Away to the island – but you already know the Canary Islands inside out? You don’t want to leave the European borders, but still want to experience tropical diversity, year-round warm temperatures and cultural variety? Not only relaxation, but also hiking and exploring are on your to-do list? Then Madeira – the island of eternal spring – is just the right destination, as it offers a wide variety of excursion options for all needs.
I present to you my five personal highlights on the Flower Island! These excursions are suitable for independent travellers who travel around Madeira by car. But they can also be booked as organised full-day tours from Funchal.
Can you do Madeira without a car?
For most excursions and walks in Madeira, it makes sense to hire a car. Although many destinations can be reached by bus, punctuality is not exactly a priority and a hike can sometimes take longer, as you always want to enjoy the view and take lots of photos in between. If you want to be flexible and also explore a few paths off the beaten track, a car is a good idea.
A little tip: Be smarter than us and don’t necessarily take the smallest car category with the weakest engine, otherwise even the approach through the serpentine and steep mountain world can be the first adventure … Driving on the island can therefore also be a challenge and I would recommend it more to experienced drivers with steady nerves. The Madeirans sometimes drive very brutally and do not always show consideration for other road users
Things to do in Madeira: walking along the levadas
Madeira is a real paradise for hiking fans! The levada walks on the island are particularly well-known and popular. Levadas are artificial watercourses that stretch over several thousand kilometres on the island and have been transporting water from the rainy north to the centre and landscaping in the south since the 15th century. Many walks lead alongside these small watercourses and offer impressive views into valleys and gorges, lots of nature, idyllic landscapes and always a soothing splash as background music. You don’t need a guide, the hikes are well signposted.
Two levada walks I would like to introduce to you in more detail:
Levada das 25 fontes
The most famous and popular levada hike as an excursion from Funchal is from Rabaçal to the 25 springs, a beautiful spot with a larger waterfall and many smaller rivulets. The popularity of the hike can be seen from the packed car park, with cars parked on the side of the road. Fortunately, however, the many people are well distributed over the routes, as there are several variants for the hike and various branch-offs.
The first part of the route from the car park to a pretty little café consists of a tarmac road and is quite boring as there is still little to see. Here it is possible to take a shuttle for a small amount and go up and/or down. The actual hike starts from the café: we hiked almost 11km to the springs and back, the descents and ascents are easily manageable even for inexperienced hikers with an average level of fitness.
We quickly realise why this levada is so popular: the hike is varied with great views of the landscape (some times it gets a bit narrow and you should be free from vertigo) and mystical branching laurel trees, beautifully flowering plants even in winter and a great destination where you can take a relaxing break (even if together with many others). We are thrilled by Madeira’s nature! On the way back, we also ate a delicious piece of apple pie in the café, so that, strengthened, we also managed the last climb without the shuttle 😉 In total, we were on the road for about 4.5 hours (including the pie break).
A little tip: If you’re already on the island’s high plateau anyway, you can drive to the Bica de Cana viewpoint after the hike and enjoy a great view over Madeira’s mountains in good weather. There are also other great miradouros (viewpoints) nearby to enjoy the sunset. For me, one of the greatest excursions in Madeira.
Levada Nova and Levada do Moinho
Two levada hikes on Madeira Island in one: Levada Nova and Levada Do Moinho run parallel to each other at different altitudes and can be perfectly combined into a circular tour with different views! The starting point is the village of Lombada da Ponta do Sol and there you can decide to take either the lower Levada de Moinho or the upper Levada Nova as your start. We started at the top and here you should definitely be free of giddiness, because not all places are secured and it is partly very steep and deep downhill.
In exchange, there are quite fantastic views into the valley in between, and the flowering flora and fauna on the path next to the rippling levada make the hike very entertaining. In between, a small tunnel has to be crossed – for this you need a torch or your mobile phone, because it is really very dark. A rain jacket is also recommended, as you will have to walk behind a small waterfall on the way. Depending on how much it has rained, you will get a good gush of water here.
At the end of the first levada, a small picnic area awaits you with a view of a beautiful small waterfall. The way back then offers views in the other direction, of the beautiful little village and the sea in the background. There are only a few climbs during the hike, so it is easy to master even for less experienced hikers. Only the unsecured parts can be a bit challenging.
The circular walk with both levadas is a little over 9 km and we were out for about 4 hours with a break at the waterfall and small photo breaks. This excursion on Madeira is definitely worth doing. Whether as an organised tour with a guide or on your own by car.
The Fairy Forest of Fanal
While a levada walk in Madeira is fun mainly in good weather and blue skies, the famous Fairy Forest of Fanal is a bit like suddenly being plunged into another mysterious world. The Fairy Forest is part of the large laurel forest area on Madeira in the northwest of the island and is covered in thick mist for most of the year, drifting through the centuries-old, moss-covered trees, some of whose branches bend, branch and shape in ways that are both bizarre and impressive.
A number of hikes also start in this area; however, we only walked a little through this little fairytale world with its huge trees, countless ferns, moss and a small lake, admired nature and were a little startled at 10 metres visibility when a couple of peacefully grazing cows suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
By the way, the sun is supposed to shine here about 10 days a year – but let’s face it, the forest looks a lot more exciting with fog 😉.
Recommendation for this Madeira thing to do from Funchal: Sturdy walking shoes, trousers that can get dirty and a waterproof jacket – it is very cool, wet and muddy on site. The best way to reach the area on the Paúl da Serra plateau is by car; there is a large car park
Things to do in Madeira: Day trip to Porto Santo
Porto Santo is the small neighbouring island where – unlike its big sister Madeira – golden yellow beaches stretch for miles along the blue Atlantic, the perfect postcard motif! For a day trip, you can either arrive by plane or by boat from Madeira. This Madeira excursion takes a whole day from Funchal. We chose the Lobo Marinho ferry, which leaves Funchal at 8am and takes about 2.5 hours to Porto Santo. On board, you can get coffee and snacks for breakfast and have a beautiful view of the Madeira coastline from the outside.
As we were travelling beyond the peak season, there was little going on in Porto Santo and the island is overall much quieter than Madeira. Besides relaxing on the sandy beaches, we walked through the village of Vila Baleira, which has a pretty church and, in December, a charming little Christmas market. We also took a bus to the Miradouro da Portela, which offers a great view of the harbour.
Unfortunately, there was not enough time for a longer hike, because at 6 pm it is time to say goodbye again.
We paid just under 50€ p.p. for the round trip in the low season, a crossing by car is also possible. If you want to take a little time out from the rather hectic Funchal, this day trip is a highly recommended thing to do when visiting Madeira.
Hike to Pico Ruivo
The mountain peaks of Madeira are worth a trip – but in winter they are often so shrouded in cloud and fog that you can hardly see anything. It is therefore advisable to take an early morning look at the weather forecasts and webcams in the mountains: if the weather is good, have a quick breakfast and off you go! The excursion from Funchal to Pico Ruivo is one of the most popular in Madeira.
To explore the mountain peaks of Pico Ruivo and Pico de Arieiro, there are many different hiking trails. We chose the “easy” option and drove to the nearby Achada do Teixeira car park below Pico Ruivo – at 1862 m the highest mountain in Madeira. It’s just under 3 km to the summit, which still has a few metres in altitude and quite steep climbs, especially towards the end. With an average level of fitness, it took us just under 1.5 hours. However, the fantastic views over the mountains constantly tempt us to take short breaks at breathtaking vantage points, to let our gaze wander and, of course, to take lots of photos.
After about 2/3 of the way, you can also take a break in a small restaurant before starting the steep final stretch. However, the view from the top of the mountain is phenomenal and is definitely worth the effort! For experienced and highly motivated hikers, there are further options from the restaurant to explore the mountain world and, for example, hike on to the summit of Pico de Arieiro. A beautiful viewpoint!
Important: In addition to an average level of fitness, sure-footedness and sturdy hiking boots, you should wear a double overcoat, especially in winter, as it can still get mighty cold at the top. We discovered small patches of ice just below the summit!
Other highlights and things to do in Madeira:
The island of Madeira has much more to offer, but we particularly enjoyed these five Madeira excursions by car. Other travel tips for a longer visit:
- The cape Ponta de São Lourenço with the easternmost tip of Madeira: A beautiful hiking area with views of larger and smaller rocks as well as a small lighthouse; a café invites you to take a break, the hike from the car park is just under 8 km long there and back.
- Cabo Girão: At over 560 metres, the Madeira Skywalk made of glass awaits visitors without fear of heights. You should not miss the spectacular viewpoint on the Atlantic Ocean!
- You should not ignore Madeira’s small towns: Madalena do Mar with its countless banana plantations and Ponta do Sol with its pretty beach and photogenic bridge are great places to take a deep breath and enjoy the sunset.
- Little insider tip: From the Miradouro do Pico do Facho you have a fantastic view of the airport and can watch the planes at sunset during challenging take-off and landing procedures. Only with special training are pilots allowed to approach this airport – and that, although the runway was already extended a few years ago!
- For influencers: The waterfall of Anjos falls over a cliff directly onto the road and invites impressive photos and videos. You should bring plenty of time and patience with you.
- TheLava Caves of Sao Vicente: You can experience the volcanic origins of Madeira Island up close here. You can also book this full-day excursion as a jeep safari from Funchal. The western part of Madeira is characterised by steep cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean.
- You can watch dolphins on Madeira, sometimes also whales. On a boat tour you can keep an eye out for the marine mammals. When dolphin and whale season is in full swing, daily tours depart from Funchal with a guide who will point out the animals to you.
Where to stay as a starting point for excursions in Madeira
The TUI BLUE Madeira Gardens kept us deliciously fed for a fortnight with half board and a wide choice of international and local specialities at the buffet. The sea-facing rooms offer great views and the location in western Funchal is ideal as a base for excursions around Madeira; you can walk into Funchal in 20 minutes, many buses stop just around the corner and the hotel has car parking.
We particularly liked the chic roof terrace (hot tub included!), which offers a beautiful view of the illuminated Funchal in the evening, which can be particularly enjoyed with a carafe of sangria. 😉 The hotel is for adults only and offers an extensive wellness and sports programme, which we unfortunately – because we were constantly on the road – did not use.
The most important questions & answers about things to do in Madeira
What should you definitely have done in Madeira?
A levada hike is – if you are mobile enough – an absolute must!
Funchal offers enough entertainment for a week, but if possible you should rent a car and discover all directions on your own.
For alcohol fans: Definitely try Poncha, the national drink of Madeira! There are several variations, but the traditional one consists of sugar cane brandy, honey and lemon juice. Beware: the drink gets into your head faster than you’d like.
Madeira has an insane variety of plants and every season there is something different in bloom to discover. The island’s botanical gardens are a great place to look, take in nature and relax. In spring, between April and May, the annual Flower Festival takes place, including a pompous parade that attracts thousands to the island.
Half board, full board or self-catering in Madeira?
For us, half board was super: Get enough energy in the morning, be on the move all day, and in the evening help yourself to the delicious buffet without much planning. Perfect! Nevertheless, it is recommended to visit restaurants with local specialities – for example Espetada em Pau de Lauro, the famous meat skewers on laurel tree sticks, or a Pastel de Nata for afternoon coffee – a few times at lunchtime or in the evening.
Which part of Madeira is the most beautiful?
That depends on individual preferences, but we still can’t decide. We were thrilled by the diversity of the island and the many options – there is something for everyone here.
What to do in Madeira when the weather is bad?
There is a huge range of things to do in Funchal when the weather is bad – here you can read Miri’s blog post about what to do in Funchal. The weather can change very quickly in Madeira: If it was pouring with rain just a moment ago, 15 minutes later bright sunshine can dry the streets again and delight us with a rainbow.
How much time to plan for Madeira?
We were on Madeira for a fortnight and that was ideal for us. You should plan at least 7 to 10 days if you want to get to know the whole island better.
What shoes should I bring for Madeira?
If you come to Madeira to hike, you should definitely bring good (and well-worn!) hiking shoes. Even small levada hikes are no fun with normal shoes, because it often rains in between and many paths are not only uneven but also quickly muddy.
Who is Madeira suitable for?
Hiking fans and nature lovers will get their money’s worth on a Madeira tour, and there is also plenty for culture lovers to discover. I would not recommend Madeira for a pure relaxation and bathing holiday. You should also be good on foot and have no problem with mountainous surroundings. Even Funchal is constantly going up and down. If you want a pure beach holiday, you should rather go to the Canary Islands: The beaches are almost universally rocky, with a kilometre-long golden dream beach only on Porto Santo.
What is the best month to visit Madeira?
The best month to visit Madeira is May. This is when the weather is at its most pleasant, with temperatures ranging from 18-25°C. The days are long and sunny, and the nights are mild and comfortable. During this time of year, there is very little rainfall, making it ideal for outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and sightseeing. The beautiful gardens of Madeira are even lusher than in other time of the year.
Is Madeira a good destination in the winter?
Madeira is an excellent destination for a winter holiday, offering a variety of activities and attractions that make it the perfect place to escape the cold weather. The island is known for its mild climate, with temperatures rarely dropping below 16°C during the winter months. Expect temperatures around 20 degrees. When it’s sunny you can even sunbathe.