Most people might only know the name of the island due to it being the birthplace of the international superstar football player Cristiano Ronaldo – but it has so much more to offer. Madeira has been on my travel bucket list for a while now and I finally crossed it off. Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal and only a four-hour flight away from Germany. It is mainly known for its beautiful flora and fauna and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If you are looking for a beach island trip, Madeira is definitly not the island for you. There are a few sandy beaches (e.g. Calheta, Seixal) but most of the shoreline is cliffs and rocky beaches with high waves. If you are looking for a breathtaking nature and hiking trip, Madeira is the right place!
I want to share the basic “good to know” facts with you:
How to get to Madeira?
There used to be ferries connecting the mainland (Portugal) and Madeira, but they stopped them back in 2012. Nowadays there are two ways to get to Madeira: either a cruise line or via airplane. Funchal (capital of Madeira) is a popular stop on Canary Island cruises of all the big cruise lines. Every time we drove by the harbor in Funchal, we would see at least two big cruise ships. You could watch the shuttle busses leave the harbor in the morning with all the daytime tourists and see them come back in the afternoon to drop them off again. One day wouldn’t be enough for me to visit the island and explore everything, so we chose option number 2: airplane.
There are several flights from Germany each day to Funchal – although the airport is an international airport, most of the flights around this time of year (end of March) were from and to the mainland (Portugal). Fun Fact: even though the airport was originally named Aeroporto de Santa Catarina it was renamed to Cristiano Ronaldo Airport (Aeroporto Internacional da Madeira Cristiano Ronaldo) in 2017.
Did you know that the airport on Madeira is among the most dangerous airports worldwide and pilots need extra training to land there? I didn’t know (or maybe I didn’t want to know) it beforehand – but I sure did see it once we landed. Not only due to dangerous winds but also due to the fact, that the runway is short and has sharp drop-offs on each side: one side drops off into the ocean, the other onto the highway. I didn’t realize it while landing but when we left the airport by car: almost half of the runway isn’t even built on land but on 180 columns partly anchored in the ocean. I arrived via Lufthansa and left via TAP Air – both pilots did a marvelous job.
When is the best time to visit?
Due to the climate being very mild and subtropical it is possible to visit Madeira all year round. We searched for a warm get away in March within Europe and had two options: Canary Islands or Madeira, so we chose Madeira. The temperatures were between 17 – 20 degrees Celsius (62 – 68 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day, and it was usually even warm enough to eat outside at night. There is a lot of wind, especially on the coast, so it wasn’t too hot, even when the sun came out. Since Madeira has high mountains as well, there can be lower temperatures even during the summer month.
The weather on Madeira changes constantly: sometimes we had (warm) rain, followed by sunshine, followed by wind, followed by fog and again followed by a little rain shower within one hour. On the plus side: it never rained for more than 30 minutes but you also never know what the day will bring.
Driving on Madeira
I want to start off with a statement: I love driving! The crazier the roads the better – and boy did I have a good time on Madeira. Why? Because the roads are far from what you might be used to in Germany or other European countries. There are busses running on the island but if you really want to explore the whole island, I suggest renting a car. There are several car rentals companies to choose from at the airport (we rented at Europcar). We rented a stick shift; if we ever came back, I would choose an automatic car.
Madeira has a few two-lane highways connecting the cities on the coast but if you want to leave them, you end up with steep and very narrow streets. The first thing we noticed were the countless tunnels, suspended bridges, and viaducts we passed while driving from Funchal to Calheta (were we stayed). Madeira has over 150 tunnels nowadays connecting all parts of the island – before that it took people about a day to drive from Funchal to Porto Moniz, even though the distance is only 51 km/31 miles and there were even villages that weren’t connected via land but only reachable via boat. All in all, I can totally recommend renting a car, but you will need to know what you’re doing and not be afraid of narrow and steep roads.
Do you like fish and fresh fruits, especially bananas? Then Madeira is the place to go. One of the most famous dishes on Madeira is the “Filete de Espada” with fried bananas and passionfruit sauce. It might sound weird, but it is delicious! There are different ways to prepare it, but the traditional Madeiran way is with bananas and passionfruit. Other famous dishes you should try are: “polvo” (octopus), “lapas” (limpets/sea snail – we didn’t try it, but it’s a popular dish) and “bolo do caco” (local wheat bread, best with garlic butter). If you like to try local alcohol you should definitely try “Poncha” – it is a drink made with sugar cane rum, honey and lime juice (sometimes passionfruit juice). If you are already tipsy from your Poncha, try a “Brisa” afterwards: it is like soda and comes in different flavors (passionfruit, apple, lemon and orange). After the vacation I’m obsessed with Brisa passionfruit; the bad part: you can not get it in other parts of Europe.
Where to stay?
Madeira is not a huge island (around 800 m² / 300 sq mi) and there are a lot of great places. When searching for a place to stay, we landed on Calheta: located in the south west of the island, it is about a 45 min. drive from the airport and 40 min. from Funchal. Calheta has one of the only sandy beaches, lots of restaurants and one of the main harbors to go whale an dolphin watching. It was also a great starting point to all the other places we visited (about an hour to Porto Moniz, 1.15 h to the eastern end of the island, etc.). We stayed at an apartment found on Booking directly on the cliffs. Another plus in Calheta: the sunsets are amazing!
Stay tuned for my next blog post about my favorite places to visit on Madeira.
If you have any questions or feedback please comment down below or contact me, I’m always looking forward to hearing other people’s experiences or answer questions. If you want to see more pictures, please check out my Instagram Account as well.