We recently spend two weeks on vacation in Madeira. It’s a small, beautiful Portugese island located in the Atlantic ocean that has much to offer. We will definitely come back at some point in the future.
The good thing with small islands is that you can be flexible with your plans and adjust them depending on weather or mood. In case of Madeira, regardless of where in the island you’re staying, no destination will be more than one hour drive away. You can just get up in the morning and decide where you wanna go during the breakfast.
Travelling during a pandemic will obviously include some additional hoops to jump through.
Upon arrival you have to present a negative PCR test that was done in the last 72 hours. Alternatively, you can get it done in the airport, free of charge, and await for results in your hotel room. If your flight arrives in the evening, you’re likely to get results by the breakfast of the next day. Honestly that’s a pretty good deal, and we should’ve gone this way ourselves. However, if the results come back positive, you’ll have to quarantine for 14 days in an assigned place, accomodation and treatment fully covered by the state.
Curiously, a negative rapid antigen test result is enough to go back to Lithuania, which is much cheaper than PCR, but you still have to self-isolate for 10 days upon arrival back home.
Masks are mandatory in all public places, except for beaches, trails, and restaurant tables. Yep, you have to wear the mask outside, though not many people are taking this seriously - even in front of the police.
Mandatory curfew is in force between 23:00 and 06:00. This didn’t present any problems for us.
The restrictions are very volatile, so it’s worth constantly keeping an eye on the latest info if you’re planning a trip this year.
Recommendations and random advice
At least in the early season (we went in May) there’s no point in getting up earlier to beat the crowds on the popular trails. In fact, most trails are less crowded in the afternoon, and the days are long, so feel free to sleep in :)
Despite many warnings about the narrow roads and city streets, we didn’t have any problems driving or navigating in the island. To make maneuvering easier, just get the smallest car that will fit you comfortably. That said, plenty of locals are driving pick-up trucks and SUVs, so it’s definitely possible.
You don’t need a powerful car to get around - highways have a speed limit of 100 km/h, and in the mountains you’ll be mostly using 2-3 gear anyway, going 40-60 km/h.
You can also use the Bolt ridesharing app to get around Funchal - highly recommended instead of driving and parking by yourself.
Don’t even think about using buses, unless you’re staying for multiple weeks and are in no hurry. They are very infrequent and slow, stopping in every little town.
You can definitely explore the whole island in 7 days, but that would be a pretty intense week. 14 days was a bit too much for us, especially staying in a single hotel the whole time. 9-10 days would’ve been ideal.
Pebble beaches dominate the coast, and the problem with that is not only that they are uncomfortable to walk on, but that they also get painfully hot when the sun is out. Bring water shoes or at least a pair of sandals with you.
What follows is my recommended itinerary. Feel free to mix and match different days however you see fit. We didn’t follow this exact program, I only compiled it after the trip.
If the weather is not that great, or you’re up for some urban exporing, you can easily spend the whole day in Funchal.
Take a cable car up to Monte Palace gardens. The gardens might seem expensive at 12 eur/person, but you could easily spend half a day wandering in there. There are more gardens in the city, but this one seems the most impressive and best rated. You can get back using the same cable car or just get a taxi.
Don’t forget to wander through the old town for a bit, it’s a pretty charming place to get lost in, and you can never go too far off.
You could visit Blandy’s Wine Lodge for a tour and tasting, though if you have zero interest in wines I reckon it would be pretty boring. If you decide to go, make an online reservation at least a couple days out.
Some restaurant recommendations in no particular order: Restaurante Embaixador Madeirense for local cuisine, Kampo by Chef Julio Pereira for contemporary european, and Three House rooftop terrace for sunset cocktails.
PR8 Ponta de São Lourenço, 6 km. in total. A coastal trail, really unlike most others on the island. Probably best appreciated on a clear day. Extremely windy - keep a close watch on your hat and glasses.
Christo Rei + Praia do Garajau. A statue of Christ on top of a cliff and a pebble beach below. You can take a cable car or drive down to the beach (parking is free, but space is limited). Nothing particulary special about this beach, just a good place to get a drink and dip into the ocean on your way to Funchal after a hike. Feel free to skip if it’s not on your way.
PR11 Vereda dos Balcoes, 3 kilometers in total. A very easy trail with a great viewpoint at the end of it.
Miradouro da Encumeada viewpoint / Snack Bar Restaurante Boca Da Encumeada. The snack bar (not the souvenir shop!) I linked to actually has a better view than the official viewpoint. Non-drivers should try a poncho - it’s a local cocktail, and they make pretty good ones up there.
Cabo Girão Skywalk. Fantastic views over the cliff on the glass platform. Highest cliff in Europe, definitely worth a quick stop.
Start with PR 6.2 Levada do Alecrim. At the crossroads near the end turn to Lagoa do Vento, where you’ll find a nice waterfall. After this go for a snack in the Rabacal Nature Spot Café, and then go for PR 6.1 Levada do Risco trail for another waterfall (the beginning section is shared with Levada das 25 Fontes). Go back to the cafe and catch a bus going up - 2 euros per person, goes every 20 minutes or so. You can also just walk the same road - it’s not that far, but all uphill and pretty boring.
Visit Porto do Seixal black sand beach if you get tired of treading on rocks.
You’ll most likely need to drive through north coast, which looks very different from the south and reminded me of Iceland. Definitely stop at a few viewpoints to take in the views.
Finally, the crown jewel of Maideira’s trail network: PR1 Vereda do Arieiro. This route connects the highest peaks of Madeira - Pico Ruivo and Pico do Arieiro. ~7km and about 3-3.5 hours if going one-way. Very well maintained and not really technical, but that’s still a lot of elevation to cover, especially if you’re doing a round-trip.
I recommend checking Arieiro webcam before going. You probably wouldn’t want to go when the mountains are completely covered in thick clouds. Keep in mind that weather up there can surprise you - just because it’s sunny on the coast, doesn’t mean it’s the same in the mountains, and vice versa. That said, don’t try to avoid the clouds completely. Hiking with some clouds passing through the trail feels pretty cool - both literally and figuratively.
PR9 Levada do Caldeirão Verde + Caldeirão do Inferno. A long, but flat trail that has everything - lush greenery, tunnels, and waterfalls. ~12 kilometers in total, and +4 if you decide to go for further to Caldeirão do Inferno. That last extension has a cool tunnel that leads right up to another waterfall - the sound and anticipation while walking up to it was a pretty cool experience :)
Not worth it
Casas tipicas de Santana. Not much to look at, really just an overrated souvenir shop. You’re likely to be passing through anyway, but if not, feel free to skip it.
PR22 Chao dos Louros Hiking Trail. A circular trail, 1.9km in total. Not much to look at, unless you’re passing through and have an hour to kill.