Madeira has received a lot of attention as a safe destination for pandemic-era travel. Out on the edge of Europe, this small island off the coast of Africa became a coveted getaway for Europeans seeking sunshine and relatively restriction-free living. But Madeira is a fantastic destination at any time of year.
Tourism is the primary driver of Madeira’s economy. As the pandemic put a temporary end to the mass tourism movements of previous years, Madeira’s tourist board rebranded the island as a destination for adventure seekers, outdoor lovers, and digital nomads. This is likely because the average tourist, pre-pandemic, was less mobile and less willing to travel to the island while the pandemic affected their own countries.
As a result, adventurous travelers had the island to themselves.
Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal with a population of around 300,000 people. Every year, around 5 times this number of people visit the island for its pleasant climate, nature, wines, and rural charm. But it wasn’t always this popular. In fact, people had never settled on the island until the 15th century, when the Portuguese claimed it for the crown. A historic moment as it marked the start of the age of discovery for Europeans, a period that would lead to the formation of empires around the world and establish Europe as the center of the world.
While the volcanic soils and abundant rainfall would be perfect for agriculture, the island lacks land for large-scale agriculture and the principal exports are wine and bananas. The Portuguese explorers originally exploited the land for growing wheat and sugarcane. And Portuguese wine was once so important to the Americas that it helped fuel the American Revolution.
Madeira was one of the poorest parts of Europe pre-EU, but this changed as investment in infrastructure and in the economy made the island an attractive place to visit. Tourism is the main driver of the economy these days and it’s easy to see why. Madeira has many of the typical touristic must-haves: great weather (at least in summer), affordable prices, friendly people who speak English, stunning scenery, plenty of outdoor activities, and charming multi-century Colonial architecture in the capital city of Funchal. What you won’t find is great beaches, the lack of which attracts a different kind of tourist.
Many of the taxi drivers on the island appear to be immigrants from Venezuela. Brazilians made up the bulk of the rest, followed by locals. Madeira is one of the main European bolt-holes for Venezuelans looking to escape the disastrous economic policies and political oppression in their country.
As it turns out, this island exported people to Venezuela decades ago, when the South American country offered a better standard of living and more opportunities. Now the reverse is true, and descendants of those immigrants are using their European passports and connections to return to Madeira.
The chief complaint about life in Madeira seems to be the low wages. The average salary for a taxi driver in Funchal is just over €13,000 and the minimum wage is €600. Compare this with the UK’s minimum of around €1500. However, according to Numbeo, consumer prices in Funchal are only 30% lower than in Manchester, for example.
However, better security and access to housing and social welfare, the proximity to nature, and a reliable food supply chain (things that are not taken for granted on the other side of the Atlantic) almost make up for the low incomes.
The island’s most famous son is Cristiano Ronaldo, after whom Madeira’s airport was named. (it seems risky to name an airport after a living person. It wouldn’t be the first time a legend in the sporting world fell out of favor). There’s a statue of the footballing legend down by the waterfront, but like the other bronze incarnation of the man, it’s not flattering. The handsome football player’s face is clearly difficult to recreate in bronze.
The large South African community is conspicuous by its accent when speaking English. Ex-residents of Cape Town likely feel quite at home in Funchal’s large bay and waterfront panorama. Add to this the fact that the weather is similar, but crime rates are much lower here. Madeira doesn’t have as advanced a wine culture, but Madeiran wine and Portuguese wine are excellent and of great value.
Another native of South Africa, the beautiful Bird-of-Paradise flower, makes an appearance all over the island, especially in Funchal. The Bird of Paradise has become Madeira’s national flower. Madeira is often called the island of flowers and sometimes feels like some kind of plant lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. By the way, the best time to visit Madeira for flowers is April-May.
A South African couple explained how they came to Madeira to avoid lockdown in mainland Portugal. They fell in love with the island and made plans to become permanent residents. The couple, who refer to themselves as digital nomads, originally moved from Dubai to base themselves in Lisbon. But once they’d experienced the island life, Lisbon’s charms were not strong enough to tempt them back.
Madeira is not expensive considering the level of service and infrastructure. Restaurants are reasonably priced (slightly more expensive than many Eastern European cities but lower than major Western European cities) and supermarket food is inexpensive, despite almost all the food having to be imported. Accommodation is the biggest expense, but pricing varies drastically depending on the season.
Other pros include the fresh air and the absence of biting insects or creatures. The island has one of the cleanest air in any region in Europe or even the world. There are no dangerous animals apart from wild-eyed domestic dogs. Mosquitos are few, despite the island’s subtropical climate and proximity to Africa.
Funchal has an abundance of barking dogs, something you won’t read about on sponsored travel blogger posts or tourist literature. They locked most of these poor animals up all day in small gardens, barking continuously at nothing. This noise replaces the sound of birds chirping and soft islands breezes rustling the trees. And dogs that are loose are on the lookout for opportunities to rip chunks off tasty tourist legs.
Hiking in Madeira
Madeira is heaven for hikers. Accessible, varied, and often spectacular, Madeira’s collection of mountainous hikes, traverses, and levada walks, are special. Levadas are waterways designed to irrigate the land. Hundreds crisscross the island, and most can be walked via paths that hug the water channels. Fairly flat and easy to follow, levadas are the beginner walker’s best friend. More experienced hikers can trek between two of the highest peaks on the island (and indeed Portugal) or follow tunnels through lush subtropical forest.
The hiking trails and opportunities for outdoor adventure in Madeira are many, but few people are aware of it. Attempting to attract outdoor enthusiasts and thrill-seekers reflects Madeira’s economic difficulties during the pandemic. The older demographic stopped coming. A younger audience, seeking adventures in a safe environment, has been courted by the Tourism board with significant results.
The PR1 – Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo trail is the classic of the island. Not for beginners, but a trail that should be on any “best hikes in the world” list. It’s not, but Madeira isn’t known for its trails yet. You’ll pass through various types of terrain, get to see incredible mountain scenery, and climb to the highest point on the island, Pico Ruivo, at 1862 meters. Drive up early to catch the sunrise. It’s worth it.
The PR8 – Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço trail is an easy 3km point-to-point hike (6km total). The views of the Atlantic and the island’s coast are stunning. Avoid walking around mid-day in summer as there’s no shade, and it gets hot at sea level.
Be aware of changing weather and microclimates when hiking or even walking easy trails in Madeira. In many places, even climbing a few meters of elevation or crossing into another valley can land you in a wildly different weather system. It’s not uncommon to go from clear skies and warm temperatures to a whiteout of fine rain and fog in minutes. Expect to see four seasons on long taxi rides. It can snow even in summer in the mountainous interior.
Levadas are waterways or water channels that deliver water to reservoirs and irrigate the land year-round. They’ve been around since the 15th century and are currently on the UNESCO “tentative” World Heritage list. Many local walkers and tourists use the paths that hug the water channels to get from one place to another. As the incline is gentle, these are perfect for casual strolls or less experienced hikers.
Some levada walks are tourist attractions in their own right. The PR9 – Caldeirão Verde Levada Walk is one of the most popular.
While there’s an abundance of fruit on Madeira (bananas, bananas, everywhere), most other products must be imported. Small farms produce local, mostly organic produce and can sometimes be found in farmer’s markets. Worth checking out just to get a feel for locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. The Insta-friendly Mercado dos Lavradores is expensive and offers non-organic food from pushy hawkers but it’s also worth a quick peek.
With the proximity to the wide-open Atlantic, it’s not surprising that fish plays a leading role in the food of this island. Finding cheaper eats is more difficult that in, say, Porto or Lisbon. Many restaurants are looking for the tourism Euro or Dollar. Try the espetada madeirense (skewered beef cubes), bolo do caco (wheat bread – often filled with garlic butter and pork), picadinho (seasoned beef cuts into small cubes), filete de espada (Scabbard fish Filet), and lapas (limpets).
Food options are better in cities like Porto and Lisbon. Baked fish and boiled vegetables are popular. Salt shakers are clearly precious cargo, so don’t expect to have them to hand for your baked (bland) sauce-less fish. Negatives aside, you can still find plenty of non-touristic places that offer tasty food and a dining experience worth paying for.
Recommended restaurants & eateries
- Franco’s Corner is one of the best value restaurants serving traditional Funchal fare. Get the fish!
- If you’re craving a huge, satisfying burger, look no further than Deli Burger d’Mar. The small burger joint is located near Monte but you can get your order delivered with the Glovo app for around €1. [Use code REWUXU7 to get €9 off your orders]
- If you want the best meat in town, try the 30-day aged Wagyu in Kampo by Chef Julio Pereira
- Restaurante Casal da Penha is unbeatable for value, range, and service. This is one of the top places to eat in the city. Book a table in the outdoor dining area.
Driving in Madeira
Renting a car will undoubtedly give your Madeira experience a boost. Public transport is functional but not particularly convenient. If you’re staying for more than a few days or weeks, a car will let you discover the best spots without the hassle of waiting on taxis and buses. While taxis are cheap for journeys in Funchal, fares are downright pricey for journeys to the start of hiking trails or villages outside of the capital city.
The map below shows the distances involved. It’s relatively easy to circumnavigate the entire island in a day while taking in the sights. If you plan to visit Pico do Arieiro or Pico Ruivo for sunrise (highly recommended), self-drive is a much better option than using a tour company or taxi. Try LocalRent.com for good deals. If that doesn’t work for you, visit Avia Car Madeira for straightforward rentals with no hidden costs.
Practical Information & Tips
Official Madeira Website: Visit Madeira
Official Madeira Twitter account: madeira_islands
Official Visit Madeira Instagram account: Visit Madeira
Quality of life: high
Cost of living: Low in comparison with Western European cities. Use the cost of living and price indexes on Numbeo and Expatistan for the latest info. The website LivingCost also uses crowdsourced and public data sets to provide detailed prices and living costs for Funchal among other places.
Weather: pretty darn good all year round. Not too hot or cold.
Foreigner friendly: absolutely
Safety: Madeira is a safe island with a low rate of crime, accidents, and natural disasters.
Time Zone: Madeira’s time zone is the same as mainland Portugal’s. However, Madeira (16.9595° W) is 7 degrees west of Portugal (9.1393° W), about the same degree of separation between London and Strasbourg, yet Strasbourg is an hour ahead of London). This fixing of the timezone means that daylight arrives much later on the island than on the mainland.
- The All Trails app is an excellent tool for discovering, planning, and documenting the many beautiful hiking trails on the island.
- If you like specialty coffee, bring your own. Madeirans favor coffee blends of up to 80% Robusta bean (the cheaper beans that many consider to be bitter). As a coffee lover/snob, Madeira was disappointing.
- Use the Fork app to get up to 50% off meals in some of the best restaurants in town. Eateries are rated on the app, so look for high scores and big discounts. It’s one of the best ways to sample the island cuisine on a budget
I stayed at the Savoy Palace Hotel for a month thanks to a very special offer for digital nomads staying at least 4 weeks. I rarely recommend hotels but the Savoy Palace is a superb hotel with professional and courteous staff and there’s literally nothing I can find fault with.
How much time to spend in Madeira?
How much time you spend in Madeira depends on how you like to travel and the things you like to do. Funchal can be seen in a day and you can drive around the coast in half a day. Do some hikes, hang out at Calheta, Ponta do Sol, and Machico.
How to get around Madeira?
Hands down, the best way to travel around the island is by car—this mode of transport gives you a lot of freedom and makes travel in Madeira much easier. Book a car rental in advance to save some money.
What are the highlights of Madeira?
Walking the many levadas that cross the island, climbing the island’s highest mountain, hiking the many excellent marked trails around the island, surfing the south coast, exploring the food and wine of Madeira with a tour, strolling around charming Funchal, visiting Monte Palace Botanical Garden, driving the wild north coast, visiting the Laurisilva forests, and taking the cable car to Monte. Whale watching with one of the many boat tours. Lots to see and do.
What about tourist traps?
To avoid hawkers, scammers, and over-priced tourist claptrap, skip the Mercado dos Lavradores, restaurants advertising “tourist menu”, the Santana houses, the Monte toboggan/sled ride, and regular taxis.
How much is the ferry from Madeira to Porto Santo?
The ferry to Porto Santo costs €60 return
When is the best time to go?
If you’re looking for the best weather, especially on the coast, mid-May to September is your best bet. Locals explained to me how the weather changes from “unpredictable” to “more predictable” around the second week in May. This is exactly what I experienced. From the middle of that month, the weather noticeably improved, with regular long spells of sunshine and higher temperatures.
Are there any sandy beaches in Madeira?
Not really. A man-made sand beach can be found near Calheta (on the west coast) and Machico (on the east coast). Apart from this, beaches are few and are almost always pebble or rock.
Don’t come to Madeira Island if you’re looking for Canary Island-type sun lounging and splashing in the waves. However, a trip to Porto Santo should satisfy any beach lover’s desire for sand and sun.
Is Madeira safe?
Absolutely. Apart from the challenges of driving on the island and the scary airport landing, there’s not much that is a cause for concern. Crime rates are low.
Where to stay in Funchal?
Funchal is not a large city, but it’s worth staying near the lido area if you want to experience the best of the city as a tourist.
Is it possible to see Madeira without a car?
It’s possible to see Madeira using only public transport, but not recommended. Public transport services are fragmented among multiple companies and few bus lines run with any kind of regularity. Rent a car or use the taxi app called Bolt (Use code KEITHLSJ for €5 Discount) for taxis.
Are there buses in Madeira?
Buses run every hour from the airport to major towns. Tour groups and private bus transport can get expensive if you’re planning to see the entire island. The SAM Madeira Bus app will help plan routes. But hiring a car before you arrive will give you more freedom and flexibility.
Is Madeira expensive?
It’s cheaper than major cities in Western Europe but more expensive than even Eastern European capital cities. Prices for groceries are higher than in mainland Portugal. The island’s economy is fuelled by Tourism and the higher prices reflect this.
How’s the internet speed and coverage?
Broadband wifi in apartments and hotels is fast. Most cafes, malls, and restaurants have decent wifi. You can also pick up cheap mobile phone SIMs and use them as wifi hotspots
What languages are spoken in Madeira Island? Can I get by with only English?
Portuguese is the main language, but most people speak good English (generally with a British accent). There are many immigrants from all over the world and an expat community. Some people also speak German and French, and many locals understand Spanish. Brushing up on your language skills before you arrive is still a great idea.
What to eat in Madeira?
Try the espetada madeirense (skewered beef cubes), bolo do caco (wheat bread – often filled with garlic butter and pork), picadinho (seasoned beef cuts into small cubes), filete de espada (Scabbard fish Filet), and lapas (limpets)
What other places apart from Funchal are worth staying in?
The best places to stay are the following: Camara de Lobos, near Funchal, is a relaxed place in a relatively flat area with good sea access. Ponta do Sol is great for people who want to be close to nature and the sea. Machico is the second biggest city on Madeira Island and has plenty of accommodation options. Calheta is the spot for sun-seekers and sea lovers.
Is there a digital nomad community in Madeira Island?
The digital nomad community is growing fast. You can find easily accessible nomad communities in Ponta do Sol and Funchal. There are a few coworking spaces, but nothing to get excited about. The pace of life, cost of living, infrastructure, and potential tax benefits of Portugal make it an attractive destination for location-independent entrepreneurs and remote workers.
How’s the coffee?
In a word, terrible. Madeirans love coffee made with cheap Robusta beans prepared like a shot. Everything else is an afterthought. While there are some gorgeous cafes, the local brews leave a lot to be desired. Especially if you’re a fan of specialty or third-wave coffee made with superior Arabica beans. Contact Gonçalo Gouveia runs Odd Coffee Roastery for good beans.