Planning a trip to Madeira? What a wonderful choice of destination!
Below are my best Madeira travel tips to make the most of your time:
- Tips to plan your trip
- Tips to get around Madeira
- Tips on accommodations and where to stay
- Tips on the best things to do and recommendations to experience them
All you need to plan your travels around Madeira island! Your complete guide.
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5 Madeira travel tips to help with planning / itinerary
#1 - Choose the best time for you
Madeira is a year-round destination with pleasant temperatures.
You can enjoy its charm in any season... but, if there are things you prefer, some seasons are better than others. It depends on what you are looking for:
- Crowds -
Because Madeira does not have many sandy beaches, it does not get as crowded as other islands in Micronesia - However, you will find more tourists during the Summer and during the school holidays of Europe, as well as during Christmas
- Weather -
The temperatures are pleasant and overall stable throughout the year. Winter will have lower temperature (especially at night) but not that low. And the Winter will be rainier, but not that much! June is the drier month - but March to September is the dry season.
- Waterfalls -
Since Winter is a little bit rainier, it is the best season to appreciate the waterfall. In Summer, some of them can dry up, and you could be disappointed after hiking...
- Flowers in the gardens -
Madeira is famous for its flowers and gardens. The best time is Spring (en March, April and May). However, if you have allergies, avoid those months...
- Whales and dolphins -
Madeira offers boat tours on the South shore to find whales and dolphins. We can see them year-round, but the largest populations are between May and September.
#2 - Plan at least 10 days - How long to plan to visit Madeira
Don't visit for a long weekend. The island is far from Europe and landings can be delayed because of wind.
The island is not that big. From Funchal you can reach almost all destinations within 1h, thanks to the many tunnels.
The minimum to visit Madeira is a week, but I really think that 10 days is a better timeframe. With only one week, you would have to rush your experience or make some choices of places to see.
I think the best length for your Madeira trip is between 10 days and 2 weeks (and more if you want to explore the island of Porto Santo as well).
Below is a map with the main driving times to give you perspective:
#3 - Don't plan a guided tour on your first day
Madeira has one of the most notorious landing strip in Europe.
It is not too dangerous, but it gets windy and the approach is special. Pilots must have a special training to land here.
Once in a while, there is too much wind to land safely. In that case, planes might not take off or might have to land on another island or back to Portugal.
In that case, you will have to take a later flight.
Therefore, you should not book a tour on the first day, in case your arrival is delayed.
#4 - Don't expect sandy dreamy beaches
Don't go to Madeira is order to spend your days at the beach. This is not the destination for that.
Most beaches on the island are pebble beaches. There is very little sand.
If you won't expect it, you won't be disappointed.
The island it magnificent and there is plenty to do. Just not that.
#5 - Plan some flexibility to adapt to the weather
Madeira is an island in the middle of the Atlantic, with tall mountains. Therefore, it stops the clouds.
If you are looking for the sun during your Madeira travels, I recommend planning some flexibility, so that you can check the weather and the webcams and pick the less cloudy area of the island for the half day.
In my planning, I had gathered locations by half a day so that I could decide where to go next.
Check out my maps in my eBook to help you group the best locations:
Plan your perfect trip around Madeira!
5 Tips to travel around Madeira
#6 - Don't have a car if staying in Funchal
If you plan on staying in Funchal, don't rent a car. Parking is not easy, unless your hotel or accommodations has a parking space for you.
You could rent a car to explore the island and give it back before finishing your trip in Funchal.
#7 - Rent a car to see hidden gems and secret places
It is possible to explore some areas without a car: There are guided tours, "safaris" and taxi tours that can take you to the most famous places.
But Madeira is so much more than that! There are so many viewpoints, stunning roads and hidden gems to discover... I really think renting a car is the best way to discover the island.
#8 - Rent a car with enough power
However, note that if you are renting a car, you should not choose the smallest, cheapest one.
You need something with enough power so as not to worry. There are very, very, very steep roads on this island!
A Peugeot 208, for example, is a great option.
#9 - Compare prices
I have seen big variations of prices for car rentals on the island.
I wanted to book with MadeiraRent because they have a great reputation. But, every time, I found much better prices for their cars on Discovercars.com compared to their direct website! Not sure why...
Anyway, Discovercars.com is one of the best customer-rated comparison sites - you can choose the car and rental company. Plus, they propose a full coverage option - I always take it for peace of mind!
Book early to have a large choice of vehicles!
#10 - Don't be afraid of driving in Madeira
I am still baffled by a lot of the comments online that driving in Madeira is not for the fainthearted.
But remember that all the people that found it overall easy, like me, will not take the time to write down that they had no problems.
Yes, for Americans, the roads will seem narrow.
Yes, the roads are sometimes steep.
Yes, the roads are winding around the mountains.
Yes, there are lots of tunnels...
- there is not much traffic - so you can take your time on those mountain roads
- they have built bumper level walls or protection on the side of the road almost everywhere.
Let me tell you: I don't like winding road with emptiness on one side, but here I have never felt in danger because I knew there was always the protection to tell me I was too close.
I actually really enjoyed driving in Madeira.
The main issue is parking. And as the island becomes more and more popular, it will not improve...
5 Madeira accommodation tips
#11 - One accommodation or several?
As I wrote earlier, most destination around the island are less than 1h away from Funchal.
The island is not that big, and thanks to the tunnels, you can avoid long roads up and down mountains.
However, I do recommend booking at least 2 different accommodations to enjoy different aspects of Madeira and to reduce you travel times (especially if you want to see the sunrises).
I think the best option is:
- half the trip with accommodation on the East side
- and half the trip with accommodation on the West side
But you can also enjoy a road trip or stay in just one place. It depends on what you are looking for during your holidays.
#12 - Should you stay in Funchal?
If you enjoy trying various restaurants, then Funchal is the best place for you.
If you don't want to rent a car, then Funchal is the best place for you.
If you want to visit many museums, then Funchal is the best place for you.
If you are looking for luxury resorts, then the Funchal / Lido area is the best place for you.
Otherwise, Funchal may not be the best choice because:
- parking is difficult,
- it is more crowded,
- It means driving through the city to get anywhere else on the island.
#13 - Best areas to stay in Madeira
Well, there is no absolute best places to stay in Madeira. It depends on what you are looking for.
Below are some of my recommendations:
- For a large choice of restaurants and if you don't rent a car - Check out the best rated accommodations in Funchal
- For luxury resorts, check out the Lido area in Funchal
- For a good mix with sandy beach, restaurants, and easy access to Madeira East - Check out the best rated accommodations in Machico
- For a quiet village in beautiful scenery and the sounds of wave to fall asleep - Check out the best rated accommodations in Porto da Cruz
- For a practical location to explore the entire island by car - Check out the best rated accommodation in Arco da Calheta
- To enjoy the natural pools - Check out the best rated accommodation in Porto Moniz
More tips on my article about where to stay in Madeira
#14 - Choose accommodation with swimming pool
As I wrote earlier, the beaches in Madeira are not dreamy ones with sand.
But it can get hot in the afternoon. It is nice to enjoy a swim after a day exploring the coast and mountains.
It is especially enjoyable if you are hiking as it will relax your muscles.
#15 - Always check the parking situation
This is mostly if you are staying on the South coast, in popular places.
Parking in Funchal, Ribeira Brava, Ponta do Sol, Camara dos Lobos can be difficult. So make sure you check what the hotel writes in regards to parking.
5 Tips to experience Madeira and make the most of your time
#16 - Wake up early to see sunrises
I know that on holidays, sleeping in is a must for some.
But those sunrises above the clouds are just phenomenal. A truly amazing experience.
You should make the effort at least once. Pico do Arieiro is the easiest place to enjoy it, as you don't need to hike.
#17 - Get the cheap Madeiraweather app
However, I recommend making sure that the summits are going to be above the clouds before deciding to go up there early morning.
For that, there is a cheap app called Madeiraweather. Contrary to other apps, it includes Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo so you can check the forecast for the next morning.
Of course, it is a forecast and cannot be 100% sure. But it is good guidance. I used it a lot.
#18 - Is Madeira safe? Be aware of scams
Overall, Madeira is a safe destination.
There is a low crime rate, not much pickpocketing and few scams.
That being said, you should always be careful, like everywhere else.
Regarding scam there is one famous one: at the Mercado dos Lavradores. Some of the fruit sellers tend to overcharge tourists. There has been lots of noise about it recently, so maybe it is going to change.
Otherwise, make sure to always ask the taxi driver to use the meter.
#19 - Hike early or late
There are many wonderful hikes to enjoy on the island.
But most of them are along levadas, which are irrigation systems. The paths are not wide and hikes are not loops.
I recommend hiking early or late, not only for the weather, but to avoid most of the other tourists.
I did 2 hikes where I was the first one on the trail in the morning and I could enjoy the peace and quiet.
And I had to cross path with other walkers only on my way back.
See my article with the best hikes in Madeira and hiking tips.
#20 - Carry cash
Many places accept credit cards on the island.
However, there are a few cases when you will need coins:
- to pay for parking on the machines along the South Coast (Ponta do Sol, Ribeira Brava, Camara dos Lobos...)
- to pay for some of the cable cars
- for a few restaurants off the beaten path
18 Things to do in Madeira Tips - not to be missed
#21 - Ride at least one cable car
Madeira has impressive cliffs. There are many viewpoints to admire them from the top.
But in some places, you can also take cable cars down to water level to enjoy a walk at the bottom of those giants.
My 2 favorite cable cars are:
- Rocha do Navio, in Santana - best views and waterfalls
- Teleferico das Achadas da Cruz near Porto Moniz - the steepest in Europe according to their sign (it is quite impressive)
Learn more in my article about the Madeira cable cars.
#22 - Do at least one levada walk
As I wrote earlier, Levadas are traditional irrigation systems that take the water from the top of the mountains to the plantations.
Walking paths allow you to follow them, and those hikes are called Levada Walks.
Some of the most famous are:
- 25 Fontes from Rabaçal - it leads to a pool with a crying wall full of tiny falls
- Caldeirao Verde - it leads to a tall waterfall
As you walk, you will enjoy the lush scenery that surrounds them. And look into the water, because sometimes you can see a fish. I am not kidding; I have photos to prove it!
#23 - Do at least one swim in natural pools
Madeira may not have wonderful beaches, but you can still enjoy unique swimming experiences.
In some areas, the lava rocks have created natural pools that get filled by sea water during high tide.
My favorite natural pools are:
- Porto Moniz (the free ones, not the modified ones)
Such a wonderful experience to admire the rocks and the views of the lush mountains in the background.
Learn more in my article about the best natural pools in Madeira.
#24 - Do admire the North coast
Many tourists only visit the famous places on the South coast.
However, in my opinion, the North coast is way more beautiful. It is wilder. It is home to some of the best viewpoints on the island.
For example, this is where you can discover this impressive rock formation called Penha de Aguia (which reaches 590m - 1935ft)
#25 - Go up to the Madeira mountains
Madeira is not all about the coastline and the cliffs.
In the middle are jagged peaks that are magnificent.
From some trails, you can see the sea on both sides!
For some areas, it requires hiking. But thanks to the observatory, it is very easy to drive up to Pico do Arieiro and enjoy the views.
From there you can just enjoy the viewpoint or you can hike as much as you want on the famous trail: Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo.
#26 - Be fascinated by the volcanic history
The island of Madeira is at the top of a massive shield volcano. It was created around 7 million years ago.
The most recent volcanic period dates back 6000 to 7000 years ago.
One of the best places to appreciate its volcanic history it is Ponta de Sao Lourenço.
This is the dragon tail of Madeira: a bare landscape with high cliffs.
There is a hiking trail to explore it and you can walk as much or as little as you want. I recommend walking at least the first section, as it is mesmerizing.
#27 - Appreciate the high cliffs Cabo Girao or alternative
One of the most famous attractions on the island is Cabo Girao. The cape, standing 589m (1932ft) above sea water, is the tallest in Europe.
Locals have built a skywalk with glass to better appreciate the height.
To be honest, I was not a huge fan of the skywalk. It felt very touristy.
But I took the cable car down (3km away from the walk) and I really enjoyed the cliffs from the bottom as you can many volcanic features.
Another option is to take one of the catamaran tours to see dolphins as they take you swimming at the bottom of those cliffs (see further down).
Learn more in my Cabo Girao article.
#28 - Find secret places
If you rent a car, you can discover some hidden gems all around this island.
At some of them you may be alone, only meet locals or cross path with only a few like-minded travelers.
Some of my favorites include:
- Calhau da Lapa
- Achadas da Cruz
- Banana Route in Madalena do Mar
Find all my favorite places to see in Madeira in my guide to help you plan an amazing trip:
Plan your perfect trip around Madeira!
#29 - Book a whale watching and dolphin boat tour from Funchal
Madeira is also famous for its population of whales and dolphins surrounding the island.
They can be spotted all year round, but the best time is May to September.
Many companies offer boat tours from Funchal either:
- on speedboats,
- on a pirate boat,
- on small catamarans,
- on larger catamarans
I enjoyed the small catamaran one as it was less crowded and we also went swimming at the bottom of the impressive cliffs of Cabo Girao.
This is one of the best boat tours in Madeira.
#30 - Visit at least one garden
Madeira is a lush island. The volcanic land is fertile.
And, especially around Funchal, beautiful gardens have been designed.
In my opinion, the best one is hands-down the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. You could spend an entire day there.
There is a museum, tile works, water features, bridges, ponds... It is a feast for the eyes and for the camera.
Just know that the garden is on a hill, so the walk is up and down. But you can pay extra for golf carts to take you to some places.
#31 - Madeira beaches - Choose the one for you
I do think the natural pools are a better experience, but if you want to spend some time at the beach, there are a few to choose from:
- Imported golden sand - Machico or Calheta
- Natural black sand - Seixal or Prainha
- Pebbles - Praia Formosa, Ponta do Sol...
Learn more in my article about the best beaches in Madeira.
#32 - Enjoy the food and drinks
People who love gastronomy won't be disappointed.
Highlights of the Madeira Cuisine include:
- Estepada - skewers cooked on laurel wood
- Balo fo Caco - typical local bread
- Seafood - you are in the middle of the ocean.. there is a lot of seafood to try - try the famous lapas
- Espada or black scabbard fish with banana
- Tropical fruits
- Pastel de nata - traditional Portuguese dessert.
#33 - Try local drinks
Madeira is also famous for 2 types of drinks:
- Madeira wine - a unique production with higher alcohol content
- Poncha - traditional alcoholic drink from sugar cane rum
#34 - Know the reality of the Desertas islands tour
Next to Madeira islands are 3 smaller ones called the Desertas islands. You may see them as you approach by plane or as you drive on the East coast.
It is a nature reserve famous for its rare seals and giant tarantulas.
There are excursions heading there, but let me share with you the reality.
They mostly market the fact that it is a nature reserve. But on this day trip, you will spend 6h sailing on the catamaran (3h in each direction) with wind making you cold and waves crashing on you once in a while.
Once there, you won't see any seals because they are living in another part of the island where boats are not allowed and all you will do is go for a 10min walk to look at boards and learn a bit more about the islands.
The volcanic rocks are beautiful, but I don't think it is worth the 6h on a boat, unless you love that part too.
#35 - Collect viewpoints
Maybe what I love the most about Madeira is that locals have set up viewpoints almost everywhere.
It is absolutely fantastic to be driving on a road with magnificent views and finding a spot to park and take the time to enjoy it. It is not in every country.
Those viewpoints are called Miradouros.
Below is a fantastic example. It is Miradouro do Paradeo. It overlooks the impressive Valley of the Nuns (Curral das Freiras).
See my selection of the 21 best viewpoints in Madeira.
#36 - Choose your museums
In Funchal, there are museums for everyone's taste.
The most famous is probably the CR7 dedicated to Cristiano Ronaldo. And just outside you can find the statue of the famous soccer player.
But you can also find small but interesting museums about:
- Madeira history
- Sacred art
- Wine production and history
- Optical illusions
- Decorative arts
And outside of Funchal you can find museums about whales (in Caniçal), geology (in Sao Vicente), sugar cane factories...
#37 - Do something unique
If you are looking for the most Madeiran things to do on the Island, it is probably the toboggan sled ride.
It is a thrilling traditional ride: the descent from Monte to Livramento in a basket sledge led by 2 men.
The transportation system dates back to the early 19th century.
#38 - If you are staying longer than 10 days, consider Porto Santo
As I wrote earlier, I think you need at least 10 days to see the entire island of Madeira from mountains to lava rocks and beaches.
But if you have longer, why not consider heading to Porto Santo, the other inhabited island of the archipelago.
It is small (11km (6,8mi) long by 6km (3,7mi) wide) and can be easily explored.
- You can do a day trip with the ferry to Porto Santo in the morning and the return in the evening (2h30 in each direction) - companies offer bus tours to the main attractions during the day - check out a complete day trip option from Funchal
- You can plan 3 days to go relax, explore and enjoy the sandy beach
Porto Santo's highlights include:
- a 9km (5.6mi) long sandy beach
- Giant organ pipes formations
- a mini desert with sand dunes
- Great viewpoints
Note that I also listed the best things to do in my eBook about Madeira.
For more ideas, head to my article about the best things to do in Madeira.
Madeira Travel guide - prepare & pack for a Madeira Trip
#39 - What to pack for Madeira (outside of hiking)
The list of things to pack is quite typical, but remember that the island is not tropical. There is a variation in weather.
Plus, one hour you can be by the beach at 25°C (77°F) and 1h later you can be at the top of the mountains at 1800m above sea level, where temperatures drop...
The best options is to bring layers.
You can refer to my overall travel checklists that include packing lists.
Just don't forget:
- Swimsuit to enjoy the incredible natural pools
- Sunscreen - you can easily burn there!
- Binoculars to see all the amazing summits and see better the whales and dolphins - check out my article to help you choose your binoculars
- Adapter if you are not using 2 round 220V plugs
#40 - Pack for walking / hiking
My recommendations are:
- a day pack - my favorites are the Osprey with their good aeration in the back (I have a Tempest 20L and my brother has the Talon)
- lightweight hiking shoes (do not go on those levada walks with flip-flops!!!! they can be slippery)
- Water bottle / water pouch
- Clothing for warming up
- Clothing for the wind, e.g. softshell jacket - see some options
- Clothing for the rain (or combined with wind protection)
- A headlamp - on some hikes you must go through dark tunnels. phone lamps cannot be sufficient. A good headlamp makes the crossing more comfortable - see some options.
- Thermal blanket - I never travel without one. In case of accident, keeping warm is essential.
- And since I hike alone, I also take with me a Garmin inReach Mini for added security - I take the lowest monthly subscription for one month, just to be able to use the emergency service button.
#41 - Bring the right camera gear for Madeira
Nothing really special for a trip to Madeira.
You should consider water protection if you go on a dolphin watch boat tour, or on some hikes where waterfalls are falling on the track.
I personally just bought a camera that is entirely sealed, which is quite a relief. And I use a lense with a wide range to take landscapes and also zoom in on animals or details.
- Olympus EM1 MarkIII
- 12-100 IS lens
- Extra Batteries
- A camera clip to relieve my neck and carry the camera on the strap of my backpack - I love soooooooo much!!!!! It works with all cameras.
#42 - Learn a few words of Portuguese
Locals always appreciate when people try speaking a few words of their language:
- Hello - Olà
- Excuse me – Desculpe!
- Welcome – Ben Vinda
- I am sorry – Sinto Muito
- Please – Por Favor
- Thank you – Obrigado (male) or Obrigada (female)
Want to see more of the best Madeira offers?
- Where to stay in Madeira - best areas - read article
- The best landscapes in Madeira in 40 pictures - read article
- The 7 cables cars in Madeira and their amazing views - read article
- The 7 best hikes and levada walks in Madeira - read article
- All you need to know to rent a car and drive in Madeira - read article
- The 18 best beaches in Madeira - read article
Planning a trip to Madeira?
Check out my travel guide to help you plan:
Plan your perfect trip around Madeira!
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