A subtropical paradise hidden away off the western coast of Morocco, Madeira is the ideal place to visit when you need to get away from it all and surround yourself with peace and tranquility. The dramatic scenery, created by various volcanic eruptions, is bursting with vivid colors and provides the ideal environment for as many outdoor adventures as you’re up for!
With countless colorful gardens, breathtaking national parks, fun-filled festivals, and plenty of opportunities to discover the local culture, you’ll never be stuck for what to do in Madeira.
One of the best things about this stunning Portuguese archipelago is its climate. It doesn’t matter whether you visit in the middle of winter or the height of summer – the weather will always be warm and pleasant enough to enjoy the island’s natural beauty and take a dip in the sea.
With so many fantastic things to see and do, it can be difficult to know where to begin. To give you a helping hand, we’ve put together a list of the absolute best things to do in Madeira. Add these fun activities and attractions to your Madeira bucket list, and you’re sure to have a wonderful time exploring the Pearl of the Atlantic!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to Do In Madeira, Portugal
1. Ride The Cable Car In Funchal
Riding Funchal’s cable car should be at the top of your list of things to do in Madeira. The journey begins close to the coast at Almirante Reis and follows the path of an old steam railway line until it reaches the prestigious suburb of Monte.
The ride will treat you to spectacular views of the sea and the lush, green mountains covered with tiny traditional houses clinging to the sides. It’s a great way to get an alternative view of what it’s like to live in Madeira that you definitely won’t find anywhere else.
Not only is a cable car ride an excellent way to see some of the best views in Madeira, but it’s also a speedy way to reach some of the island’s best attractions. After the 15-minute sightseeing trip, you’ll find yourself at the top of a high hill, just steps away from the Monte Palace Tropical Garden and the church where Emperor Charles I was put to rest.
2. Hike To The Stunning 25 Fontes
For some of the best sights in Madeira, take on the challenge of the 25 Fontes hike. Without a doubt the most popular trek on the island, 25 Fontes is mostly completely flat and takes you past a number of dazzling waterfalls.
There’s a pretty steep descent that follows a paved road at the beginning of the hike. But after that, it’s a gentle walk on flat surfaces all the way. The highlight of the trip is the “25 Fountains” (25 Fontes in Portuguese) that feed the small canal that runs along the hike.
On the way, you’ll come across many beautiful wildflowers, loads of native birds, and the peaceful rippling sounds of the water as it bubbles beside you. The path is very well maintained, and all dangerous spots are secured with solid railings.
After 60 to 90 minutes, you’ll arrive at the reason for the hike – a gentle waterfall that cascades into a cool pool teeming with small fish!
3. Celebrate The Biggest Party Of The Year At Carnival
If you’re planning your trip for February, one of the must-do things in Madeira is to be a part of the island’s annual Carnival celebrations. The biggest, loudest, and most vibrant event in Madeira’s calendar, Carnival brings the energy and spirit of Rio de Janeiro to Funchal and lasts for around one week.
The celebrations usually kick off with fantastic parades, followed by live music performances and choreography acts from local dance schools. For the next week, the streets of the island’s capital are full of street parties, locals dressed in all kinds of fun costumes, hilarious shows, and children’s carnivals.
One of the best parts of Madeira’s Carnival is the robbery acts. This decades-old tradition sees locals dress up as typical robbers and “break into” the houses of their friends and family. You won’t have a group of robbers come into your hotel room – but you may see them creeping throughout the streets during the run-up to Carnival.
Carnival dates change every year according to when Easter falls. So check the official website to confirm the dates for your visit.
4. Explore The Parque Forestal De Queimadas
When you’re in the mood for a little exercise, one of the top things to do in Madeira is to go for a walk in the Parque Forestal de Queimadas. This magical laurel forest is filled with thick, towering trees and feels more like a tropical rainforest than a park in Europe.
Because the area is so humid, there’s almost always a light veil of mist that gives the place a mysterious feel. The weather conditions also mean the ground is covered with lichens, ferns, moss, and some of the biggest fronds you’ll see in Europe.
Tucked away in the Santana region, this gorgeous forest park is home to a number of walking trails that follow rippling streams. Some routes are circular and relatively short, while others are considerably longer and take you to other parts of the island.
One of the highlights of the park is the shelter that has been designed to look like one of the typical houses of Santana. It has a thatched roof, wooden panel façade, and chimney – just like a real cottage. It’s a great place for a picnic!
5. Dig Into Espetada Madeirense
Digging into espetada madeirense is one of the Madeira activities you’ve got to try during your visit. This delicious local dish is made of large, tender chunks of beef that are pierced onto a laurel skewer and grilled over charcoal or wood. This gives the meat a complex, smoky flavor while still having a soft and delicate texture.
What makes espetada madeirense so special is the way it’s cooked. A lot of restaurants that serve the dish have large tables with iron structures in the center where you can hang the meat skewers while they cook right in front of you. The smell is amazing, and you can grab your skewer as soon as it’s cooked to your liking.
O Lagar is one of the best places in Madeira for espetada madeirense. This restaurant specializes in the local dish and serves it alongside their own homemade milho frito (fried corn) and bolo do caco (fire-baked bread).
6. Watch The Sunset At Pico Do Arieiro
For one of the best things to see in Madeira, plan to be on the top of Pico do Arieiro for sunset. This mountain is the third-highest peak on the island and is one of the most incredible places from which to watch the sun dip slowly into the horizon.
From all the way up here, the clouds often form a thick layer between you and the world below. This makes the sunset look even more enchanting and extraordinary than normal.
Don’t worry about having to hike up a towering peak. You can see the stunning views just a 60-second walk away from the car park! This makes it a great option for people of all ages and abilities. There’s even a stairlift for wheelchair users and anyone who can’t manage the stairs. On the other hand, if you’re up for a challenge try trekking from Pico Arieiro to Pico Ruivo – it’s one of the best hikes in Madeira!
It can get pretty cold this high up – especially after sunset. So do yourself a favor and bring a sweater or a light outer layer to keep yourself warm.
7. Welcome Summer With The Atlantic Festival
One of the most fun things to do in Madeira is to be a part of the Atlantic Festival. This lively festival marks the beginning of the summer season and takes place throughout June each year.
For three to four weeks, the whole island comes to life with a wealth of activities and attractions. From exciting pyro-musical performances, creative food stalls, and medieval markets to remarkable water shows, fabulous dance shows, and quirky circus performances, there’s absolutely loads going on.
Throw into the mix music festivals, bread fairs, religious ceremonies, and kids’ activities, and you’ll be spoiled for choice – there’s so much to do! Many people think the combined music and fireworks displays are the highlights of the event. They take place every Saturday throughout the festival, so try and include them in your itinerary.
The dates of the festival change each year. So it’s best to check the official tourism website to confirm the dates before you start making reservations.
8. Stroll Around The Monte Palace Tropical Garden
The Monte Palace Tropical Garden is one of the top Madeira attractions. The very first thing you’ll see after you exit the cable car is the entrance to this captivating garden just begging you to step through and explore.
The garden covers a staggering 17 acres and boasts a massive exotic plant collection with examples sourced from all over the world. There’s also a stunning Japanese-style pond with koi, ducks, and black swans.
They aren’t the only creatures you’ll come across during your visit. Keep an eye out for friendly chickens and regal peacocks strolling freely throughout the garden!
You’ll discover even more beauty inside the Monte Palace Madeira Museum. This exhibition space is hidden away in the middle of the garden and features three floors dedicated to sculptures and a one-of-a-kind mineral collection with pieces gathered from around the world.
9. Admire The Traditional Houses At Santana
Head to Santana for some of the best Madeira sightseeing opportunities. In this town, you’ll find some amazing houses built by the island’s very first inhabitants. Madeira was claimed by Portuguese sailors in the early 1400s, and this is when the houses were built!
Traditional homes in Santana are small triangular-shaped houses with solid thatched roofs. You can see the best-preserved ones today at the Casas Típicas de Santana cultural site in the northeastern part of the island.
Not only can you admire all these houses from the outside, but you can also step inside some of them. One of the homes has been transformed into a helpful tourism office, and another is now a small flower shop. The houses are totally free to admire, and a walk around the area is a wonderful way to spend an hour.
10. Treat Your Taste Buds To Lapas
If you’re a fan of seafood, you’ve got to try lapas (limpets) while you’re in Madeira. A hugely popular appetizer throughout the island, lapas are grilled and served in their shells, making for quite an impressive dish.
The lapas are perfectly seasoned with garlic and butter before being cooked under the broiler until they’re perfectly tender and delicious. They’re then piled high onto a plate and served with lemon wedges for a citrus kick.
Marisqueira O Barqueiro is one of the best places in Madeira to try lapas. This magnificent seafood restaurant dishes up a generous portion of lapas as an appetizer – it’s big enough to be an entree! If you’re not a big eater, consider ordering the smaller portion, which is still surprisingly large.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling ravenous, we suggest ordering the seafood platter. You’ll get to try the amazing lapas, as well as plenty of other local seafood.
11. Spot Dolphins While Scuba Diving
One of the most unique things to do in Madeira is to go scuba diving for the chance to spot wild dolphins. The waters around Madeira are teeming with a huge variety of spectacular marine life, including 28 different species of whales and dolphins. Better still, the water quality and clarity are superb, making visibility levels as high as you can get!
Water temperatures rarely drop below 65°F, even in the middle of winter. This makes the sea surrounding Madeira much warmer than in many other European countries. In the height of summer, the sea can be as warm as 75°F! So if you’ve ever been tempted to have a go at scuba diving or even sign up for a PADI course, Madeira is the place to do it.
The best place to go scuba diving in Madeira is around the Savage Islands. Here you’ll bump into all kinds of creatures, from eerie moray eels and ancient turtles to friendly dolphins and cute monk seals.
12. Find Out If You’ve Got a Head For Heights At Cabo Girão
For one of the coolest things to do in Madeira, visit Cabo Girão. Here you’ll discover a 1,902-foot-tall glass skywalk perched precariously on top of a cliff on the island’s southern coast. If you’re brave enough, you can take a walk on the glass and be rewarded with some of the very best views you’ll find in Madeira.
Take your time as you step around the skywalk and admire the spectacular vista. If you look down below, you’ll see the ocean waves crashing into the bottom of the towering cliffs. If that’s a little too much for you, look over to the east, and you’ll be treated to fantastic views of Funchal.
One of the best things about this attraction is that it’s completely free! It’s a great little break to add to your itinerary if you’re planning a road trip around the island.
13. Dance All Day And Night At The Folklore Festival
Each July, Santana hosts one of the most popular Madeira attractions – the annual Folklore Festival. Known as 24 Horas a Bailar (24 Hours to Dance) in Portuguese, this festival sees folklore groups from all over Portugal come together to show off their skills and help others learn more about the local culture.
Throughout the three-day festival, you’ll see locals dressed in typical costumes performing traditional dances that go back generations. There are also stunning flower displays throughout the town, along with spectacular markets brimming with beautiful flower stalls and seasonal fruit stalls.
There’s a friendly, welcoming atmosphere throughout the whole festival that will sweep you up with it. Don’t worry if you miss one performance – there are loads planned each year, so there’ll always be another one to catch!
The date of the Folklore Festival changes every year. So you don’t miss out, check the Madeira events website for the exact dates before you start planning your trip.
14. Speed Down Funchal On A Toboggan
If you’re planning to ride the cable car in Funchal, there are several ways you can return to the bottom. You can take a gentle stroll down the hill, you can jump in a taxi, or you can speed down the slope in a wooden toboggan! One of the best things to do in Madeira, this toboggan ride is worlds away from riding a toboggan in the snow.
At the top of the cable car, keep an eye out for men wearing white hats, white shirts, and white trousers – they’re the people who will push you down to the bottom on a toboggan. Instead of the sled-like toboggan you may be imagining, these wicker toboggans look more like garden love seats.
Simply make yourself comfortable, and two men will run behind the toboggan, pushing you as fast as they can. The journey takes around 15 minutes to reach the bottom, and it’s so much more fun than walking or taking a taxi!
15. Snack On Prego no Bolo Do Caco
Prego no bolo do caco is one of the very best things you can eat for lunch in Madeira. Quite possibly the most extravagant steak sandwich you’ll ever have in your life, this lunchtime treat is overloaded with fantastic ingredients.
The base for the sandwich is the traditional bolo do caco bread, which is made over an open flame. It’s then stuffed with thin grilled steak, crisp lettuce, juicy tomato, delicate ham, and local cheese. As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s also usually served with a generous portion of fries.
This sandwich is so popular throughout the island that you’ll find it available from practically every cafe and restaurant that serves up Portuguese cuisine. Restaurante E Snack-Bar Faisca is one of the best places for this traditional sandwich. This rustic cafe serves huge prego no bolo do caco sandwiches with a fried egg and garlic butter.
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Madeira. What’s your favorite thing to do in the Pearl of the Atlantic?
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