Funchal is the capital of Madeira and it is a perfect cruise ship port. A wide open and flat boulevard by the sea-front, near perfect weather all year round, lots of shops and cafés and a laid-back feeling. If you are looking for adventure or excitement, this is not the place to go.
We went in November and spent 2 full days and four half days in Funchal. That was plenty. The temperature was low to mid-20s Celsius, with a few days of strong winds.
Magnificent 7 // Funchal, Madeira
1. Walk Funchal Old Town
2. Enjoy the view from the cable car to Monte
3. Ride the road toboggan from Monte
4. Relax in Santa Catarina Park
5. Browse the Farmers’ Market
6. Stroll around a garden or two
7. Visit Câmara de Lobos and Cabo Girão
Getting there –
London Gatwick to Funchal took us 3 hours 10 minutes one way and 30 minutes longer returning due to tail/head winds
Where we stayed –
We stayed at the Hotel Vila Galé in Santa Cruz, about 15 km from Funchal. We went on an all-inclusive package as part of a ballroom dancing holiday. I would recommend finding an hotel in Funchal itself as you will waste a lot of time going in and out of Funchal on either a public bus or the hotel shuttle.
To Eat and Drink –
As we had an all-inclusive package we did not eat out very much, however we did try and can recommend:
Restaurante O Professor, Santa Cruz – the chap at the Continente supermarket said it was the best fish restaurant in Santa Cruz. We loved our Espada com banana (Scabbard fish topped with cooked banana). This is a speciality of Madeira and I would recommend trying it.
The Ritz, Funchal – this is as touristy as it gets and we loved it. We had afternoon tea on the 1st-floor terrace overlooking the municipal gardens. No jacket or tie needed and the portion sizes were generous. We could not finish everything, but be warned, you will need a very sweet tooth to get through all the varied delights piled high. There is live music in the afternoons and evenings. Lovely place to people watch and overindulge.
Bolo de Mel – this is a honey cake made from local sugar cane honey which we sampled and liked.
Pastel de nata – these are delicious Portuguese egg tarts. The best we have ever tasted was in Lisbon, however the few we had in Funchal were good too.
Galao – this is a Portuguese version of a latte, made from espresso and foamed milk and usually served in a glass rather than a mug or cup.
To note –
- Vegetarian food – Getting vegetarian dishes was often difficult. The Hotel Vila Galé’s buffet had a slim vegetarian offering. The four sandwiches (per person) at The Ritz were salmon, egg, chicken and beef. We should have asked for a standard selection for the non-veggie and a veggie option.
Below are our top seven things that we did. We missed two things we would have liked to have experienced. Firstly, a Lavada walk. We read that the Lavada walks would require hiking boots and could be difficult in November so we did not explore this option. On our last day we found there are tours where you can enjoy simple walks without the need for hiking boots, so if this is your thing you can get your hotel to book one for you. Secondly, we wanted to experience the Blandy’s Wine Lodge tour. We left it to our last day, a Sunday, and it is closed on Sundays. Schoolboy error.
1. Walk Funchal Old Town
If you walk along the sea-front to the old yellow fort and then take one of the small roads up past the fort you will come to Zone Velha (Old Town). There are a number of narrow streets and alleyways from the Fortaleza de Santiago (fort) to the Mercado dos Laradores (Farmers’ Market). Our favourite was Rua de Santa Maria. This is a charming street. In one direction, you will come across the beautiful Church of Sante Maria Maior and just past this is a cafe called Barreirinha in which we really enjoyed a pastel de nata and a galao whilst sitting looking over the Atlantic Ocean.
If you then retrace your steps downhill you will come across the world famous painted doors of Funchal which was a 2014 project to revamp a run-down area in Zone Velha. The “Art of Open Doors Project” turned this area into a public art space and there are over 200 uniquely painted doors. Almost every door in the area has been painted in a different design reflecting the business behind the door, to trigger emotions or, to my eye, to raise a smile! This narrow, cobbled street is full of people, cafés, restaurants and art galleries. It is an absolute must for anybody visiting Funchal.2. Enjoy the view from the cable car to Monte
The Cable Car to Monte was excellent value and is a good distance – around 3,700 metres and takes about 15 minutes. You get stunning views of Funchal as well as passing over the tops of mountainside houses. This ride showed the rugged terrain of the surrounding landscape as well as presenting the beauty of Funchal’s setting. When you exit the cable car there will be the “opportunity” to purchase your photograph in the cable car cabin.
At Monte there is a church and Tropical Gardens as well as a gift shop, bar etc. You could then take another cable car to the Botanical Gardens. This is shorter, around 1,600 metres, and takes under 10 minutes, and the views are not nearly as good. Each cable car line is operated by a different company and the shorter ride to the Botanical Gardens is run in somewhat of a less professional manner than the main Funchal to Monte line.
3. Ride the road toboggan from Monte
After we had a walk around Monte we took the “Carro do Monte” back down the hill. This is a traditional toboggan ride on public roads in a wicker sledge with wooden runners driven by two carreiros (men dressed in white with straw hats). They stop or slow down the sledge by jumping off and pulling back on attached ropes. It was fun, completely against all health and safety rules rampant in other European tourist sites and was terrific. A unique experience (especially as we were overtaken by a car using the same narrow road) and one that is worth doing once. The ride ends halfway down the hill, about 2km from the sea-front and it is a 20-minute steep walk from there. Taxis buzz around – one taxi driver told us that it was 6km and would take at least an hour! We walked, but it is steep, so be warned.4. Relax in Santa Catarina Park
This is a small park in the city centre with free entry. Pretty, tranquil and relaxing. You can get great photos of the ubiquitous cruise ships as well as a panoramic view of the sea-front promenade. The park has a small lake with swans and ducks, a vast variety of flora and tucked into a corner is a children’s playground. There is a statue of Christopher Columbus and the oldest chapel in Madeira, St. Catherine’s Chapel. A perfect place to relax.5. Browse the Farmers’ Market
The Mercado dos Laradores (Farmers’ Market) is situated around a quaint courtyard in the city centre at the border of the Old Town. As you would expect there are lots of fruit and produce stalls as well as coffee shops and gift shops. There is a fish market in the mornings where you can see the unique Black Scabbard Fish of Madeira stacked high on crushed ice. Very colourful, aromatic and interesting.
6. Stroll around a garden or two
Funchal has an abundance of parks and gardens that are a pleasure to spend time in. As well as the Santa Catarina Park mentioned above, the municipal gardens opposite the Ritz are also small and relaxing.
We visited the Botanical Gardens. You can get there by cable cars as mentioned above, or you can also get an inexpensive bus, which we did. From there you can then take the shorter cable car if that interests you. The Botanical Gardens are large and have formal gardens as well as examples of plants found in gardens throughout Madeira and a number of exotic species from around the world. There is an herbarium, an amphitheatre, and there is also an example of the unique thatched houses of the city of Santana in North East Madeira.
The Tropical Gardens at Monte is, by all accounts, not the typical Madeira garden, however friends who visited it said they enjoyed it more than the Botanical Gardens. They liked the setting and the greater variety of exotic trees and plants as well as the Monte Palace Museum set within the Tropical Gardens.7. Visit Câmara de Lobos and Cabo Girão
These attractions are close to each other and can be combined into a day’s excursion.
Cabo Girao is the highest cliff in Europe at 580 metres high. There is a glass viewing platform and stunning views. The short journey from the fishing village of Câmara de Lobo is just as interesting as the view from the cliff top. There are views of Levadas and small communities as you climb a winding road up to the cliff top. There are overpriced gift shops as well, but you can walk right past them!Câmara de Lobos is a quaint picturesque fishing village. Lobos means wolves in Portuguese, however the Lobos in the name refers to monk seals that used to bask in the bay. Worth spending time over a coffee and listening to the fishermen’s chatter or having lunch with a view. This village was a favourite of Winston Churchill. There is a small fisherman’s chapel on the way down to the bay. If you are feeling energetic you can walk back to Funchal. The first part of the walk takes you to the black sandy beaches of the Praia Formosa and takes about 40 minutes. It is an easy walk and from here you can head inland and get a bus or taxi back to Funchal. Alternatively, you can continue and walk all the way back to Funchal. That is what we did and it took us nearly 2 hours in total to get back to our bus stop on the Avenida de Mar.
- Funchal is cruise ship heaven. If you stick to the port area for café’s, restaurants and gift shops, you will pay inflated prices.
- The local buses are inexpensive and almost punctual – well, they are punctual if you add 10 minutes to the advertised time. But the service was good and very easy to use. You pay on the bus.
- The Tourist Information booth on the seafront was very good and they give specific answers and recommendations to questions asked.
- There are deals being offered at the booths selling the red and yellow line bus tickets. You may be able to get a combined bus/entry ticket package to a number of the places you may be interested in.
- Although the weather is brilliant, it can get windy and this stops the cable cars from operating, so if you are in Funchal for a short period and the cable cars are running, then do them first.
- We had two different experiences from the cable car operators. The Funchal to Monte line simply said, “we are unsure of the weather so will only sell you a single ticket. If it is OK to come back, then just pay the difference between the single and return trip fare”. Simple and fair. However, the other line from the Botanical Gardens said: “pay one way and we will give you an (unspecified) discount on the return”. Guess what, it was a minimal discount and was pretty close to costing the same as two single tickets.
- Funchal has a pace and a demographic suited to cruise ship passengers. More of a ‘slow foxtrot’ pace than a ‘samba’ pace.
Fun fact: Madeiran bananas are generally small and sweet. Madeira was a big European banana exporter until the EU regulations on the size of bananas changed.