Did you know there is a Portuguese island just a 5.5 hour direct flight from NYC? Welcome to the special island of Madeira! Uniquely located in the Atlantic Ocean, on the African tectonic plate, this lush and vibrant island is paradisaical hidden gem. Full of magical hikes, natural swimming pools, gorgeous beaches, and so much more. I just returned from Madeira and can’t wait to share all the ins and outs, so you can make the best of your trip. These are the essential things to know before traveling Madeira!
Table of Contents
1. Madeira is One of the Hardest Places to Land a Plane
“This was the smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced in Madeira” the Portuguese American lady sitting next to me exhaled. “What?!” I yelped, my palms still sweaty from the landing. I had no idea how lucky I was to have landed in Madeira on one try.
Due to crosswinds, Madeira is one of the hardest airports to land at. But don’t let this deter you. Only specialized and trained pilots can land here. So don’t be scared if the plane has to try more than once to land. That is normal when traveling to Madeira. One of the specialized landing techniques is for the pilot to land it in an angle like this. If it’s still not safe to land, they might end up taking you to the nearby island of Porto Santo, a 2.5 hour ferry from Madeira.
The landings here are so interesting to see, that many departing travelers from the Cristiano Ronaldo International Madeira Airport , like to hangout in a patio facing the landing strip to see how the flights land and take off.
2. Getting To/Out of the Airport
Hire a private taxi with Transfers Madeira for 28 euros each way. This is a great deal. You can text them on Whatsapp to set it up at +351 961 409 690. The drive takes about 35 minutes to Funchal. Ask them to avoid the steep hills in/out of town for a less anxiety-inducing ride.
If you’re on a tighter budget, you can take a bus at the airport for about 4 euros, which takes about an hour to Funchal.
There is no Uber or other ride share apps.
3. Scary Driving: Dangerously Steep, Curvy, & Narrow Roads
I absolutely adored Madeira. Everything about the island to me was perfect. Except for one little thing… the roads! Here’s how you can get around.
- I recommend hiring a private local driver. I hired Bruno for about 150 euros a day and I got to see so many things in a day. You can text him on Whatsapp at +351 933 774 597 This was the perfect way to see some of Madeira’s gems while chatting with a local about life in Madeira.
- Joining the guided tours. These group tours leave from Funchal and take you to some of the coolest highlights on the island. And it’s a great way to meet new people.
So Don’t Rent a Car in Madeira!
Here’s why renting a car in Madeira, is not for the weak of heart. Cars will skid and roll backwards if they don’t have enough power or force to make it up those seemingly 90-degree angle roads. Unless you have experience driving in old school European roads + extremely steep hills + have a car with a good breaks and a strong engine, I do not recommend this route.
But if you must, then ask about the best routes with the least steep hills. Sometimes there are roads that are not as steep but take longer. Choose these roads! A tourist couple I met in Pico do Arieiro, told me their car slid back three times before they could get it up to Monte. Luckily, no one was behind them.
Going to the natural pools of Seixal, I asked my driver to park the car up and for us to walk down the rest of the hill. I knew I had made the right decision when I walked pass skid tire marks on the hills from cars struggling and sliding back. Not safe! And I think Madeira will eventually have to better regulate this somehow as tourism grows.
On top of all of that, the roads in Madeira can be so narrow that sometimes one person needs to back up on a steep hill to let the other pass! Imagine that. And worse, sometimes you are turning on a curve, slamming the gas to gain force going up but you don’t know if another car is coming from around that sharp corner until you turn. Honk when you do this so people can hear another car coming.
4. Madeira’s Artificial vs. Real Beaches
Madeira is not really a sandy beach destination. It’s better if you love small towns, jungles, and mountains.
Like Tenerife, Madeira imports a lot of its sand to create artificial beaches. The result is lackluster beaches that, in my opinion, are not worth spending time visiting compared to the rest of the gems the island can offer. With one exception! The black sand beaches.
Seixal Beach with its black volcanic-ash sand, surrounded by jungle clouds hanging over verdant mountains, was one of my favorite places to visit in Madeira. And it is one of the world’s most special beaches to visit. Immediately you feel transported to another world, jungle + mountain + beach + volcanic ash? And a freshwater waterfall at the end? Where else in the world can you find this?!
For the best clear-water white sand beaches, go to the Dominican Republic instead.
5. Outlet Adapter to Use in Madeira
In Madeira, they use the typical European plug outlets Type C 220V/50Hz. I loved using this adapter because it also includes two USB ports. Then I attached this compact splitter extension so that I could plug all my electronics in one outlet and keep them close together. This splitter, also includes a USB-C port.
6. Madeira is an African Archipelago (Special Location)
Did you know that Madeira is in Africa? It’s geographically a part of the African tectonic plate and the African archipelago called Macaronesia. This archipelago includes Cabo Verde, the Azores, and the Spanish Canary Islands. That means that while the language, the government, and much of the culture is Western European, when you travel to Madeira, you’re actually in Africa.
7. Portugal’s First Colony
Madeira was colonized by the Portuguese in the 1420s and served as a strategic stopping point for European colonizers on their way to invade the Americas. And, of course, it played a large role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as it was a major Portuguese slave port.
When the first Portuguese colonizers arrived, they set fires to clear the way for agriculture. Legends say that this fire burned for seven years. Yikes.
Historians also say that there were no inhabitants. But others found livestock which could dispute that claim or maybe it was from other passersby sailors.
8. Best Flights to Madeira
From the United States, there are direct flights from New York City which take about 5.5 hours eastward and about 7 hours westward.
- SATA Azores Airlines: starting at around $265 one way, every Monday or Sunday. Please note that SATA Azores Airlines charges $120 for a checked luggage, each way. But the carry-on is free. They don’t state this anywhere on their website, so I’m warning you about it here!
- United Airlines: there are seasonal flights in the summertime starting at around $1,000 round trip. Round trip is way cheaper with United. Their one-way flight is almost the same as the round trip. It’s weird.
From Europe, you can get more direct flights to Madeira. Some of these places include mainland Portugal, Azores Islands, Tenerife (Spain), Vienna (Austria), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Munich (Germany). These flights are also much cheaper than flying out of the USA, even though the flight time is similar.
RED EYES: Both airlines from JFK only offer red-eye flights, which means you lose a day of travel + a day of exhaustion from no sleep. So also book your hotel for the night before, this way you don’t have to drag your luggage around town like a sleep-deprived zombie, waiting for check in.
9. Where to Stay in Madeira? Funchal!
Funchal, the capital city of Madeira, is 100% the best place to stay on island. First, it’s where you land; the airport 35 minutes from downtown Funchal. Second, Funchal is the epicenter of Madeira. Most tours, whether you’re doing a levada hike or a coastal experience, kick off right from here. Finally, the city itself is lovely with its charming old town, traditional streets, and fantastic dining options.
These are the top two places I recommend staying in Funchal:
- Apartamento Ferrieros: This is the amazing apartment where I stayed. It was worth every single penny. It’s a bit cheaper in the off-season and pricier in the summer. But I got a gorgeous kitchen, nice views, and soundproof windows. It was also some of the best sleep of my life! And I felt super safe here. $$
- Barcelo Funchal Oldtown: This is where I would have my coffee and breakfasts. It has an amazing restaurant (indoor/outdoor), pool area, and perfect location. If you prefer to stay in a hotel instead of apartment, I recommend this one. $$$
Travel tip: Stay in one place in Madeira! Having to pack, unpack, and then waiting for check in to open, takes too much labor and time. Convenience is key!
10. Best & Worst Time to Visit Madeira
The best times to visit Madeira for pleasant weather, better prices, and fewer crowds are spring (April to June) and fall (September to November).
The worst time to visit Madeira is in the winter (December to March), as it can be rainy and cooler. This means it may be harder to go hiking or visit the beaches and natural pools.
The peak summer (July and August) can get super-hot, which means hiking in the heat, higher prices, and crowds. But this may be great for beach goers and travelers who can wake up super early to beat the crowds.
My favorite time to go to Madeira? Early September!
11. What to Eat in Madeira Food
To get a taste of the most iconic Madeiran dishes and drinks, I recommend going on this food walking tour. It took us through several neighborhoods in Funchal, including places I wouldn’t have found on my own. If you rather skip the food tour, here are some plates to add to your foodie bucket list:
- Espada fish with banana: This is a unique local fish found in the bottom of the ocean. I honestly did not like it and I’m a big seafood person. I also don’t like that it is coated in a sweet passion fruit sauce with fried bananas.
- Fruits: I didn’t find any fruits native to Madeira. Instead, I found some of the most unique fruits native to the Americas and Asia. Such as the Dominican fruit, atun and chinola.
- Madeira wine:
- Black strap molasses: This is derived from sugar cane and contains tons of magnesium and iron. I love adding it to my coffee. I found a lot of this in Madeira. You can try buying one of the tiny jars for like 2 euros.
- Bolo de mel: This is a dark cake using molasses. I found it too sweet and bitter. But it’s a local delicacy!
- Limpets: If you like oysters or clams, try these.
- Poncha: This is a drink of rum, honey, and freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice. It honestly tasted medicinal to me. It felt like something you drink to get over a bad cough or boost your defenses.
12. Is it Safe to Travel Through Madeira?
I felt extremely safe from crime here. What is more dangerous here are driving on the steep roads and the cliffside hikes such as the levada trails. Every year, there are accidents on these trails so be careful hiking. It’s better to go slowly and carefully, than rushed and negligently. Also, there are some rock falls, so be mindful of that.
13. What are Levadas?
You’re going to hear this word a lot, especially if you’re exploring the outdoors in Madeira. Levadas are water channels. And on an island with no rivers, this was genius invention of an irrigation system that allowed for human life on the island. Levadas carry water from rain, clouds, and mist from the mountain.
They were largely built by enslaved Africans, many of whom died in this dangerous labor. Try to take a moment to honor the lives lost for these levadas. And for the still-standing socioeconomic effects of the African slave trade on the Black community today, which Portugal played one of the biggest roles in.
Today, almost all of the levadas are only accessible by foot and thus are manually maintained by local guardians of the levadas.
And if you’re going on levada hikes like Levada do Caldiero Verde, you’ll hike alongside a network of levadas to your right and stunning mountain jungle view to your left (or vice versa).
14. Where to go in Madeira? 7 Places You Can’t Miss
- Funchal: Monte (Botanical Gardens, Zona Velha, restaurants, museums)
- Levada Hiking Trails: Lush jungles in the clouds with waterfalls and the levada water channels.
- Pico do Arieiro & Pico Ruivo: Hike from the third tallest peak in Madeira (Pico do Arieiro at 1,818 meters/5,900 feet) to the tallest (Pico Ruivo at 1,862 meters/6,109 feet).
- Seixal: Seixal is home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And just next to that, are the Seixal natural pools.
- Porto Moniz: Go for a dip in the public natural pools (free and prettier). If you need a more accessible or family-friendly pool, head to the private Porto Moniz pools instead.
- Lido Complexes: Natural ocean pools like the one mentioned above.
- Porto Santo: Just a hop away from Madeira, this island boasts pristine golden beaches and crystal-clear waters. You can book a ferry ride there or book a tour from Madeira here. Because it takes 2.5 hours each way, this destination is if you have extra time in Madeira.
You can take this tour, which goes to some places on this list! Check my full list of top special places to visit in Madeira.
15. Shopping in Madeira & What to Buy
Downtown Funchal doesn’t have as many commercial stores as, say, Mallorca. But you can find a Mango, Declathon, and Zara store. There are also a few big malls in Madeira like Forum Madeira. But if you’re interested in more unique and artisanal shopping in Madeira, here’s what I recommend checking out:
- Ceramics and pottery
- Fábrica Santo Antonio: An old traditional factory with nice cookies to enjoy with your coffee or tea. Perfect for a unique souvenir gift.
- Madeira Embroidery: Handmade embroidery in the form of an apron, tablecloth, and more. Bordal workshop is one of the oldest factories. Or you can get them from some shops in Funchal.
- Madeira wine
- Wickerwork: Some baskets (common in the village of Camacha)
- Chocolate: Uau Cacau offers chocolates infused with local Madeiran fruit flavors like cherry and passion fruit.
- Mel de Cana: Black strap molasses in cute jars.
- Fundacao Livraria Esperanca: For old and new books.
16. Madeira is Home to One of the Oldest Forests in Europe
Officially known as “Fanal da Madalena do Mar,” this spot holds UNESCO heritage status as part of the Laurisilva Forest of Madeira. Its unique charm lies in:
- Its ancient laurel trees, some dating back over 800 years, and the lush, misty landscapes they create.
- Fanal’s historical significance is rooted in its use as a communal pasture for livestock, a tradition that continues today.
- Fanal is home to one of the oldest surviving laurel forests in Europe, with its ecosystem remaining largely unchanged for millions of years.
17. Pico Ruivo is the Tallest Peak in Madeira
Pico Ruivo in Madeira is the island’s tallest peak, rising to an elevation of 1,861 meters (6,106 feet) above sea level. To reach the summit, you can:
- Embark on the Pico Ruivo hike from Pico do Arieiro (one way or in and out).
- Drive to Achada do Teixeira and then walk the easy path for an hour to Pico Ruivo.
- Hike from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo to Achada do Teixeira on this hiking tour transfer.
The trails are well-marked, but be prepared for some challenging sections, including steep ascents and narrow pathways. Proper hiking gear is essential. Bring layers! Don’t forget to check weather conditions before your hike, a s the peak can get foggy and windy.
Pro tip: The hike from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo to Achada do Teixeira is the best and easiest way to see both peaks. The hiking starting from Pico do Arieiro is the prettiest. If you just want to go for photography and nice scenes, you don’t need to finish the entire trail just do the “half trail” because the nicest parts are at the beginning. If you’re already super tired, don’t bother heading from the coffee house up to Pico Ruivo. It’s not that spectacular a view compared to the beginning (leaving from Pico do Arieiro) AND it’s usually cloudy.
18. Homeland of Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo, the world-renowned footballer, hails from the island of Madeira. His humble beginnings on the island paved the way for his extraordinary football career. Madeira proudly celebrates Ronaldo’s legacy with a museum dedicated to his life and achievements.
Additionally, the Madeira airport in Funchal bears his name!
Cristiano Ronaldo is a big deal because of his exceptional football skills, numerous records, and status as one of the greatest players in the sport’s history. His incredible success, dedication, and philanthropic efforts make him an iconic figure both on and off the field.
19. How to Get Around Madeira
As I mentioned above (#3), I do not recommend renting a car. Here is how I recommend getting around:
- Private Driver: This is the best way of getting around. I paid $150 a day and go to see a ton of amazing places with Bruno. This is his number +351 933 774 597: And for airport transfers, I paid $28 each way through Transfers Madeira +351 961 409 690.
- Tours: Many tours provide both transfers and a local guide to different places. For example, this tour provided a transfer to Pico do Arieiro and this tour took me and a group of other travelers on a levada hike, etc.
- Cable Car: If you’re going to steep places, I highly recommend taking the cable to them instead of driving. One example is the cable car to Monte. Don’t drive up there!
- Car Rental: If you absolutely must rent a car, then make sure it’s a car with a strong engine that can fit through some of the narrow roads. And ask for directions on the least steep roads.
- Uber: Sadly, there is no Uber in Madeira!
- Walking: Funchal is super walkable, so you don’t need to take buses or taxis if you’re based in the downtown area. I loved my hotel’s location which was in the best part of downtown Funchal.
- Taxis: You can hail them off the streets.
- Local buses: These are not as reliable for long distance travel but work better for local travel within Funchal. For instance, if you’re going from West Funchal to East Funchal.
20. What to Pack for Madeira?
- Warm layers for high-altitude hikes
- Windbreaker jacket
- Hiking boots & poles: If you plan to explore the island’s trails.
- Light airy clothes for summer months (it can get HOT)
- Sun protection: Non-sticky sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat for sunnier days.
- Swimwear: If you plan to visit the beaches or natural pools
- Adapters: I used this European-style power adapter with USB ports for charging devices.
- Reusable Water Bottle: To stay hydrated on your adventures.
21. Historic Figures That Traveled to Madeira
- Christopher Columbus: The notorious invader of the Americas is believed to have visited Madeira on multiple occasions. It is said that he even married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, the daughter of the island’s first governor, during his time on Madeira.
- Emperor Charles I of Austria: After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Emperor Charles I (Karl I) and Empress Zita were exiled to Madeira in 1921. They lived in the Monte area of Funchal.
- Winston Churchill: The former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Madeira for health reasons, including respiratory problems. He is said to have left because he couldn’t handle the tropical heat!
- Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sisi): The famous empress was known for her intelligence, forward-thinking, and beauty. She visited Madeira for health reasons in the late 19th century and stayed at the Reid’s Palace Hotel during her visit.
22. Books to Read Before Traveling to Madeira
- Lonely Planet Pocket Guide to Madeira
- The Unknown Islands
- Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History & Culture
- Friends in Funchal