’s interior about half an hour away.
7. Parque Forestal de Queimadas
On the northern lower reaches of the Pico Ruivo there’s an enchanting subtropical laurel forest.
The high humidity gives the woodland a light veil of mist and coats the forest floor with moss, lichens and ferns with some of the largest fronds you’ll see in Europe.
There’s a whole web of trails, and you can get onto a couple of Levadas from here.
But you can also visit for a picnic at the shelter, which is designed like a traditional Santana cottage, with a thatched room and timber framing.
8. Monte Palace Tropical Garden
The first thing you’ll see after emerging from the cable car terminal in Monte is the entrance to these exquisite gardens.
They are laid out on the terraced slopes around the former Monte Palace Hotel, which was built in a Rhenish Revival style at the start of the 20th century.
There are medical plants, herb beds, cacti, heather from Scotland, European azaleas, local laurel forest and cycads from South Africa.
You can also pause by the Japanese garden, which has a pagoda and pond with koi carp.
Azulejos also appear amid the foliage, most memorably telling the story of the Portuguese in Japan on a large panel with 166 tiles.
9. Vereda dos Balcões
There’s a car park just off the ER 103 at Ribeira Frio where you can join the Levada da Serra do Faial and embark on a hike to this exceptional belvedere.
The destination is glorious but the journey is also unforgettable as you weave through forest with orchids, Madeira mahogany, Madeira blueberries, but also some exotic species like plane trees and English oaks.
The belvedere is the icing on the cake, with a front row view of a misty mountain cirque on the Metade Valley.
In the distance the sharp peaks give way to rolling hills planted with crops.
10. Madeira Film Experience
Screened at a comfy cinema by the marina, this movie condenses six centuries of Madeira’s history into 30 entertaining minutes.
There’s an audioguide system with commentary in English, French, German, Dutch and Portuguese.
When there’s so much to see outside you might be wondering how a video presentation can make the list, but it’s a superb introduction to the archipelago.
You’ll come away informed about the 15th-century discovery, wars, famine and revolution.
If you’re stepping off a cruise ship you can make it the first thing you do on the island and feel like an expert afterwards.
11. Palheiro Gardens
Set 500 metres above the Atlantic, in the verdant hills just east of Funchal, these gardens at the Quinta do Palheiro estate are proof that almost any plant will thrive in Madeira’s soil.
Since 1885 the property has been in the Blandy family, which has long had a hand in the island’s wine industry.
Before that it belonged to the Conde do Carvahal, a Portuguese nobleman who planted trees and started the gardens’ famed collection of camellias.
Arranged on terraces are whimsical topiaries, roses, cypresses, and because of spring-like climate the hibiscus and bougainvillea is known to bloom throughout the year.
Madeira has emerged as one of Europe’s diving destinations of choice.
For this you can thank the high water clarity and low fluctuation in temperatures.
The coldest the water gets is 18°C in February (far warmer than much of Europe in summer!), in peak season around August and September you’ll get comfortable temperatures of 24°C. So if you’re tempted to take the plunge on a SSI or PADI course, Madeira is the place to do it.
It’s an honour to be able to glimpse species in the wild that you would normally only see browsing the internet! Hiding in the rocks you should be able to sight grouper, octopus and moray eels.
And most dive centres organise trips to Savage Islands to swim with monk seals, dolphins and turtles.
13. Boat Trips
There are scores of companies offering to take you out into the ocean to spot whales and dolphins.
And while you’re never guaranteed to make a sighting, the skippers know the waters and what signs to look out for.
For instance a sudden flock of seabirds is usually a sign that cetaceans are close.
Some 20 different kinds of dolphins and whales have been recorded off Madeira, more than a fifth of all species in the wild.
Summer is the best season and if you’re in luck you might see a pilot whales, sperm whales and Bryde’s whales, while bottlenose and spotted dolphins are common at any time of year.
14. Madeira Whale Museum
In Caniçal on the east coast there’s a museum that recounts the history of Madeira’s whaling industry.
This was based out of Caniçal and expeditions were launched here as late as 1981. The museum opened in 1989 and was given a modern facelift in 2011. What you’ll be given is a frank portrayal of the whaling industry, with tools, vessels and first-hand accounts.
This has a lot of ethnographic value as it’s a way of life consigned to the past in Madeira.
But there’s also a section dealing with the preservation of cetaceans and marine life, full-sized models of whales and dolphins and 3D footage of these mammals.
15. Madeira Wine
Another thing to do as soon as you arrive in Funchal is to get acquainted with Madeira’s eponymous fortified wine.
Depending on the quality this beverage will have been aged in special warm conditions for years (some vintages sold are a century old). Blandy’s Wine Lodge is a good start, shining a light on 200 years of winemaking on this archipelago.
If you book a premium tour and tasting, you’ll be shown around the cooperage where the barrels are made, find out how the negra mole grapes are turned into wine and see the ageing vats made from Brazilian satinwood.