Visiting Madeira for the first time? There are a few dos and don’ts that it’s good to know about before you go. Read on for 13 essential tips for your trip.
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1. Do pack an extra pair of knickers
Madeira’s airport is one of the most challenging places in Europe for pilots to land. The airport is on the side of a mountain, on a strip of land so narrow that the runway is perched on stilts. Pilots have to train specially to land here, and Madeira’s unpredictable weather means that they sometimes don’t manage it. Go-arounds, where the plane has to make a second attempt at landing, are common, and if it’s still too tricky, then flights often divert to Porto Santo island or to the Canary Islands.
On our first day in Madeira, we were leaving our hotel for an evening walk when reception seemed strangely busy. It turned out that a flight had been diverted to the Canaries, and a plane-load of people who had been expecting to go home that evening on the return flight were now getting a bonus night in Madeira.
On our last day, we nervously checked Flightradar24 throughout the day to check if planes were landing. They were, luckily, but even so, the flight before ours took two attempts to land.
The chances are that it won’t happen to you, but if you’re visiting Madeira, it’s a good idea to pack an extra change of clothes, extra medication and anything else that you might need if your flight is delayed for more than a few hours.
2. Do spend at least 4 days in Madeira
We had 4 full days in Madeira and we only saw a fraction of what the island has to offer. You’ll need at least one full day in central Funchal, another to see the Monte district (we really had to rush to see the gorgeous gardens in Monte) and that’s just the island’s capital. Five days with a car, or a week without would be the perfect amount of time to see the best things to do in Madeira.
If you’re visiting Madeira in summer and plan to do lots of hiking alongside sunbathing and sightseeing (perhaps with a trip to Porto Santo island) then you might need 10 days to two weeks.
3. Do rent a car
If you can drive, and you can navigate roundabouts and hills, then you should definitely rent a car in Madeira. I’d read so many horror stories about how difficult it is to drive on the island so we decided to get around by public transport, but in all honesty, it didn’t look that bad. I’m from the UK and if you’d drive in Wales, Cornwall or Yorkshire then you’d be absolutely fine in Madeira.
The roads are mostly well-maintained, the main roads are pretty wide, and other than needing to reverse a bit to let buses or lorries pass, it really didn’t look too dramatic. While we managed to get around by bus and taxi, we would have seen an awful lot more of Madeira if we’d had a small car.
Since lots of people do rent cars on Madeira, the supply can be limited. It’s best to arrange your car rental before you arrive. Choose the smallest car you can fit in, but make sure it’s got a reasonably powerful engine if you want to drive up hills faster than you’d be able to walk up them!
Parking can be difficult in Funchal, so you might prefer to visit the attractions in Funchal and Monte on the first couple of days of your trip, and pick up your car later on in your stay. Some of the large hotels in the Lido area have underground parking (ours did – we stayed at the Enotel Lido which had a decent-sized car park underneath the pool area) so if you prefer to get a car straightaway, that might be a good option for you while you’re visiting Madeira.
4. Do study the bus timetables carefully
If you do decide to get around the island by public transport, then plan your days outside the capital very carefully! The same number bus can take a completely different route depending on the time or the date, and just because you can get somewhere by bus, don’t assume that you can get back easily!
As an example, we wanted to go to Ribeiro Frio to do the levada walk to the Balcoes viewpoint, but there was only one bus a day that would get us there with enough time to do the walk, but without waiting for several hours for the bus back to Funchal. Getting to the top of the hike down to the Valley of the Nuns was a bit easier but our bus back did take an unexpectedly long diversion in the opposite direction to where we thought we were going.
There are four bus companies in Madeira, and some are easier to understand than others.
Horários do Funchal run the orange local buses around Funchal. You can buy rechargeable Giro cards and carnets of tickets, but these are only valid on the network of urban routes. You can see timetables for their local routes and the longer routes outside Funchal (for example to Curral das Freiras or Valley of the Nuns) on their website. They also provide bus times to Google Maps so you can use the directions feature on your phone to work out how long it’s going to take to get somewhere and where to get on or off the bus.
I found the Horários do Funchal buses to be very punctual while I was visiting Madeira, although occasionally a little busy, especially on the number 1 and number 2 routes from the Lido area.
SAM (Sociedade de Automóveis da Madeira) run the airport bus and longer services to Porto da Cruz and Faial on the north coast. They have timetables on their website.
Rodoeste operate services towards the west of Funchal using red and cream buses. I only caught one Rodoeste bus while visiting Madeira, partly because it’s really difficult to find timetables or route information. They have a website but it doesn’t work properly and is quite old, a bit like the bus I travelled on.
EACL (Empresa de Autocarros do Caniço) have routes serving the south-east of Madeira. I didn’t use any of their buses during my trip but there are timetables on their website.
5. Do bring some euros in cash
I made my first mistake in Madeira before we’d even left the airport. The airport bus to Funchal and the Lido area is great, but it only takes cash. We only discovered this at the bus stop, and I didn’t have any euros to pay for it. We didn’t want to have to wait for the next bus, so I hot-footed it back into the terminal to get some cash out – and ended up getting such a bad exchange rate that I actually got fewer euros than I paid in pounds.
Most places in Madeira do take cards, but you’ll need some cash for buses, and I’ve heard that some of the cable cars only take cash too (the cable car from the promenade in Funchal does take cards). The small shops and cafes I visited all took cards but it’s best to have some money just in case.
6. Do stay in Funchal itself
I stayed in the Lido area because we wanted an all-inclusive hotel. I’ve spent the last few months having treatment for a dental accident so anything chewy is off-limits for a while, and we figured that an all-inclusive’s buffet would make it easier to keep me fed.
We stayed at the Enotel Lido, which was really nice, but it was a short bus ride away from the centre of Funchal. Since all our day trips involved getting to Funchal to get another bus to where we were actually going, this got to be a bit of a pain (of course it wouldn’t have been if we’d hired a car). The Lido area also didn’t have very much atmosphere in the evenings.
I don’t regret where we stayed at all, as it met our needs perfectly this time round. However, if you’re visiting Madeira and you want to see a lot of the island and you’re definitely not going to drive, I’d recommend trying to find somewhere within walking distance of the cable car station in Funchal. The bus station is right next door, and pretty much every bus leaves either from there or from the bus stops along the promenade. There are lots of guided tours too, which are good alternatives to public transport and help you see more of the island, more efficiently.
7. Do walk along a levada
Madeira is criss-crossed with levadas – narrow water channels that take water from where it falls as rain in the mountains to where it’s needed on Madeira’s amazing farms. Many of the levadas have walking trails alongside, but lots of them are steep, long or difficult to get to by bus.
I was delighted when I found a really easy and beautiful levada walk within easy reach of Funchal. The levada walk from Ribeiro Frio to the Balcões viewpoint is really flat and easy, and the view at the end is absolutely amazing. It was by far my favourite thing to do in Madeira.
8. Don’t overestimate your fitness level
This is a really important one. While lots of people come to Madeira for the fantastic hiking along the levadas or in the mountains, things can go very wrong, very quickly if you’re not well prepared or if you underestimate how difficult some of the walks can be. Some walks are so dangerous that you should only do them with a guide, and people have sadly died on the trails.
If you’re not up for a strenuous mountain hike or a guided tour, there are plenty of easy walks. The hike down from Eira do Serrado to Curral das Freiras is steep and a little uneven underfoot in places, but pretty easy (walking up is a different matter!) while my favourite walk to Balcões is no more than a gentle stroll.
9. Do pack grippy shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy
Since some of the most scenic places in Madeira are also the most exposed or which get the most rain, it’s a good idea to take some shoes or boots that are up to the task. When you arrive at the airport you’ll be able to spot the boarding queue for Madeira straightaway as half your fellow passengers will be wearing hiking boots.
If you’re only doing some light walking when you’re visiting Madeira then proper hiking boots aren’t absolutely essential, but even on our short and easy walks I would have been better off with my boots rather than the white trainers I was wearing. A bit of extra grip would have been reassuring on the Curral das Freiras hike and I wouldn’t have had to try and avoid all the muddy puddles on the levada walk.
10. Don’t expect wall to wall sunshine
According to an old man we met on the bus, when we visited Madeira in February, the island was experiencing the worst weather he’d known in all his 80 years. Whether that’s scientifically accurate or not, it was pretty cold and it rained nearly every day we were there, including a couple of bouts of torrential rain on our last day. We even saw a hurricane spinning over the sea!
While you can get lovely weather in Madeira all year round, it’s a good idea to pack for some bad weather along with the sunshine. A jumper or two is a must, and I was very pleased that I’d packed a waterproof jacket with a hood when the heavens opened while we were waiting for the bus back from Ribeiro Frio.
12. Don’t walk from the end of the Monte toboggan back to Funchal
It’s a lot further than it looks!
13. Do check the cruise ship schedule
Funchal is pretty small, but the port can handle a lot of cruise ships at one time. On our first day, there were already three ships in port, and a fourth arrived later that day.
When the port is full, Funchal can feel very full too. If the port is particularly busy on certain days during your visit, you might want to choose to go on an excursion outside Funchal and avoid the crowds. You can check the cruise ship schedule on the Ports of Madeira website.