Madeira is quite a popular destination among European travelers. Known as “the Hawaii of Europe” or “the land of eternal Spring”, the island is perfect for anyone who enjoys nature, wine, and warm weather year-round. Madeira is now hoping to gain some popularity with travelers from the United States, with the launch of the first direct flight from JFK to Funchal, Madeira’s Capital city. The flight is only about 6 hours, and it will bring you to the picturesque European gem in the same amount of time as a flight from New York to LA. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the island of Madeira, it is an autonomous region of Portugal located to the west of Morocco. The island has a warm climate and mild ocean temperatures all year round and it is well known for its jaw-dropping views, cliffs, waterfalls, and hikes as well as its eclectic food and wine scene! In this post, I will dive deeper into my experience in Madeira, and I will equip you with everything you need to know to plan your trip.
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Getting to Madeira
In November 2021, Inovtravel in partnership with SATA Azores Airlines, launched the first-ever nonstop flight from a U.S. gateway to Funchal, Madeira’s capital city. The direct flight operates from New York (JFK) to Funchal (FUN), once a week, and Portugal Getaways has some phenomenal packages (I’m not kidding, I’ve seen deals as low as $699 per person inclusive of flights and hotels). The direct flight conveniently departs from JFK at night and arrives in Madeira in the morning. It will operate until the end of March 2022 and it is unclear when it will return hence the low package prices. You can also get to Madiera via a short connection in Lisbon in mainland Portugal … depending on the hub you are departing from.
Madeira was voted the #1 Safest Island in Europe and remained in the green zone during the pandemic. Please double-check all entry requirements as they are subject to change.
For the sake of having flexibility with your schedule, I recommend renting a car to get around Madeira. The island is relatively small and most of the important points are within an hour’s drive from Funchal on great road networks (albeit, some are tight steep, or windy). For this reason, I recommend getting a good car that can easily get you up and down hills without any hassle. Rentals in Madeira are very affordable (I’ve seen rates as low as a couple of hundred dollars for an entire week with full coverage).
Where to Stay
I stayed at two 5-star hotels in Madeira: The Pestana Carlton & The Savoy Palace. One thing that strikes me about Madeira, is how affordable it is and how much value you actually get for every dollar spent. The two properties are located within a block’s distance from each other and have gorgeous panoramic views of the Bay of Funchal. Conveniently they are only about ten to fifteen minutes walking distance from the city center. The lowest room rates I’ve seen at The Pestana Carlton are around ~$100 per night and ~$165 at The Savoy Palace.
The Pestana Carlton is older, it was built in 1972 and renovated in 2008 while The Savoy Palace just opened in 2019 and it is the first Leading Hotels of the World property in Madeira. For roughly the same price as a regular category room at The Savoy Palace, you can get a Junior Suite at The Pestana Carlton and it is very spacious with a big balcony and deep soaking tub. The Savoy Palace feels like a modern, lavish luxurious hotel while The Pestana Carlton is more like a laid-back beach resort. Each property has a unique charm!
One important note is if you are arriving on an early morning flight, it’s best to secure an early check-in at your hotel. Most hotels don’t check-in guests until later in the afternoon and after an overnight flight, all you may want is some rest.
Map of Madeira
For your convenience, I mapped out some key locations you should visit in Madeira including restaurants and vantage points for epic photos. This list is not exhaustive and there are many more places to see and things to do. If you take the direct flight from JFK which services Madeira once a week, you will have seven days to explore the island. The number of days you should spend in Madeira really depends on your style of travel.
Madeira is home to some really incredible hikes and if that’s your thing, you may want to stay longer and include more hikes + rest time in between. There are hiking trails with different levels of difficulty so if you’ve never tried before, Madeira is the perfect place. It is worth it. Likewise, the island is perfect for a long weekend getaway and you can enjoy the warm weather, the picture-perfect old town, and the food & wine scene the island is well known for. There are also a number of spectacular vantage points you can see without having to hike at all (ie. Fajã da Ovelha, Ponta do Rosto, and Pico do Arieiro). You’ll likely make many stops during your drive to take in the views from the sides of the roads!
Things you can’t miss in Madeira
Food & Wine
Madeira is synonymous with wine! There is no shortage of wine on the island and in some instances, it is one of the cheapest drinks on the menu. Winemaking in Madeira dates back to the late 15th century when Madeira was a regular stop for ships heading to the East Indies. Spirits were added to wine barrels to prevent them from spoiling during long voyages. When an unsold shipment of wine was returned back to the islands, it was discovered that extended exposure to heat and movement in the ship’s holds improved the wine.* Madeira wine was so popular that a bottle of it was used to toast the U.S. Declaration of Independence and it was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wines.
With that said, you can’t leave the island without a food and wine tour. For about ~$70, you can take a 3-hour tour in Funchal and visit 9 stops with 11 food tastings and 6 drinks. This is easily one of the most authentic experiences you can enjoy on the island. You will be guided by a local and you will visit many mom & pop shops, restaurants, a farmers market, and more! There are different tours available depending on how much time you want to spend and what you want to experience. They are all very reasonably priced and you’ll be full, tipsy, and happy … that is a guarantee.
Madeira also has a massive food scene! I mapped out some of my favorite restaurants above – even the most random, small cafes on the side streets turned out to be delicious and incredibly cheap. I’d go for a quick bite at Pub #2 and get a steak sandwich with sparkling water and coffee for less than 5 Euros! Some of the popular dishes worth trying are Lapas or mollusks (resembling mussels) that are attached to the rocks on the sea. They are usually served as starters/ snacks, they are grilled in their own shell, seasoned with lots of garlic, and served while still warm, sprinkled with butter and a touch of lemon.
Bolo do Caco is a typical bread from the Madeira region – it is a warm, round garlic bread that is served virtually everywhere. Wheat soup is another island specialty and you can’t go wrong with any seafood dish. It is an island, after all. The most important thing that you can’t forget is a glass of Madeira wine!
Funchal & The Toboggan Run
Madeira’s capital city of Funchal is packed with historical landmarks, tiny streets, and cafes that you can see for many blocks ahead. Funchal and the Old Town are equally beautiful day and night and you must pay a visit to UAU Cacau for an espresso + chocolate of the day for 1 Euro! After exploring Funchal, I recommend taking the cable car to the botanical garden. It’s a divine, scenic ride that will give you a birdseye view of various parts of the island that you otherwise wouldn’t see from the ground. The botanical garden has over 100,000 species! You can easily spend a day there just walking around and seeing plants from all over the world as well as peacocks, swans, ducks, and koi fish. Another thing Madeira is famous for is its fauna & flora and one of the most popular events on the island is the yearly flower festival.
If there is one thing you can’t leave Madeira without doing – it’s the Toboggan Run. Monte Toboggan is one of Madeira’s most famous and oldest attractions (and definitely the most unique). Back in the 1850s, the Monte Sledge was the primary means of [downhill] public transportation in Funchal. In layman’s terms: you will be sledding down the street with the help of two chauffeurs or “Carreiros” dressed in white and wearing straw hats. They will be pushing, pulling, and steering you all the way down at speeds that can reach up to 30mph! But don’t worry, it is a lot safer than it sounds. Since it’s not easy to explain, I will leave you with my series of Instagram stories to watch!
Nature & Outdoors
There are many popular outdoor activities in Madeira such as jeep tours, canyoning, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, and more. I did a few of these with DiscoveryIsland Madeira and I can highly recommend them. Likewise, Madeira is the perfect destination for a road trip: you can drive around the island and make many stops, each with a unique perspective and jaw-dropping scenery. As I mentioned earlier, hiking is one of the most common things you can do on the island, and even if you don’t hike often (or ever), I recommend including a few easy trails on your list of things to do.
I enjoyed my time in Madeira more than I could’ve imagined. I was excited to explore the lesser-known island because I am a fan of Portugal, and it really exceeded my expectations. The combination of good weather, kind people, great food & wine, the abundance of activities, and the affordable prices have put Madeira quite high on my list of vacation destinations. It is definitely a place I’d love to visit again and I highly recommend it to a wide range of travelers: couples, families, solo, foodies, adventure, and vacationers. I hope Madeira gets the recognition that it deserves from the American markets, especially with the new direct flight from New York (and maybe from many more hubs in the future).
i love you!
I love you!