Madeira, the Island Where Spring Never Ends
From top-tier restaurants to awe-inspiring hikes, this Portuguese paradise has it all.
Like a land under a spell, Madeira exists in a perpetual spring. On this island between Portugal and Morocco, flowers bloom year-round—even species that normally wouldn't bud at the same time defy nature’s rules. Waterfalls crash down between so many lush cliffs and green hills dotted by terracotta-roofed villages, each building seemingly on its own tiered level so as to not block views. The entire island is like an amphitheater and the unobstructed stage is the endless blue of the ocean.
Though you could drive around the cliff edges of the island in about three to four hours, those same bluffs beckon the bold to walk along the rocky shorelines or take a swim in the naturally made aqua tidal lagoons. Head inland to rappel down slippery waterfalls or traverse along the top of mountains that peek up over the cloud line, so you’re gliding in a world of blue skies and swirling white fluff.
Unlike the Portuguese islands of the Azores up north, on Madeira you can pair the many nature excursions and unbelievable views with cocktail-fueled nightlife, old-world hotels, and Michelin-starred restaurants serving traditional seafood as well as innovative dishes. In the capital, Funchal, museum-hop, shop, stroll around outdoor cafes under a river of purple-blossomed jacaranda trees, take a sky gondola to a botanic garden atop a mountain, and ride a wooden sled back down. Here’s everything you absolutely must do, see, eat, and drink to make the most out of your next trip to Madeira.
Best places for first timers to visit in Madeira
The best way to get to know Madeira? On an epic hike around the island.
Since just walking up the sidewalk on such a hilly island can seem to some like a “hike,” you’re really guaranteed action—and panoramas—no matter what level you choose. With 33 well-maintained trails spanning over 300 miles of the island, you’re sure to get some stunning views. You can either take easy-going walks, often through an irrigation tunnel known as a levada, or on veredas, which climb the peaks.
If you want the latter, the Vereda do Areeiro connects the two tallest peaks on the island. You’ll ascend 3,000 feet until you get above the cloud line at the top of the mountain, where you’ll feel like you’re walking in a sunny, swirling marshmallow land only planes should see. It’s about six miles and around four hours one way, so you can either double that to hike there and back or plan to have a guide pick you up at the top and drive you back.
If you’re looking for an easy day or more of a winding stroll, the incredible views on Vereda do Larano will blow your hiking socks off. The entire walk is extremely flat, but it’s still one of the best hikes on the island. It’s not just the ocean in front of you that’ll take your breath away, it’s also the sheer walls stretching out majestically on either side, plus above and below you, since the trail hugs the side of the bluff. You can choose to go for five miles or onward for several more, since it stretches along most of the coast, and taxis or guides will handily drop you off and pick you up at predesignated spots like in Machico and Porto da Cruz.
A couple other easy hikes include the 25 Fontes hike, which is about seven miles and has numerous waterfalls along the way and at the end, or the Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço hike, accessible via the 113 bus, which goes through caves and ends at a restaurant where a boat can whisk you back to Funchal. If you choose to hike Vereda do Fanal, you can see the laurisilva forest at Posto Florestal Fanal, which is a UNESCO protected site home to Laurisilva of Madeira trees that once populated Europe and are now extinct there except for on this island.
Where to eat and drink like a local in Madeira
Eat rare dishes unique to the island
One of the first fish you’ll hear about—and hopefully indulge in—is the black scabbard fish. Native to these waters, the three-foot long, eel-like creatures swim at 1,000 meters deep. At that depth, their skin is a shiny silver, but the pressure from being pulled up from such a distance turns their scales black. Needless to say, these fishies are much tastier than they look. They come prepared on crostinis, in sandwiches, or as the star of the plate. Though locals at home prepare black scabbard plain, restaurants often top the fish with the island’s local banana or passion fruit in a blend that’s sweet and savory with a tangy kick. The fish is served almost everywhere, but the best low-key bite in Funchal just might be at O Calhau next to Old Town. Whereas the best high-end plate is prepared at Avista, awarded Michelin Gourmand and helmed by a two Michelin-starred chef.
But the island serves up plenty of other fish in the sea, too. Downtown, Ákua is a deep dive into Portugal’s seafood scene with fish charcuterie boards, braised tuna with razor clam rice, grouper carpaccio with nori, and more from the mind of acclaimed chef Júlio Pereira, whose other restaurant, Kampo, boasts a meatier menu. Also near downtown, Gazebo is a singular dining adventure inside a quinta (villa) where chef Filipe Janeiro prepares your meal mere feet from your table for an intimate and personal kitchen-to-table experience. That meal might entail beef tartare with house kimchi and shiitake mushrooms, seared black scabbard over miso-imbued smashed chickpeas, and a dessert of fresh loquat—an apricot-like tropical fruit—plucked from the trees outside and served with an almond crumble and goat cheese mousse.
If an upscale splurge is your thing—and if you only have the allowance for one—make it Galaxia Skyfood. Here, 16th floor ocean views are accompanied by dishes like Wagyu beef speared on a bay leaf stick, nestled in a bowl of pine branches and a literal-smoking coal, or fermented red snapper in a ponzu and avocado puree with tingling mango gel. For more top-of-Funchal dinners, Restaurante Desarma sits on the rooftop of The Views Baía. Chef Octávio Freitas masterfully disarms the diner with two prix fixe menus, including crab from mainland Portugal transformed into an ice cream amuse, escabeche with scabbard caviar, aged beef tartare with dried limpets and mushroom gel, and more wow-worthy plates.
Drink way too much poncha, the predecessor to Brazil’s famous caipirinha
The tale behind the famous drink on Madeira, poncha, might be more adventurous than the list of ingredients in the cocktail, but it’s a story that’ll make you want to keep sipping (we’re nothing if not sticklers for a good drinking tradition).
Since this island was a natural port for sailors crossing the Atlantic to and from Europe, you can bet there was a lot of rum involved (helped, no doubt, by the sugar cane production on Madeira and plundering of colonized lands in the Americas). But sailors were also concerned about scurvy, so Vitamin C-rich lemons were brought aboard and preserved—of course—in the rum. Drizzle in some honey to curb the sour taste, and there you have it: poncha. Today, bartenders mix batches of poncha with a wooden muddler called a caralhinho, which means little penis. Take that as you will.
Unlike some other countries, Madeira produces rum agricole, or agricultural rum, which is made with local sugar cane juice (rather than cane molasses). It results in a rum that speaks of the land and conditions in which it grew, which is to say: tropical, herby, or otherwise more nuanced flavors shine through.
On Rua de Santa Maria, also known as the Painted Doors Street, you can find poncha served up in all kinds of fruity flavors. Though any poncha bar worth its weight in rum will do fine, get a nightcap at Rei da Poncha. Outside of the classic lemon and honey Fisherman (Pescador) Poncha, choose from a long list of juices from passion fruit to tangerine to tomato.
Nature and outdoor adventures in Madeira
Fling yourself down waterfalls and off cliffs
Who wants to stop at just chasing waterfalls when you can then scale down them, superhero style? Canyoning excursions allow you to feel like you’re defying gravity by walking on a vertical wall of rock, often with water flowing down it. The rocks can be slippery and tricky to manage with just feet and no hands, but you’re harnessed to a rope around your waist and carefully managed by a guide at the top and one at the bottom.
After you scale down, you’ll plunge into the pool below in a warm wetsuit before continuing along the water to the next falls. Difficulty levels range from beginners level one to experts level five, so you’ll get different heights and ease of footing depending on what you choose. There are 131 canyoning excursions available around the island, where no two waterfalls are alike.
If you’d rather jump than climb, coasteering is what you’re looking for. In these adventures, rather than going inland to the waterfalls, you’ll head out to the coast and hike along the rocky edges of the island in search of good cliffs to leap off of and into the sea below. Again, you’ll be in a wetsuit and carefully watched by experienced guides.
Lounge in a natural volcanic pool
If you don’t feel the need to be airborne at all, an easier water adventure involves paddling around in natural pools. Keep in mind these aren’t hot springs, so some mental prep may be needed before making the plunge, but it’s a refreshing swim once you’re in.
Surrounded by holey volcanic rock spires, the pools are both turquoise and somehow clear at the same time. Some, like those in Porto Moniz, have bathrooms and facilities, while others like Seixal Natural Pools have a more wild, make-your-own-adventure and bring-your-own-towel feel. These naturally occurring infinity pools are sometimes preferred over the mostly pebbly beaches on the island (other than Praia do Porto do Seixal and Machico Bay beaches), and their appearance is far more unique.
Snack your way through an age-old organic farm
Nestled on the shore about a 20-minute drive from Funchal, Fajã dos Padres highlights the fresh vegetation that thrives in Madeira’s volcanic soil. This organic farm has small cottages and its own casual beachside restaurant. It is, however, only accessible via cable car down a steep cliff (seriously, don’t look down).
As the name suggests, this farm was once home to priests—Jesuits who, in the 1500s, planted Malvasia vines to produce a fortified malmsey wine you can taste on the property still today. Stroll past trees bearing mangoes and bananas and grapes drooping from vines to arrive at the restaurant where you can try local delicacies like lapas (limpets, a small mollusk) on the half shell with a spray of lemon juice or fried espada.
History and culture in Madeira
Ride a toboggan down a mountain road
It’s true that the Monte Tropical Garden in Funchal is worth a visit in and of itself. The garden feels like an enchanted maze with fountains and art galleries that, like everything else in Madeira, slopes down a hill. It makes for a lovely wander, even though you’ll have to clamber back up the hill once you’ve reached the bottom. That said, you can meander as you please and make an espresso pit stop before continuing on.
But it’s getting to the garden and the windswept, adrenaline-filled return that many of us are really here for. First, to get to Monte at the top of the mountain, you ride up a gentle cable car that slowly reveals several more inches of the ocean-view and makes your cell phone photos of Madeira look like you have a drone. When you’ve had your fill of flowers and stone steps at the garden, it’s time for the ride back down the mountain—a journey best taken on a toboggan.
Whoever first thought to ride a wooden sled on a paved road down a mountain was either desperate, daring, or just extremely lazy. But we’ll take lazy genius. Just down the road from the garden exit, a group of men known as carreiros wait near a booth selling tickets for a ride down the mountain. The wicker toboggan is initially pushed by two smartly dressed carreiros, who then ride on the back and guide the sled around bends and past car traffic as you bobsled your way down the island’s slopes. Photographers offer to sell photos of yourself mid-ride, mouth agape, like a snapshot from a theme park rollercoaster.
Get to know Madeira’s famous wines
If you don’t know it already, you’ll surely hear about Madeira wine. Not to be confused with Madeiran wine, which is wine made on Madeira, Madeira is a type of wine with its own protected domestic of origin status (like Champagne), meaning it can’t be made anywhere else.
Much like poncha, its origins are also nautical: According to legend, a batch of wine sailed around the world, and upon return to Madeira, tasted better than when it had first cast-off. After trying to recreate the process and ruling out that the magical liquid wasn’t a result of the boat rocking or the salty sea air, they discovered the heat in the hull of the ship concentrated the wine.
Today, Madeira wine rejects traditional cool cellars and instead is heated in barrels for years. It’s extra thick and sweet, but don’t offend the locals and say it tastes like port, because it’s much more refined than that—and way less syrupy. To pretend like we understand vintology for a hot second, the volcanic soil of the island gives an acidity to the wine that helps it rinse clean from your mouth. (Are you impressed?)
Needless to say, it pairs perfectly with any dessert (especially cheesecake IMO). One of the best places to get Madeira wine is Blandy’s Wine Lodge, which was first a monastery, then made into a prison, then finally a winery. For Madeira that straddles tradition and experimentation, Vinhos Barbeito will wow and impress.
Of course, there are still other kinds of wine made on Madeira—tons, in fact. It’s practically an island of wineries. And the best of all might just be Quinta do Barbusano in São Vicente, where the glass walls of a rustic tasting room overlook an undulating, verdant valley dotted with the country homes of a small town. The outrageously pretty landscapes make the experience feel expensive without actually hurting your wallet—a thorough wine tasting shouldn’t set you back more than €15.
Try the popular-for-a-reason Verdelho, crisp and mineral, or the hot-weather-red Tinta Negra, along with a series of wines produced by António Oliveira, the same man who might be outside grilling espetada. These hunks of meat are skewered on local laurel branches for an earthy-herby flavor, which Oliveira cooks over a live fire that he occasionally splashes with his Aragonez rosé. The espetada is then hung vertically above your table, and it’s a learning experience to gracefully slide a piece off the dangling rod with your fork and knife.
Madeira hotels and other great places to stay
The cotton candy pink façade of Reid’s Palace nearly glows above the Bay of Funchal. And it’s done so since 1891. The storied hotel has hosted dignitaries of all origins, most famously Winston Churchill who adored Madeira. (It was and remains a destination for wealthy Europeans to holiday.) The front of the building actually faces the ocean, since guests used to only arrive by boat (and the women were carried up the steps of the cliff in hammocks)—but the rear is no server’s entrance, with chandeliers and french doors leading to balconies overlooking the water. It’s a bit of a splurge, but it’s a chance to feel like James Bond sans the action sequence. Even if you don’t stay as a guest, you can reserve a spot on the terrace for its traditional afternoon tea or pop into Gastrobar off the lobby entrance for a wonderful martini made with five-year Sercial Madeira.
Reid’s doubles as an adventure-friendly base camp, with numerous vans and tour guides constantly streaming out front to pick up the daring clientele. That’s not to say the hotel is canvas-tent level; you really get the comfort of five stars with a sauna and three heated indoor-outdoor salt water pools, plus a pick up point for your nature excursions.
If you want to stay outside of the city of Funchal, a gorgeous bucolic escape awaits at Quinta do Furao. Sat amid a vineyard, the hotel butts up against the edge of the land and looks out at a mesmerizing wall of sea cliffs, drawing the gaze like a magnet. The rooms feel like a homey inn with soft colors, alcove windows, and the requisite ocean-facing balconies. Plus the onsite restaurant provides the same view around a central fireplace and some of the best beef and roquefort cheese puff pastries around.
If you want to stay further afield, Socalco Nature Calheta is a subtly luxurious retreat. Carved into the side of a cliff, Socalco offers sweeping Atlantic views and a gastronomic haven. A humble vineyard produces wine onsite, which you can drink in the minimalist dining room, which serves a lovely organic breakfast and impressive dinner whose menu comes from chef Octávio Freitas (Desarmas). Socalco is a 15-minute downhill hike to a sandy beach, a rarity on Madeira. In the other direction, a 15-minute trek upwards, will bring you to the Museum of Contemporary Art of Madeira, a brutalist-like building made of basalt, making it feel like a mountain-topping piece of art itself.
What to know before you go to Madeira
Best times of the year to visit
No matter what time of year you visit, you might find yourself in the midst of a celebration, because Madeirans love to party. Spring celebrations start with Carnival, where there’s an enormous Rio-style parade, a drag night, a flower power night, and a Burial of the Bone party to finish it off. As part of the festival, many adults like to put on masks and headdresses and scare children, which is a real hoot. Then you’ll have a flower festival in May, a cherry festival in June, the Regional Folklore 24-hour dancing festival in July, a wine harvest and grape stomping festival spanning September through October, plus too many others to list.
It’s worth noting that Christmas here lasts one and a half months from December to mid-January, and it’s simply called The Party. Not only is every tree, building, and walkway strung in twinkle lights, you can smell garlic in the air and are offered carne vinha d’alhos (pork drowned in wine) everywhere you go. On the last day, carolers visit homes singing songs and—in the best twist ever—eat all the leftovers in the house.
Still, possibly one of the biggest parties of the year is the New Year’s celebration, where the island goes all out in black tie, gala-level attire while watching fireworks and sometimes acrobatic aerial displays cascade through the sky.
Madeira’s time zone
Madeira falls under Western European Standard Time (WET). This translates to five hours ahead of New York’s Eastern Standard Time and eight hours ahead of California’s Pacific Standard Time.
The weather and climate
Described as the island of eternal spring, Madeira is classified as having a subtropical climate, with hot, dry summers and cooler, rainy winters. In the summer months of June, July, and August, average temperatures range from a low of 66 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter runs from December through February, when temperatures range from a low of 57 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Portuguese is Madeira’s official language, although thanks to it being a major tourist destination, English is also quite prevalent around the island.
How to get around
Whereas once, centuries ago, it took keen navigation skills to find Madeira, nowadays we’re one direct flight away out of New York’s JFK airport. The island’s first people, the Guanches from the west coast of Africa, likely arrived by boat (though there really isn’t any trace or influence left from them, other than some unearthed tools in caves). We can more surely say, though, that the Portuguese sailors who claimed the island in the 1400s landed by sea. At least there’s now a five-hour flight option on SATA Azores Airlines.
If you’re not East Coast-based or coming through New York, the typical alternative option is just plain lovely: Most flights from elsewhere have a connection in mainland Portugal. This means many people tag Madeira onto a trip to see Porto or Lisbon for a blissful range of beautiful destinations without having to first pop into a different country.
Madeira uses the Euro (EUR) and each Euro is worth 100 cents. As of February, 2024, $1 USD exchanges for €0.93 EUR.
International adapters you’ll need
Madeira uses plug types C and F, marked by two round pins organized side-by-side. The standard voltage is 230V with a standard frequency of 50Hz.