Things to Do in Madeira
Most visitors come to winsome farming village of Santana for famed Madeira Theme Park, seven sprawling hectares of family fun. Most activities and exhibits, appealingly presented in rolling country gardens, showcase traditional Madeira culture, from rowboats in a gentle lake and traditional hedge mazes, to pirate-themed rides and live shows.
The winsome farming village of Santana, however, is also worth exploring. Most famously, the rolling wheat and rye fields are studded with traditional triangular bungalows, topped with distinctive straw-thatch roofs. Santana is also a good base for hikers, with trails through laurel forests, along the rugged coast, and through Navio Nature Reserve.
To the south of the Laurel Forest lies the Paúl da Serra Plateau, a favorite destination for hikers, nature lovers, and those wishing to seek out the famous levadas of Madeira, several of which are located in nearby Rabaçal, at the western tip of the plateau.
Levadas are a network of manmade waterways that bring water across and down from the mountains; alongside them run narrow but sturdy walkways that hikers have come to call their own. But the plateau itself is also a worthy destination that is easy enough to navigate while providing thrilling views and plenty of fresh air.
In 2012 a glass-floored viewing platform was installed in this already-popular lofty sea cliff on the southern coast of Madeira, making it an even more popular destination for visitors to this scenic island. While the glass observation ledge can be unnerving for those afraid of heights, visitors who don’t fear vertigo will experience unobstructed views of crystal clear water, rolling hills and emerald green farm land. Bring a picnic and admire the coastline away from the crowds, then climb the 289 steps that lead to Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Fatima before heading back into town.
Belonging to Portugal and lying in the Atlantic more than 550 miles west off the coast of Morocco, the archipelago of Madeira is not exactly a place one stumbles upon while traveling. But visitors soon realize it is a destination worth planning for, and the town of Machico is its shining star.
Along with the island's largest city, Funchal, Machico quickly became a full-fledged town shortly after the discovery of the island in the early 15th century. In fact, it was the first place where explorers landed and as such, is the historical heart of the island. Sights include Franciscan chapels, defensive forts, and the original fire beacon to warn of intruders. There are also beautiful vistas, modern beach clubs, world-class diving spots, and the town itself, with its welcoming locals.
For being so small, Madeira is mountainous, which means that for many a lot of the island is off limits, whether because of vertigo or poor health. But visitors who simply must get that bird's eye view, Pico do Arieiro is the place to go. It's the third-highest peak in Madeira and best of all, it's completely accessible by car.
The view Pico do Arieiro affords depends on the weather. On a clear day it's possible to see as far as 30 miles, and the views are tremendous. But even on a cloudy day – at least, when it's cloudy down below – visitors will be above the clouds and feel as though they're flying without wings. Add in a lunch at the nearby restaurant, and it's a fantastic day trip from Funchal that will provide lifelong memories.
The Nossa Senhora do Monte Church is the most important pilgrimage site on the Portuguese island of Madeira. The original church was built in 1741 on top of the foundations of an old chapel that was said to be built by the son of the settler of the island, but it was soon destroyed by an earthquake. The church that stands today dates to 1818. The interior features elegant chandeliers, a statue of Our Lady of the Mountain and the tomb of Charles I of Habsburg, the last emperor of Austria who lived in exile on Madeira until his death in 1922. Also inside the church is a silver Pieta that was the only relic saved from the earthquake. Every year in mid-August the surrounding village of Monte is home to a large festival that includes a procession to the church in honor of Nossa Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of Monte).
More Things to Do in Madeira
The city of Funchal on the Island of Madeira rises gently from the coast back into the hills. As such, just a short way back from the shore there are fantastic views not only of Funchal, but the surrounding mountains and the sea. As any local can readily tell a visitor, the best point from which to survey this vast domain is the Miraduro Pico dos Barcelos.
Despite Madeira being a hiker's dream, the Pico dos Barcelos is accessible to all and not a “trek” in the traditional sense. From the car park to the observation point is about a 15-minute walk, and the promontory is well-paved and includes safety fences. Recently the city has also built a cafe, restrooms, and other facilities there for visitors, making it more than just a ride up the hill and back. It's a wonderful place to have a lunch with a view; shutterbugs will want to head there at sunrise or sunset for some calendar-worthy shots.
Skip shopping for ordinary souvenirs and instead head to Funchal’s Armazém do Mercado, or Market Warehouse. The cultural and commercial hub is located in Funchal’s old quarter, and allows visitors to check out a unique and historic space that is home to equally unique products.
Situated on a side street near the produce- and out-of-towner-filled Mercado do Lavradores, the Armazém do Mercado is very much a different breed of market. This is where you’ll find everything from tasty eats, to events, and artisan crafts that definitely aren’t your run-of-the-mill tourist trinkets. While there, you can also visit the market’s Toy Museum, or just appreciate this brilliantly renovated building that once served as an embroidery factory.
On the way to Curral das Freiras from Funchal is a popular spot for many visitors: The Eira do Serrado, an observation point, is high up in the craggy mountains at a whopping 3,200 feet in altitude. It's a bit of a walk, and there are some steps involved, so it's not immediately accessible and takes some work.
But once at the Eira do Serrado, the view is absolutely breathtaking. From the mountain peaks to the isolated village in the valley below, it is a dreamscape that every hiker and experienced walker hopes to find at the end of the trail. The large terrace, complete with safety railings, provides ample room for a panoramic view that is one of the highlights of any visit to Madeira.
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