We’ve been meaning to write this for ages: our ultimate guide to the island of Funchal, Madeira, in Portugal. It’s one of the few places we keep returning to, as well as Scandinavia and Japan, although terribly underrated compared to them. We first went for guaranteed winter sun in February and we’ve been back not just for the sun, but for the beautiful scenery, culture and food.
Things to love about the city of Funchal, Madeira
Sweeping boulevards, a harbour to stroll down, flowers everywhere. What more do you want? An airport that you land in over the sea and feel like you’re about to die? Got that covered, too.
Funchal is a port with a colonial feel. It’s deceptively large – almost an optical illusion, in that you can think something is fairly close by but actually takes ages to walk to because of the steep roads. It’s got some of the prettiest architecture we’ve seen, but never feels built up because you can always see the sea.
Surely no one goes to Madeira for a city break?
The short answer is: we do. And it works very well. Neither of us like resort-type holidays. We don’t swim and we don’t do sitting around in hotels full of screaming children. But we do like warm weather in winter and having a city base with plenty of day trips to mountain and coastal villages, so Funchal is ideal.
Madeira does have ‘resort’ type areas just on the outskirts of Funchal, but these are easily avoided. And the city centre itself is typically Portuguese: more akin to the laid-back air of Porto than the bigger capital of Lisbon.
So if you only think of Madeira as being for sitting by a generic hotel pool, think again. Which leads us onto another myth…
Isn’t Madeira just for old people?
It comes as a surprise to some that one of our favourite destinations is Madeira when we’re only in our 30s. The island has an unfortunate reputation in the UK as being exclusively for pensioners. It’s true that most fellow British tourists we’ve seen there have been the Saga holiday type, but tourists from the rest of Europe are made up of all age groups. So the British oldies are only one part of a wider group. More importantly, Funchal is a university city and has a very mixed population so there are plenty of younger locals.
Having said this, some of the most hilarious people we’ve ever met on holiday have been OAPs in Madeira. We met a fantastic Welsh couple who just got on random buses to see where they went. They’d explored the whole island in this way, and the man wanted a full on life-history conversation with everyone he met (much to his wife’s embarrassment). Another legendary OAP we sat next to on the plane once relished telling us in great detail how last time she’d flown to Funchal, the old man she was sat next to had died before take off and had caused a four-hour hold up. Most inconsiderate of him.
What to do in Funchal, Madeira
There’s loads to do across Madeira as a whole. Walking/hiking on the ‘levadas’ is probably the most popular thing. These irrigation channels transport water throughout the island and snake throughout the mountains and canyons, making for some spectacular walking routes. There are also loads of ‘adventure’ activities, if you like that kind of thing. We definitely don’t.
But if you want to just stay within the city of Funchal for a few days, you won’t run out of stuff to do either. We’ve listed a few things below that we enjoy but they won’t be for everyone, so you can find millions of others on the official tourism website, Visit Madeira.
Blandy’s Wine Lodge tour
A tour of the home of Madeira’s famous sweet wine, Blandy’s, is a must do… even if the only way you’ve had a sweet wine before is port as part of that student classic, Cheeky Vimto. The tour costs about €5 for 45 minutes and you get to walk through the lodge, including storage vats and a little museum bit. And then finally the tasting at the end when you get to knock a few glasses of the stuff back. It is actually quite nice on its own. Strangely, Blue WKD is not available there as a mixer.
Monte cable car
We decided that cable car is officially the second best form of transport (after horse). While we’ve done really good cable car journeys in places like Kobe, Japan, we agreed that Funchal’s Monte cable car is the original and best. You get it from near the harbour and it takes you up, up and away over the city’s colourful rooftops to the gardens…
Monte Palace Tropical Garden and Madeira Botanical Garden
The former have different themes, like a Japanese garden and an area with Madeira’s traditional little ‘Santana’ houses. The latter has some incredible patterns made from plants. In both, you’ll spot a lot of Madeira’s national flower, the bird of paradise. It looks like a particularly flamboyant emu.
Painted doors project
The Painted Doors Project is an art installation, dotted around the whole of Funchal’s old town. Unsurprisingly, it’s a collection of painted doors.
Some of them are merely beautiful, some are funny, and some are political. You can find a full list of them all on the artists’ official site, but it’s best just to wander around and see how many you discover.
Pontinha: a separate country and also cats
You have to go here – if not for the bizarre experience, for the cats. The Principality of Pontinha is a ‘micronation’: an independent country not officially recognised by all governments. It’s a little fort attached to Funchal harbour. A lovely chap called Prince Renato II founded it as a country. He did an interview with the Guardian about the whole thing. He doesn’t live in the fort, but is often there to greet tourists and to look after his adorable rescue kitties. The cats all live the life of Riley and are very friendly. On top of the fort, there’s an inexplicable statue of Father Christmas.
Mercado dos Lavradores (workers’ market)
This food market isn’t the most exciting one we’ve ever been to, but there’s something about it that draws us back every visit. We never buy anything, and they definitely have some ‘tourist prices’ going on, but it’s good for a browse. You can see some serious fish preparation going on if you’re there at the right time. But it’s mostly about colourful rows of fruit and veg. If you have a banana phobia like Caroline has, proceed with caution.
Clothes and accessories shopping at Dona Hortensia
Where to eat in Funchal, Madeira
Zarcos (don’t be put off by their 2001-style website) has best steaks in Madeira, if not the world. It’s a short climb (note: climb, not walk) from where we stay, or a brief bus or taxi journey from the centre of Funchal. It is worth the effort. GO.
It’s excellent value and never full of tourists. Real local people eat there. The portion sizes may defeat you but it’s just fantastic all round. It’s definitely our favourite, and for people who eat vegetarian most of the time at home, that’s saying something. Zarcos is also a good place to get a poncha, Madeira’s delicious official alcoholic drink. It’s lethal and goes down like lemonade. Be warned.
Zezinho Das Mocas
For a lighter option, Zezinho Das Mocas is our favourite for lunch. It’s in the old town by loads of touristy places that will definitely ring alarm bells to foodies, but fear not. Despite the questionable location, it’s proper home cooking run by two ladies who make everything fresh. They only serve little bruschetta things, which are very tasty indeed. Lots of veggie and vegan options.
There are also some books available to browse through for some reason, and we’ve made it a tradition to look at a huge Dorling Kindersley book of dog breeds every time we go. When in Madeira, the Portuguese Water Dog needs to be looked up. Obvs.
Afternoon tea at Reid’s Palace
It’s no secret that we enjoy afternoon tea. In fact, we have consumed so many tiny cakes and finger sandwiches over the years that we’re probably classed as experts. And the Reid’s Palace one tops our charts for best afternoon tea ever. It’s not cheap and we were ready to be disappointed by what we got for the price. It’s in a big (pink!) posh old hotel – the kind that could easily be a bit of a clichéd rip off. Bit it isn’t at all. Pleasingly, it’s perfect from beginning to end. They offer second servings of both the savoury and sweet parts so you actually get a fair amount for your money. The views are incredible, too.
Just be prepared, if you’re under 40, to bring the average age down considerably. This is a place that does seem to live up to the Saga holiday stereotype. The OAPs can obviously sniff out a top-quality scone a mile off.
O’Tasco is fairly near where we stay and has loads of amazing seafood. The swordfish, if it’s on, is worth writing home about, or at least sending your mum a photo on WhatsApp. You may have to book because it gets very busy, especially at weekends. It’s handily located near one of our favourite bars for a pre-eating drink, Barreirinha Bar Café, where you can sit outside overlooking the sea.
Restaurante Dos Combatentes
Where to go for drinks in Funchal, Madeira
Mercearia Dona Mécia
A drink at Mercearia Dona Mécia is now synonymous with an evening in Funchal for us. It’s tucked away in a pretty little courtyard off a side road. As well as being a bar at night, it’s a café in the day and serves a variety of nibbles. Whatever time of day you go, you sit outside under the shade of trees and watch the world go by. Or more specifically, watch the well-dressed locals who live in the posh flats down the road go by. Definitely the best place for people watching and we’re usually the only tourists when we go.
Barreirinha Bar Café
We’ve just mentioned this above but it’s worth saying again. Barreirinha Bar Cafe is a tiny bar that serves craft beers. You can sit outside of an evening, overlooking the sea. It has excellent music: last time we were there, they played an entire War On Drugs album. Bold.
Day trips from Funchal, Madeira
Funchal is the perfect base to see other towns and villages on Madeira, all by bus. Some people do hire a car, but we both hate driving and never drive abroad. Madeiran roads are especially terrifying even in the safe hands of a bus driver. Being such a mountainous places, the roads are often nearly vertical and full of blind corners, with buses going flat out regardless of huge drops at the side of the roads.
One bus driver we met said: ‘You’re looking at the second best bus driver on the island’. We dutifully replied, ‘So where’s the best?’ And he slowly pointed to a graveyard.
Curral das Freiras (valley of nuns)
So if you want to experience the madness of a Madeiran bus journey, this is the perfect trip. You can get off the bus at the bottom of the valley to be violently sick and/or to walk the rest of the way up. Or you can just get the bus the whole way there if you’re lazy like us.
Curral das Freiras is a small village almost bang in the middle of Madeira, nestled between nearly perpendicular mountains. Apparently the nuns escaped from some pirates on the coast to come and live here. They definitely picked the place with the best views. There’s not really anything much to do there, but the beauty of it is just walking round. There are a few tourist shops and a spectacular graveyard (not as creepy as it sounds).
It’s famous for its chestnuts and has an actual festival dedicated to them every year. A lot of places serve them with a sweet sauce. We both think it’s a bit rank, but luckily there’s plenty of other lovely grub at our favourite restaurant there, Sabores do Curral. You have to sit on the rooftop area to see the view while you eat your lunch, no matter how windy it is. That’s the law.
Porto da Cruz
This village in the north east isn’t as good as Curral das Freiras in terms of dramatic scenery, but it’s on the coast and this provides its own drama if you go on a windy day… The bus drops you off by the Porto da Cruz local rum factory and museum. We did a tour of it (no free samples!) that didn’t take too long. After that, we went onto a coastal path to walk round to the village itself.
Being such a windy day, there were some serious waves rising up about 20ft and crashing against the rocks. There was one area of the coastal path that was wet and luckily, we clocked this early on so ran through it when the sea was calm. We just missed a gigantic wave coming over the side and soaking the whole path. Other people weren’t so lucky and this provided a lot of entertainment when we found a good vantage point to sit and have a drink overlooking the fun.
Where to stay in Funchal, Madeira
We only ever stay in the same place and that’s Quinta São Gonçalo. It’s a traditional old villa with views that rival those from any tourist attraction on the island. It’a not often we rave about a B&B because we generally despise a) having to get up for breakfast and b) the possibility of having to interact with other people at said breakfast.
But Quinta São Gonçalo strikes the balance perfectly between being friendly and welcoming and giving you privacy and peace. It’s slightly out of Funchal centre but totally worth it for the short walk or hair-raising bus journey into town. The bus stop is just outside, too.
Breakfast is a real treat. It’s served outside whenever possible, in their beautiful gardens with wisteria overhead and the wonderful view of Funchal stretching out below. The breakfast is spectacular: fruit, yoghurts, breads and all the usual other stuff. But the best thing is the guava jam.
Did we mention it’s pink?
And that you have the most beautiful views from your room? Get a load of this bad boy. A flock of sea birds and then a rainbow: both taken on the same holiday.
When to go to Funchal, Madeira
Madeira has the promise of warmth and sun in both January and February, so it’s a no brainer to escape the miserable UK winter. Although not scorching hot at that time of year, we’ve always been lucky enough to have sun almost every day. And Funchal has enough going on that you’re sorted if you ever do have a rainy day. It’s also not too busy in these months.
So that concludes our guide to Funchal, Madeira. We feel like we know it rather well, but there’s probably loads more things we’ll think of as soon as we hit publish. This won’t be the last blog on it though, because we can never stay away for too long.
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