In the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 900km (560mi) west of Morocco, Madeira has year-round warm temperatures. But if you’re craving a sizzling sojourn, summer is a great time to explore the intricate hiking trails, volcanic beaches and colourful farmers’ markets of this Portuguese island. For more inspiration, here’s why you should visit Madeira during the hotter months.
To tour the Old Town of Funchal
The first settlement in Madeira was Funchal, the current capital. Take a walking tour around the Old Town here to marvel at the colourful houses and colonial architecture. Make sure to stop at the dreamy São Tiago Fortress, which looks straight from a fairytale, and the Town Hall, which has an impressive, grey-stone doorway. If you want to learn how traditional Madeiran hats are made, visit Fábrica de Chapéus de Santa Maria, a hat factory that has stood in the same location for more than 60 years. For some of the finest street art in Madeira, walk down Rua de Santa Maria, one of the oldest streets in the city. Each of the 200-plus doors along the thoroughfare has a different painting on it – part of the Arte de Portas Abertas (Art of Open Doors) project.
To enjoy the views from Funchal Cable Car
The best-known cable car in Madeira transports you from Almirante Reis, the lower part of Funchal, to the upper suburb of Monte. The ride lasts about 15 to 20 minutes (covering a little more than 3km/2mi), giving you plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. It offers a soothing visual experience, perfect for a series of no-filter Instagram shots, which includes ocean panoramas and views of verdant peaks with clusters of white, tile-roof houses. The Monte Palace Tropical Garden is the highlight of the ride, looking majestic from up high. The queue to enter the cable car is usually quite long but moves fast – so don’t despair.
To take a toboggan ride on a wicker-basket sledge
If you thought the sole purpose of a wicker basket was to store magazines, you might be surprised to learn the people of Madeira have found a much more exciting use for them. One of the most fun island traditions is taking a toboggan ride on a wicker-basket sledge. These human-sized baskets date back to the early 19th century, when they were used to transport locals from the village of Monte to Funchal. Today, you can take the cable car to the top of Monte and start your ride at the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. You’ll travel down to Livramento town (a 10-minute ride) steered by two men in white.
To relax on the beaches
Madeira has a long list of beaches – natural and artificial, isolated and busy. Calheta, an artificial beach with smooth waters and sand imported from Morocco, is a favourite among locals. Then there’s the photogenic, natural Porto Moniz pools, formed by volcanic lava. Others are particularly popular with divers, such as the tranquil Garajau Beach, which can only be accessed by cable car and houses a scuba-diving school. At the bottom of the dramatic Cabo Girão cliff lies Fajã dos Padres, which is perfect for snorkelling, diving and surfing. If you can hack heights, gaze at Fajã dos Padres from the glass-bottomed skywalk atop the 580m (1,902ft) high cliff.
To explore the exotic gardens and parks
Madeira is known for having numerous lush forests, gardens and parks, which give the island a tropical feel. The year-round mild temperatures, combined with a range of different regional bioclimates, mean the gardens here can support a rare variety of exotic plants and herbs – from plane trees and English oaks to European azaleas, cacti from Scotland and cycads from South Africa. The popular Monte Palace Tropical Garden, which has more than 100,000 plant species, should be high on your list, as should the enchanting laurel forest Parque Forestal de Queimadas. Other must-sees include the Palheiro Gardens, home to a celebrated collection of camellias, and the Vereda dos Balcões forest, which showcases endemic species including Madeira orchids and blueberries.
To tackle the hiking trails
With so many green and diverse mountains, it’s no wonder Madeira is a hiking paradise. In the early 1500s, dozens of stone irrigation channels were carved along winding routes to transport water to drier areas. Known as levadas, these still carry water, but some also serve as hiking trails. Levada do Caldeirão Verde, dating to the 1700s, carries water from the highest mountains in Madeira. It passes through the marvellous São Jorge Valley and past the Caldeirão Verde lake, which is formed by the waters of a 100m (330ft) high waterfall. At 1,862m (6,109ft), Pico Ruivo is the highest peak in Madeira and offers an amazing six-hour route interrupted by birds and lizards. For a more intense trek, the volcanic rocks of Ponta de São Lourenço overlook the Atlantic and are home to unusual plants such as cardoons and everlastings.
To shop at the colourful Mercado dos Lavradores
The best-known farmer’s market in Funchal has to be the most eye-catching site on the island. Mercado dos Lavradores offers a wide range of bright-coloured fruit, vegetables, flowers and fish, some of which you probably haven’t seen before. You will find rare types of passion fruits, bananas, sweet potatoes, chestnuts next to some very peculiar fish – such as the somewhat scary peixe espada preto (scabbardfish), a large, black deep-sea fish. The building itself dates to 1940 and the interiors are organised in sections (known as plazas). Most of the products are local. On Fridays, you’ll see women in traditional attire selling striking exotic flowers.
To sample the local wine
A Madeiran staple is its fortified, sweet wine. There are several wine museums and cellars in Funchal offering detailed tours and tastings. You’ll learn how the negra mole grapes are picked and then sent to wineries. The premium tasting tours at Blandy’s Wine Lodge are probably the most informative, giving you a chance to delve into 200 years of Madeiran winemaking tradition and tour the cooperage where the barrels are made from Brazilian satinwood. The wine sits inside the barrels for years – some vintages are as much as a century old.
To day trip to Porto Santo and the Desertas Islands
Once you’ve explored Madeira, visit the neighbouring Porto Santo and Desertas islands. Hop on a ferry to Porto Santo (a two-and-a-half-hour trip) and then rent a car, scooter or bike to get around. Take in the stunning sunsets, discover superb beaches (including the Porto Das Salemas natural pools) and embark on exhilarating hikes – Vereda Pico Branco and Terra Chã are among the most popular. From Madeira, you can also book a full-day trip to the Desertas Islands and explore a natural reserve with exotic and endemic species, including the Mediterranean monk seal and various turtles and cetaceans.
You’ll need a good night’s sleep after exploring Madeira – see our top picks for luxury hotels and hip apartments, now bookable via Culture Trip. Discover the most beautiful spots to visit and what else there is to do during your visit.
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