Madeira's capital Funchal offers a natural retreat on the city's doorstep
Despite its tiny size, Madeira is criss-crossed by thousands of miles of water channels. As these lavadas run through the Portuguese island, so does life — green and bursting.
Nature is everywhere in the capital, Funchal. The trees are from all corners of the world, after centuries of the trading hub collecting anything passing by, and the banana plants yield local varieties sweeter than any I have ever tried. When my group arrives, May’s flower festival is starting to wind down but the streets are still paved with blooms.
Looming above are the ancient peaks, covered with UNESCO-protected laurel forests. The land is generous. On Madeira, there is no such thing as a bad farmer, as an off-road tour guide says as he points out wild pumpkins, and a lost hiker wouldn’t go hungry.
Flying fish accompany the boat journey from the airport to central Funchal, where I’m staying at the Barceló Funchal Oldtown hotel, a stone’s throw from the Gothic cathedral. The Barceló’s a charming base, with its crisp local-inspired furnishings and balconies overlooking the indigo sea. And it boasts mouth-watering food at its restaurant, Noz: fresh fish ceviche from the market for just €13, along with tuna, octopus and slow-cooked pork options — even condensed-milk coffee.
And out in the city’s warm streets, on to which the restaurant spills, the wonder doesn’t stop. Folk dancers perform and lush parks break up the pavements of black and white stone. Unseen up in the hills, basket toboggans whoosh tourists down steep streets and women sit in front of their windows and embroider linen, by hand, for the local clothing company.
‘I don’t just live here; it runs through my veins,’ says Sofia Maul, a professional storyteller who offers food and wine tours. She takes us to the bustling marketplace for a taste tour of the local fruits — most of which I have never seen before.
Sofia’s grandfather caught toothy deep-sea fish like the ones for sale in the market. Her father invented Briso — the island’s staple soft drink in its favourite flavour, passion fruit — and Sofia teaches languages in the shade of trees she planted as a child.
To be from Funchal, it seems, is to be entwined in the natural world and a shared story.
On a visit to Bordal, Madeira’s last traditional embroidery factory, I see the painstaking process practiced by the dwindling number who remember how. Patterns are designed and holes punched into the fabric for dye.
These are sent to the homes of 450 women who embroider without a sewing machine, and are paid by the stitch. The care involved doesn’t go unnoticed. Bordal has made pieces for Chanel, and the baby clothes of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.
What else is there to do?
- Monte Palace Tropical Garden. The cable car from Funchal deposits you in Monte, where you can wander both this breathtaking hilltop site, taking in the abundance of lush flora and fauna. Tickets are €12.50.
- Funchal Cathedral. Marking the centre of the city, this imposing Gothic building dates to 1493, and contains a beautiful ceiling.
- Toboggan ride. These wicker sleds were once used to get quickly down the steep streets from Monte to Funchal, and now offer a bit of gentle tourist-friendly exhilaration. A toboggan for one will cost you €25, a toboggan for two €15 each.
- Blandy’s Wine Lodge. For wine lovers, no trip to Madeira could be complete without trying the island’s eponymous fortified booze, and Blandy’s is one of the major names. You can take a tour around the central Funchal site from €12.50.
- Nini Andrades Silva Design Centre. This striking old fortress, emerging from the sea in Funchal’s port, houses a free exhibition of designer Nini Andrades’ work. The self-described laboratory of ideas also features a bougie restaurant.
- CR7 Museum. Footie fans can make a short pilgrimage to marvel at Cristiano Ronaldo’s trophies for €5 each, with under-nines going free.
- Festivals. Madeira is an island of non-stop parties. February sees a Carnival, May hosts a flower festival, and in June the International Fireworks Competition arrives. Onions, classic cars, and of course wine all get their own festivals. Christmas is legendary, with markets and bars staying open all night on December 23.
At the rooftop bar of the Barceló Funchal Oldtown — as I float in an infinity pool and sip a satisfyingly blue cocktail called Above The Clouds — two women even sit, embroidering under the night sky. They’ve been hired to stitch while the DJ bangs out bass, as a reminder of the area’s traditions, and are studiously ignoring the revellers around them. In fact, the Barceló, brand new as a hotel, used to be an embroidery factory itself. Wall art in its restaurants and bedrooms reflects this history, weaving the establishment, too, into the city’s story.
This sense of rootedness is there in the mountains as well. Ivan Rodrigues, who offers €55 Jeep tours with company Bravelanders, takes us up an unnervingly narrow, steep road. Once on the unpaved trails, he stops so his passengers can take in the forest, vineyards and banana farms.
‘I don’t work,’ Ivan explains — not since he quit his day job to chase his dream into the peaks. The forest is full of levadas, feeding crops and doubling as hiking routes. And the road is dotted with bars that serve traditional punch. On the terrace of one, Taberna da Serra, I sip €5.50 fishermen’s Poncha, consisting of Madeiran rum — made with sugarcane juice, not molasses — and lime. It is sharp and very satisfying.
And up here, above the coast and the heat, is where Madeira wine is made too. The tranquility is embraced at one vineyard, Terrabona — and married founders Marco Noronha Jardim and Maria João Velosa know exactly what they have.
‘We would never do weddings,’ explains Marco as we sip, looking over the valley. The point of this retreat, offering villas and €30 wine-tasting sessions, isn’t to party but to take in nature. The sea air blowing in is credited for the wine’s fresh taste.
Funchal on a budget:
- Santa Maria Hostel is inside a high-ceilinged former school. It offers private rooms as well as dorm spaces, and maintains its grand original features. Bunks are available from £26.55, rooms from £56.58 and ensuite rooms from £66.76.
- Funchal 109 Hostel, with its common areas, patio and knowledgeable owner, is a great place for leaning into the travel lifestyle and mix with other adventurers. Bunks go for £26.08, and private rooms — without bathrooms — for £52.16.
- Escola Hoteleira is a fairly standard hotel, looks-wise, if a little dated. But the wide sea views from its position on the hillside give it something special. It has a pool, too, and free breakfast. Rooms start at £62.
- Vitorina Corte Guesthouse is packed full of character, by the sea and in the bustling heart of town. Rooms start at £62.
Back in the city, the peaks are still within reach. A cable car, just a ten-minute walk from the hotel, takes us up to rural suburb Monte, where views of the city and the sea open up and visitors can explore tropical gardens.
From the Barceló’s rooftop terrace, I take in an upside-down view of the island. Intending on looking down over a sprawl of city lights, I find myself instead looking up at a tableau of roads and houses embroidered into the hillside.
As I absorb the quiet sounds of the sea, the memory of light glinting off flying fish and the clouds that gather then disappear above the forests, the landscape still feels mysterious. In the hills the lavadas keep flowing, as if carrying the island’s memories.
Jen stayed at Barceló Funchal Oldtown, where rooms start at £129 per night. Flights from London Gatwick to Madeira Airport start at £32.99 one way with easyJet. For more info, visit barcelo.com/en-gb/barcelo-funchal-oldtown
One night in Funchal… what are you options for a micro-break?
- Day 1:
Morning: Flights from London Gatwick often set off at 7.40am, getting in for 11.30.
Explore the city centre, taking in the cathedral, markets and embroidery factory and shop.
Lunch: Buy fresh passion fruit from a street stall, but avoid the main market to save cash.
Afternoon: Take a cable car up to Monte, enjoy the view and explore the gardens. Then you can toboggan part of the way back down in a wooden basket, strolling the rest.
Evening: Grab a bite at a restaurant in central Funchal and a perhaps rooftop drink at Barceló before turning in.
- Day 2:
Morning: Set off into the mountains for a short forest hike, following the lavadas, with a picnic, preferably including a Madeira honey cake. A 40-minute bus will take you from Funchal to Ribeiro Frio, where various trails await.
Or, if you’re more in town for the booze than the exercise, get yourself a tutored tasting (pre-book only) at Blandy’s Wine Lodge in central Funchal. The tasting will come with cheese or chocs, so that’s lunch sorted too.
Afternoon: Flights normally depart around 2.25pm, getting in for 6.15.
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