If you’re planning a trip to Madeira, here are some unique things to do in Funchal. Check out my recommendations for the best places to visit and things to do in Funchal, including sightseeing, what to eat and the best day trips!
When I visited Madeira, in Portugal with Jet2Holidays, I spent a bit of time in Funchal, and chances are that when you visit you will too. Funchal is the capital of this Portuguese island and the 6th largest city in Portugal. A charming town nestled between steep hills and the Atlantic Ocean, Funchal is the perfect base to explore Madeira. Here are some of the most unique things to do in Funchal for any type of traveller.
Table of Contents
- 1 Unique things to do in Funchal
- 1.1 Explore the old town and its painted doors
- 1.2 Enjoy the sea air along the seafront
- 1.3 Eat like a local
- 1.4 And drink poncha like a local
- 1.5 Don’t forget to try Madeira wine
- 1.6 Try passion fruits you’ve never heard of before
- 1.7 Visit the Farmer’s Market (Mercado dos Lavradores)
- 1.8 Take a food and wine walking tour with a difference
- 1.9 Go dolphin and whale watching on a catamaran
- 1.10 Be a pirate for a day on a historical ship
- 1.11 Conquer the heights of Funchal
- 1.12 Visit the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
- 1.13 Toboggan down steep roads on a sledge
- 1.14 Have dinner in a 17thcentury fortress
- 1.15 Stay in a hotel with an incredible rooftop pool and views
- 1.16 Get out of town on a day trip
- 2 How to get to Funchal
- 3 Planning your trip to Funchal
- 4 Like this post? Pin and save for later
Unique things to do in Funchal
Explore the old town and its painted doors
Wandering around the Old Town (Zona Velha) is one of the must things to do in Funchal. Get lost in the narrow cobbled streets and you will find yourself in a charming place that hides a surprise. Rua de Santa Maria (Santa Maria Street) has been transformed in an outdoor gallery thanks to an art project initiated by a group of local artists. Look around and you will see that all the doors in the street have been turned into works of art, each of them different. But best of all, the painted doors of Funchal have helped revitalise an area that was slightly run down and it is now the beating heart of the city.
Enjoy the sea air along the seafront
Funchal is right by the sea and it has a lovely palm tree-lined promenade. Madeira’s temperatures are mild all year round, so you can go for a stroll along the seafront any time of the day. But the evenings when the sun goes down are a little bit livelier, so it’s a great spot for both admiring the boats on the marina and for people watching. The Marina is a great spot to see the steep mountains in the background too.
Funchal is surrounded by mountains, and being by the sea makes it one of the best cities in Portugal.
Eat like a local
The local food in Funchal, and Madeira for that matter, is pretty unique to the island due to its somewhat isolated location and sub-tropical climate. From locally caught fish that is rare in other parts of the world, to meat marinated in local herbs, there is something for everyone.
My recommendations of what not to miss in terms of food is peixe espada con maracujá e banana (black scabbard fish with passion fruit and banana), espetada regional (grilled beef with laurel, garlic and rock salt on a skewer) and, my favourite, the local fast food, prego sandwich (beef minute steak sandwich with mustard in Madeiran bolo de caco bread). There are, of course, many more dishes to try in Madeira, but these three are the ones that really stood out for me.
And drink poncha like a local
The drink to try in Madeira is poncha, a traditional alcoholic drink made with aguardente de cana (sugar cane rum), sugar, and lemon juice.
Poncha is said to be the origin of the Brazilian caipirinha. When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil, they started growing sugar cane, from which they produced sugar cane rum or cachaça. They then mixed it with sugar and lemon juice, resulting in what we today know as caipirinha.
But going to back to poncha, there are two main types that you can try. Poncha à Pescador or Fisherman’s poncha is the traditional one, and is made, as mentioned above, with sugar cane rum, sugar and lemon juice. It is said to have curative qualities, so traditionally fishermen would have it before setting off to sea to avoid getting sick. Still today, locals will tell you that poncha cures everything, from a cold to heartbreak. Another type you can have is poncha regional, which is made with sugar cane rum, honey and orange juice. This one is a little milder. But only a little – poncha is a pretty potent drink!
If you’d like to combine a bit of poncha tasting with stunning views and a scenic drive on a classic VW Beetle, check out this tour.
Don’t forget to try Madeira wine
Madeira wine is, well… from Madeira. It originated in the 18thcentury, when the island started exporting wine to the rest of the world. They found that the wine that wasn’t sold and was returned home was much more aromatic and flavourful than when it first left the island. This was caused by the temperature variations during sea voyages, and this is how Madeira wine came to be.
The best place to try the different kinds of Madeira wine in Funchal is the Madeira Wine Museum, in Blandy’s Wine Lodge. Here you can learn about the 200 years of history of the wine, how it’s produced, developed and stored, and you get to do a tasting at the end.
The museum is located in the centre of town, in a 17thcentury building that was once a monastery, a hospital and a prison. Its vintage cellar is like a library of old wines, with the oldest bottle being a bottle of 1948 boal wine.
Alternatively, you can visit a number of wineries across the island on a Madeira wine tasting tour.
Try passion fruits you’ve never heard of before
With Madeira having a sub-tropical climate, all kinds of fruits and vegetables thrive here. Two of the local fruits that you must try are bananas and passion fruit. Bananas from Madeira are a bit smaller and sweeter than those we get in the supermarket back home. But the star of the fruit world in the island is passion fruit. Or maybe I should say all the passion fruits you can imagine and those you didn’t even know existed.
In Madeira you will find tens of passion fruit varieties with different flavours. Some are sweet and some not so much. Try as many as you can to compare. They are all delicious!
Just one thing to bear in mind – don’t try the passion fruits from the sellers in the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmer’s Market) as they are overpriced. Find a shop one or two streets away from the market instead.
Visit the Farmer’s Market (Mercado dos Lavradores)
Despite it being overpriced for some things such as passion fruit and a bit of a tourist attraction, it is still worth visiting this market. The fruit stores are incredibly colourful and photogenic with their vibrant displays of fruit and veg.
Move across to the bottom floor, where the fish stalls are and check out the ginormous fish for sale. You’ll see tuna, sharks and the ugliest but most delicious fish, which is the local specialty – the black scabbard fish or peixe espada. Apparently, they live in such depths that no one has ever seen one alive!
Take a food and wine walking tour with a difference
If you are interested in more food related experiences, I’d recommend taking a food and wine tour.
I joined Sofia from Wine Tours Madeira for a food and wine walking tour through Funchal Old Town. Sofia, however is not a tour guide, she is a storyteller, and this is what made this tour special to me.
We visited the Wine Museum to try different types of Madeira wine, to a local chocolatier to try tree tomato and pitanga (or Surinam cherry) chocolate, and to the farmers’ market to see all the different kinds of weird and wonderful fruits you can find in the island. We also went to a lovely old shop that’s been going since 1910 to try poncha regional, and to a traditional cake shop to try the famous bolo de mel de cana (sugar cane honey cake), amongst other places.
The tour included a traditional lunch where we got to try the local beer Coral, made from a recipe created by Sofia’s father. Her father was also the creator of the iconic Madeiran passion fruit-flavoured soft drink Brisa, which you must try too.
All in all, it was an excellent way to discover the traditional foods of Madeira while hearing a lot of interesting stories about the island. You can book this same tour here.
Other walking tours you can do in Funchal
Go dolphin and whale watching on a catamaran
One of the most exciting things to do in Funchal is going to see dolphins and whales in their natural habitat out at sea. Madeira is located just off the west coast of Africa in the North Atlantic Ocean, so it’s ideally positioned for watching cetaceans passing by on their migratory routes. You can see pilot whales and sperm whales throughout the year, and depending on the season you can also see humpbacks, sei whales, minke whales, fin whales and even orcas sometimes. When it comes to dolphins, bottlenose are the most common, but you can also spot common, striped, rough-toothed dolphins, Atlantic-spotted dolphins and many more, depending on the season.
I saw lots of bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales on the dolphin and whale watching catamaran I went on, which was super exciting. But what I loved the most is that the tour company I went with was very careful not to exceed the time limit they had for observing each pod, which was a maximum of 10 minutes. This is a restriction imposed on all the tours in the island.
This is a very popular activity, so make sure that you book it in advance if you are travelling to Madeira in high season.
Be a pirate for a day on a historical ship
The Santa Maria de Colombo is a replica of the Christopher Columbus flagship that was part of the expedition when he landed in America. This exact replica was built by Rober Wijntje in the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, right next to Funchal, in 1998.
So now you have the chance to experience what it was like to sail on one of these 15th century ships while you enjoy the lovely views of the Madeira coast. There is a bar onboard and in the summer you can go for a swim in the sea.
And you may even see some dolphins and whales too!
It gets very popular in the summer, so book your ticket in advance if this is something you don’t want to miss.
Conquer the heights of Funchal
Ok, this may be stretching it a bit, as the conquering happens by cable car. Take the Teleferico do Funchal from the promenade in the Old Town to the village of Monte, which is 580 metres above sea level. The ride is a great way to see the city from above, with the narrow winding streets below you as you go up, and it lasts 15 minutes. The views over the marina and Atlantic Ocean are pretty spectacular and must not be missed.
Once in Monte, you can visit the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, which are truly spectacular. If you also want to visit the Botanical Gardens, you can take the Botanical Garden Cable Car from Monte, which takes about 9 minutes. But don’t forget to return back up so you can experience the famous Funchal wicker toboggans (more on this below).
Visit the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
While you’re in Monte, one of the things not to miss is the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. Located within the grounds of the Quinta Monte Palace, these glorious gardens hold around 100,000 different species of plants. This includes a collection of cycads that are so old that are considered living fossils.
While you are here, make sure you visit the Oriental Garden, inspired by the Tropical Garden creator’s trips to the Far East. With waterfalls, lakes, miniature islands and decorative bridges, you’ll be transported to a far away land.
You can also visit the Monte Palace Museum, which holds two big exhibitions – a collection of contemporary Zimbabwean sculptures and a collection of minerals from across the world.
Toboggan down steep roads on a sledge
Yes, you read that right. Once you’ve made it to the top on the cable car, you can come back down on one of the famous Funchal wicker toboggans also known as ‘Monte sledges’. This is one of the most fun things to do in Funchal.
Monte sledges are two-seater sledges made from wicker and wood, powered by two carreiros or sledge drivers dressed in white uniforms and in straw hats. They basically push you down the hill, hitch a ride on the back of the sledge and use their boots as brakes. Sounds exciting, right? The whole journey takes about 10 minutes, so you can imagine the speed these sledges pick up!
Note that the sledge ride ends in Livramento, from where you can get taxi (agree a price beforehand) or a bus back to Funchal centre. You could also walk back in 30 mins, but bear in mind that it’s downhill and pretty steep all the way, so mind those knees!
Have dinner in a 17thcentury fortress
Construction of the Forte de São Tiago started in 1614 in order to protect the island from attacks from pirates and privateers. Over the years, it has been used for a number of purposes, including serving as quarters for the British troops, the military police and the Funchal Lancers Squad over the years. It was also used as shelter for the victims of the devastating floods that hit the island in 1803.
Today, you can visit the fort as a historical monument and learn all about its history. But you can also have dinner in the Restaurante do Forte, within the building. It is a pretty unique place, so if you have a special occasion to celebrate, this is the place to dine in Funchal. Or even if you fancy a lovely dinner in a setting that’s different to everything else. You can even arrange for the restaurant to pick you up on their classic car.
Food wise, I had the sautéed octopus with shallots and soya sprouts as a starter, grilled sea bream with champagne sauce and vegetables as a main, and soufflé of passion fruit with ice cream for dessert. It was all cooked to perfection, beautifully presented and incredibly tasty.
Stay in a hotel with an incredible rooftop pool and views
Funchal is surrounded by spectacular mountains and a beautiful coastline, so the best way to make the most of this scenery is to choose a place to stay that will help you enjoy them. And there’s no better place than The Vine Hotel, one of the Jet2Holidays properties in the island. It’s beautifully decorated by a local designer, with rooms that take luxury and design to a new level, all of it around the theme of wine.
But the piece the resistance is the rooftop pools and the views over the sea on one side, and the mountains with the city sprawling up the hill on the other side. There’s nothing like relaxing in the hot pool with a cocktail after a day discovering all the cool things to do in Funchal.
Get out of town on a day trip
The whole island of Madeira may be small but it surely packs a punch. There is something for everyone here, whether you enjoy hiking, food, photography or a little be of adventure in Madeira.
There is so much to explore and do in this island, that it would be impossible to list it all. So here are a few ideas:
- Take a walk along a levada – The quintessentially thing to do in Madeira is a walk along a levada, an ancient irrigation system that can be found all over the island.
- Explore Madeira by Open Top 4×4 – Take a tour of the island on a 4×4 with a panoramic open roof.
- Ponta de São Lourenço Natural Reserve – Explore this narrow volcanic peninsula in the east of the island, offering spectacular views (see photo) and the chance to see protected sea birds.
- Hike from Pico Arieiro to Pico Ruivo – Hike to the highest point in Madeira past ancient volcanic peaks and breathtaking views.
- Day Cruise to Porto Santo – Visit the northernmost island of the Madeira archipelago on a day cruise to Porto Santo.
- Funchal Agriculture Tour – Visit a banana field, a vegetable and fruit farm, a dairy farm and a cheese factory.
How to get to Funchal
Despite Madeira being so remote, it’s very well connected, and Funchal is very easy to get to. You can fly to Madeira with Jet2Holidays and their airline Jet2 from Manchester, East Midlands and London Stansted. Jet2 has some great deals and their fares include 22kg of checked in baggage allowance, so you don’t have to worry about packing liquids and taking it as carry on.
Planning your trip to Funchal
Do you have any questions about the things you can do in Funchal?
Let me know in the comments!
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Disclosure: A big thank you to Jet2 who hosted me on this trip. As always, all views are my own.
Teresa is an award-winning travel blogger based in London. She’s on a mission to explore the world through responsible cultural and adventure travel, and through deeper, more meaningful local experiences. She’s a lover of adventure, the outdoors and everything food related, and she’s always looking for ways to make a positive impact through sustainable travel.