Madeira is a beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles west of Morocco, 500 miles south of the European Continent and is an autonomous region of Portugal. We visited the island for the first time in December of last year, for the famous New Year’s Eve. Madeira’s beautiful landscape, unusual fruits and flowers, fresh food, and wine have been attracting a lot of visitors lately.
This post is an excellent guide about important and fun things to know when visiting the Madeira island for the first time. Information about how to get to Madeira, what to expect, how to get around and much more is included in this guide.
GETTING TO MADEIRA
You can get to Madeira in one of two ways, by air or the cruise ship. Most large European cities have flights to Funchal. And Lisbon and Porto have 2-3 a day. It is a less than 2 hr. flight from Lisbon to Madeira.
HOW TO GET AROUND
There are four main ways to get around the island:
Rent a Car – offers most flexibility but can be costly. Before renting a car read our post Tips for Renting a Car in Europe.
Buses – they are economical and reliable.
Taxi/Bolt – Taxi or Madeira’s version of Uber, Bolt are easy to use. Both have apps and you don’t have to speak the language or exchange money to get around. Bolt is more affordable than Taxi.
Hitchhike – it is not unusual to see young people hitchhiking on the side of the road. Hitchhiking is safe in Madeira, and we have picked up a couple of university students while driving around.
Driving in Madeira is not for the lighthearted. Even though in recent years many new roads and highly engineered tunnels have been built and make driving much easier than in the past there are still roads that make your head spin. Especially to get to some of the remote areas, where all the good hikes start, you still have to drive on the “edge of the cliff” or mountain roads with insane inclines and switchbacks or on a two-way road barely wide enough for one car.
With all that said, one of the best things you can do in Madeira is go on a road trip. The best way to see the island. The good thing is locals are incredibly good and patient drivers.
And do not be surprised if you see cows, goats, or sheep roaming the streets.
How Long Does it Take to Drive Around Madeira Island
Madeira is a tiny island, approximately 35 miles at the longest point and maximum width of 14 miles, and the entire island can be driven in less than 4 hours without stopping. You can make a day out of it by stopping at different viewpoints and doing short hikes. It is one of the best ways to see the island, and you will need a car to do this.
Starting from Funchal, you can drive in either direction around the island. Don’t be surprised to see hitchhikers on the road. And if you have plenty of time in the region you can plan to spend a few days in different areas of the island.
Because of the location of the island, Madeira has spring-like weather yearlong. Also, because of its location, it can be very windy and wet.
During the winter months, even though it is rare it can snow at higher elevations.
We visited for a week around New Year’s Eve and lucked out with pleasant weather (mid-60°F to mid-70°F) but have experienced what felt like hurricane-strength winds when we did Pico to Pico hike and in some areas when we were driving around the island.
To be safe bring a wind/waterproof jacket with you, chances are you will need it at some point.
DROP-IN FOR NEW YEAR’S EVE CELEBRATION
On New Year’s Eve spectacular fireworks display lights up Funchal’s skies and a lot of visitors turn up at the island. Many restaurants will have a special menu for the evening with some type of musical performance.
The streets close and driving around town is not easy that night. The best thing to do is to find a spot from which you can watch the fireworks show and plan to spend a night there. Or be within walking distance of where you will be spending the night.
Getting a taxi or Bolt will be extremely hard.
Madeira, being part of Portugal is in the EU, and visas are not required from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Schengen zone countries. However, always double-check before traveling.
The currency used in Madeira is Euro (€). It is good to carry some change with you and smaller bills, to be able to pay for the bathrooms, parking, etc. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Bring Change for BATHROOMS
Public bathrooms on Madeira cost money. The cost is usually between €0.50 and €1.00, and it is good to have exact change with you, not all locations have changing machines or an attendant. This is particularly important when hiking, caught us by surprise a couple of times.
Just like mainland Portugal, Madeira’s primary language is Portuguese. And Portuguese does not sound similar at all to Spanish or Italian, at least not to us.
The power plugs on Madeira are 230V and type C/F can be used, just like the rest of Portugal.
We felt very safe in Madeira. The locals are truly kind and always eager to help, we even picked up hitchhikers without hesitation – usually, they are college students or teenagers trying to move around the island without paying for it.
DO NOT GO FOR THE BEACHES
If you are expecting white sand and beaches, Madeira is not the place. There may be miles of shoreline, but it is mostly rocks and cliffs. Which are great for hiking and photography, but not as much of a beach destination.
There are lava pools, and some beaches where you can relax and catch some sun rays but nothing too cozy and not the main attraction of the island.
SIP PONCHA OR TWO
Madeira may be known for its sweet, delicious wine. However, one drink that you will discover while on the island is Poncha a deliciously refreshing cocktail. It is made with local brandy made from sugar cane, with honey, sugar, and your choice of fruit: lemon, lime, passion fruit, or any other locally grown exotic fruit, simple and delicious.
Task Wine spot in Sao Vicente is one of the coziest bars on the island.
Levadas are uniquely Madeiran thing. they are a man-made irrigation system around the island, dug up canals that the rain and spring water flows through to get the water from one point to the next. A lot of Levadas are meticulously maintained and are some of the best hikes on the island.
It is something very unique to this island and popular for visitors to do. The hikes are usually not that tasking, but you need to be prepared for some streams raining on you as you are walking or having to walk through long and dark tunnels. It is all part of the experience.
The Madeira Carnival in Funchal is an endless parade of colorfully decorated floats, dancing, food, and drinking on the streets. The Carnival goes on for a day with different theme parties and brings in tons of visitors. Unfortunately, it was already announced that it has been canceled for 2022.
SUNRISE & SUNSET COLORS
We fell in love with Madeira’s sunsets and sunrises. The vibrant colors take your breath away. And there are so many spots around the island where you can catch these breathtaking views, from coastal cliff views, to over the water views to mountain peaks and above the clouds views.
In conclusion, Madeira is a beautiful, lush, laid-back island with breathtaking views, hikes, mountains, cliffs, and waterfalls where adventures seem endless. It is worth exploring and giving yourself time to do so, it is not a place to rush through.
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