After years of hearing about the illustrious island of Madeira from my family, I finally booked a trip in 2015 to see what all the hype was about. Long story short, I ended up staying for seven months, to me it was as if I had finally come home. Those seven infamous months, from June until January, had caused me to fall so head over heels in love with the island, so much so that in 2017 I decided to spend four more months there. I had opened a pandora’s box that even now, I haven’t managed to close. So here are the three things you have to see and do if you ever find yourself on the island of Madeira.
1. The City of Funchal
History, Art, Parks
Funchal is a vibrant city immersed in a rich history, you’d expect no less from a place founded in the 15th century. There’s the Natural History Museum of Funchal, the Monte Palace Museum, and my personal favourite, The Cathedral of Funchal – truly a peaceful place, the interior is very grand and if you go around back to the outside of the church you’ll find dilapidated fresco paintings that have done their best to withstand the centuries. Each time I ventured into town I discovered something new.
There are numerous forts here and there in Funchal, each is centuries old and interesting to see. The fort of Sao Tiago is also a small contemporary art gallery and is at the east end of Funchal’s promenade. On the west end of Funchal is Park Santa Catarina. It’s safe and one of the largest parks in the city, you can take a stroll through the park, sit by the fountain, and watch the faces go by. There is a formal garden that you can enter for just €1 where there are Macaws and Parrots in cages and a wide variety of various flora. The old town of Funchal, or ‘Zona Velha’ is the most bustling place in all of Funchal. The painted doors project transforms this historic part of Funchal into its own beautiful little art gallery. Don’t forget to take the cable car from Zona Velha to the parish of Monte on an amazing trip that showcases Funchal as you move up and towards the natural beauty of the gardens in Monte.
Shopping & Food
Funchal is littered with hundreds of cafe’s and restaurants, most boasting a delicious array of traditional Portuguese food, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of other options for those craving the tastes of home. My personal favourites were the Golden Gate Cafe and Theo’s Bazar, both restaurants are located next to one another and I’d just like to say that I would die for the pannacotta at Theo’s. Lastly, for all things shopping, head to either La Vie, Madeira Shopping, or Madeira Forum, the latter of which is situated on the ever tourist infected area of Estrada Monumental, it boasts beautiful modern architecture, a cinema, about a dozen cafes, restaurants and snack bars, and everything from Zara to Springfield.
2. The 4X4 Tours and Catamaran Cruises
Mountain 4×4 Expeditions
If you’re looking for an adventure then look no further. Madeira has countless 4×4 mountain expeditions and safari guided day tours. They’re fun, safe and prices generally range from €25 for 4-hour half day tours to €360 for private 8-hour full day tours, depending on which tour group you book with. These trips are a very engaging way to see the often hidden gems of the island. Visit the valleys, forests, and levadas whilst immersing yourself in the beautiful scenery. The guides are almost always friendly, energetic, and knowledgeable, there are many tours that offer hotel inclusive pickup and drop off so be sure to ask ahead of time when booking your tour. This is a must-do for anyone wanting to learn about the history of the island whilst exploring the rugged coastlines and majestic mountains of the natural treasure that is Madeira.
Catamaran Cruises and Sightseeing
There are so many outdoor activities on offer in Madeira. A personal favourite of mine is the catamaran cruises. There are various cruises one could book, from sunset cruises, dolphin, and whale watching cruises, cruises to the Desertas Islands from Funchal, to watching the Atlantic festival or the New Years celebration from one of the catamaran cruises. If you want to experience Madeira in the same way the founders did and from a lesser common way of seeing the island, then booking a catamaran cruise is for you. The prices vary from company to company, but generally, the prices range from €60 to €300, but believe me, it’s well worth it and your Madeiran vacation wouldn’t be complete without sipping Poncha on a catamaran as the sun sets and watching the bay of Funchal transition from day to night.
3. The Drinks
It wouldn’t be an article on Madeira if I failed to mention the most Madeiran thing ever; It’s alcoholic drinks. Madeira has been making alcoholic beverages pretty much since it was founded. It’s famous for numerous drinks such as Madeira Wine, Poncha, Nikita’s, Ginja, and Madeira’s very own beer, Coral.
Madeira wine is probably the most famous and well-known drink of all Madeira’s alcoholic beverages and comes in a variety of different styles, there’s dry wines, sweet wines, and cooking versions of the wine. It’s just what you need to kick back and relax after a long day of sightseeing.
My personal go-to, whenever I’d go out, was Poncha. Poncha is derived from India and was brought to Madeira by the English. It’s made of distilled alcohol from sugar cane juice, sugar, usually lemon juice, and honey. It’s sweet and strong and often served cold over ice. Madeirans believe that it can help relieve symptoms of the common cold and so often times they encourage drinking it.
Nikita’s are Madeira’s best cocktails. They taste delicious and are addicting. They’re made with white wine, beer, pineapple juice, sugar, pineapple slices, and vanilla ice-cream. A Nikita is the kind of drink that gets you drunk without you even knowing it because it’s the adult version of a milkshake. The best Nikita’s are served in the Zona Velha of Funchal.
Next is Ginja, a Portuguese liqueur typically served as a shot and with a small cherry at the bottom of the glass, is made out of sour cherries, red wine, Aguardente (a Portuguese brandy), and sugar. It’s strong and typically served as an aperitif. Although Madeira makes great Ginja, it’s actually Lisbon’s specialty.
Coral beer is definitely a beer everyone can enjoy, a lager beer produced in Madeira crafted from the best malts. The way Coral beer is manufactured gives it a unique set of characteristics, it’s light in taste, has a pleasant aroma, refreshing, and goes well with most dishes. It’s not pricey at all and is found at all restaurants and bars.
And there you have it, the three things that make Madeira my favourite place to escape to and stand to show that it truly is the pearl of the Atlantic.