I am a planner. Even when I plan on being ‘spontaneous’, I have still planned my spontaneous options. I will research what to do and where to eat. I read up on the culture and the customs, and I will have a really good idea of what I want to get out of that trip. This, however, was not the case with Madeira. I decided to go 3 days ahead of flying out, and I did zero planning whatsoever. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you where Madeira was on a map!

I didn’t have a clue what to expect. All I knew was that Madeira was hilly, but I was in no way prepared for just how hilly, hilly actually is! I couldn’t even have told you what the top things to do in Madeira were, or what I should eat while there. And I didn’t even know where on the island we were staying. But, the entire trip was in the hands of one of my best friends, and I was simply along for the ride. And what a ride it was!

Madeira is a lush green tiny island off the coast of Morocco. It is known as the Pearl of the Atlantic for a good reason. Geologically it is quite a marvel, with its volcanic past etched into the landscape like words in a history book. Warm year-round, Madeira is teeming with exotic flowers that add a burst of colour everywhere you look. In fact, I think the most apt name I have heard for Madeira is “The Land of Eternal Spring”. In this guide, I am going to share all the knowledge I learnt during my 4-day stay. Just like a holiday fling, it was short but passionate!

Triangular house typical of Madeira with a roof that comes all the way to the floor

Is Madeira worth visiting?

Absolutely! Although, I do think Madeira might be a little more marmite than some other popular destinations. I heard someone say that Madeira is “For newlyweds and nearly deads”, which I think is probably a fair representation. It is a relaxed grown-up island. Yes, there are parties in Funchal, but you don’t come to Madeira to party. There are no big cities either, and despite it being an island, there are a limited amount of sand beaches. And those that do exist are volcanic black. However, Madeira has a different type of magic which I am sure you will start to appreciate as you continue reading.

One of the many beautiful waterfalls in Madeira

5 Reasons to Visit Madeira

Before I get into what to do or where to go when you are in Madeira, I wanted to give you 5 reasons why you need to add Madeira to your bucket list!

  1. The garlic bread. This is no normal garlic bread. In fact, it is so good that it is impossible to believe it was created by mere mortals!
  2. The rollercoaster roads. I grew up with hairpin bends. They don’t phase me. However, I have never seen roads like Madeira’s. They are an attraction all on their own.
  3. The scenery. WOW! That is possibly the best word I can use to describe it. Imagine yourself in Jurassic Park (minus the dinosaurs), and the chances are you are imagining Madeira!
  4. The coastline. Bright blue sea crashing wildly against the rugged coastline. Need I say more?
  5. The Levada Walks. Levadas are the old irrigation systems built to transport water from the North to the South of the island. They now make phenomenal hikes that include limited elevation gain making them ideal for all fitness levels!

I could continue giving you reasons, but I don’t want to keep you from the good stuff any longer!

Madeira has a truly magnificient coast, here seen from between a beautiful meadow of yellow flowers

Where is Madeira?

Madeira is a tiny island off the coast of Morocco, about 400 kilometres north of the Canary Islands. It was uninhabited until the 1400s, when it was discovered by the Portuguese. It is believed to be the first territorial discovery of the exploratory period during the Age of Discovery. However, they appeared on maps as early as 1339, so they must have been discovered before then.

But ignoring the accuracy of when it was actually discovered, I think what really matters is that its location means it enjoys mild winters making it the perfect winter escape for those wanting some sun! However, a word of caution, the weather in Madeira can be somewhat unpredictable!

What is the weather like in Madeira?

Reading blogs about the weather in Madeira, everyone seems to paint a rosy picture of warm days and limited rain. Maybe they are trying to sell the island? The truth is that it is a little more unpredictable than that. Firstly, the island is lush and green. That doesn’t happen without rain! So let’s be realistic.

While I was there, I discovered that the weather changes quite drastically depending on where you are on the island. The large mountainous centre means you could have a cold front with high winds and rain in the North yet a balmy sunny day in the South (only 30 minutes drive from each other!). You may be walking in a strappy top on the seafront but need two jackets, gloves, and a hat when hiking in the hills!

A palm tree taking a battering by the wind

When is the best time to visit Madeira?

Madeira enjoys a subtropical climate with hot summers and very mild winters, which makes it ideal for all-year-round holidays. However, each season does have its ups and downs.

Winter: Madeira is a brilliant option for some winter sun, especially on the South of the island and below 200 metres of altitude – essentially by the coast. This area is known for its bananas, and they only grow in nice weather! You can expect temperatures of around 20°C. Rain is also always a possibility. February is a good time to visit if you want to be part of the carnival processions which take place the week before lent every year.

Some scary scarecrow like mannequins used during the carnivals in Madeira

Spring: Throughout spring, you can expect average temperatures of 24°C and the odd heavy downpour. The island really comes alive with vivid foliage in springtime: the perfect season for those lush Instagram floaty dress photos! In May, Funchal celebrates the Flower Festival, a very popular event with locals and tourists alike. The streets come alive with parades and floats dressed in fragrant flowers.

A large flower made up of lots of little red, blue and yellow flowers

Summer: Between June and August, you often get a dry, hot wind blowing up from the Sahara, pushing temperatures up to the 30s. When the Saharan wind isn’t blowing, it generally remains a comfortable 24°C. Summer is also the best time for whale watching. More about that below! June and July are also great months for cloud inversion sunrises, since the island is often blanketed in cloud before it disperses for the day.

A lovely cloud inversion with just the largest peaks poking out above the clouds

Autumn: The rain starts to pick up again in autumn, but you can still expect very pleasant temperatures of around 22°C. The sea remains warm, making it ideal for swimming in, and the island is generally much quieter.

What are the must-do things in Madeira?

One of the things I loved most about Madeira is that all the best things to do involve being outside! And for those of you that are regular readers, you will know I love exploring the great outdoors! However, not everyone is happy exploring in the rain, so I have added a section further down on things you can do should the weather turn against you!

1. Whale and dolphin watching

This isn’t something we had time to do when we were there, but it is definitely something I would have loved to have done above all else. Madeira is meant to be one of the best places to see whales and dolphins in Southern Europe, with 28 species passing by every year. So many whales pass by Madeira that there are always 2-3 species around at any time of year. That’s even higher for dolphins!

I haven’t had the best luck on whale tours. In Argentina every other tour group had whales breaching for them. But all that we managed to see was a whale sleeping! Didn’t even get to see the whale’s eye! However, this has not put me off, as I know that when I get the opportunity to see them playing in the wild, it will be a day to remember forever. That’s why I will be coming back to Madeira for my chance to experience it!

My research suggested that April to September sees the largest number of whale species, while dolphins come closer to shore to bathe in the shallower waters during the summer months. With this in mind, I have noted below what species you can expect to find each month.

Two dolphins swimming free in the wild

Best time to see dolphins in Madeira?

January – Bottlenose and Common dolphins

February – Bottlenose, Common, and Striped dolphins

March & April – Bottlenose, Common, Striped, and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins

May & June – Bottlenose, Common, Atlantic Spotted, Rough-toothed, and Risso’s dolphins.

July – Bottlenose dolphins, Common dolphins, Atlantic Spotted dolphins, Rough-Toothed dolphins, Striped dolphins, and Risso’s dolphins.

August to September – Bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic Spotted dolphins, Rough-toothed dolphins, Striped dolphins, and Risso’s dolphins.

October – Bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic Spotted dolphins, Striped dolphins, and Risso’s dolphins.

November – Bottlenose dolphins and Striped dolphins.

December – Bottlenose dolphins

Best time to see whales in Madeira?

Photo of a whale breaching

January & February – Sperm whale and Pilot whale

March – Sperm whale, Pilot whale, Humpback whale, and Sei whale

April – Sperm whale, Pilot whale, Humpback whale, Fin whale, Byrdes whale, and Sei whale

May to August – Sperm whale, Pilot whale, Fin whale, Byrdes whale, Minke whale, and Sei whale

September & October – Sperm whale, Pilot whale, Humpback whale, Fin whale, Byrdes whale, and Sei whale

November – Sperm whale, Pilot whale, Humpback whale, and Byrdes whale

December – Sperm whale, Pilot whale, and Byrdes whale

It is worth mentioning that wild animals don’t keep to a schedule, so you do need luck on your side to spot them. Dolphins tend to be easier to see as they spend more time near the surface, while whales like to spend longer underwater.

When I was doing my research, several people recommended Lobosanda for whale watching.

2. Go on a Levada Walk

A narrow path following the levada aqueduct around the mountain with beautiful wild flowers covering the banks

So many people had told me I had to do a Levada Walk. I really didn’t have a clue what they meant. For some reason, I had assumed it to be a high elevation walk. But no, a Levada is actually an aqueduct specific to Madeira.

The levadas were put in place during the 16th century to help bring water from the island’s Northwest to the much drier Southeast. The Southeast was much more conducive to habitation and agriculture. However, to succeed, it needed more water! The Portuguese got the idea from the Moors, who had created something similar throughout the Iberian peninsula during the Al-Andalus period.

Madeira continued building levadas until the 1940s, and these are still used today for their original purpose: to carry water! They also provide hydroelectric power. There are more than 1,352 miles of levadas in Madeira, some cut onto the side of mountains and passing through 16 miles worth of tunnels. The levadas make for great hikes that are not particularly strenuous, although you do need a good head for heights on some of them! The levadas meander through the stunning countryside, along a narrow path that is often well maintained next to the irrigation channel.

Which Levada Walk to choose?

There are over 200 marked levada trails of which we only walked 1: the PR-18 – Levada do Rei, starting from São Jorge. A picturesque 10.6 km (total out and back) moderate walk that included tunnels and a very wet walk behind a waterfall. Because you are following the aqueduct, the incline is very subtle. In fact, it feels very much like you are walking along the flat. The narrow path follows the irrigation channels, which cling to the side of the cliff. There were a couple of very exposed sections, but these all had rails. For the most part though, it was simply tranquil and beautiful.

Hopefully the photos help bring to life just how lovely the walk is, even if it was raining!

3. Rent a car and explore the island

I know it goes against my stance on sustainability, but Madeira is begging to be explored. We started to use the comprehensive bus service, but my stomach couldn’t handle hairpin bends on a bus. In fact, I don’t think I have ever looked quite so green before!

Having a rental car allowed us to explore the entire island over the 3 days we were there. We visited every point and climbed every hill (or at least felt like it!). We found little hidden villages and stunning vistas. Unfortunately, we also found some less attractive fog-covered mountain tops, but despite this, we had a huge amount of somewhat terrifying fun!

We rented a small Kia Picanto from 7M, which worked out at €20 a day. I already had excess protection insurance, so that helped bring the cost down, and we were able to keep hold of the car and return it at the airport ready for our departure, which again saved us the bus fare. 7M has branches throughout the island.

Is it safe to drive in Madeira?

Before going to Madeira, I always thought of myself as a capable driver. I’m comfortable jumping in any car of any size and have driven enough on both sides of the road to feel pretty comfortable. I had been warned that the roads in Madeira were steep and that there were lots of hairpin bends, but I was pretty excited at the prospect if I am honest. After all, during my Spanish road trip, I had gone out of my way to find the twistiest of roads! Having grown up with hairpin bends; how bad could it be?

Let me just say that Madeira was steeper and windier than any country I have ever driven in. It made the mountain passes of Slovenia seem like straight roads! Madeira is a very hilly island. And the hills are more like cliffs, so if you want to go over the top, you will have to zig-zag your way up. But there isn’t the space to do it slowly, so you go up at a 15% and above gradient the whole way, with 180 degree bends every few hundred yards. Most of the time the barriers are good, but every now and then, they are missing. Rockfalls are also common, as are buses needing to take up your side of the road to get around the bends. Madeira is definitely not the place for learner drivers!

One of the many terrifying roads in Madeira

If you are nervous stick to the new roads

Having said that, you can avoid a lot of the mountain passes since they have a brilliant network of dual carriageways connecting the island with over 150 tunnels. Please note that these aren’t straight flat tunnels. The tunnels can have tight turns, turnings off, and steep climbs. The longest tunnel is 3.1km, so please don’t try and hold your breath for the length of it if you are driving!

The main thing to note on the dual carriageway is that there is rarely a slip road on or off. So people will need to break significantly more to exit than we are used to in mainland Europe, and you are always joining from a standstill (and normally a steep hill start too!).

But please don’t let me put you off! I just want you to be aware of what it is really like!

One of the many tunnels in Madeira

4. Relax in a natural swimming pool in Porto Moniz

I will admit to not having gone into the natural pools. I am not good with cold water! In fact, I always think the 30°C heated pool in our leisure centre is cold! But just because I didn’t go in doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, the ocean is wild in Porto Moniz, on the topmost Northwestern corner of the island. The tide was on its way in, crashing against the shore with an almighty roar and a clap. We paid the €2 entry fee to enter the swimming pools, which have been carved into the rocks and are fed by the sea.

While my friend went for a paddle, I headed to the far corner to try and capture a good photo of a wave as it splashed up high over the rocks. Unfortunately, I was so committed to this shot that I ended up getting soaked!

Image of the powerful waves in Puerto Moniz

Once I’d captured the footage I wanted, we settled on the veranda of Restaurante Orca. I had been a bit hesitant to choose this as our eatery since the reviews on Tripadvisor were awful. However, none of the other restaurants in the area seemed to have been rated much better. So, we figured that if we were going to have bad food, we might as well do it with a great view! Turns out the food was very yummy too!

The view from our lunch table in Restaurant Orca

As we sat enjoying our Bola de Caco (Madeira’s own garlic bread), we watched as the sea became increasingly wilder, taking over the swimming pool and dragging people’s belongings out to sea with it. Significantly better watching than the latest series of Dexter!

Please note that the pools opening times vary according to the tides!

5. Take a cable car back in time

Madeira has several cable cars that drop you down or take you up to otherwise impenetrable lands. However, taking the Achadas da Cruz cable car was like stepping into a time machine and emerging a couple of hundred years earlier.

The Achadas da Cruz cable car connects the tiny town of the same name to the tiny settlement of Fajã da Quebrada Nova. There is no other way to reach Fajã da Quebrada Nova as it is completely disconnected from the rest of the island by the sheer cliffs inland and the roaring sea.

Nobody lives here. However, some locals do have some off-the-grid huts that they use for summer vacations, or to escape civilisation when life becomes too hectic. Some come down to fish, others have vegetable gardens, and others make (and drink!) wine.

Many blogs say it is one of the hidden gems of Madeira. It certainly wasn’t busy when we were there in February, but then again, nowhere really was. A path at the bottom leads you through the Jurassic Park-like landscape. Unfortunately, there had been some pretty serious rockfalls, so part of it was closed.

I hope the photo gives you a good idea of just how beautiful it is down here. There isn’t anything to do other than wander, but it is beautiful and calm enough to deserve a meander down the path. You will find you will lose a lot more time than you come to realise, simply being.

Photo of the path once you reach the bottom following the cable car ride

The cable car costs €5 for adults. Please note that you need to operate the cable car yourself to get back up! Luckily we had a local with us! Otherwise we would have sat there for ages wondering what was going on!

6. Take on the highest skywalk in Europe!

Cabo de Girão is a towering cliff located on the Southern coast of Madeira, near Câmara dos Lobos. Sitting at 589 metres above sea level, the Cabo de Girão glass-floored skywalk is the highest cliff skywalk in Europe. Not an attraction for the faint-hearted, since stepping onto the platform is like walking on air, high above the raging waters down below! Some go as far as to say it is the scariest thing to do in Madeira. I’m not so sure about that. I still think driving the steep hairpin bends tops that spot for me!

It is one of the highest-rated attractions in Madeira, but I am going to let you into a little secret. There are far better things to spend your time on. Yes, the views were good, but the views are good pretty much everywhere in Madeira. I suppose standing on the glass looking down was pretty cool, but any number of the activities already mentioned trumps it for me!

Admission was free when we visited, but I have heard that during peak season they charge 50 cents per person.

The start of a beautiful sunset over the sea

7. Snorkel with dolphins

I wish I had considered this when I was in Madeira. Despite not swimming particularly well, I have always wanted to swim with dolphins. I made the unfortunate decision to visit Discovery Cove when we were in Orlando, which is something I regret. We visited so that I could swim with dolphins, which we did. And I can’t say it was a bad experience, we had a wonderful time. However, the more I have learnt about animals in captivity, the more I regret contributing to it.

However, having the chance to swim with dolphins in the wild would be a dream come true. I particularly like Madeira because they take dolphin conservation very seriously and thus limit the number of tours that can offer this experience.

You aren’t allowed to swim with dolphins as such, but you are allowed to be in the water with them, which in itself would be an amazing experience. They also have very strict rules on the observations of cetaceans too to make sure they are never overwhelmed by the volume of boats following them around. You can read all about the regulations here.

While doing my research, the company that caught my eye was Azuldiving. Not only do they have very high reviews, but they also provide money back if you are unable to get in the water with the dolphins. It isn’t a full refund, but they refund you the difference between simply observing and getting in the water. Most other companies would just say, “tough luck, that’s wildlife for you!”. I suppose they do it to limit the pressure of people asking them to get in when it isn’t safe.

An apparently smiling dolphin

8. Hike the high peaks

I love hiking! I’m not sure why since I always complain when going uphill, but it is always worth it when I reach the top! There are no end of walking trails in Madeira. Not only the Levada Walks that I mentioned earlier, but plenty of others that explore the central highlands.

We had set our sights on hiking Pico Ruivo, the highest peak on the island sitting at 1,861 metres. There are three routes up. The first is a rather strenuous one which also includes Madeira’s third highest peak: Pico do Arieiro. This route is known as PR1 and is thought to be the best hike in Madeira due to its stunning views. The second is from Encumeada to the west. This is a 20 km roundtrip with over 2,000 metres of elevation. We opted for the easiest of the three, Achada do Teixeira. This 6 km roundtrip only includes a 260-metre incline, so very easily doable for both of us. As it is such a favourite spot for sunsets and sunrises, the path is very well maintained, and therefore it should have been a piece of cake.

A photo of the impressive peak of Pico Ruivo that we never got to see

It wasn’t meant to be!

In reality, we ate a piece of cake each, but didn’t do the hike due to rain and lack of visibility. You can often get cloud inversions on Pico Ruivo, but when we were there, it did not feel like that would be the case. In fact, we weren’t sure we would be able to see much more than our outstretched hand in front of us.

According to Google though, the photos look amazing! And certainly, somewhere I will return to next time I visit, if we get better weather.

It is worth noting that the drive up to Achada do Teixeiros is quite hairy (especially in thick fog). It is a steep climb with hairpin bends all the way. The road is well maintained though, and the bends were not as sharp as elsewhere. However, our car did really struggle in the thinning air! There were a couple of times that we weren’t sure whether we were going to make it to the top!

If, like us, you arrive in less than favourable conditions, then I definitely recommend the Salted Caramel Brownie from the café.

A very yummy looking chocolate brownie

9. Visit the Valley of the Nuns (Curral das Freiras)

Curral das Freiras is actually one of the places you can visit by bus. It would undoubtedly seem like a near-death experience tackling the roads on a bus, but plenty of tourists survive it! If you choose to visit in your hire car like us, please watch out for the lethal buses!

Curral das Freiras is an isolated municipality that hides within a deep valley flanked by very steep mountains, very much reminiscent of a cauldron. This area was nearly impenetrable during the early ages, and it was just the nomadic shepherds and formerly enslaved people that made their way to this isolated corner. They built small homes and created a tiny village.

In 1566, when Funchal came under attack, the nuns of the Santa Clara Convent fled to Curral da Serra (as it was previously known) to take refuge in this impenetrable land. It is thought that the towns’ name was changed due to this.

A long tunnel now connects Curral das Freiras from Funchal, allowing safe passage to the valley. We did attempt to leave via one of the old mountain roads, but I chickened out at the point of not being able to get the car out of first gear (it was that steep!) and so turned around!

When you come to Curral das Freiras, it is worth exploring the viewpoint of Eira do Serrado, as well as mooching around the town itself. The views from both the viewpoint and the bottom of town are incredible. There isn’t much to do as such other than walk, explore, and take in all its beauty! However, one thing the area is famous for is its chestnuts! Whatever you do though, don’t eat the chestnut cake at the café in Eira do Serrado (the viewpoint). It was terrible!

A rainbow over the deep valley known as the valley of nuns

10. Drive under a waterfall

Yes, I do mean drive! As we made our way back to the hotel following our excursion to the Northwestern point of the island, I decided it would be a good idea to break up the return journey by stopping at one of Google’s magical “points of interest”. If you read my Slovenia post, you will probably remember that we explored the majority of Slovenia by simply following brown signs or choosing the points of interest marked on Google Maps. We were never disappointed, and neither were we in Madeira!

On Google photos it just looked like a waterfall. Not a particularly fancy one at that. The truth though, is that this waterfall is actually on the road. In fact, the road used to be the main road! How crazy is that?!

Madeira now has an incredible network of fast roads with 153 tunnels that cut through the mountains. Before that, locals and tourists had to navigate narrow windy roads whenever they wanted to get anywhere. I would hate to think how long it took to get around before these tunnels were built.

When we arrived, I was surprised to see that the waterfall actually landed on the road. Cars drive through it regularly, wipers frantically swishing to clear the view ahead of the bend, which has undoubtedly been hit one too many times, judging by the state of the barrier! That is, where it isn’t completely missing!

Not expecting it to be on the road, we had parked up and walked there, so we didn’t get to drive under it. However, it was spectacular nonetheless!

Car driving under the waterfall

11. Walk to the end of the world

PR-8 is another great hike that will provide you with some jaw-dropping views. Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço will take you along the long thin peninsula that makes up the most eastern point of the island. The trail starts from the car park and undulates its way to the furthermost point. The cliff scenery is some of the best on the island, with incredible volcanic formations and 1000s of years of geological history written on the rocks. If only I could tell you what they said!

The route is roughly 6km there and back with only 100 metres of elevation. At times it can be quite exposed, but every time this was the case, there were rails, so it felt pretty safe, even in the high winds we were experiencing when we were there. The lack of trees in this area and the low vegetation suggests that high winds are likely quite common!

Just because I have talked about it last, does not mean I think less of it. In fact, it was one of my favourite outings of the trip!

What to do in Madeira when it rains?

As you have probably gathered from the post up until now, the weather is somewhat unpredictable in Madeira. We are big believers in that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad choice clothes. In Brazil we had Rio to ourselves when it rained, as everyone hid inside. However, in Scotland we complained that the weather was too nice, as we wanted to get moody shots!

Madeira is the same. You will definitely be rewarded for heading out whatever the weather. Plus, moody shots suit Madeira! However, if you do want to stay dry, then here are some options for you.

1. Madeira Film Experience

If you want to learn about the history of Madeira, then there really is no better way than to visit the audio-visual Madeira Film Experience. Over 30 minutes, you will be taken through 600 years of history, from settlements to war, famine, isolation, and revolution. Unfortunately, we didn’t visit, but the reviews are very good. It is even available in several languages, including English, Portuguese, Dutch, German, and French.

2. Go diving!

You will be wet anyway, so it doesn’t matter if it rains! The sea’s water clarity and relative warmth have made Madeira a popular choice for divers. Hiding under rocks, you will find octopus, grouper, and eels. You might also be lucky and get the chance to swim amongst curious dolphins, turtles, and monk seals.

If you don’t yet have your PADI certificate, don’t worry! Most dive shops offer PADI courses. Madeira Dive Point seems to be one of the highest-rated diving course operators.

A turtle swimming through turquoise waters

3. Visit the Madeira Whale Museum

Once upon a time, locals used to make a living from hunting whales. Now, many locals make a living by showing off these amazing mammals to tourists. What a turnaround! In 1982 whaling was banned, and then in 1987’s Madeira’s dolphins, whales, and other mammals were given additional protection when the region became a mammal sanctuary. This meant that not only were they no longer being hunted, but there were rules put in place to limit the interaction with them.

The whale museum opened in 1989 in the town of Caniçal to show the history of whale hunting in the Madeiran seas. It is not just an important place to visit to understand the island’s history, but it also promotes scientific research projects on cetaceans and marine life.

4. Honestly, don’t be afraid of the rain!

I am all out of other things to do in Madeira in the rain. Other than, of course, everything already mentioned above! But if that fails, then enjoy some delicious food!

What should I eat and drink when in Madeira?

This trip was probably the least foodie of all my trips to date. After a long day exploring, we didn’t fancy getting back in the car to find somewhere for dinner, so instead focused on the offering we had in Camara dos Lobos, where we were staying.

This tiny port village was busy during the day, but by night it was quiet. The few tourists on the island went back to their resorts, and many of the restaurants closed, leaving us with just a couple to choose from. But that suited us as we found food we really liked so were happy to come back for more every night.

Here are my favourite drinks and dishes from our 4 day trip to Madeira.

1. Bolo de Caco with garlic butter

Unless you speak Portuguese, to you and me that is Garlic Bread. But this isn’t any type of garlic bread. Oh no! This bread has been made by garlic bread Gods! It is baked to perfection and has enough garlic to ensure no vampires will ever come close.

Bolo de Caco is Madeira’s own bread recipe. It is like no bread I have tried before, and it should come with a warning. HIGHLY ADDICTIVE!

This Madeiran delicacy is made with flour, yeast, water, salt, and a secret ingredient that really surprised me: sweet potato! I was not expecting that when I was researching the ingredients. In fact, I thought the first website might have been pulling my leg, so I checked a few more. Unlike the sweet potatoes we have in the UK though, which are orange, they are white in Madeira, therefore not creating an orange loaf of bread!

It has a hard but thin crust and a nice airy, soft crumb. It is baked directly on a hot basalt stone surface and has a slightly sweet flavour. Now I know why! They use sweet potatoes because Madeira has a cyclical shortage of cereals, and therefore, the potatoes help compensate for this.

Honestly, it’s the best bread I’ve ever had, and I grew up in Spain, where bread was a staple of my every meal!

Bola de Caco - Garlic Bread

2. Espetada Madeirense

Espetada is basically beef on a skewer; only the skewer is a laurel one. The meat is grilled over wood or charcoal and served with fried maize and bolo de caco. The beef is seasoned with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Simples! (Said in the voice of Sergei the meerkat). However, it is extremely yummy and makes for a nice hearty meal after a long day exploring.

3. Prego no Bolo de Caco

You’ve probably guessed already that this is some form of alteration to the garlic bread we discussed before. Prego no Bolo de Caco is a steak sandwich served in that delicious bread, often with garlic butter. We had this when we visited Santana, and it made for the perfect lunch. It was served with cheese, ham (and beef!), lettuce, and tomato. It was perfect and incredibly filling. Better still, it only cost €5 in a tourist hotspot!

4. Seafood

You can’t be by the sea and not enjoy seafood. I wasn’t particularly adventurous on this trip, so I stuck to my favourites: prawns and squid. However, the things to eat in Madeira are: Scabbard, served with passion fruit and banana; limpets with lemon and butter; grilled trout; and tuna, cooked in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, salt, and oregano.

For slightly more unusual seafood, you could try cracas. Cracas are calcareous formations found on the rocks along the coastline. You get them off the rocks by hammering them and from what I can tell, eat them as they are! Apparently, they are delicious!

Prawns

5. Passion Fruit Poncha

Poncha is a traditional drink of Madeira. In fact, it originates from Camara dos Lobos, where we were staying. One of the bars near our hotel claimed to be “the original” poncha maker. I am not sure if their claims are true or not, but I can tell you that they were dangerously delicious.

It is made with sugar cane brandy, honey and lemon together with a mixer of your choice. In my case? Passion fruit. Traditionally it was served with lemon juice, but having tried it, I found it a little too bitter, although no doubt brilliant if you ever have a cold!

Just be aware that some of the restaurants make it very strong!

Passion Fruit Poncha

Where to stay in Madeira?

We stayed at the Pestana Hotel in Churchill Bay, in Camara dos Lobos. The hotel was perfect. We had one of the Deluxe Rooms overlooking the harbour with our own private balcony. The bed was comfortable, the shower hot, and the room spacious. We were welcomed with a free drink upon arrival, and there was a small chocolate waiting for us when we got to our room. We also ordered the Bolo de Caco, and I can confirm it was very good!

The only downside to this hotel is that it didn’t have parking, so we needed to use the public parking at the harbour. It was free overnight and on Sunday, however several homeless people were “helping cars park” and then requesting money. We happened to have cash on us every time we parked, but I’d hate to think how friendly they would remain if we were unable to pay them for showing us a parking space that we could have found on our own?

If I returned to Madeira, I wouldn’t hesitate to stay at this particular Pestana again. In fact, I would probably be happy in any Pestana Hotel, which is not what I would usually say, since I try and avoid chains. But this one was special! I’d just make sure to always have change on me!

The beautiful harbour at sunrise from our hotel
Sunrise from our hotel

How long should I visit Madeira for?

We were there for 4 nights, which really only allowed us 3 ½ days of exploring. It wasn’t anywhere near long enough! I could easily have spent 2 weeks there and not become bored with all the hiking there is to do. So my recommendation? Try and go for at least a week so you can make the most of it!

As you can tell, I really did enjoy Madeira. I suppose I was always going to with its rugged mountains and lush greenery. It is the place to come to switch off from normal life, to feel the power of the weather, and rejoice at what a beautiful world we live in. If I missed any information, please let me know in the comments. I would love to hear from you whether you have been or are thinking of going. Also happy to answer any questions you might have.

Complete Travel Guide to Madeira Pin showing the photo of the path after we had descended on the cable car
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18 Comments

  1. One visit to Madeira was not enough for us. We always planned to make a return visit. Now I have a great list of things to do when we get back. We would certainly plan to do one or more of the great Levada Walks. Especially if we get those waterfall views. It looks like we should consider packing our diving gear! Madeira is definitely on our plans for a longer visit.

  2. It looks absolutely amazing. I think this can easily be combined with a trip to Morroco? Is this an expensive place? I would guess on the pricier end of things?

    Brilliant blog post. I now have a great idea of a place I knew nothing about 🙂

    1. I would say prices were comparable to Spain. Car hire was €20 a day, fuel cheaper than the UK, Poncha alcoholic drinks €3 each. Sharing size dish of squid €7. Hotel €300 for 4 nights in a Deluxe room with a balcony overlooking the marina. And yes, it would be an easy hop over to Morocco, although I didn’t see any flights to Morocco on the board so I’m not sure if there are direct flights there or not.

  3. Love this guide to Madeira. So many beautiful places and things to do. Drive under a waterfall? So cool!

  4. Madeira is an amazing place to visit. Planning to visit again in May and hoping to hire a car this time around. I want to make the island of the island and explore and do as much as I can (inc. whale watching). I will park this to read later. Thanks

  5. A great read about somewhere that is on my travel list. It just sounds so great. Thanks for an honest review of Madeira and your helpful tips on food and accommodation.

  6. What a fun read. I love your writing style. As a planner myself, I identified with your first paragraph. Even on the “spontaneous” days, my husband and I have researched so we have options!

  7. What a beautiful place to visit! I would absolutely love to snorkel with dolphins. That sounds like an amazing experience! Thank you for sharing this awesome list of things to do in Madeira, now I’m convinced to visit! 🙂

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