Madeira is a semi-tropical island floating in the Atlantic, part of Portugal though a distant 669 miles from mainland. Pristine black sand beaches, verdant mountains and a patchwork of hiking paths are a dream for nature lovers. Its remote location offers a sense of safety and seclusion that’s a balm for these times.
Visitors seeking outdoor adventures will find many, while those craving rest and relaxation on a beautiful beach or a stroll around a cosmopolitan capital will be equally satisfied. Travelers who live to eat will find luscious island-grown produce and fish so fresh it still tastes of briny seawater, accompanied by potent fortified wine.
A near-perfect climate and hospitable locals who speak English almost as well as their native Portuguese are perks. Nonstop flights from New York City can get you there in six hours.
Here’s our guide to 10 of the best things to do on Madeira.
Plunge into a natural rock pool
Swim in a rock pool — Photo courtesy of Andre Carvalho
Madeira’s north coast is home to a series of stunning natural rock pools formed by volcanic lava and filled with water that flows in from the sea. It’s a fine alternative or complement to ocean swimming or laps at your hotel pool.
Take a hike
Stroll paved irrigation channels — Photo courtesy of Hugo Reis
Levadas are stone-paved irrigation channels that crisscross the countryside, doubling as hiking trails dotted with ferns, velvety moss and tumbling waterfalls. A fragrant laurel forest covers much of Madeira’s interior, perfuming the air with bay leaves. Ramble independently or book a guided tour with a seasoned naturalist at Madeira Adventure Kingdom.
View marine life
Spot dolphins swimming in clean waters — Photo courtesy of Visit Madeira
Madeira is surrounded by crystal-clear waters teeming with dolphins, whales and assorted marine life. A boat is a perfect perch for an up-close look at sea creatures. At VIP Dolphins, an English-speaking marine biologist is on board, providing expert insight as you cruise.
Catch a ride on a cable car
Scenic views from a cable car — Photo courtesy of Ricardo Faria Paulino
Riding a cable car is a functional and fun means of island transportation with Instagram-worthy views of dramatic scenery. There are seven cable cars on Madeira, all offering an impressive perspective.
Bold murals decorate doors — Photo courtesy of Allison Tibaldi
With shady squares and a sun-drenched seafront promenade, Funchal is a fine walking city. In the revitalized Zona Velha neighborhood, front doors are spiced with splashes of mural-style art. Stop by Museu de Arte Sacra and explore its collection of paintings by Flemish masters.
Sé is Madeira’s cathedral, featuring a paneled ceiling made of local cedar wood with a distinct inlay of shell and rope.
Decorated with hand-painted tiles and brimming with vendors selling just-picked produce and beautiful blooms, Mercado dos Lavradores is saturated with color.
Explore beautiful Porto through these photos
Explore beautiful Porto through these photos
Walk on air
Skywalk offers a fabulous view — Photo courtesy of Allison Tibaldi
Jutting out from lofty cliffs, Cabo Girao Skywalk is a transparent glass-floored walkway with a near-vertical drop of over 500 meters that gives the illusion of walking on air. If you don’t suffer from vertigo, you’ll be able to keep your eyes open and enjoy magnificent sea and coastline views.
Smell the flowers
A lush garden accented with ceramic tiles — Photo courtesy of Andre Carvalho
Flora flourishes on Madeira and Monte Palace Tropical Garden is one of Europe’s finest botanical gardens. Set high above Funchal in Monte, a panoramic ride on a cable car drops visitors at this sanctuary of exotic and endemic plants, including the Pride of Madeira, with its conical purple bloom. Swans and peacocks strut alongside lakes, ponds and walkways adorned with ornate ceramic tiles from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Speed downhill in a wicker toboggan
Feel the breeze as you descend in a toboggan — Photo courtesy of Miguel Moniz
Get an adrenaline rush as you descend steep streets tucked into one of Madeira’s unique wicker basket toboggans. Steered by a team of expert drivers dressed in white with old-fashioned straw boater hats, the downhill ride lasts a thrilling 10 minutes.
A fresh food paradise
Chunks of beef cooked on a fragrant laurel branch — Photo courtesy of Andre Carvalho
Madeira is a wonderland for anyone who appreciates fresh food. Rich volcanic soil is a springboard for an array of fruit, including luscious mangos and guavas.
Clean surrounding waters teem with fish. Scabbard, called espada, appears on nearly every menu, prepared with a sweet sauce of miniature bananas and passion fruit.
Carnivores should enjoy espetada, chunks of beef skewered on a laurel branch for a savory infusion. The beef is grilled and then hung from a vertical hook, with the juices dripping down straight onto a plate of crusty bread.
For dessert, bolo de mel is a traditional cake spiked with potent accents of clove and black pepper.
Sample Madeira's namesake wine
Sip local wine — Photo courtesy of Discover Madeira
Madeira’s namesake fortified wine has been appreciated around the globe for centuries, including being drunk to toast the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence. During the Age of Exploration, ships stopped here to replenish supplies, including wine that had a small amount of distilled alcohol added to act as a stabilizer. Heat from the ship’s hold transformed the taste during the long journey, and Madeira was born.
Modern oenophiles can sip a variety of styles at numerous vineyards that dot the island. To grasp its history and sample it, Blandy’s in Funchal is a venerable producer. Dive deeper and book a comprehensive tour with local experts at Discovering Madeira, and sample at terraced vineyards and prized cellars.
Stay: Funchal is a convenient basecamp. At the Pestana Carlton hotel, ocean access and multiple indoor and outdoor saltwater pools are a fantasy for swimmers. For something more sophisticated, book a room at the Savoy Palace, with high-end dining and a soothing spa.
Eat: Top-quality ingredients from land and sea means it's a jackpot for epicureans. For a memorable culinary experience, sit at the communal dinner table at The Wanderer. The self-taught chef serves a 5-course tasting menu, weaving edible magic into foraged ingredients.
Get here: Azores Airlines flies to Funchal nonstop from New York City’s JFK in six hours.
Health and safety: At the time of this writing, there are no restrictions to enter Madeira. It is recommended that visitors register at Madeira Safe before arrival.