MADEIRA ISLAND, Portugal — Wine and waterfalls. Those were the first words that came out of my speechless mouth after returning from Madeira, Portugal's volcanic island off the northwest coast of Africa. After a quick and direct six-hour flight across the ocean from New York City, I awoke to magic rising out of the sea.
Mountains brimming with green. Black sand shimmering like diamonds. The wide Atlantic Ocean lapping on each side. At 35 miles long and 14 miles wide, Madeira — one of the four islands of the archipelago, along with Porto Santo and the uninhabited Desert and Savage islands — is a subtropic oasis and an explorer's nirvana. Its craggy coastline can be driven within three or four hours, with views beckoning you to its cliff edges, tumbling waterfalls, and volcanic tidal pools. Miles of hiking trails ascend above the mountains’ cloud line — creating the feeling of being truly on top of the world.
But it’s not just the island’s natural beauty that shines. Though often compared to the Azores, the Portuguese islands to the north, Madeira is an altogether different offering. The capital city Funchal brims with nightlife, art, and culture. Its proximity to mainland Portugal, along with its history as a 14th-century refuge port, make it an international mix of cultures and culinary influences. A stroll through its old town reveals centuries-old gothic cathedrals, bustling sidewalk cafes, and wine bars serving the island's famous fortified wine. Design-forward hotels and an emerging, on the pulse gastronomic scene keep it on par with other European destinations. Its community of passionate adventurers, chefs, artists, ocean explorers, and foragers is entirely its own.
I spent a week on the island, exhaustively exploring its beauty from sea level to peaks, and I barely scratched the surface. The fifth-generation locals will tell you the same. Nicknamed, "The Pearl of the Atlantic," Madeira’s allure is endless. Herewith, a guide to the adventures not to miss, the meals to write home about, and the hotels where you’ll wake up every morning pinching yourself.
What to Explore
The adventure set are fueled by off-roading to the top of the mountains, stomach dropping cable cars to off-the-beaten path villages, and towering waves forming crystal-clear natural swimming pools. But there's also gentle pleasures including wine tasting, garden tours, and beautiful seaside hotels to relax and take in the views of the open Atlantic. The mix will appeal to all points on the adventure scale.
Unlike Madeira's wild and dramatic coastline, Funchal feels more like mainland Portugal. Centrally located off the harbor, the city is nestled in a natural amphitheater of mountains with pristinely clean streets laid out in swirling calçada Portuguesa, traditional black-and-white tiled pavements, and the perfume of warm pastéis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts, wafting along the cafes.
A morning walk through Mercado dos Lavradores, the daily farmers market, showcases the bountiful fruits and vegetables grown on the island: passionfruit, bananas, papaya, and the edible fruit of monstera plants. Nearby Rua de Santa Maria, one of Funchal's oldest streets, showcases the Art of Open Doors project that began in 2014 when local artists were invited to showcase their designs and murals on over two hundred of the street’s doors.
For a look at Madeira's contemporary-art scene, head to Madeira Modern Art Museum (MAMMA), an innovative and modern space designed by Madeiran artist Rui Sá with hundreds of paintings and installations organized by five elements: water, air, earth, fire, and spirit.
One of Madeira's main attractions are levadas, hand-dug irrigation systems dating back to the 16th century that disperse water from the wetter uplands to the drier south to irrigate crops and agricultural fields, whose crops include sugarcane for rum. The two-foot maintenance pathway that runs along each of the 200 channels offers thousands of miles of hiking trails that traverse across the mountains, past rushing waterfalls, the vast Atlantic, and lush rainforests.
You can go it alone, but it’s always better with a local who knows the route. Adventure Kingdom leads guided hikes throughout the levadas with full-or-half-day excursions. It's a walker’s paradise and the ultimate forest bathing experience.
Sunrise Jeep Tour
It's worth the 5 a.m. wake up call for an adventurous ride to the top of Madeira's highest peaks for the day's first spark of sunshine. Discovery Island leads early-morning Jeep tours, climbing nearly 6,000 feet from Funchal above the clouds to panoramic lookout points including Pico do Arieiro, São Roque do Faial, and Ponta São Lourenço for the sunrise. If you're thinking, “there's no way I can wake up at 5 a.m. without caffeine,” you will be reassured to know that hot coffee and pastries will be waiting in the front seat.
Dolphin and Whale Watch
With all storybook waterfalls and dramatic peaks, the expansive Atlantic Ocean can sometimes take a backseat to all the action on Madeira. Get on the water to fix that with VIP Dolphins on a three-hour tour out to the deep-blue sea to spot the 20-odd species of dolphins and whales that inhabit Madeira's shoreline. Wildlife spotters camp out at the top of the mountains to spot activity in the ocean, guiding the captain, as the marine biologist on board teaches guests about each species. The catamarans are equipped with a full bar, and snacks are served throughout the tour. A swim below Cabo Girão, the highest sea cliff in Europe, caps off the day.
Sample the Vines of the Mountains
Madeira's fortified wine has a history going back more than 500 years. The island benefits from an extremely biodiverse terroir: Vines grow le tarda style, vertically up the mountains, with vineyards extending off the steep seaside cliffs. During the Age of Discovery, in which seabound Europeans explored the globe, Madeira became a key port where ships stocked up on wine before the long journey to the Americas or East Indies.The intense heat in the holds of the ships had a transforming effect on the wine, oxidizing and aging it rapidly, as discovered by Madeira producers when one shipment was returned to the island after a long trip. This new fortified wine style was named vinho da roda, — “wines that have made a round-trip. ”Blandy's, the island's most famous producer since 1811, operated today in a 16th-century building that has been home to a prison, a church, and a monastery, reusing its centuries-old American oak barrels.Wine Tours Madeira leads half-and full day tours of vineyards, showcasing their production and feats of growing grapes among steep hills and salt air, including Quinta Do Barbusano on the northern coast, Terras do Avô in Seixal, and Vinhos Barbeito in Câmara de Lobos.
Explore the Gardens
Grab a ticket for Funchal's cable car that takes you to the high-elevation civil parish of Monte, with views of the city's swooping hills, farms, orange-roof homes, and deep blue sea. At the top, Monte Palace Tropical Garden is home to an exotic plant collection from all over the world along with happy peacocks and swans that frolic in the central lake. Also on the property is one of the largest private collections of minerals, titled Mother Nature's Secrets and collected from Brazil, South Africa, Zambia, Peru, Argentina, and North America. Among the collection are hundreds of raw diamonds. I spent a relaxed afternoon wandering the garden's grounds, admiring the collection of Portuguese tiles from the 15th to 20th centuries, the vibrant blues amplifying the verdant surroundings.
Hitch a Ride
When you're ready to head back to Funchal, hitch a ride with a sledge car, Madeira's oldest means of transportation that is essentially riding a glorified wicker-basket toboggan invented in the 19th century to get from the top of the town to the bottom. Today, you too, can experience the historic transportation, guided by two men dressed in white with straw hats from Nossa Senhora do Monte Church to the suburb of Livramento. (€25 for one person, €30 for two and €45 for three people).
Explore Wild Madeira
Isolated by tall cliffs, powerful waves, and exclusively accessible by the steepest cable car in Europe, the tiny fishing village of Fajã da Quebrada Nova showcases a wild side of Madeira as it existed centuries ago. The pure exhilaration of the cable ride makes it feel like the most remote place in the world.
The village is no longer inhabited, aside from some farming plots and feline residents. The place to go is the small, community-operated bar, where the locals who live "upstairs" (in the village uphill) hang out to go off-grid and disconnect. The views from here are the most striking on the island: The northern coastline is dotted with wildflowers and has the largest swells crashing onto the shore. (I know I keep going on about the views, but you will too after you come here.) To access the village, board the Achadas da Cruz cable car, and take a deep breath.
Swim in the Natural Pools
The village on the northwestern tip of the island, Porto Moniz, offers one of Madeira's most striking gems. Seaside pools formed by volcanic lava are filled with the crystal-clear seawater from the surf break and rising tide. The pools are popular among locals and tourists alike, so arrive early to swim, explore, snorkel, and snag a spot among the rock formations while the waves crash. Entry into the pools is $1.50 euros and they are open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. There's also an onsite cafe to fuel up on fresh seafood after your dip
Where to Stay
Whether you want five-star service, access to the surf break, a cool rooftop to mingle with other travelers, or save a buck and spend your money exploring, there's a place that suits any style and guarantees a good night's sleep for the next day's adventures.
Reid's Palace, A Belmond Hotel
A destination for timeless elegance, the iconic pink palace on Funchal's cliffside has been welcoming guests for over 130 years, before there were accessible roads on the island. Europe's glitterati used to be ferried on wooden schooners from the main port to the oceanside concierge. They would then be carried by hunky porters in hammocks up the craggy seaside cliffs to their palatial rooms. The dream hotel was manifested by a young Scottish hotelier, William Reid, who wanted to make it the destination for European royalty, and it has upheld its status, elegance, and charm for centuries. Winston Churchill is rumored to have penned his memoirs from the balcony of the presidential suite. When Belmond took it over in 1996, giving it a fresh makeover and polish, its status extended across the Atlantic. The 111 rooms and 47 suites, each with a private balcony and terrace, are dressed in crisp whites and Portuguese blue tiles. The seaside tidal pool is the most unique amenity (a ladder and diving board leads directly to the ocean), along with a large spa and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Curved like a wave along the Funchal skyline, the extravagant, five-star Savoy Palace is hard to miss. It’s the crown jewel of Savoy Hotels, a Madeira-based company that operates several luxury hotels on the island. The resort boasts 352 balcony-adorned rooms, infinity pools, and seven restaurants and lounges, including a galactic-themed rooftop with a menu described as “fireworks on the plate.” Designed by Madeira native Nini Andrade Silva, colorful plants and patterns cascade throughout the rooms, outdoor lounges, and 33,000-square-foot spa inspired by the island's Laurisilva forest with a hammam, ice fountain, and Champagne and nails bar. At times, the modern design and high-end amenities can feel jarring, especially after a day spent exploring the island's wild side. But if you want to be treated like royalty, Savoy more than fits the bill.
Savoy's tech-savvy, millennial-driven, next-door neighbor is designed to appeal to the first timers on the island who are skeptical of going off the grid. The co-working vibe is alive in the lobby with hi-speed WiFi and communal tables, while the rooftop pool on the eleventh floor caters to the out-of-office crew with an underwater sound system, and tunes curated by the DJ who spins at the poolside Cloud Bar with 360-degree views of the sea and mountains. Wraparound balconies are found in each guest room, as are complimentary kombucha and mineral water from the Madeiran mountains.
Les Suites PortoBay
Les Suites is the most recent opening by PortoBay, which operates seven other hotels on the island and additional properties on the mainland. Twenty-three suites are housed in two centuries-old houses connected by lush rose gardens and infinite views of the Atlantic. Its small size is perfect for families or couples wanting privacy while being within walking distance of Funchal. Sunsets at the alfresco cliffside restaurant are not to be missed, as a guest or passerby to cap off a day spent exploring the island.
Sé Boutique Hotel
If you want to be in the center of Funchal and its European plazas and bustling food scene, book this boutique hotel with an outdoor terraced rooftop with 360-degree views of the city and the 15th-century Sé Cathedral. The hotel's eclectic common spaces and 54 rooms are inspired by the cathedral's historical and architectural history. The subterranean spa and pool add to the curiosities.
Ask any young, hip Madeiran where to go for great drinks in Funchal and they'll direct you to the rooftop bar of this downtown hotel-meets-locals hangout. Self-proclaimed as a "lifestyle before a hotel," Three House offers a community space that caters to spontaneous travelers who want a shared experience with other nomads. Apartment-style rooms are simple and minimalist, several with separate kitchen and entertaining areas. The rooftop saltwater and natural stone pool is kept private by lush gardens and a cocktail bar that is constantly impressing with libations infused with natural ingredients from the island.
To experience the sleepy, surfer side of the island, head to its northeast corner and the fishing village of Porto da Cruz, a haven for gentle rollers and good vibes. This well-priced boutique hostel feels like the home of a well-traveler surfer who is always effortlessly entertaining. Spacious, private rooms and co-working communal spaces are designed with local art, as guests are often working artists and painters. Steps from the beach, it's easy to lean into the laid-back vibes here and allow the sunsets to dictate the daily schedule.
Quinta do Furão
If you can't get enough of Madeira's unique volcanic wines, spend a night or two at this working vineyard on a cliff top at Achada do Gramacho in Santana on the northeast coast. Fully renovated in 2020, its 65 guest rooms overlooking the vineyard have private balconies perfumed by the onsite gardens and fresh sea air. The bakery makes fresh bolo do caco, Madeira's signature circular flatbread cooked on a basalt-stone slab, an excellent companion to the restaurant’s homemade soups, stews, and freshly caught fish.
Where to Eat and Drink
Madeira's culinary scene is ever expanding. In recent years, bright-eyed chefs have gravitated to the island in search of its uniquely biodiverse atmosphere, abundant plant and sea life, and the opportunity to forage within such natural beauty. Whether at a five-star restaurant or a local beach shack, no plate in Madeira lacks the harvest of the island.
Swiss and Tunisian chef Selim Latrous first fell in love with Madeira for its climate and topography, and for the ease of growing produce organically and locally. So much so that he decided to open a one-table supper club to highlight Madeira's seasonal produce in a modern and creative way. Every day, Selim forages for hours on the island — along its coastlines, forests, and mountain peaks — to create his five-course tasting menu, pairing home-grown ingredients with culinary techniques he picked up while traveling the world. Each dish tells a personal story, as he fuses his childhood curiosities with a playful passion for food and for connecting guests. (How did bananas lure him to Madeira? He told us in this charming interview.)
Design Centre Nini Andrade da Silva
What was once the fortress of a Portuguese sea navigator and colonizer of the archipelago of Madeira is now an exhibition space, speakeasy, and fine dining restaurant designed by Nini Andrade da Silva. Its bold and modern design — akin to her vision for Savoy Palace — is meant to showcase the intersection of food, art, design, music, and Madeira's up-and-coming community, paving the way to the island's future.
Fajã dos Padres
An island within Madeira and exclusively accessible via cable car, Fajã dos Padres (a fajã is an outcropping of flat land between sheer cliffs and the ocean) is a tropical oasis and organic farm by the sea. Thanks to its sun-filled southern coordinates, its temperate climate is entirely its own, making the land ideal for growing fields of mangos, avocados, and bananas. A simple waterfront restaurant on a private pebble beach serves exclusively what's fresh from the sea and the garden.
For the best mojito, sunset, and taste of the island's surf culture, head to the pub in Calheta on the southern shore for freshly caught fish paired with a simple, no-frills yet delicious sides of locally grown sweet potatoes, rice, and beans. Once the sun goes down, the vibe rises, and Maktub becomes a watering hole for the island's surfers and sailors with live music and rotating tales from recent voyages.
Rei da Poncha
You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you visit Madeira without trying poncha, a popular and potent aperitif first created by sailors to prevent scurvy. It’s a concoction of rum, sugar or honey, and freshly muddled fruits, and it’s absolutely delicious. This local hub, tucked off the main drag of Funchal’s old town, serves some of the best on the island.
Getting There and Getting Around
Azores Airlines recently launched the first non-stop flight from New York's JFK to Madeira's capital city of Funchal with a short flight time of six hours. There are no pre-arrival testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers.
Once on the island, it's advisable to rent a car to explore the vast coastline and its many amazing rock formations, waterfalls, natural pools, and scenic overlooks. There are several rental car companies at the airport as well as in the center of Funchal.