Madeira road trip: 16 must-see places
Anyone who knows me knows that my preferred way to travel in a new destination is to rent a car and explore.
I prefer it this way because I have more mobility, I’m not stuck to schedules or travel times, and I can go where I want and stay as long as I want.
It was like that on my recent trip to Madeira. As soon as I got to the airport, I picked up a car with HERTZ and, for nine days, I traveled the island from end to end, from the fast tunnels to the winding mountain roads.
It was a total of 1250 km that allowed me to visit incredible places in Madeira and that I put here so that you don’t miss them on your next trip to the “pearl of the Atlantic.”
1 / Funchal
It’s the “capital” of Madeira and the first place that welcomes us when we land on the island. It’s the starting point to discover other places, but it also has its charms.
In addition to the beautiful Avenida do Mar, which accompanies the Funchal Marina, for me, the most exciting part of the city is the old quarter. Here, with bars and clubs, the nightlife livens up those visiting and those who live there.
It’s also in these blocks that we discover the Painted Doors of Funchal. The initiative started in 2010 as part of a project to revitalize the old area. The neighborhood was abandoned until then. The first door to be painted on Rua Santa Maria — number 77 — was signed by artist Mark Milewski. From there, several local artists joined the movement. Dozens and dozens of doors then took on a new life.
2 / Cabo Girão
Did you know that this is the tallest cape in Europe? From the top of its 580 meters high, this promontory offers an incredible view over Câmara dos Lobos and Funchal.
But whoever comes here doesn’t just look around… you can also look down and feel yourself walking in the air!
The Cabo Girão viewpoint has a suspended glass platform where you can see the Fajãs do Rancho and Girão down there.
But don’t stay just in the viewpoint. Nearby you can take the cable car that takes you to the cliff’s foot to see up close the agriculture fields and the stone beach in Fajã do Rancho.
3 / Fajã dos Padres
Fajã dos Padres is another prominent place in the southern part of the island, with a cable car that takes visitors on a dizzying descent of 300 meters.
Agriculture has marked this landscape for centuries, and history says that colonists and Jesuits passed through here. But what attracts you the most in this place is the restaurant and the beach, which in the summer days invites you to sunbathe and long dives.
What’s a fajã?
A fajã is an area of low, flat land that results from a slope or cliff’s detachment. It can also be formed by a lava flow that enters the sea.
4 / Ponta do Sol
It was one of the surprises of this trip. Ponta do Sol is a small town in the municipality of Calheta that attracts by the picturesque streets along the seafront and an extensive black stone beach.
But what I discovered is that Ponta do Sol was a vital crossing point of the old Caminho Real, later known as the national road, a route made by land along the coast. As part of the improvements to this path, in the 19th century, a large bridge connected to the pier was built. That bridge still exists, in perfect condition.
5 / Calheta
The municipality of Calheta is one of the largest on the island, so it’s not surprising that the location that gives it its name is also a must-visit. In addition to a beautiful riverside area, this is where we find Engenho da Calheta. In this factory, the brandy used in the traditional Poncha, Madeira’s best-known drink, is produced.
Engenho puts the machines to work for a single month a year, at the time of harvesting sugar cane. There, brandy is produced, and the honey that forms the famous Madeiran honey cake.
6 / Jardim do Mar
My paradise in Madeira! This is where I make my base when visiting the island. Jardim do Mar is a small village, charming, spreading out over the hillside. The cobbled streets follow along the levadas that bring the melody of water running day and night.
Jardim do Mar is also known for being one of the most challenging places to surf on the entire island, so it’s common to see surfers from all over the world here.
7 / Paul do Mar
Right next to Jardim do Mar is Paul do Mar, another well-known place for surfing and for its fishing port. Galinhas Beach is one of the ex-libris of this locality, being very popular during the summertime.
Until the 1960s, access to this fishing village was done only by sea. Today there’s a road that goes down the cliff and along the way offers incredible views of Paul and the ocean.
8 / Ponta do Pargo
At the western tip of Madeira is Ponta do Pargo, considered a natural protected area due to ecosystems and animal species — mainly birds — found here.
The truth is that the place is tranquil, with some good restaurants and a great lighthouse that offers a real light show over the black of the night.
9 / Achadas da Cruz
Between Ponta do Pargo, and Porto Moniz, Achadas da Cruz marks the transition between the north coast and Madeira’s south coast.
Here, a viewpoint and a cable car connect to another Madeiran fajã: Fajã das Achadas da Cruz.
10 / Porto Moniz
Porto Moniz is known for its fantastic swimming pools. Porto Moniz Natural Pools attract thousands of people every year. Therefore, infrastructures to support bathers were created, requiring a payment to enter.
In the Natural Aquarium Pools — right next to the Madeira Aquarium — they are freely accessible and, for me, even more beautiful. They are more “wild,” of volcanic origin, and the water’s color of incredible transparency and light. At least, on the day I was there.
11 / Seixal
Other natural pools found in the northern part of the island are those at Clube Naval do Seixal. You can find a solarium area here and even rent equipment for diving or kayaking during the summer months.
Right next door is Porto de Abrigo do Seixal Beach. This place was one of my discoveries because here I was able to surf!
As Madeira is a better place for surfers with lots of experience, for those who are just starting out or aren’t fans of big waves, this is the right place to go.
Of course, the swell has to be a specific size to get there, but it’s well worth going there. It’s just that, even if there are no waves, this is a beautiful black sand beach, with the Véu da Noiva waterfall peeking out further.
12 / Rabaçal
From the north coast to the island’s interior to see some of Madeira’s most incredible levadas. In this area, we find the Levada das 25 Fontes e Risco, one of the best known, but also the Levada do Alecrim and Lagoa do Vento.
At the center of all these trails and paths, between levadas and veredas, is Casa do Rabaçal, the former home of forest rangers that has become a café and accommodation for hikers rest.
13 / Curral das Freiras
Also in the heart of the island is Curral das Freiras, a small town nestled in the middle of the mountains.
For centuries, arriving (or leaving) Curral das Freiras was a real adventure, on a winding and dangerous road, which made the community very isolated from the rest of the island.
Today access is much easier, which allows us to visit the village at any time of the year.
To have a monumental image of this place, be sure to go to the Eira do Serrado viewpoint, in a detour right next to the tunnel that leads to Curral das Freiras.
14 / Pico do Areeiro
Going to Madeira and not going to Pico do Areeiro it’s almost unthinkable. Well, if the weather is bad or the wind is strong, it’s not recommended. But if the climate helps, this is an unavoidable place!
At the top of its 1,818 meters high, Pico do Areeiro is among the highest in Madeira, in such a way that you will feel yourself walking on the clouds.
The views over the central massif are breathtaking!
Hiking fans don’t need to stop here, as there are walking routes that connect to Pico Ruivo, another mountain at 1,862 meters above sea level.
15 / Ponta de São Lourenço
Opposite Ponta do Pargo is Ponta de São Lourenço, at the eastern end of Madeira Island.
My advice is to visit this place on a beautiful day and with little wind. The view of this peninsula extending out to sea is simply outstanding.
To get to know this natural reserve better, there’s nothing like traveling the Ponta de São Lourenço path. From here, you can also see the Desertas islands, in the South, and the Porto Santo island, to the North.
16 / Garajau
It was the last stop on this trip, even before going to Madeira Airport to deliver Hertz’s car. The objective: visit the Cristo-Rei viewpoint. With a height of 14 meters, the monument was ordered to be erected as payment for a promise. Today, it’s an attraction and the starting point to visit the Garajau Nature Reserve or just to see the fantastic view that includes Funchal’s bay and Caniço de Baixo.
The importance of a good rent-a-car in Madeira
Traveling by car in Madeira may seem easy, but there are several risk factors that we have to take into account. Therefore, the choice of vehicle and rent-a-car is crucial.
Although the island is already very well supplied with roadways, with tunnels connecting the main towns, the North with the South, it’s almost impossible not to travel on incredibly steep roads and sometimes even at high altitudes, like going to Pico do Arieiro. Therefore, we must have a car in good condition, in which we have complete confidence.
Another relevant factor in choosing a reliable car rental is that you can never be free of a stone to roll down the mountain and hit your car in Madeira. So, we want to count on good customer service or support in case of an emergency.
For all this, I chose HERTZ as a mobility partner for this trip. Due to its history and know-how, not only in the market but also in the field, the company allowed me to travel more relaxed. Besides that, during the 1250 km, some made on more inhospitable roads, the car never showed any kind of problem. And that is worth gold!
This was my return to Madeira’s island, and I feel that there was still a lot to see and do. Good reasons to want to go back there again and again.
What about you? Do you know Madeira? Do you have a special place on the island or an experience you’d like to share? Do it in the comments box, and don’t forget to share this article on your social media and with your friends.
NOTE FROM MARLENE:
Hertz was my mobility partner for this adventure, giving me a vehicle to travel the island. But, as always, all photos and opinions are mine and honestly reflect the experience.
Road Trip In Madeira
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