Blessed with year-round sunshine, lush botanical gardens and world-famous levadas, Madeira is so much more than a sun, sea and sand destination – although it certainly has its fair share of beaches too. Geologically dramatic and bursting with colour, this tiny subtropical archipelago is a hit with holidaymakers from all over.
Set off the west coast of Africa, Madeira is made up of four Portuguese islands, but the largest – Madeira Island – is the one the world knows and loves. This is a place where you can hike amidst lush greenery and rugged mountains in the morning, and sunbathe on black-sand beaches in the afternoon. Diverse, safe and packed with culture and history, Madeira truly has something for everyone. In case you needed any more persuasion, here are just some of the reasons to put Madeira on your travel wish list, and what not to miss while you’re there.
It’s a hiker’s paradise
Hiking Madeira’s levadas is one of the island’s top activities, with thousands of people lacing up their hiking boots to discover Madeira’s secret interior each year. These irrigation canals were built to bring water from the north slopes to the south side of the island. Although still in use, they now have another purpose, providing a route for hikers to explore the island’s most dramatic landscapes.
With more than 2,000km to explore at heights reaching 1,861m, there are walking trails to suit every experience level. Some of the easier routes can be found in the south of the island, while the trails that require a higher skill level are in the north. Whichever you choose, you can expect spectacular scenery and a truly immersive experience. If you’re up for a challenge, why not take on Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo?
Sample city life in Funchal
Set against a backdrop of beautiful hills, Funchal has to be one of Europe’s prettiest capital cities. The perfect balance between laid-back and bustling, it’s known for its fascinating museums, botanical gardens, lively shopping scene and charming street cafes.
The old streets, twentieth-century boulevards and pretty squares of West Funchal are home to some of Madeira’s finest shops and museums. East Funchal is dominated by the old town, Zona Velha, which has now been transformed into a trendy quarter with modern bars, galleries, shops and restaurants.
If you’re a foodie, don’t miss a visit to Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal’s vibrant fruit, vegetable, fish and flower market. A trip to Maderia’s capital also wouldn’t be complete without exploring one of the city’s sensational botanical gardens. Madeira Botanical Garden is the biggest, with the most varied collection of flora from around the world.
Visit a black volcanic beach
Madeira’s volcanic origin has not only gifted the island with rich and exuberant gardens, but some fantastic black beaches too. The black sand comes from eroded volcanic materials such as lava and basalt rocks, which explains why it’s typically found on beaches near volcanic activity.
One of the finest is Praia do Porto do Seixal, a stunning stretch of black sand in the north of the island with an incredible mountainous backdrop. Since the beach faces east, it’s also considered one of the best spots for watching the sunrise in Madeira. Admire dramatic ridges and waterfalls as you swim before drying off in the morning sun. Unlike many of the beaches on Madeira Island, the sand is soft too!
Take a boat trip
Did you know: Madeira is one of the best places for dolphin and whale watching in Europe? A boat tour here will give you the chance to witness a staggering variety, some of which are extremely rare anywhere else on the planet. These include sperm whales, humpback whales, oceanic dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and more. Although various species can be sighted all year round, your best chance is between April and October.
You could also take the two-and-a-half hour boat trip to Porto Santo, the archipelago’s second largest island. Often called the ‘Golden island’ after its gorgeous 9km-long beach, Porto Santo is the perfect destination for a spot of sunbathing and swimming. The island is also one of the best places in Europe to practice diving and snorkelling. Head to the translucent waters of Zimbralinhos beach for a chance of seeing octopus, cuttlefish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, hermit crabs and more.