Visiting Madeira has been on our bucket list for a long time. With cheap flights being so easy to find in the winter months, we often enjoy long weekends away with spontaneous last minute bookings. This week we had a Thursday – Sunday free and decided to make the most of it and find a cheap trip. We didn’t have a particular destination in mind so it was fate (or Ryanair’s cheap flights) that finally led us to our long weekend in Madeira! Our search feature will help you do exactly this, put in your budget, the days or month you can travel, how long you’d like to be away for, and we will source you a great value DIY trip.
Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, is a group of four islands off the northwest coast of Africa. Funchal is the capital and where we decided to base ourselves. It takes just over 3 hours to fly to Madeira from the UK. On researching the weather we were pleasantly surprised to see 15-19C in the middle of January, a welcome change from the UKs frosty mornings.
Our flights were just £44pp for the return journey from Manchester Airport and we found a wonderful 5 star spa hotel called Pestana Casino Park Hotel for £295 for the three nights with breakfast. We hired a car so we wouldn’t have to spend too much on tours and activities.
Getting to Madeira
Now I say we found cheap flights, and we did… but they didn’t end up staying that way!
We have quite a lot of stress at the moment with us having IVF treatment, and we had only booked this trip the night before. We were doing ten things at once trying to plan it all (this is my excuse anyway) and we forgot to check in online. We have never done this before, and know that it is an absolute no go with Ryanair. Online check in closes two hours before departure, and we missed it by 10 minutes. It was a costly mistake as we had to pay £55pp (£165 for the family) for the pleasure of having someone check us in at the airport. An absolute nightmare that we won’t be repeating again!
We had hired a car with a local company called way2Madeira – they had good reviews and were one of the cheaper options on the third party booking site we used. It was £60 for the 3 days in their cheapest possible car. Over the three days we spent £35 in petrol and did a lot of driving around the island. Now a word of warning when it comes to hiring cars abroad, always check what credit cards they accept. Many smaller companies won’t accept American Express, and a credit card is essential for them to hold a deposit. As we were doing everything wrong on this trip, we naturally showed up with an American Express credit card having not done any research (we know this is often a problem, we hire cars regularly, so we really don’t have an excuse!) There was an alternative option to pay £25 per day for some extra insurance which meant they didn’t need to hold a deposit on a credit card, so we had to go with that. Our cheap car hire no longer being that cheap! We set off driving to our hotel hoping this would be the end of our silly mistakes!
Where to stay in Madeira
There are lots of beautiful places to stay on this island, and your decision where to stay will come down to what you plan to do whilst there. The south of the island is busier which means more choice of bars and restaurants and more people/crowds. The south coast is sunnier and better if you plan to sunbathe and relax. The north coast is quieter, you have less crowds and the area is much more wild and scenic. If you are wanting to do lots of hikes and explore the natural beauty of the island, you may be better basing yourself in the north. Note that during the winter months the north has a lot more rain, cooler weather and fog. We would be walking around in T shirts in Funchal, drive up into the mountains in the north and be met with fog, wind and a downpour! On returning back down to Funchal we would find the sun had continued to shine!
The island is relatively small, it took less than an hour to drive from Funchal in the south to the northern town of Porto Moniz.
Funchal is the capital and major city on the island. If you don’t have a car you will be best staying here for easy access to and from the airport, lots to see and do on foot, and to be able to easily organise tours. You are spoilt for choice when it comes to bagging a great value high quality hotel here, in the winter months anyway. We booked the 5 star Pestana Casino Park Hotel , as a tight family who rarely splash out on nice hotels, it was a wonderful treat. The hotel has a huge fancy lobby as you enter, there is an outdoor pool, a rooftop pool, an amazing indoor spa with pool, jacuzzi, steam room / sauna. The restaurant area has huge floor to ceiling windows and enjoys spectacular sunrise sea views during breakfast. Our room price included breakfast, and as we were making the most of our short trip, we were up early every day to enjoy it. I did a hotel tour on TikTok which you can watch here. The lido area of Funchal has most of the luxury hotels, with old town Funchal offering some more budget friendly options.
The lido area of Funchal is connected to Formosa beach via the Lido Promenade, a lovely place for a coastal walk. This promenade then connects to the Câmara de Lobos promenade, which will take you all the way to the beautiful fishing village of Câmara de Lobos (pictured above). This is a long walk, around 6 miles, and takes on average two and a half hours to complete – a lovely coastal walk if walking is your thing, but our three year old could never so we drove there! There are a variety of buses that head to the village if you prefer.
Câmara de Lobos
Câmara de Lobos would make a quieter more relaxing base, with easy enough access to Funchal by either walking or public bus. It is a quaint, colourful little fishing village with a really laid back vibe. We had a wonderful seafood dinner here at a restaurant called Gaviao do Ilheu. I tried the famous Madeira black scabbardfish and had it with passion fruit sauce and rice, highly recommend! It is a very small village but is really picturesque. A great place to sit on the pebbled beach, read a book and watch the fishermen going about their day.
If you want to enjoy a sandy beach, Calheta is a good choice. Calheta actually means “Small cove” in Portuguese. Located on the south coast it enjoys sunny weather and a beautiful man made beach with sand imported from the Saharan Desert. It is one of the few places you can enjoy a sandy beach on the island. There is a great playground close to the beach, with play structures for big and smaller kids. We made a stop here whilst driving back to Funchal from the north and had a lovely drink and snack by the beach. Whether you decide to stay here or just stop by, it is a great option for people with kids.
A town located in the north west region of Madeira, famous for its natural lava pools. The rising tides fill the pools with water making them a warm (ish) and safe place to swim. Entering the pool complex is €3 per person over the age of 3, with a discounted price of €1.50 available for those over 65. The complex has toilets and changing rooms, you can also rent loungers and umbrellas to spend the day relaxing there. Porto Moniz is a great base for exploring the wild and insanely beautiful western side of the island. Note that you will need a car to make the most of a trip based here.
Porto Da Cruz
A village in the northeast of the island. A popular destination with surfers and hikers. There are a variety of levada walks leaving from Porta Da Cruz making it a convenient base for those looking to explore the islands beauty on foot.
Things to do with a long weekend in Madeira
Madeira’s highlight for us was definitely the natural beauty. The subtropical climate creates an environment that you would expect to see somewhere like South East Asia. The landscape is so green and lush, the waterfalls are beautiful and the good quality roads make it very easy to explore.
Explore the highlights of Funchal (see below).
Try some traditional Madeiran dishes.
‘Bolo do Caco’ is a traditional style bread and you can eat it with various fillings. The best I tried was with pork cooked in wine. Absolutely delicious.
‘Espetada’ is a tradition kebab of beef cubes, grilled on wood or charcoal. Many restaurants have metal structures to hang the kebabs in the centre of the table. “Lagar” is a famous restaurant serving these, we had dinner here one day and really enjoyed it.
Black scabbard fish – probably the most traditional fish in Madeira. We had a good look at them at the fish market and it’s clear to see why they are called the worlds ugliest fish! They taste delicious though. I had a filet with passion fruit sauce and rice for lunch and absolutely loved it!
Tropical fruit – not exactly a dish, but something Madeira is famous for. You cant visit without trying their locally grown bananas, passion fruit and mangoes!
Swim in the natural pools of Porto Moniz. Around a 55 minute drive from Funchal, these natural lava pools are worth a visit. It was €3 per adult to enter and there are changing facilities and toilets by the pools. You can rent umbrellas and loungers in the warmer months. There is also a playground by the pools which is ideal to cheer up your bored children!
Visit a beautiful volcanic beach (Seixal beach is spectacular). Seixal beach is close to Porto Moniz pools, so make sure you visit both whilst in the area. The volcanic black sand against the lush green backdrop with the turquoise water really is something special. There is a car park right by the beach.
Visit some of the many famous viewpoints. You cant help but pass endless amazing views whilst driving on this island. Ponta do Rosto, Terra Grande and Pico do Arieiro are just a few of the more famous ones.
Do a Levada walk. The weather in January didn’t allow us to do a Levada walk. Even though we had sun down on the south coast, as soon as we got into the mountains it started to rain. We hadn’t brought appropriate clothing and our three year old wouldn’t have enjoyed a rainy walk. We plan to return later in the year as we are so upset we didn’t get to do any hiking! We will make a specific post on Levada walks for families once we have been back.
What to do in Funchal
Funchal (pronounced Foon – shal. My Portuguese partner had to frequently correct my pronuctuation!) is a really fun city that you could easy spend a whole weekend exploring. We arrived late in the afternoon on Thursday and were due to leave at 12:35 on Sunday, so we had the whole of Friday and Saturday to explore the island. We wanted to see the highlights of Funchal whilst also getting to experience some of the natural beauty of the island.
Cable Car to Monte.
The cable car to Monte is must do activity whilst in the city. The views on the way up are amazing and our son really enjoyed the ride. It is currently €12.50 one way and €18 return for those over age 14. It is free for those under 7 years old and for children age 7 – 14 it is €6.50. We only got a one way ticket as we are told all the cool kids take a Toboggan back down! There is a car park right by the cable car entrance and we parked here, it was just €1.50 per hour and is in a really convenient location for accessing the city.
Monte Tropical Gardens
As you exit the cable car you will see the entrance to Monte tropical gardens, voted one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. Madeiras subtropical climate allows for a huge variety of tropical plants to flourish from all over the world. A really lovely place to walk around and explore. The grounds have a variety of museums so you could easily spend a whole morning here. We rushed around in just over an hour as we had a busy schedule planned
Monte Botanical Gardens
Not to be mistaken with the gardens above. The Botanical gardens are located another short cable car ride away from Monte. It is located on the hillside within a private estate, the gardens have wonderful views over Funchal. There are fine main areas to visit within the gardens including a bird park with around 300 exotic birds.
This is a must do activity whilst in Madeira due to it being so unique and not something you will be able to do anywhere else in the world. The toboggans were the main mode of downhill transport in Funchal in the 19th Century. Today the tradition is kept alive and tourists can ride 2km downhill in a wicker Toboggan! The ride starts at the Church of our Lady Monte – not too far from the exit of the Botanical Gardens. It was €25 for our family and the ride lasted around 10 minutes. They take photos of you along the way and charge €10 for these, we bought one as it was such a fun, unique memory for our family. They had 2 photos to choose from but gave us them both for €10. Note at the bottom you are still a 30 minute walk to Funchal centre. We did the walk but wouldn’t recommend it if you have kids. It is very steep and we instantly regretted being so tight and not just paying for a taxi!
Visit Funchal Cathedral
Located in the centre of Funchal, it is free to enter and the wooden ceiling is thought to be one of the most beautiful in the whole of Portugal.
Explore the old town
With quaint cobbled streets and lots of places to stop and have a bite to eat, the old town is a wonderful place to have a mooch about. Look out for the Madeira sign down by the waterfront.
The Art of Open Doors Project
Head to Rua da Santa Maria, a cobblestone street with an interesting edge. In 2010 there was a flood in the city, and as part of the regenerative works the Art of the Open Doors project was born. Over 200 doors are painted in bright colours making the street an open air art gallery. A great place to have a stroll.
Taste Madeiran Wine
Madeira is famous for its fortified wine. Blandy’s wine lodge is probably the most famous producer on the whole island and is located in the centre of Funchal. They offer free tasting plus guided tours for those who want to learn more. Their most popular premium tour is €12.50 and allows you to taste 2 different wines. Note that they close at 1pm on Saturdays and all day on Sundays.
Visit Mercado dos Lavradores
“The workers market” is open every day except Sundays and bank holidays. It is a vibrant, fragrant marketplace selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish and more. Madeira grows lots of its own tropical fruit due to its ideal subtropical climate. Lots of market stall holders will be eager to let you try the variety of fruit they have on offer. We got really excited by this, eating and buying everything they offered. With hindsight we would have just tried the fruit and then said no thank you to the sale, as the fruit is very expensive. We paid around €25 for 2kg of fruit. The market is busiest on Fridays and Saturdays, it opens at 7am and makes a nice start to your day in Funchal.
I would highly recommend a long weekend in Madeira to anyone. Couples, families, solo travellers – it has something for everyone. I am in no way exaggerating when I say it is one of the most beautiful islands I have visited in a long time. We can’t wait to go back later in the year and explore more!
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