One Week on Madeira Island, Portugal: The Ultimate Itinerary

Camara de Lobos - Madeira
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Comprised of two inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santos, and the uninhabited islets of Desertas and Selvagens, the Portuguese islands of Madeira have long been shrouded in mystery, hidden in the shadows of Portugal's neighboring Azores archipelago. Located just 500 miles from the African coast, the volcanic islands were discovered by the Portuguese in 1420 and became critical agricultural hotspots, producing a variety of fruits, wheat, and sugar cane.

Today, the more oversized island of Madeira is primarily associated with Madeira wine, the beverage chosen to toast the Declaration of Independence—American President Thomas Jefferson was said to have ordered 3,500 bottles during his first year in office. For some, Madeira is better known as the home of international football star Cristiano Ronaldo, who was born in the island's capital city of Funchal; the island's main airport is named in his honor, and a centrally located museum celebrates his life.

Regardless of how you come to discover Madeira, once you land, you'll be transported to an otherworldly place. From lush waterfalls and thick forests to scenic viewpoints and incredible hikes, the island is full of things to see and do despite its small size. With consistently warm temperatures throughout the year, there's never a bad time to visit.

One week is the perfect amount of time to get a taste of what the main island of Madeira has to offer, allowing you to see some of the highlights that make this destination so beautiful. There is no need to shuffle from hotel to hotel—you will easily be able to make the capital city of Funchal your home base for your time on the island, as all destinations are less than an hour away by car. Planning a trip? This helpful itinerary is a great place to start.

01 of 07

Day 1: Funchal

View over Funchal Downtown
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Touch down at Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport, named after Madeira's most famous son. You'll be seeing a lot of Ronaldo's likeness around his birth city of Funchal, but an infamous bust, which was commissioned to depict him upon the renaming of the airport in 2017, will not be among them. The statue, which became controversial at its unveiling due to its lack of likeness to the footballer, was removed in 2018. An unnamed Spanish artist created a new version, which you can see as you exit arrivals, directly opposite the taxi area.

Drop your bags off at the luxurious Savoy Palace, featuring design-forward interiors, three pools, and several excellent restaurants, and head to Blandy's Wine Lodge to kick off your trip with a taste of the island's famous fortified wine. Madeira has a long winemaking history that dates back to the 15th century, and this sweet wine is one of the few wines that hasn't changed since it was invented over 300 years ago when it was fortified to survive voyages at sea.

Afterward, head to Funchal's Old Town and peruse the island's famous painted doors, which line the colorful streets of Rua da Santa Maria. Here, you can hop on the Madeira cable car, which will take you on a scenic 15-minute ride to the parish of Monte. Spend time exploring the lush Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, the closest you'll get to the rainforest outside of South America, then walk over to the church of Our Lady of Monte, where you can experience a staple of Madeira's culture: the carreiros do Monte or the sledge cars of Monte. Dating back to the 1850s, these wicker toboggans were the only way residents traveled downhill in Madeira's capital city. Hold your valuables tight—your journey downhill will be speedy and exhilarating. To end your day, head to dinner at Galaxia Skyfood on the top floor of your hotel for breathtaking views, a sophisticated wine list, and excellent seafood.

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02 of 07

Day 2: Funchal and Camara de Lobos

Promenade walk into Camara de Lobos, Madeira
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Wake up early to experience the sunrise at Pico do Arieiro, the third-highest peak on the island. At almost 6,000 feet high, you'll be able to catch jaw-dropping views of the entire island while feeling like clouds are hugging you. Afterward, reward yourself with a refreshing poncha, the traditional drink of Madeira, at John's Poncha. Made of honey, lemon juice, and distilled alcohol made from sugar cane, this potent drink will wake you up and get you ready for a morning hike, or "levada," to the Balcões viewpoint. Here you'll see stunning vistas of the Ribeira da Meetade valley below, as well as the two highest peaks on the island, Pico Ruivo and Pico das Torres. Rainbows are frequent in this spot, so make sure to have your camera at the ready.

Nearby, Camada de Lobos, a quaint fishing town, will provide the perfect island atmosphere to relax after a busy morning. The waterfront here is one of Madeira's most picturesque, sprinkled with inland cliffs, colorful fishing boats, and locals enjoying a refreshing poncha. From here, queue up a trip to Fajã dos Padres. Impossible to reach by road, the only way down to this organic farm is via a cable car (yes, you'll be experiencing many of these on the island). Walk through a pathway lined with mangoes, bananas, and pairs to the farm's restaurant, where you'll be rewarded with a meal sourced from the surrounding sea.

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03 of 07

Day 3: Curral da Freiras

Madeira island Village
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Thrill-seekers are in for a treat today. Madeira is considered one of the best places in the world to go canyoning, which involves swimming, jumping, and rappelling in beautiful waterfalls. For those truly looking to get in touch with the island's beautiful nature, there's no better activity to get an exclusive look at Madeira's hidden geologic wonders. Given that the island is filled with waterfalls, there are many canyoning destinations to choose from, but Ribeira das Cales in the mountainous Funchal Ecological Park is a great option. Bring a towel and water shoes—you're guaranteed to get soaked.

Dry off, enjoy a poncha, and head to Ponta Do Sol, a popular municipality with young people and the island opened a digital nomad village for remote workers here in 2021. From here, travelers can make the journey down to Curral da Freiras. Translated to "The Nun's Valley," it takes around 20 minutes to reach the quaint village, where guests will enjoy the countryside and quaint houses typical of the Madeiran society.

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04 of 07

Day 4: Porto Moniz

Natural pools

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Time for a beach day! Porto Moniz is home to one of the island's most popular destinations, the incredibly photogenic natural swimming pools. Formed by an ancient volcanic eruption and made out of volcanic rock, they're the perfect spot to splash around as the Atlantic Ocean's brisk waves burst over the pool walls. The pools' entrance fee of 1.50 euros grants you full-day access, and changing rooms, as well as a café, are on site.

While many tourists come to Porto Moniz primarily for the pools, the rest of the town is certainly worth exploring. The region—which was best known for whaling—sits a bit out of the way, on the northwestern tip of the island, but its towering mountains and scenic roads provide some of Madeira's most beautiful coastline views. If you have a few extra hours and want to learn more about how the island's volcanoes influenced its landscape, head to the São Vicente Caves and Volcanism Center, where you can experience the first volcanic caves to be opened to the public in Portugal.

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05 of 07

Day 5: Chão da Ribeira and Laurisilva Forest

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Madeira boasts some of the most jaw-dropping waterfalls in Europe, and there's no better day than today to experience some of its best. Head to Chão da Ribeira, a lush town located in the Seixal valley, a local reserve for traditional agriculture. Known to locals as "The Sanctuary," it's also home to a stunning hike that will have you pass under several majestic waterfalls as you make your way through the surrounding greenery. Note that this hike—which runs around six miles and should take you about four hours to complete—does not have many signs, so it may be best to go with a local guide.

While hiking, you'll be immersed in the island's ancient Laurisilva Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Laurisilva sweeps across northern and central Madeira and dates back to ancient times—which means it has survived the age of dinosaurs and over 600 years of human habitation. Here you'll find at least 76 types of native plants, as well as rare endemic animal species such as the Madeiran long-toed pigeon. First discovered by Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco in 1419, it's hands down one of the best places on the island to soak in Madeira's history.

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06 of 07

Day 6: Santana

Traditional rural house in Santana Madeira, Portugal.
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One of Madeira's most eye-catching destinations, the town of Santana on the island's north coast is where you can find perhaps the most emblematic image of Madeira: its colorful thatched houses, or "palheiros." These architectural delights date back to the 16th century and contain just one or two rooms, where farming families lived during the settling of the island. The ornate buildings are uninhabited, but some have been converted into shops surrounded by lovely gardens. This is a great town to walk around in and take photos; you're bound to find travelers snapping shots in front of the many colorful doors.

After spending time at the houses, head to Santana's São Jorge Ruins, a prime example of the town's history. Dating back to 1515, these ruins once belonged to an old sugarcane mill; the entrance to the ruins is considered one of the most significant examples of ancient architecture on the island and was named a Monument of Municipal interest in 2003. End your day with a wine tasting in the town's Vine and Wine Museum, which celebrates the history of viticulture on the island alongside selling homemade loaves of bread and pastries.

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07 of 07

Day 7: Porto da Cruz and Machico

Church in Machico, Madeira island - Portugal
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It's your final day on Madeira, so it's best to make the most of it. Start your morning at the Engenhos do Norte, a small steam-powered rum distillery where you can sip on (free!) tastings of local rum and witness just how vital sugar cane has been to the island's culture and economy. Here, you can get up close with each production stage of some of Madeira's internationally acclaimed rums. The factory workers maintain and keep the distillery's equipment fully operational: it's sure to feel like a treat, as steam-powered distilling is a rarity in modern times.

End your week in Machico, the second-largest city on the island. Charming and relaxed, the town's old quarter is an excellent spot for sipping a coffee while people watching. After you peruse the town's charming boutique shops, you can pop in and out of a few of Machico's many cultural delights, such as the 15th-century Gothic architecture of the Igreja Matriz de Machico church and the Solar do Ribeirinho, a museum displaying Madeiran relics and artifacts from 400 years ago and beyond. It's the perfect spot to wind down after a busy week exploring one of Europe's most underrated gems.