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Things to Do in Funchal

Rising from the waves in a protected crescent of charming red-roofed homes and magnificent sea views, Funchal has for half a millennium been the capital of sunny Madeira Island. Famed for its red wine, rocky beaches, museums, and gardens, it is an attraction unto itself.

The pretty marina, bristling with beautiful yachts, offers access to Madeira's most remarkable treasures, off the Funchal Coast. Arrange treks on breezy catamarans, covered pangas, or even a replica Spanish Galleon, Santa María de Colombo, to explore the stunning scenery. Dolphins and whales frolic beneath the waves, while paragliders leap from Cabo Girao, Europe's highest sea cliffs, and soar high above. Don't miss the famed sea wolves, or monk seals, for which the coastal enclave of Câmara de Lobos is named.
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Church of Our Lady of Monte (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte)
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Church of Our Lady of Monte (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte) is the most important pilgrimage site on the Portuguese island of Madeira. The original church was built in 1741 on top of the foundations of an old chapel that was said to be built by the son of the settler of the island, but it was soon destroyed by an earthquake. The church that stands today dates to 1818. The interior features elegant chandeliers, a statue of Our Lady of the Mountain and the tomb of Charles I of Habsburg, the last emperor of Austria who lived in exile on Madeira until his death in 1922. Also inside the church is a silver Pieta that was the only relic saved from the earthquake. Every year in mid-August the surrounding village of Monte is home to a large festival that includes a procession to the church in honor of Nossa Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of Monte).

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Madeira Botanical Gardens
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One of Madeira’s loveliest green spaces, the island’s Botanical Gardens (Jardins Botânicos da Madeira) debuted in 1960. Stretching across 20 acres (9 hectares) and home to more than 2,000 species of exotic plants, the oasis is best known for its colorful geometric flower beds and carefully groomed topiary gardens.

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Sé Cathedral of Funchal
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One of only a handful of late fifteenth century structures to survive the test of time, this Gothic-style cathedral is evidence of an impressive history and rich architectural past. Its impressive exterior gives way to an understated, spiritual gathering space and altar that make Sé Cathedral Funchal a perfect spot for quiet reflection or contemplative prayer. Visitors can marvel at the detailed ceiling and beautiful side altars while attending morning mass at 8 a.m. The church’s unique bell can be heard throughout the town just before services start.

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Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
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Lush Japanese gardens, brilliant tropical flowers and scenic river bridges may be part of what draws travelers to this botanical destination, but what makes a trip to Monte Palace Tropical Garden unique is its extensive collection of historic tiles that decorate the landscape. These handmade artifacts have traveled from palaces, chapels, homes and churches across Portugal, and some date as far back as the 18th century. More than 150 of these ceramic tiles tell the story of Portuguese visitors in Japan, and include details on the trade relationships and cultural ties between the two countries that inspired portions of this garden.

A three-floor museum is also tucked within the garden grounds. It displays more than 1,000 sculptures from countries such as Zambia, as well as a rare collection of minerals from every corner of the world.

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Santa Maria de Colombo
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Designed to replicate the original Santa Maria that brought Christopher Columbus to America in 1492, this massive ship has become a destination for marine lovers and history enthusiasts alike. With two trips daily, visitors can explore the south coast of Madeira while taking a trip back in time. Three-hour journeys travel along the west side of Funchal and stop at Cabo Girao, the highest seaside cliff on the continent.

Voyages include time for a scenic swim, as well as samples of Madeira Wine and local honey cake. There’s also a good chance those aboard the Santa Maria will spot whales, dolphins and other marine life while on tour.

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Museum of Natural History (Municipal Museum of Funchal)

Rare fish and examples of unique Madeira plant life are on display at this historic museum located in the former residence of the Count of Carvalhal. Since about 1850, botanists and biologists have collected species and artifacts that demonstrate the diversity of Madeira’s fauna, flora and mineral reserves. While visitors say the tired taxidermy displays look far past their prime, collections of marine species, geological rock samples and a slightly more-modern aquarium promote the museum’s message of environmental protection and preservation.

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Madeira Story Centre
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This modern museum pays homage to Madeira’s rich history and colorful culture. Visitors can begin their chronological journey through the island’s history at the entrance level, where the Madeira’s volcanic beginnings are outlined before guests journey to the panoramic terrace. Here, travelers can explore the vibrant flora unique to the archipelago before entering the main exhibit floor. This final passage tells the story of Madeira’s discovery, its history of trade and success as a society. Visitors of all ages will appreciate the multi-media experience, which includes interactive games, smell boxes and audio, too.

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Armazém do Mercado
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Skip shopping for ordinary souvenirs and instead head to Funchal’s Armazém do Mercado, or Market Warehouse. The cultural and commercial hub is located in Funchal’s old quarter, and allows visitors to check out a unique and historic space that is home to equally unique products.

Situated on a side street near the produce- and out-of-towner-filled Mercado do Lavradores, the Armazém do Mercado is very much a different breed of market. This is where you’ll find everything from tasty eats, to events, and artisan crafts that definitely aren’t your run-of-the-mill tourist trinkets. While there, you can also visit the market’s Toy Museum, or just appreciate this brilliantly renovated building that once served as an embroidery factory.

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