At first pass it would be easy to assume the list of things to do in Madeira could contain little more than a mooch around the Botanical Garden and a sip of Madeira wine. Of course, we’d recommend you give both a go, but this cheeky little island has some quirks up its sleeve. The toboggan rides are a nice but bizarre place to start. From there it’s eccentrics, sunken treasures and a casual bit of snorkel time with some dolphins. Brace yourselves, Madeira’s a surprise-filled stay you’ll need plenty of time to appreciate.
Ride in a toboggan basket
Madeirans don’t let a little detail like a lack of snow stop them from enjoying a hair-raising toboggan ride. And, for just €30 you too can be shoved down the streets of Madeira by two runners from Carreiros Do Monte. Your mode of transport? A wicker basket on smooth rails. Speeds? Up to 30kmph. Time? Around 5 minutes. Worth a go if you’re looking for a little adrenaline boost – and want to be at the bottom of Funchal’s hills rather than the top. Madeira toboggan lore states that this is a historic way for locals to travel. Whether they really did nip from the village of Monte into town – in a basket, or not, you can’t say this isn’t a fun way to see the city.
Get tropical in Madeira’s Botanical Garden
In Madeira, the Botanical Garden is at the top of many people’s wish list. And, as well as the chance to peer at around 2,000 different plants, trees, orchids and shrubs the views from the gardens are a must. Photographers, ready your Insta feed for some very pleasing aesthetics. Planting has been laid out in geometrical patterns worthy of space in your gram. Nature lovers, endangered and rare plants – alongside Madeira’s local varieties provide a home for everything from birds to bugs. It’s a biodiverse 8 hectares to frolic in, but you might find the Monte Palace Tropical Garden (also in Funchal) is better value for money.
Worship at the feet of Cristiano Ronaldo
Granted, this one’s a little niche – but fitting given that Madeira was the birthplace of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. At the CR7 Museum you can dabble with a little alternate reality to get your picture taken with the footballing legend. Alternatively, stock up on merch, rifle through some fan letters, gawp at the silverware in the trophy cabinet and get a sense of the mammoth career Ronaldo’s had. And, though it can’t quite match the offerings at the best restaurants in Madeira, CR7’s rooftop bar isn’t the worst place to grab a cocktail and a view of the harbour.
Visit a micronation
Well, this is a quirky little spot well worth rummaging around in. If nothing else, pop on to the islet of The Principality of Pontinha just for the chance to meet the ‘Prince’ that owns the fortress. He’s the clever – or eccentric, little chap that’s declared his independence, started his own island nation and regularly welcomes visitors to peer around his fort. All while holding down a job on the mainland. Independence is grand, but you’ve still got to pay those bills. Track down the islet, just to the west of Funchal’s port.
Dive down to a Portuguese Navy ship
It’s no secret that Madeira’s diving is on point. Sea beds full of colourful creatures, whales and dolphins to snorkel with – it doesn’t get much better than that in these waters. Then, in 2018, the former Navy rescue and surveillence ship, Afonso Cerqueira, was sunk off the coast of Cabo Girão. 85m long, a 1380t beast, the relatively young ship is now destined to become an artificial reef. Worth a peer at, don’t you think?
Peer down to the crashing waves from Madeira’s skywalk
Those with vertigo, look away now. Teetering about on Madeira’s glass skywalk platform isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, a view of the 580m drop to the floor below is nothing more than a adrenaline boost and a photo op – trot along to the Cabo Girão cliffs. Open round the clock, access is free, though in peak summer season expect to be sharing the platform with a few coach trips.
Hang out with some whales and dolphins
Don’t miss the chance to spot some truly epic sights just off the Madeira coastline. Yes, you’ll no doubt spy a healthy pod of bottlenose dolphins, but sperm whales, bryde’s whales and fin whales? Those alone should get you aboard VMT Madeira’s catamaran. The list of potential spots goes on, with rarer dolphin species, pilot whales and Blainville’s beaked whale making regular appearances. If you’d rather pass on the catamaran, dive shops in Madeira book in snorkel trips with dolphins. The only snag? It all hangs on whether the dolphins are up for it, of course.
Wander the cobbles in the Old Town
The tried and tested travel favourites can’t be beaten – and a mooch around Funchal’s Old Town is up their with the best of them. It’s got the classic cobbled streets that really are quite tiring in flip flops, yet craved by so many. Antiquated buildings and historical spots are livened up by Funchal’s famous painted doors. Street art even the most traditional among us can get on board with.
Take your pick from the produce menu
The best restaurants in Madeira know how to make the most of their local island produce. The perfect mix of climate conditions, fertile volcanic soil and ingenious irrigation systems delivers a wide variety of organic fruits, cereals and vegetables to the dining tables. Track down Madeiran cuisine or a seafood restaurant with a view and take in the whole experience. And, if you see Poncha on the drinks menu, order a glass. Sweet and fiery, this strong and fruity little number will fire up your tastebuds.
Hike Madeira’s peaks
Madeira hikes take you through the very best of the garden island. Almost any trail you tackle will be rewarding, but there’s one that really does win hands down when it comes to breathtaking views and breathtaking climbs. The Vereda do Areeiro trail links the island’s two highest mountains. The 7 hour hike takes you on trails over Pico Ruivo and Pico do Arieiro, with walkways so high, you’ll be looking down onto clouds and the terrain below. Known as PR1, this isn’t a trail for a casual stroll. Though, if the full 7 hours seem too much, smaller sections of the walk are scenic enough to not leave you in the full grips of FOMO.
Hitch a ride on a cable car
You’re going to want to take advantage of the cable car in Madeira for a few reasons. Those Funchal hills really do get to the glutes and hammies, the views from the car are stunning and you can whizz back to the bottom in the toboggan we mentioned above. The cars take you from Funchal to the village of Monte – which is also worth a casual mooch around.
Swim in a natural pool
Getting back to nature has to be one of the best things to do in Madeira. Exhausted the gardens? Weary from the hiking? Pop yourself into one of the island’s natural pools. Very much a way to tick off two items on the Madeira to do list. Relax in the balmy ocean and check out some of the volcanic topography. The sculpted and – dare we say it, a little municipal, pools at Porto Moniz have had a human helping hand or two to make the pools safe for all. If you want the real deal, the lava pools at Porto das Salemas are just the ticket.