Last updated on August 23rd, 2023
Are you ready to explore one of the most precious islands in the Atlantic Ocean? A jewel you’d never think to be off the coast of Europe, Madeira is a Portuguese island known for its breathtaking beauty and diversity! Here you’ll find the tallest sea cliff in Europe, volcanic basalt columns against deep red sand, densely forested mountains that cascade into peaceful towns perched on hills and within valleys, and rocky peaks that sit high up above a sea of clouds. All of this is found here while being embraced by crystal blue waters that separate this haven from the rest of the world.
Madeira is the largest island of its namesake archipelago. The vast array of landscapes in Madeira are subject to a subtropical climate all-year round, making it a prime destination any time of the year. You’ll experience rain and sunshine throughout your visit, which is something to embrace with island living, and both extremes feed into the natural beauty you’ll find on the island.
Situated off the coast of Portugal in a rift zone in the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is home to a range of terrains, including sea cliffs, mountains, valleys, and lush forests, as well as various subtropical flora and fauna. So much of what you’ll find here is unique to Madeira and its neighbouring archipelagos, with species of plants, animals and various eco-systems that are near impossible to find anywhere else in the world. One of my favourite flowers are the colourful hydrangeas that thrive and grow to huge blooms just on the sides of roads in the wild with nearly no need for human upkeep!
It’s a mysterious and out-of-this-world island that has so much to offer in all its regions and elevations, and the best way to experience it is by taking your adventures on the road with a self-guided tour like the one I provide below. Make the most of your week in Madeira with a boundless journey with your own vehicle!
Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links. I may receive a small commission for purchases/bookings made through these links at no extra cost to you.
Where Should I Stay in Madeira?
On an island of only 741 sqkm, you could pretty much stay anywhere on the island and still be within driving distance of all the amazing sites. Funchal should likely be your first choice as it’s the capital, has everything you need from shopping, great dining, nightlife and high accessibility to all the great spots. We loved staying in Ponta do Sol high up on the hill of Canhas in a quiet walkout villa with a gorgeous ocean view!
If you’re living out the nomad life in Madeira, we definitely recommend checking out Ponta do Sol for their Digital Nomad Village. But more and more co-living spaces are popping up across the island, from the bustling Funchal on the southeast to the remote Jardim do Mar on the southwest.
For those of you just vacationing here and truly just spending seven or so days exploring Madeira, you could certainly move around the island with a couple of nights in each corner. You could go from Funchal to Ponta do Sol to São Vicente to Porto Moniz… Or you could find yourself a home base for the week! Funchal is definitely where the party is and you’d very much be centrally located here. But the quiet coast of Ponta do Sol stole our hearts and features much better valued accommodations for less! Our beloved Casa Albatros was the perfect home base for our trip.
If you want to be in the heart of the action of a capital city, go for Funchal. For a quiet spot with everything you need in driving distance, we recommend Ponta do Sol for first timers.
How to Get Around Madeira
It’s entirely doable to get around Madeira using the island’s public transit system. It’s quite reliable and frankly very low cost! If you’re staying in Funchal, it would be easy to hop on the variety of buses that get you to pretty much any main other town and landmark in Madeira. The downsides? The typical lack of flexibility and convenience that you would only get with having your own mode of transportation.
Given that this is a road trip itinerary, we highly recommend renting your own car in Madeira! You can’t deny the convenience of being able to get from A to B when you need to. The chase for sunrise and sunset is easiest with your vehicle, and you’ll see as you keep reading that we always recommend beating the crowds by visiting the sites early in the morning or later in the evening.
Madeira is also one of the easiest places to drive in all of Europe. Just smooth highways and some winding yet well paved mountainous roads. There are no toll roads to worry about either! Unlike the rest of Portugal. Tons of tunnels are carved within the mountainous topography that make getting to your destination much quicker than anywhere else in the world with similar landscapes. Pretty much everywhere we went on the island was within an hour of our accommodation!
Day 1 – São Lourenço & ER101 Drive
Ponta de São Lourenço
On the easternmost coast of Madeira Island, you’ll find the long peninsula of São Lourenço. It’s a stretch of green meadows and red volcanic sand sitting atop sea cliffs with veins of black and maroon diving into the blue waters. You’d be starting off strong with an adventure along the PR8 trail taking you across Ponta de São Lourenço, and finishing off at the Ponta do Furado, a stunning viewpoint staring out into the Atlantic and the adjacent islands of peninsula that you cannot reach by foot. You might find yourself having travelled to Mars as you hike the path through this rocky, red landscape resembling a dragon’s tail emerging from the ocean.
Be sure to check out our complete guide to hiking Ponta de São Lourenço to best prepare for your day of exploring this side of Madeira!
If you prefer not to do much hiking, you can still bask in the views of São Lourenço by checking out the Miradouro da Ponta do Rosto and its vicinity, situated on the north side, a short drive from the Ponta de São Lourenço trailhead. Parking for the PR8 hike consists of a small cul-de-sac and gets busy fast so if you are choosing to hike, make sure to secure your spot before the sun is even up. This eastern peninsula is also a gem to witness in the sunset sky if you’re keen to hike in the evening, which may be harder for the parking situation but well worth it for that golden hour trek!
A Ponte Velha
With much of your first day left to keep exploring, but much of your energy already depleted, take the long way back to your homestay by driving northeast towards Faial on ER101. You’ll find the drive becomes more and more scenic after turning left on the narrow road parallel to ER103, Estrada Rainha Dona Maria II. A long way, yes, but worth every minute and euro on gas you spend curving through the towns, valleys and mountainsides.
After 10 minutes of driving, turn right onto ER103 and you’ll reach this picturesque old bridge that doesn’t yet have a name but offers a peaceful environment in the centre of this quiet enclave amidst the lush mountains. Even if you don’t bother taking photos here, the drive itself is worth the trip here before ending your day.
Day 2 – Bica da Cana, Fanal Forest & Porto Moniz
Miradouro da Bica da Cana
Nestled in the centre of the island are a number of vistas that tower over the valleys of Madeira and sit atop the subtropical forested mountains. If you’ve ever dreamt of gazing out above a sea of clouds that recede ever so slowly as the sun rises and glows orange against the white veil, you’ll likely be able to catch your first cloud inversion at the Miradouro da Bica da Cana. It was our first time witnessing a true cloud inversion and we couldn’t imagine a better place to have it!
The drive up to the viewpoint was quite dark driving along ER209. As soon as we came up for air from the dense woods and winding roads to the exposed highway surrounded by windmills, we kept having to dodge the littlest bunny rabbits on the road! They were everywhere and kept zigzagging in front of us. So definitely watch out if you’re driving out here in the dark.
You’ll want to make it to the small parking area at the Bica da Cana trailhead about 30 minutes before sunrise so that you have enough time to park and walk up the trail – which takes about 10 minutes – and settle in for the show. Throughout blue hour and golden hour, the clouds continued to recede, revealing to us the colourful town of Sao Vicente down in the valley, and the northern shoreline where we could spot the waves softly crashing.
With the viewpoint being fairly underrated, it definitely doesn’t have a large area for visitors to leave their cars at the trailhead and grab a seat on the rocks piled on the observation area. There can still be a dozen people here sharing the same experience as yourself. So make sure you allocate enough time to get here if you want the perfect vantage point! Just to the south of where the sun rises above the horizon, you’ll see the outline of the Central Mountain Range of Madeira. Look closely enough and you’ll locate the highest peak in all of Madeira – Pico Ruivo – and the third highest peak – Pico do Arieiro – where you’ll see a large ball marking the peak’s weather station!
One of the most unique of locations on the entire island is not what you would expect. Beaches, waterfalls, seacliffs and mountain peaks are among our favourite landscapes in Madeira, but the most notable has to be the spooky forest of Fanal. You may have hovered over the clouds at Bica da Cana, but here you’ll find yourself completely immersed in the thick layer of mist if the right conditions permit.
It’s never a guarantee, so a couple of visits may be needed to find Fanal Forest in the eerie ambiance that makes it so sought after. We came three times and only the third offered the fairytale storybook scenery I envisioned. Though they aren’t gigantic, the laurel trees here are found to be as old as 600 years. There’s no wonder a walk through these woods feels so enchanting.
Fanal Forest is a major part of the Laurisilva (laurel forest) of Madeira, an outstanding relict of what used to be widespread across Southern Europe. It is the largest surviving area of laurel forest and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and protected by the Madeira Natural Park. The laurisilva is a type of rainforest that requires large amounts of moisture and stores the water in its plants, which encourages the flora of the forest to thrive like nowhere else.
Due to the subtropical climate of the island, moisture tends to collect here at an altitude of 1,000m above sea level. You’ll spot lichens and moss completely covering the ancient giant Til trees and canary laurels, and on a foggy day, the dense moisture will drip on you like rain if you stand below the trees. Pack a waterproof jacket for your visit as the temperatures can drop about 10 degrees Celsius compared to Ribeira da Janela when the thick fog clouds hovers here.
Even if you hike through the hills when the fog isn’t present, you can admire Fanal as a protected ecosystem that you won’t find similar anywhere else in the world, except for Madeira’s neighbouring islands: the Azores and Canary Islands. It’s always worth visiting and never too far out of reach if you’d like to come more than once!
Continue your morning venturing down to the coast. The downhill drive gets you to a beautiful viewpoint worthy of a stop. Miradouro da Eira da Achada overlooks the shoreline facing East and the gorgeous blanket of green that covers the northern mountains. There’s a set of concrete benches and a cute swing set here under the viewpoint sign to enjoy the view. You might also find pots of different flowers and plants placed in all kinds of different shoes (stiletto heels, converse, flats, boots) along the ledge. It’s a quaint homage to the ecological diversity of the island!
Keep making your way down ER209 towards the junction point and make a right for Miradouro da Ribeira da Janela. There’s a large parking area here with a set of concrete stairs at the end. You can make your way up to get a view of the ocean and beach from this rock formation, or circle around on the left side to head straight for the beach.
It’s not a beach that you would expect. Boulders and pebbles border the water, but it’s one of the most serene coastal sides of Madeira with the monstrous basalt columns towering in front of you. You’ll see four black rock islets jutting out of the water, the two biggest being Ilheus da Janela and Ilheus da Rib.
Once you’re back on the road – now ER101 heading East – you can get a different vantage point of the islets from the highway at the curve in the road. They’re truly stunning structures that remind me so much of Iceland!
Porto Moniz Natural Swimming Pools
Madeira isn’t the kind of island meant for calm walks along the beach and peaceful swims in the ocean. Its rocky terrain, even along its coast, is there to defend against the elements from the Atlantic rather than warmly invite them. But for those of us, who would love to be able to swim in the ocean while visiting this incredible island, it’s made possible with natural swimming pools like the one in Porto Moniz.
This facility is the most popular in Madeira, though there are other natural pools to wade in the ocean water. For only 3 (euros) a person (1.50 for children and students), you can relax, swim, float all you’d like in these pools while being protected from the strong currents and waves of the open sea. Naturally filled with the coastal seawater when the tide is high, the water is then filtered and treated to make it most optimal for swimming.
The temperature of the pools does not get altered and is solely dependent on the outdoor temperature. But given Madeira’s non-seasonal climate, it usually maintains itself at around 20-21 degrees Celsius. On a cold, rainy or windy day, the water can certainly feel chilly, but when the sun fully comes out, the chilled pools are welcomed.
Amidst the black volcanic rock formations and picturesque backdrop, being here feels like a visit to an outdoor spa with an invigorating hydrotherapy cycle of submerging in and emerging out of the water. Come as early as 9am when the pools open to experience the facilities in the quietness as it gets busy around 11am and parking is very limited. If your scheduling works better to visit Fanal Forest at the end of the day and Porto Moniz earlier, you can monitor the clouds – if any – from the coast and watch them migrate inland. This is the best indication as to whether Fanal Forest will rest in fog or not!
Day 3 – Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo
Sunrise at Pico do Arieiro
Out of everything on your Madeira bucket list, count watching the sunrise from Pico do Arieiro a number one priority. It can take a while to drive up to the third highest peak on the whole island, but worth the early wakeup and every tight turn on the road in the dark to watch the sun, in all its glory, make its way above the horizon and the thick blanket of clouds surrounding the mountains. It’s almost a guarantee that you will be able to stand tall above a cloud inversion here and witness it reflect the colours emitted from the sun.
You’ll want to get here as early as you can (aiming for at least 40 minutes before sunrise) as the small parking lot gets full really quickly – you don’t want to resort to parking along the narrow road and walking up if you don’t have to – and you’ll need to make your way to the hills and rocks at the Miradouro do Juncal well before sunrise to settle in and watch the show. Grab a cozy blanket and your warmest gear because, even in the dead of summer, it’s a brisk, chilly time up here in the morning.
Hiking to Pico Ruivo
Satisfied with your morning experience? Your day’s just getting started! Make your way back passed the weather station and down behind the cafeteria and souvenir shop for the PR1 trailhead. A lot of other folks will be heading on the same route so it’s hard to miss where to go!
It’s mostly downhill at the beginning of the hike along well paved and constructed stone steps. Don’t let this false hope fool you! The more downwards steps you have to do means the more upwards incline you’ll need to go through later on. After all, Pico Ruivo is the highest peak in all of Madeira, standing at 1,862m above the sea, whereas Pico do Arieiro is at 1,818m. But trust me when I say that it’s worth all the sweat and tears to complete this hike!
I’ve personally never been on such a well constructed hiking path in all my life. Throughout the trail, you’ll have guardrails when you need then and stone steps or grated staircases on the higher inclines. There are also perfectly carved out tunnels at ideal points in the trail, with flat paths to walk on, which shave off a tremendous amount of time and energy to complete this hike.
One of my favourite parts of the Vereda do Arieiro is walking the narrow ridge made up of stairs shortly after passing the Ninho da Manta viewpoint, about 10 minutes into the hike. Second to that was when we brushed passed the intense flora consisting of wildflowers and tropical plants while hearing the near sound of birds chirping, just shortly before reaching our first tunnel – Tunel do Gato. We were constantly above the clouds throughout the entire day, which was just incredible! But it also meant that we were almost always exposed to the sun, apart from when the mountain faces hid us in the shade from the morning light.
Halfway there, we began our ascent via a long stretch of steps which certainly got our hearts pumping. This was the hardest part but thankfully we were kept cool. Not long after reaching the top of the steps, we walked through what was once a forested section, but now an iconic trail covered with white and grey barren trees as a result of a fire. Finally, we reached the teahouse – Casa de Abrigo do Pico Ruivo – before marching on to finish at the wide and open area to mark the highest point in all of Madeira. Pat yourself on the back for making it this far, crossing nearly 6km and over 500m in elevation gain!
If it’s too daunting to make your way back to Pico do Arieiro by foot, you can opt out of completing the out-and-back trail by walking the flat and easy trail to the Achada do Teixeira parking lot and having a taxi pick you up from here. Plan ahead and set up your transportation before going on the hike if you can, or have one of the other taxi drivers in the lot who are waiting for their clients call one up for you. To drive you all the way back to Arieiro, it will cost around 60 (euros) as it’s a full hour-long drive. It can be worth it if you really don’t want to spend the hours trekking back down and up in the afternoon heat! We have no regrets or shame for choosing to save our feet and time over our money.
Day 4 – Seixal Beach, São Vicente & Western Cliffs
A full-blown day of hiking the tallest peaks in Madeira is much deserving of a day of ease and calm beach time. Yet, sunrise chasing in Madeira should never cease! Praia do Porto do Seixal is one of Madeira’s only accessible black sand beaches where the sand is so fine you’ll feet will feel like they’re walking on black cloud!
We were blessed with the most incredible sunrise here as the rain clouds hovered low yet high enough for the sun to illuminate them all from the horizon. It was perfect! Even if you don’t catch the colours that we did, the water is so warm you’ll want to have a swim here or just wad your feet in the shallow waters, dipping your toes in the sponge-like sand. Additionally, the coastal hills and cliffs of the North and the waterfall Véu da Noiva are such a stunning backdrop framing the ocean on the right that no matter what time of the day, you’ll witness a memorable view.
Véu da Noiva
After catching a glimpse of this stunning bridal veil waterfall from the beach of Seixal, you’ll have to get up close to it from its viewpoint, Miradouro do Véu da Noiva. Within a five-minute drive, you’ll reach the spot just across from the snack bar and souvenir shops. The observation deck doesn’t offer much room considering how busy this landmark can get in the afternoon, but you’ll likely have it all to yourself like we did when visiting in the morning.
Apart from the metal observation deck, there’s a small terrace that you can walk across to reach the stone ledge to sit on. Approach it with caution as there are no guardrails here, but you’ll get a front row seat of the falls, cliffs and ocean!
In the heart of a valley you stood above of at Bica da Cana lies this gem of a town that is layered with red and white houses and buildings that line the hills. It’s quite the scenery to catch from the viewpoint up in the mountains, but what about right in the middle of town? The most picturesque landmark here, in our opinion, is the little chapel of Nossa Senhora de Fatima, sitting atop a hill with majestic views all around. It takes about 180 steps to reach the capelinha from the small carpark, making it a quiet setting for a lookout. We’d say it’s one of the more underrated spots on the island yet incredibly easy to access. It overlooks the entire valley of São Vicente with the vibrant houses on terraces, as well as the lush mountains that embrace it, and the blue coast on the north that encloses the circle.
Achadas da Cruz
Just a 20-minute drive southwest of São Vicente, you’ll find the Achadas da Cruz cable car that takes you to one of the most unique spots in Madeira. From 575m above the sea coming down at a 98% slope, this pod cable car is the steepest in all of Portugal and was once the steepest in all of Europe. It costs 5 (euros) per person roundtrip for the 5-minute ride down and back up. During the afternoons, it can be a long wait – over 45 minutes for us ! – for your turn to hop on the ride back up to Achadas da Cruz, so be aware of the time commitment if you’re here during peak hours.
Slow and steady in a small capsule that only fits 6 people at a time, you’ll make your way down to the agricultural village of Fajã da Quebrada Nova, where you can walk the brick path along the coastline and enjoy some Madeiran food and drink in the comfort of remote countryside. It felt like we stepped back in time here and experienced a traditional version of Madeira, with small, stone-laden houses, zero cars and the quietness of agricultural living.
West Sea Cliffs
I know much of this itinerary is dedicated to prime spots to capture sunrise. But what about sunset? The western sea cliffs are among the quietest places to get away from the crowds, even during the evenings when the sun shins bright orange over the ocean. We mostly had every single location all to ourselves, and the final spot we reached for sunset was completely left for us the entire hour we were there!
The first spot we recommend visiting is Miradouro do Fio, which means “wire viewpoint”, and is situated on the south side of the westernmost point. A large parking area grants you access to the viewing deck and adjacent to it is a wonderful teahouse called Casa de Chá “O Fio” where we suggest grabbing dinner with a view.
Next up would be the Farol da Ponta do Fargo, a lighthouse on the most western tip facing straight out west. There is no defined platform here but a large patch of red gravel sits on the round clifftop if you want to find a spot to settle on. It gets busier here, but you’ll always have your own room to wander the entire area. Be extra careful with your steps as there are no guardrails here, the cliff slopes downwards and the loose rocks can be slippery.
Our last spot for the day is reserved for Miradouro da Garganta Funda, a deep gorge that houses a tall, narrow waterfall that flows more abundantly in the wetter season. The sunset here was vibrant and peaceful, having only each other’s company – and maybe that of a couple of cute geckos. The parking spot we left our car in was on a residential street against a wall, and we walked down the dirt road and walking path to this small viewpoint location. The remoteness reminded me so much of Iceland and all we heard was the sound of the wind as the sun lowered below the horizon.
Days 5 & 6 – Chasing Waterfalls Across Levadas
There are tons and tons of levada walks across the island. “Levadas” are aqueducts or irrigation channels that are specific to the region of Madeira. They’ve also become the perfectly carved out trails across the island that are now used for some stunning hikes. They’re among Madeira’s best kept secrets and are undeniably some of the island’s easiest hikes considering the steady inclines the flat paths parallel to the aqueducts provide.
Many of the levadas follow along cliff edges giving you mighty views you never expected. But they also traverse through dense forests so you can further immerse yourself within the heart of Madeira. Most of the remarkable levada walks lead you to beautifully hidden waterfalls that you don’t want to miss! For a fairly easy trek, it’s worth discovering more than the eyes can see.
There are countless waterfall levada hikes to consider, but some honourable mentions include these:
- PR9 Levada do Caldeirão Verde
- PR6 Levada das 25 Fontes e Risco Waterfall
- PR16 Levada Fajã do Rodrigues
These are among the more popular levada waterfall hikes but offer the most all-encompassing experiences on top of being some of the easiest hikes on the island. To avoid the crowds, be at the trailhead earlier in the day, preferably before 8am, and you’ll be done in time for lunch!
In the case that you’d like a break from the nature hikes for either Day 5 or 6, our recommendation is to allocate more time to exploring the town of Funchal and take a self-guided culture tour while trying the local cuisine. Read below for some Day 7 suggestions that you can split between two days.
Day 7 – Funchal & South Coast
Start your final morning with a visit to the towering Cristo Rei. It’s about half the size of its bigger brother statue, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and faces South out to the ocean with arms wide open. You can park your car near the statue and walk down the 220 steps to the headland for a sunrise view standing atop a large boulder. It’s quite the panoramic view from here!
You can’t take a trip out to Madeira without visiting the capital city at least once. Funchal is home to rich history, delicious traditional dishes and local specialties. The city’s historic centre boasts many narrow cobblestone streets to wander aimlessly with stunning landmarks to discover. Some must-see attractions include the Old Town, the São Tiago Fortress, and the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte.
There is so much Portuguese island life that has become central to Madeira that you can experience yourself in this grand municipality, starting with a downhill toboggan ride in a huge, traditional wicker basket powered by two local Madeiran sled carriers in their classic white uniforms and straw hats! Enjoy the local cuisine such as the island’s famous wine and traditional sweet pastries known as “queijadas”. You can also try out the national dish, espada com banana, which is a battered black scabbard fish (similar to swordfish) served with banana. Portuguese food is one of the most rich cuisines, but I might be biased!
We were keen to explore the exotic botanical gardens and art museum of Monte Palace at the top of Funchal. Stunning sculptures, murals and architecture are displayed throughout the grounds for your eyes to feast on and you can admire the gorgeous view of Funchal from here. If there is one place to experience the beauty and history of Madeira in a relaxing and peaceful setting, it’d have to be Monte Palace.
We spent a little more than a couple of hours here, checking out the exhibits and the outdoor architecture of various cultures intertwined with the unique plants and flowers of Madeira. It cost us 12.50€ a person to visit and came with a small wine tasting to enjoy at the cafe anytime throughout your visit.
The highest sea cliff in Europe, and second highest in the world, is none other than Cape Girão, elevated at a lofty 580 m above the sea. Finish your final day of adventures in Madeira with a skywalk standing high above the southern coast as you see straight through the glass under your feet.
You don’t need long to come here as it consists of a small platform and is very touristy. If you forgot to do any souvenir shopping, there is a shop right at the entrance to Cabo Girão that holds pretty much everything you might be looking for.