The term hidden gem was probably first uttered in Madeira, Portugal, and putting this island on our Where To Travel In 2020 list was an obvious choice. Hours from the mainland, Madeira has it all, from seaside dining and beaches to stunning mountain views.
Travelers around the world have discovered many of Portugal’s charms, but the autonomous region of Madeira is still somewhat off the tourist radar.
About a 90-minute flight from Lisbon, Madeira is an island paradise that even mainland Portuguese visit infrequently. It’s a hidden gem that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Here are just a few reasons to visit this spectacular archipelago on your next trip to Portugal.
You Can Take A Cable Car To See Spectacular Gardens
Funchal is Madeira's central hub. From the city center, a gondola lift takes visitors on a 15-minute ride up to the hilltop town of Monte, where you can catch amazing aerial views of Funchal and the blue Atlantic.
The trip ends at the impressive Monte Palace, which comprises 750,000 square feet including an exquisite garden with exotic plants from around the world. There are ponds filled with colorful koi carp, roaming peacocks, stunning flowers, and black and white swans. The Monte Palace Museum houses three floors of collections, including contemporary sculptures from Zimbabwe and beautiful mineral specimens.
You Can Ride A Wicker Sledge Car
In the 1850s, the sledge (or wicker toboggan) was the primary form of transportation from Monte down to Funchal. These days, the sledge car experience is more for fun than necessity.
Monte sledges come with two men called carreiros dressed in white and wearing straw hats. The carreiros steer riders, who sit in wicker baskets mounted on runners, down a winding road. The 10-minute ride can be a bit bumpy, but it is certainly exhilarating. Some walking is required to get to the ride and from the end of the ride back to town.
If you want a thrill, be sure to take a sledge down the hill!
Old Town Funchal Is Charming
Funchal’s Old Town is both vibrantly modern and historic. The location of the first settlement on Madeira, the Old Town maintains its historic charm, architecture, and significance. Visitors get a sense of the town’s sparkling personality while wandering the cobblestone streets, touring the churches, and popping into the shops and cafes.
The Old Town shines even brighter because of the Painted Doors Project, a brilliant permanent outdoor art walk. Rua de Santa Maria is a long, lively cobblestone road full of restaurants, bars, and shops, perfect for a stroll. The painted doors (and windows, walls, and other spots) add even more character to the Old Town scene.
Santana Is Home To Unique Traditional Houses
Santana is an enchanting town full of flowers, meadows, waterfalls, and scenic walks. One of its most unique features is the heritage area in the center of town that features traditional houses. These small triangular thatched-roof houses typically found in rural areas were used by local farmers during the early days of settlement. A heritage preservation initiative has saved more than 100 of these delightful homes, many of which are being restored. Today, the houses offer tourist information, postal services, and local products for purchase.
We also ventured across the street to explore a small but lovely fruit market. The local vendors were happy to tell us about interesting fruits such as the soursop, Madeira banana, and passion fruit.
It’s Wonderfully Walkable
Madeira is a fitness aficionado’s dream. Well-marked walking routes and trails are located all over the island. From short, easy trails on flat terrain to advanced walks that can take half a day or more, there’s a path for just about anyone who wants to experience the natural beauty of Madeira on foot.
Among the most interesting trails are the levada trails. Levadas are small channels or aqueducts that carry water from one part of the island to another. Originally intended to supply the drier southern part of the island with water from the north, levadas are now also used to provide hydroelectric power. Many levadas have lush walking paths beside them that offer lovely views of indigenous Madeira flowers and plants.
The Sunrise On Pico Do Arieiro Is Unforgettable
Getting up before the crack of dawn isn't easy, but seeing an unforgettable sunrise from the top of Pico do Arieiro, nearly 6,000 feet high, makes it worthwhile. A 45-minute drive from Funchal, Pico do Arieiro offers views of mountains, valleys, and perhaps even clouds below as the sun rises over the beautiful island.
Several tour operators provide island tours that include a sunrise breakfast at this exquisite spot. Our Discovery Island Madeira tour included a jeep excursion for the sunrise, a portable breakfast, and some scenic stops on the way back.
It is cold at the summit, so bring a warm coat. And though you can get to the mountaintop area by car, if you want to see the sunrise from the most scenic spots, you’ll need to walk a short distance on rocky terrain, so wear suitable shoes.
The Local Cuisine And Beverages Are Delightful
As is true of Portugal in general, eating in Madeira is an absolute delight. Fresh ingredients and tasty preparations make each meal a memorable experience.
In addition to outstanding food, many places in Madeira have fantastic views. One of our favorite spots is Quinta do Furao, a lovely restaurant with an inn nestled among its own vineyards. We dined on a veranda overlooking dramatic seaside cliffs. The food is simply delicious, and the house-made sweet potato bread is heavenly.
Another unique dining experience can be found at Faja dos Padres, where visitors can experience several Madeira delights at one time. A former Jesuit summer retreat, Faja provides a short scenic cable car ride down to the beach area to visit a wine cellar and taste excellent Madeira wine. Visitors also get a tour of the vineyards and bountiful gardens and a meal at the dreamy seaside cafe. Cozy villas are available for rent if Faja's beauty is too hard to resist.
Madeira's famous fortified wine, known broadly as Madeira wine, actually comes in several levels of sweetness and is produced from numerous grapes. World-famous producers like Blandy's offer local tastings and tours.
Another Madeira drink specialty is poncha. This potent beverage is made with cane sugar alcohol, citrus juices, and spices. Each place has its own special recipe, so a poncha bar crawl is always a great idea -- you can start at Madeira Rum House.
There Are Plenty Of Shopping Opportunities
Madeira has plenty of shopping, too. We loved the [Mercado Dos Lavradores](http://www.visitmadeira.pt/en-gb/explore/detalhe/mercado-dos-lavradores-(farmers%E2%80%99-market) (farmers market) in Old Town Funchal. Many vendors sell flowers and plants, fruits and produce, fish, and souvenirs. The building that houses the market is a grand structure with beautiful azulejos, or tiles depicting regional scenes.
In addition to small local shops that pepper Madeira’s streets, large malls including Forum Madeira, La Vie Shopping Center, and Madeira Shopping offer stores, restaurants, and entertainment in convenient collections. For something different, visit the Nini Andrade Silva Design Centre and explore a gallery of the famed designer’s work, visit the shop, and dine in the pricey but stylish restaurant.
You Can Stay In A Gorgeous Beach Hotel
For a sumptuous experience, stay in one of Madeira's gorgeous beach hotels. The Cliff Bay is a stunning five-star resort overlooking the Atlantic. Amenities include a Michelin-starred restaurant, bars, bistros, swimming pools, a tennis court, a gym, and a spa.
Otherwise, opt for Les Suites at The Cliff Bay, a new expansion with 23 luxurious suites and its own infinity pool, restaurant, and wellness facilities. Suites guests also have access to all Cliff Bay amenities, and both hotels offer direct access to the sea.
Portugal is a wonderful place to visit, but Madeira is a hidden gem where visitors can still enjoy the thrill of discovery. With its breathtaking views, incredible food, great shopping, and fabulous culture, Madeira is the best-kept secret in Portugal.