Madeira’s popularity as a tourist destination has grown over the years, thanks in part to distinguished patrons such as Winston Churchill, Roger Moore, and Karl von Habsburg, not to mention Madeira’s most famous export, Cristiano Ronaldo. Celebrities aside, this subtropical paradise has many draws. Its proximity to the equator means the island benefits from a temperate climate year-round, and its rich volcanic soil is home to an abundance of luscious vegetation. Coupled with a dramatic coastline that’s bordered by the deep azure waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and Madeira is pretty much paradise.
Madeira has natural beauty in spades, but it also has a burgeoning food scene that has secured three Michelin stars in recent years as well as a variety of other fine-dining restaurants. Its namesake sweet wine makes the island a bucket list destination for wine aficionados around the world, and its native rum has inspired many poncha bars, which draw in the younger crowd.
The capital city and main harbor town of the Madeiran archipelago, Funchal, has come a long way from its fennel-growing days and piratical roots. The city sits nestled in a natural amphitheater that faces out over the famous harbor with steep mountain ranges forming a dramatic backdrop. Located in the southern part of the region, Funchal is privy to the sunniest coast of the island and is surrounded by banana plantations and verdant gardens with colorful flowers that bloom year-round.
There are so many things to see and do while visiting this historic city, but if you’re short on time, then check out this full day’s guide to some of Funchal’s many highlights.
Set Your Alarm Early Bom Dia! It’s time to check out the fish and fresh produce on sale at the local Mercado dos Lavradores. A kaleidoscope of vibrant, tropical fruits cover the ground floor, and convivial store owners beckon you to try their wares. (Be cautious when shopping here, though, because there’s a “tourist tax” on the more exotic fruit.) The upper floor specializes in dried herbs and spices and nut-stuffed dates, prunes and apricots, but the real draw is the lively fish market down below. Here you’ll find the nightmarish black scabbardfish, an eel-like creature with bulging eyes and razor-sharp teeth, which is a mainstay in traditional Madeiran cuisine, as well as huge, bloodied slabs of tuna flesh and whole sea bream, snapper, octopus, mussels, lobsters, crabs, clams and more.
Address: R. Latino Coelho 38, 9060-155 Funchal, Portugal
Take a Walk When you’ve had your fill of fruit and fish, take a leisurely stroll along the promenade and slowly make your way to the main dock. You’ll notice a small, rocky outcrop covered in wildflowers, bougainvillea, cats and a few parasols. This tiny structure is called Pontinha, and it’s the smallest independent principality in the world. You’ll be greeted by the prince or prime minister, whichever title the eccentric owner feels like embodying that day, who will be happy to tell you a brief history of how he came to be the reigning monarch of this charming rock.
Address: Da Pontinha, Funchal, Portugal
Set Your Sights High Next, take a lift farther along the dock to the impressive Design Centre, which offers unspoiled panoramic views of Funchal’s harbor and the ocean. Stay for a cheeky pico and pastry to ensure you properly take in the view.
Address: 9000-726 Funchal, Portugal
Grab a Bite Feeling hungry? Grab lunch at one of the many food stalls located along the promenade. Choose from roasted chestnuts, crepes, empanadas and more, then wash it all down with a small Coral Lager before heading off to your next activity. If you’re lucky, then you’ll get to enjoy your snack while being serenaded by one of the many troubadours in town.
Then, take a 10-minute ride on the Teleférico do Funchal, a cable car that offers incredible views of the bay while delivering you to the beautiful botanical gardens in Monte. The gardens were previously part of an estate that belonged to the family of William Reid (the founder of Madeira’s premier five-star hotel, Belmond Reid’s Palace), but they were opened to the public in 1960. A $13 ticket gains you access to the gardens as well as a snifter of Madeiran sweet wine.
Address: Caminho das Babosas 8, 9050-541 Funchal, Portugal
Hop on a Toboggan To get back down the mountain in the traditional way of Madeiran gentry, you’ll need to snag a lift on the Monte Toboggan service. The 10-minute wicker sled ride, which can sometimes reach speeds of up to 48 kph, winds down a narrow road. Once the fastest way for the upper classes to reach the main town, today it’s an exhilarating pastime that offers a fantastic contrast to the high-tech teleférico that transports you up.
Address: 9000-124 Funchal, Portugal
Snag a Snack Once back in old town, take a walk down the Rua de Santa Maria where you’ll find beautifully painted murals on many of the doors. Head to the courtyard, and spy on a game of checkers, typically played by the older Madeiran gents of Funchal. If you’re feeling parched, continue up to Barreirinha Bar Café, and enjoy some of the best mojitos and G&Ts around while munching on traditionally prepared lupini beans to sate your hunger before dinner.
Address: Largo do Socorro, 9060-019 Funchal, Portugal
Just down the road from Barreirinha Bar Café is the innovative Riso. Come at sunset and enjoy an innovative menu of rice-centric dishes while looking out over unobstructed views of the Atlantic. If you fancy one last drink before retiring to bed, then grab a nightcap at the Madeira Rum House. Opt for an expertly crafted and refreshing glass of traditional poncha (a kind of tangy rum punch). Boa noite, and enjoy a well-earned sleep.
Addresses: Rua de Santa Maria 274, 9050-040 Funchal, Portugal; Rua de Santa Maria, 226, Funchal, Portugal
So there you have it: an epic 24 hours in Funchal that belongs on anyone’s BUCKiTDREAM diary. Just remember, if you want to make this dream a reality, then make sure to share it with your friends and family on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.