The Portuguese island of Madeira is the perfect year-round destination, as its climate remains temperate throughout the season. Its capital, Funchal, occupies a picturesque spot on the south coast, with a backdrop of lush mountains, plenty of attractions and annual events that enchant visitors who experience them. From scenic walks and panoramic views to the best places to eat and soak up a little bit of sun, this guide has got you covered for a week’s holiday in Funchal.
Day 1 – Explore your surroundings
Many of Funchal’s hotels can be found in and around Estrada Monumental, offering a lovely walk into the centre of the city. Instead of taking the most direct route, it’s worth heading off course a little to take a detour through Santa Caterina Park. This beautifully planted stretch is the perfect introduction to Funchal, as it highlights how gardens and green spaces are integral to the area. You will also be greeted by a fantastic view of the bay, showing how the city looks out at the Atlantic Ocean.
Return to the Infante Roundabout and walk along Avenida Zarco, which puts you back on your path towards the centre. Keep your eyes open, as there are many interesting landmarks to note along the way. Chief among these are the Baltazar Dias Municipal Theatre and Funchal Cathedral, which is famous for its Mudejar-style ceiling. You may also wish to stop off at one of the wine cellars, as it is along this stretch where many of the companies producing Madeira’s world-renowned sweet wine are based.
Once you reach the Old Town, you’ll be ready for some lunch and your first taste of Madeiran cuisine. The Cidade Velha restaurant has created quite a reputation for itself and occupies a great location, with outside space overlooking the sea, as well as an extensive menu. Whether you prefer traditional seafood dishes, such as swordfish, or fillet steak, you will find something delicious to satisfy your appetite.
After lunch, take a leisurely stroll to Ruo do Oudinot nearby and hop on the number 22 bus, which will take you to the bottom cable car station of the Monte Funchal ascent. Only purchase a one-way ticket, as there’s a much more exciting opportunity for coming back down! At the top, you will be greeted by panoramic views of the city and surrounding areas, as well as a number of other attractions. These include the Church of Our Lady of Monte and the Monte Palace Gardens, which are both well worth exploring.
Prepare for a fantastic ride back down the hill in a traditional wicker toboggan, which has been seen around these parts since the 1850s. Residents found that making the descent in this manner was both fun and time efficient, meaning the practice has continued to this day. Attendants dressed in traditional attire can be seen clinging to the back of each toboggan, preventing it from getting out of control. Expect to be delivered back into the city in around ten minutes, having completed the two-kilometre trip.
For something to eat; there is a fantastic little place in the Old Town that is mainly undiscovered, but well worth seeking out. O Portao is on Rua Portao de Sao Tiago and offers incredible value for money in a laidback atmosphere, which will make you feel like you have been invited right into the heart of a Madeiran community. While it’s true that all of O Portao’s dishes are good, be sure to try the passion fruit pudding, as you won’t find a better version in the whole of Funchal.
Day 2 – Delve into the history of Funchal
Now that you have got your bearings, it’s time to find out more about the history of Funchal and there’s no better place to do so than in the Sao Pedro area. Churches, state buildings and squares have grown in the district over the years and it is a fascinating place to explore.
There are plenty of buildings and monuments to choose from, depending on what picks your fancy, so have a wander around and decide which ones to take a closer look at. Some of these may include the Colegio Church, a Jesuit place of worship, begun in 1629 and not completed until the 18th century; and the stunningly imposing Town Hall. Both of these locations have beautiful interiors, with the frescoes in the church only discovered after a recent bout of renovation.
Dating back to 1986, the Bonfim restaurant must be doing something right to have stayed open so long, especially as it is slightly tucked away. It is just a short walk from some of the most interesting attractions, however, so worth visiting. Find this cosy establishment on Rua de Sao Pedro and choose from a small selection of delicious Madeiran classics. The Piri Piri prawns come particularly highly recommended and the portions will keep your energies high for sightseeing all afternoon.
Spend the afternoon in the Sacred Art Museum, which has been displaying works since 1955. It consists of a chapel dating back to the 16th century and the Bishop’s Palace, which was commissioned to be constructed in the 17th century. As well as the stunning architecture, the exhibits to be enjoyed include paintings, sculptures and jewellery from local religious buildings, such as churches and convents.
Just ten minutes away on foot is one of Funchal’s most celebrated eateries, Restaurante Do Forte. Its location inside the Sao Tiago Fortress is hard to beat and the same can be said for both the food and the service. The menu is a cornucopia of fine dining, with everything from fish and meat dishes to risottos and vegetarian offerings. Open until midnight, you can take your time over your meal and unwind with the local drink poncha which is a combination of sugar cane brandy, honey and lemon.
Day 3 – Take in the views of the city
It’s time to reach new heights in your exploration of Funchal, with a climb up to one of the most spectacular views of the city. Start off in Sao Pedro and make your way upwards from behind the Sao Pedro Church. Stop to have a look at the traditional Portuguese azulejo tiles on display in the Frederico de Freitas House Museum, which is located just below the Santa Clara Church. The religious space is interesting in itself, as it was built by the son of the founder of Madeira in the 15th century.
Continue your ascent of the Calcada de Santa Clara and start to see Funchal getting smaller beneath you. The Belvedere das Cruzes is a great place as well as a nearby Museum of Quinta das Cruzes, which is home to a fine collection of decorative art. In its garden, you will find a Manueline window that was once part of the façade of an old hospital that served the people of this area. Now devoid of the rest of the building, it sits among the trees, proudly displaying its perfectly shaped arches.
One of the best things about the climb up to the Fort of Sao Joao Baptista is that you go along Caminho da Achada. This may just be a typical street to many of the residents of Funchal, but for visitors, it encapsulates the picturesque aesthetic of the city. You can peep over walls into pretty gardens and enjoy climbing plants as you ascend the steep, narrow thoroughfare with traditional houses on either side.
When you reach the fortress, you will be at 1,115 metres above sea level and have the view you deserve after the climb. The whole of Funchal can be seen from this vantage point, but it’s also worth taking in the history of the construction on the hill. Built towards the end of the 17th century, the Fort of Sao Joao Baptista was used to store gunpowder and protect the city below. Over the years it changed its name several times, before returning to its original moniker. In the 20th century, the navy covered the fortress in antennae and made it into a communication centre. You can go inside between 9 am and 6 pm each day.
Day 4 – Escape the city to a Quinta
There are plenty of things to do not far from Funchal that are connected by public transport and the Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro is just one of them. This stunning estate is just ten kilometres to the east of Funchal and buses leave regularly throughout the day. It’s the numbers 36, 36A, 37 and 47 you need to look out for, as they will drop you off at the garden entrance of the estate. Open between 9 am and 5.30pm daily, admission is charged at €10.50 (£9) for adults and €4 (£3.44) for kids, with groups of five people or more obtaining a ten percent discount.
An 18th-century manor house can also be found within the grounds, along with a baroque chapel. You don’t have to go far for lunch, as the Lady’s Garden section of the estate is home to a beautiful Tea House. Set within a pavilion facing an ornamental pond, complete with koi carp and frogs, it’s a wonderful spot to enjoy soup and a sandwich, followed by some homemade cake.
While you will most likely want to sit outside and enjoy the surroundings, be sure to pop indoors at some point, as the walls of the Tea House act as something of a museum to the estate’s history. Here, you will find black and white photos of the Quinta dating back to the 19th century. Not far from the pavilion, there is also a maize milling machine from 1950, which was once used on the estate and is well worth a look.
Avid golfers will be pleased to know that the Palheiro Golf Course is just a stone’s throw away from this lunch spot. It’s a fantastic way to pass the afternoon and the course is well known as one of the most beautiful in all of Europe. After all, not many have such a spectacular view, with the Bay of Funchal spread out right in front of you.
Day 5 – Head to the beach
Despite having all the attractions of a city destination, it’s worth remembering that Funchal is the capital of an island and the sea is not far away. This means you can enjoy a day at the beach without having to venture too far afield. In fact, there are four – three sandy and one pebbled – within walking distance of the city centre. Follow the promenade west until you get to the area widely known as Praia Formosa, although, as well as its namesake beach, you will also find Praia Nova, Praia dos Namorados and Praia do Arieiro.
There is enough here to keep you and the kids entertained all day, from the Blue Flag-certified beaches, watersports facilities and skateboard ramp to various bars and restaurants. Of all the eateries in the beach area, Barra Azul is a good bet for lunch, with a selection of seafood and other light bites available. You can sit outside and watch the world go by while mingling with locals who are also getting themselves refuelled for the afternoon.
By the evening you’ll be ready to venture further afield, so why not check out Aconchego Restaurant along Estrada Monumental? Still, within striking distance of the beach, it’s a great place to take in the views and watch the sun go down or even catch some live music. Being by the sea, it’s not surprising that the fish here are top rate, but its specialities stretch further to wider Portuguese and Mediterranean dishes.
Day 6 – Travel the world through the Botanical Garden’s planting
It has already been touched upon that Funchal has some beautiful green spaces, but none are quite as impressive as the Botanical Garden. Jump on the number 29 or 30 bus from Rua Artur S Pinga, or alternatively, the number 31 from Avenida do Mar and find yourself transported to this stunning area of exotic flowers. The Botanical Garden is open from 9.30am to 6pm daily and is just €3 (£2.57) to enter, while children under four-years-old get in for free. The area of the garden stretches out over an impressive 35,000 square metres and includes rare plants indigenous to Madeira, as well as many others from much further afield.
There are five different sections in the botanical garden to enjoy, helping you to gain a greater understanding of the challenges of conserving various species. One of the areas is dedicated to rare birds, with 300 on display. Among these, the dwarf parrots and macaws are particularly charming. You will be left with an overwhelming sense of colour as your strongest memory to this part of Funchal.
If flowers really are your thing, then you won’t want to leave the area before heading to the Orchid Garden just down the road. More than 7,500 orchid species are grown in the laboratory here and put on display in glass houses and throughout the garden, for visitors to inspect. Be sure to stop and take in the views from this spot and even refresh yourself with a drink or snack from the café.
Just a 20-minute walk away from the Botanical Garden, or three minutes on the number 29 bus, is Restaurante Planka. This eatery occupies a spectacular location and is the perfect place to enjoy lunch after taking in all the stunning flowers. The staff are very friendly and well-known for their good English skills, allowing them to help explain all the dishes on the menu. These include local sausage, tapas and homemade ice cream, meaning there’s something to suit all tastes.
If you are wishing to walk off your lunch, then a number of the island’s famous levadas pass through this area. These irrigation systems are unique to Madeira and have become popular walking routes, crisscrossing as they do the lush terrain. Simply pick one to follow and set off, returning the way you have come and catching the bus or cable car back into Funchal. Levada walks close by including those of Tornos, Bom Sucesso and Curral dos Romeiros.
Day 7 – Soak up daily life
On your final day in Funchal, you’ll be sure to want to soak up every last bit of atmosphere from the place as you can. Great stretches to do this are around Avenida Arriaga and Rua da Carreira, where you can indulge in a spot of people watching, a glass of passion fruit juice and a slice of cake at one of the many little cafes.
Rua da Carreira has evolved over the years, with many of the historic buildings that were added to it in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries still being in existence. This makes it a particularly charming thoroughfare to wander and pick up a few souvenirs from the myriad shops or just snap photos of old signs or vintage shop fronts. It has attracted many famous faces over the years, with writers and painters, journalists and politicians all having lived on the street at one time or another.
You will not be short of options for lunch on Rua da Carreira, but Espaco Funchal Funchal is a great recommendation. The portions are huge and there are a number of Madeiran classics cooked to perfection on the menu. For even better value, opt for the set menu and expect to be well-fed and watered.