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Things to Do in Madeira

The Portuguese archipelago Madeira features wild coastal landscapes and tranquil charm, and delights outdoor adventurers with a wealth of activities. Known affectionately as the Pearl of the Atlantic, Madeira island offers thrill seekers the chance to take a canyoneering tour in Ribeira das Cales or a hiking tour through the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Queimadas Forest Park, whose fairy-tale forests boast emerald green lagoons and waterfalls. The island’s relatively small size means even travelers short on time can enjoy most of its delights: take a hop-on hop-off tour of Funchal, the archipelago’s picturesque capital, to discover colonial monuments at your own pace; or tick off top attractions such as the Valley of the Nuns (Curral das Freiras), Pico do Arieiro, which affords spectacular island views, and Nossa Senhora do Monte Church on a full-day sightseeing tour by Jeep or minibus. From Funchal, day trips to southwestern shores reveal the natural pools of Porto Moniz, the volcanic caves of São Vicente, and Cabo Girão, one of Europe’s highest promontories. Go whale or dolphin watching on a boat tour; or excite your palate on a vineyard tour where you’ll taste famous Madeira wine. Take in the region’s spectacular natural landscapes on a hiking excursion, or walk through the “levadas” (canal ways) in the Laurissilva Forest.
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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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Santana
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Located on the north coast of Madeira, Santana is a small town famous for its traditional-style whitewashed A-Frame houses with thatched roofs, painted blue window frames, and red shutters. The town is also home to the Madeira Theme Park, a popular family-friendly attraction.

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Cabo Girão
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With its dramatic sea cliffs soaring more than 1,903 feet (580 meters) above Madeira’s south coast, Cabo Girão is the highest promontory in Europe. The clifftop is one of the island’s most-visited attractions, with a glass-floor skywalk lookout point affording spectacular panoramic views.

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Porto Moniz
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Built against a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the charming seaside village of Porto Moniz on the north-west tip of Madeira is known for its natural salt-water swimming pools surrounded by volcanic rock formations. Life here revolves around the outdoors; the village started out as a fishing and farming outpost and you’ll see the tropical fruit plantations along the hillside as you walk around.

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Machico
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Belonging to Portugal and lying in the Atlantic more than 550 miles west off the coast of Morocco, the archipelago of Madeira is not exactly a place one stumbles upon while traveling. But visitors soon realize it is a destination worth planning for, and the town of Machico is its shining star.

Along with the island's largest city, Funchal, Machico quickly became a full-fledged town shortly after the discovery of the island in the early 15th century. In fact, it was the first place where explorers landed and as such, is the historical heart of the island. Sights include Franciscan chapels, defensive forts, and the original fire beacon to warn of intruders. There are also beautiful vistas, modern beach clubs, world-class diving spots, and the town itself, with its welcoming locals.

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Pico do Arieiro
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Pico do Arieiro is a mountain on the island of Madeira, off the coast of Portugal. At 5,965 feet (1,818 meters), it’s the island’s third highest peak and one of its most popular tourist attractions, thanks to incredible views from the summit and challenging hiking trails.

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Paul da Serra Plateau
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To the south of the Laurel Forest lies the Paúl da Serra Plateau, a favorite destination for hikers, nature lovers, and those wishing to seek out the famous levadas of Madeira, several of which are located in nearby Rabaçal, at the western tip of the plateau.

Levadas are a network of manmade waterways that bring water across and down from the mountains; alongside them run narrow but sturdy walkways that hikers have come to call their own. But the plateau itself is also a worthy destination that is easy enough to navigate while providing thrilling views and plenty of fresh air.

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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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More Things to Do in Madeira

Monte Palace Tropical Gardens

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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Sao Vicente Caves & Volcanism Centre

Sao Vicente Caves & Volcanism Centre

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Formed by volcanic eruptions more than 890,000 years ago, the Sao Vicente Caves are a network of underground lava tubes beneath the north coast town of Sao Vicente on Madeira island. Follow pathways around the caverns, rocks, and lakes before exploring the Volcanism Centre with explanatory audio-visual displays.

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Portela Viewpoint (Miradouro da Portela)

Portela Viewpoint (Miradouro da Portela)

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The Portela Viewpoint (Miradouro da Portela), situated between Porto da Cruz and Machico, allows visitors to observe one of the most beautiful landscapes in Madeira. The coastal lookout point boasts a panorama of mountains, villages and the sea as well. Time spent here is worthwhile, especially with a lunch at Restaurante Miradouro da Portela right on the road.

Many choose to take the bus or to drive to Portela from Funchal, while others take the hiking trail from Ribeiro Frio in Santana. In fact, the Ribeiro-Frio-to-Portela walk is one of the most popular levada routes, and in fact can be quite crowded in the high season as its medium level of difficulty is attractive to a wider variety of hikers.

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Valley of the Nuns (Curral das Freiras)

Valley of the Nuns (Curral das Freiras)

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Surrounded by steep mountains, the village of Curral das Freiras (Valley of the Nuns) seems like an impossible place to access when viewed from the Eira do Serrado lookout point. But its remote location is exactly why it was embraced by the escaped slaves and nuns who fled from pirates in Funchal.

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Pico dos Barcelos Viewpoint (Miradouro Pico dos Barcelos)

Pico dos Barcelos Viewpoint (Miradouro Pico dos Barcelos)

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The city of Funchal on the Island of Madeira rises gently from the coast back into the hills. As such, just a short way back from the shore there are fantastic views not only of Funchal, but the surrounding mountains and the sea. As any local can readily tell a visitor, the best point from which to survey this vast domain is the Miraduro Pico dos Barcelos.

Despite Madeira being a hiker's dream, the Pico dos Barcelos is accessible to all and not a “trek” in the traditional sense. From the car park to the observation point is about a 15-minute walk, and the promontory is well-paved and includes safety fences. Recently the city has also built a cafe, restrooms, and other facilities there for visitors, making it more than just a ride up the hill and back. It's a wonderful place to have a lunch with a view; shutterbugs will want to head there at sunrise or sunset for some calendar-worthy shots.

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Laurel Forest (Laurisilva)

Laurel Forest (Laurisilva)

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One of the many reasons why visitors come to Europe is to steep themselves in history. But the Portuguese island of Madeira is home to a piece of history that goes beyond the ruins of Rome and the battlefields of France – the Laurel Forest. Vegetation such as the kind found here used to carpet southern Europe, and it is believed that the forest is at least 15 million years old! Now it is a rare sight, and those going to Madeira put it high on their list of things to see.

The Laurel Forest, also called Laurisilva, holds a bounty of flora and fauna that astounds visitors – as well as a subtropical mist that gives it an ethereal ambience and makes the views from certain observation points that much more incredible. There are several long- and short-range hiking trails through this UNESCO World Heritage site that can accommodate various levels of ability. However, proper shoes and attire should be brought for the adventure, as well as food and drink.

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Eira do Serrado

Eira do Serrado

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On the way to Curral das Freiras from Funchal is a popular spot for many visitors: The Eira do Serrado, an observation point, is high up in the craggy mountains at a whopping 3,200 feet in altitude. It's a bit of a walk, and there are some steps involved, so it's not immediately accessible and takes some work.

But once at the Eira do Serrado, the view is absolutely breathtaking. From the mountain peaks to the isolated village in the valley below, it is a dreamscape that every hiker and experienced walker hopes to find at the end of the trail. The large terrace, complete with safety railings, provides ample room for a panoramic view that is one of the highlights of any visit to Madeira.

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Museum of Natural History (Municipal Museum of Funchal)

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

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

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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Desertas Islands (Ilhas Desertas)

Desertas Islands (Ilhas Desertas)

The three Ilhas Desertas, or "Deserted Islands," stretch slender and mysterious off the Madieras' southern shore toward the Canarias. The hazy silhouettes of Deserta Grande, Bugio and Ilhéu Chão, just visible from the Funchal Marina, only hint at their rocky majesty, rising to sudden heights from the foaming waves.

They famously beckon birders with their protected and isolated populations of Cory's and manx shearwaters, Madeiran storm, Bulwar's, and Fea's petrels, canaries, linnets, and several types of terns. But you'll also find a breeding population of monk seals, as well as whales, dolphins, and other sea life offshore.

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Laurisilva Rainforests of Madeira

Laurisilva Rainforests of Madeira

The mountainous interiors of these steeply pitched volcanic islands are draped with a unique and lush ecosystem, the Laurisilva Rainforests of Madeira. Named for its flowering laurels, these forests are marbled with waterfalls and home to hundreds of endemic species, many endangered though this was once one of Europe's most common biomes.

This type of subtropical humid forest begins at an elevation of around 300 meters (984 feet), reaching its cool, misty pinnacle atop Pico Ruivo (1,861m / 6104ft). Well-worn hiking trails and winding roads wend through these rich forests, some specifically protected as biogenic and natural reserves with admission fees, such as Vale da Ribeira da Janela and the Deserta Islands. Others are less formally accessible, such as those around Santana and on the Selagem Islands. All are protected as part of Madeira Natural Park.

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