Madeira has a bit of a reputation as a retirees’ paradise. It’s a popular cruise ship destination and as a result, Funchal is seen as somewhere to visit if you have both money and time on your hands. It’s a place perfect for walkers and flower enthusiasts but that doesn’t mean you have to be a certain age. I recently took a five day trip to Funchal and loved exploring this beautiful island - and found that it was both cheaper and more fun than I expected!
Madeira is most famous for its flowers and has the nickname of “the Isle of Flowers." The Botanical Gardens are the most famous gardens on the island and well worth a visit if you enjoy exploring nature and flowers. The beautiful Birds of Paradise flowers were my favourite, as well as the fascinating cacti garden, packed full of prickly pears, vibrant red flowers and giant spiked cacti.
We were a little confused by the tickets for the cable car, but a combined ticket actually means you catch a total of four cable cars – one to Monte, then a second to the Gardens and then the two cable cars back down to Funchal. The trip taught me that I hate cable cars and I spent the entire journey convinced the cable was going to snap and plummet us to our deaths. Luckily, the gardens were worth it!
Funchal was surprisingly mild in February; particularly given that we had left freezing and snowy conditions back in the UK! However Madeirans joke that the island has seven climates, often all of them in the same day, so it’s essential to be prepared. I packed my Berghaus jacket which was perfect for all of the outdoor exploring over the week. It’s lightweight, comfortable, perfect for all weathers – oh and pink, of course! It’s my new essential whenever I’m travelling somewhere that I might need a layer of protection against wind or rain.
Go Colour Hunting
We loved exploring outdoors in the beautiful weather (Madeira is blessed with a great climate) and the streets are fantastic to simply wander. Funchal have embraced this with the Painted Doors Project, an art project which encourages the residents of the old town to paint their doors to draw people to this forgotten part of town. It’s worked; this long street is now packed with restaurants, shops and art galleries and is brilliant to wander down and admire the various lovingly painted doors of the street.
For some more colour, head to the Sao Tiago Fort. Unusually it’s bright yellow and looks stunning against the bright blue sea. It's the perfect spot for incredible views of the sea, just around the corner from the cable cars.
Raise the Steaks
Funchal is famous for its steak, served on a skewer as a dish called Espetada. Traditionally, this skewer is cooked to your choosing then brought to the table and carved by the waiter onto your plate. Then, the waiter will keep bringing the skewer back to your table to re-carve until you are full. Unlimited beef? It’s my dream meal! The best Espetada we had was at Beef and Wines, a two minute walk from our AirBnb and highly rated on TripAdvisor. It’s a little way from the main town but well worth the walk, if not for the cow themed décor alone!
Unfortunately I didn’t find time to eat there but Queen Beady also recommended Solar de Aduja to me; the best steak of her life cooked on a hot stone! You can read her blog post about Madeira here (it’s one of the reasons I booked!)
Food Glorious Food
If you’re not a steak lover, there’s plenty of other options in Funchal. For a light and tasty lunch, try Arsenio’s in the Old Town. For just 10 Euros, you can choose either pork, chicken or fresh catch of the day fish grilled on the BBQ and served as well as a glass of wine or beer. I chose the fish as all of the staff were so passionate about their catch of the day and my Trigger fish was delicious. It’s great value and simple, tasty cooking.
If you’re not already planning on devouring Pastel des Natas, then you should be. These egg custard tarts, wrapped in flaky pastry, are one of the best things about Portuguese food and must be tried. The best we found were in Padaria Pastelaria Mariazinha, just a few seconds walk from Arsenio’s.
For some delicious coffee and a huge selection of pastries, head to A Confeitaria. Sitting outside (in February!), enjoying an intense black coffee with a freshly baked pastry for breakfast was my favourite way to start the day.
Madeira is of course famous for its Madeiran wine. If you want to learn more, the best place to go is Blandy’s, the most famous wine lodge in Funchal. For just 5.90 Euros, an hourly English tour takes you around the working wine lodge, explaining the process and grapes of Madeiran wine, finished by a wine tasting.
Have A Whale Of A Time
Whale watching is possible all year round in Madeira, with a 75% chance of spotting something in the winter months which rises to a 95% chance in Summer. This time last year, we spotted dolphins in Iceland but this time, we were crossing our fingers for the chance to see a whale. And we saw them! It was so magical and I'd really recommend Magic Dolphin, who kept the boat out until we had managed to spot some of these beautiful creatures in the wild.
It might not be a typical city break but if you like nature, flowers, great steak and wine, then you should add Funchal in Madeira to your bucket list.
Some Final Top Tips
- We assumed that in February, there would be no flowers but we were pleasantly surprised with how many were in bloom. However if you’re heading to Madeira to see certain flowers, check before you book!
- If you want to visit the Botanical Gardens, it’s best to buy a combined cable car ticket including entrance to the gardens down in Funchal. This means you catch a total of four cable cars – one to Monte then a second to the Gardens, then these two cable cars back down to Funchal. Therefore it’s better value than it initially looks
The Lowdown: Stay, Eat, Visit
Stay with AirBnb at Beautiful Sea View. Our AirBnb was a short walk from the centre and much roomier than it looks online. Plus some excellent decor, including a beautiful yellow chair. However, the beautiful sea view is no more as a giant hotel has been built in front of it!
Eat at Beef and Wines. Despite the slightly naff name and the fact that I try to avoid restaurants with an English name and menu whilst eating abroad, we had the most delicious beef and wine here!
Visit the Painted Doors Project. It’s something a little different to add to your itinerary, along with the more obvious Botanical Gardens and whale watching.