Madeira is an island in the North Atlantic which belongs to Portugal. Although culturally European, it is geographically African, located 935 kilometres due west of Morocco and 500 kilometres north of the Canary Islands. Because of this, the weather is warm even during the December to March period, making it one of the best winter destinations in Europe.

A volcanic island that started sprouting out of the ocean over 100 millions years ago, Madeira is very mountainous. In fact, Madeira is nothing but mountains! This becomes obvious as you travel around the island and find yourself either zigzagging up and down endless mountain roads, or charging straight ahead through a series of tunnels.

View from Pico Arieiro, Madeira

View from Pico Arieiro at 1818 metres

There is almost no flat land on Madeira, except for a few streets along Funchal’s waterfront (the capital) and the town of Machico on the East Coast. Not surprisingly, Machico is where Portuguese explorers first disembarked in 1419, thus establishing Portugal’s first colony.

This article presents an overview of the island and explains what makes it one of the best winter destinations in Europe, as well as providing practical information to make the most of your visit.

5 reasons to go to Madeira, even in winter


As mentioned above, Madeira’s climate is warm year round. In late November (the time I visited), it was still T-shirt weather during the day in Funchal (low 20s C). Even in January and February, the highs are still around 19C, making it one of the warmest places in Europe in winter. At night and at altitude, a light sweater or fleece is needed though. I you make it to Pico Arieiro (1818 m) early in the morning, you may need a couple of layers, especially in winter.

Due to Madeira’s island weather, clouds often come and go and the sun is never guaranteed. But when it’s shining, it’s quite hot due to the low latitude. Over two weeks in late November, I only saw rain twice (one morning and one evening) and actually never got to visit the museums that were my plan B in case of bad weather!

East Funchal with ominous clouds (best winter destinations in Europe)

Sunny East Funchal with ominous clouds hanging over the hills

Despite the island’s small size (56 kms long by 21 kms wide – or 35 by 13 miles), the mountains create various weather patterns. It can be sunny in Funchal and foggy/rainy 20 kms inland. I found this UK site that shows weather in different parts of the island.


Madeira is known as a hiking destination, and most of it is green year-round. There are over 20 PR footpaths across the island. (PR stands for “pequenas rutas” or “small routes”.) Despite the mountainous landscape, not all the trails are strenuous. In particular, several walks along levadas (man-made water canalizations) are mostly flat. Other trails are straight downhill. Here are five hikes in Madeira you can enjoy even if you’re not fit.

A levada walk near Rabaçal, Madeira (best winter destinations in Europe)

A levada walk near Rabaçal

Besides being in nature, and getting some exercise and fresh air, hiking trails afford all kinds of wonderful views. You may be looking down at valleys and villages from the side of a hill, or waterfalls cascading down cliffs.


Madeira is all about views. And you don’t even need to hike to see them. Starting in Funchal, the suburb of Monte, home to Madeira’s Botanical Gardens and whimsical toboggan rides, provides wonderful views over the city. And it’s easily accessible by cable car or (much cheaper) local bus.

Toboggan ride from Monte in Madeira

Toboggan ride from Monte (used to be the way the locals travelled downhill!)

Cabo Girão, on Madeira’s South Coast, offers the highest cliff skywalk in Europe and features a glass platform, similar to the one at the Grand Canyon. Admission is free.

The Eira do Serrado viewpoint, also easy to access from Funchal (Rodoeste bus #81), is the starting point of a downhill hike to Curral dos Freiras. (Return with the same bus)

If you’ve rented a car, you’ll see viewpoints every 100 metres on some mountain roads. Several are even equipped with picnic tables for a cheap lunch with a view. There are also cafés and restaurants everywhere with gorgeous vistas from their terraces.

North Coast seen from Portela viewpoint, Madeira

North Coast seen from Portela viewpoint


The food in Madeira, just like in mainland Portugal, is very good value for money and delicious. Meat or seafood main courses in a good restaurant are usually between 10 to 15 euros, pizzas are 8 to 10 euros, a beer is 2 or 3 euros, a glass of wine 4 euros. Spongy warm garlic bread is also a staple pretty much everywhere for 3 euros or so.

The Madeirans also have a sweet tooth, so cafés and restaurants offer many varieties of tarts and cakes .

I’ll write more about food and what/where to eat in an upcoming post.

Local products

It’s fun to discover the unique products that make Madeira special, and some of them are especially popular in winter.

There is the eponymous Madeira wine of course, which you can taste for free in and around Funchal. And then there is Poncha, a sweet and potent drink made aguardente de cana (an alcohol derived from sugarcane), honey, sugar, orange/lemon juice as well as different fruit juices for various poncha flavours.

Madeira wine tasting

Madeira wine tasting at Pereira D’Oliveira in Funchal

Chestnuts grow on the island and are in season from October to mid-January, which coincided with my stay. I had chestnut soup, a chestnut tart, and even tasted a chestnut liquor. Vendors were roasting chestnuts along the waterfront in Funchal, the fragrant smell attracting passerbys.

A spongy round bread called “bolo do caco” seems popular from breakfast to dinner. I had it with jam for breakfast, and then dripping in garlic butter with lunch and dinner!

The “bolo de mel”, a dense and dark cake similar to a Christmas fruitcake (but with less candied fruits) is a traditional cake in Madeira and despite its name that translates to “honey cake”, it is made with sugar cane molasses, not honey from bees. It’s very rich and addictive. You’re supposed to rip pieces off with your finger, not cut it with a knife. Locals say it tastes better that way. It’s usually prepared during winter’s holiday season.

If you like seafood, make sure to try limpets (or lapas in Portuguese), a shellfish local to Madeira, and scabbard fish (espada) typically served with bananas (much better than it sounds).

Limpets, a local Madeira shellfish

Limpets, a local Madeira shellfish

A non-food local product that makes good souvenirs and gifts is wicker. You’ll find a store and workshop selling nothing but hand-crafted wicker products in the town of Camacha, to the north of Funchal.

Madeira embroidery is also popular and unique. You can see the pieces being made at Bordal in Funchal.

Finally, flowers are everywhere in Madeira. They grow in botanical gardens all over the island, wild by the side of the road, and are sold in bouquets in markets such as Mercado dos Lavradores in Funchal.

Madeira Botanical Gardens in Monte (best winter destinations in Europe)

Madeira Botanical Gardens in Monte look good even in winter

The challenges of Madeira

Despite all the great things about Madeira, I did find a few things challenging, or just missing.

Getting around

From reading the guidebook, it sounded like it would be easy to travel around most of Madeira with local buses. In practice however, many of the buses only made one run a day in each direction, in order to serve the locals from villages who came to the city, not the tourists wanting to visit the villages from the city. I am not sure if this is the case all year, or just a low-season schedule though.

To complicate matters, there are three different bus companies in Madeira, and no central place where you can find all the information such as schedules or bus stops. A good place to start is the Visit Madeira website.

Horários do Funchal is the bus company that serves Funchal and some nearby towns. Rodoeste covers the west of the island, while SAM covers the East, including transport to the airport (see below).

Renting a car comes with its own set of challenges, given the terrain. Make sure that you’re comfortable driving a manual transmission car (needed for the steep hills). Also ask the rental company about the engine power of their different models. All those steep slopes are hard on a weak car. A lot of tourists in Madeira complain about their wimpy rental car!

Lack of beaches

Although you can find a few spots to swim on Madeira, it is definitely not a beach destination. If you’re there in summer and need to cool down, there are protected sandy beaches in Machico and Calheta (the sand comes from somewhere else), as well as beautiful natural pools (with facilities) in Porto Moniz.

Porto Moniz natural pools, Madeira (best winter destinations in Europe)

Porto Moniz natural pools where you can swim even in winter

Changing weather

Although Madeira’s weather is great year-round (making it one of the best winter destinations in Europe), it is very changing and hard to predict. Trying to plan hikes or drives in the mountains for example, requires checking the weather regularly and being ready to change your plans if fog suddenly rolls in or rain starts pouring. It can literally be sunny one minute and overcast the next.

Practical information if you go to Madeira

Airport bus

The cheapest way to reach Funchal from the airport (and vice-versa) is the SAM Aerobus. It only comes around once an hour or so (see schedule on their website) although the timing seems to match the flights. You can’t complain about the cost: 5 euros one-way (or 8 euros return).

What is a little more difficult to figure out from their website is the location of the bus stops. From what I could see, the bus follows the highway (VR1), and once in Funchal comes down the boulevard that passes by the Farmer’s Market (Mercado dos Lavradores) which is stop #4. From there it runs along the waterfront all the way into the hotel zone and beyond to its end point at Praia Formosa. It takes around half-an-hour to reach downtown from the airport.

Recommended AirBnB apartment

I found the perfect Funchal apartment on AirBnB! This place has 2 bedrooms and can sleep up to five people. It’s also very affordable, even for a person solo (I paid only CA$525 for 14 nights). The view out of the living room window is great, and it’s only 20 minutes on foot to downtown (or 5 minutes with the #20 or #21 bus that stops across the street).

Perfect apartment in Funchal

Perfect apartment in Funchal that I found through AirBnB

Salomão, the friendly owner, also offers an airport transfer for 20 euros, which is slightly cheaper than a taxi. (And if he has time, he may even give you a mini-tour on the drive into town.)

Local buses

Unless you rely solely on taxis, It’s likely you’ll be using the local buses in Funchal (Horários do Funchal) at least a few times, for example to get to or from Monte, or across town along the waterfront when you get tired of walking. Individual fares (bought on the bus) are 1.95 Euros. With a Giro card, you can preload several trips or various passes for a lower-per-trip price. I preloaded 10 trips on my card and paid only 13 euros. You can buy the Giro card in convenience stores such as the one in Galerias São Lourenço

(On a side note, it looks like Uber has just arrived in Madeira as of late November 2019. Make sure to compare with taxi fares if you use it.)

Tourist office

You will find a tourist office on the arrival level at the airport. In downtown Funchal, the main office is on Avenida Arriaga, 16 (the street behind waterfront Avenida do Mar). There is also a small booth directly on the waterfront. Nearby you will find ticket desks for the hop-on hop-off bus, whale watching tours, and so on.

This page gives you the location of all the offices of the Madeira Tourism Board.


Well, yes, coffee is a practical aspect of some importance for me. Fortunately, Madeira has a lot of cafés and coffee shops offering good espresso. You can ask for a latte or a cappuccino of course. But if you want to sound like a local, ask for a bika, garota, or chinesa, for a shot of espresso, small half-coffee/half-milk drink, and something that looks more like a large cappuccino or latte, respectively.

There are two types of coffee-serving places in Madeira. The ones that cater to visitors are often located in tourist areas or scenic spots, with outdoor tables and chairs, and English-speaking waiters (sometimes wearing uniforms). A cappuccino in one of those places will cost around 2.70 or 2.80 euros.

The Ritz, Funchal, Madeira

The Ritz, in Funchal – your coffee here won’t be cheap!

Contrast this with local bakeries and cafeterias with minimal decor, chatting locals and dour-face staff where your coffee will be less than a euro! The price of pastries follows the same rule. One example of a local bakery is Pau de Canela near the Market.

How long should I spend in Madeira?

You can make a visit to Madeira as leisurely or active as you want. There is enough to see and do to warrant spending a couple of weeks on the island. Or you could cram the highlights in a very busy 4-day long weekend if you rent a car.

Despite the fact that Madeira is one of the best winter destinations in Europe, visitors mostly come in summer. Timing your visit for the winter months means that you won’t have to share this gorgeous island with as many people.

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