Funchal, gateway to the 'green pearl' of the Atlantic – an expert guide

Robin McKelvie
Madeira Botanical Garden has sweeping views over the city of Funchal - iStock

Why go? 

The ‘Garden Island’ of Madeira is a lush subtropical paradise like no other and it was a firm favourite of Winston Churchill, who came here to paint and to escape. Cruise into the capital of Funchal and explore a graceful city that is the perfect gateway to the island’s bountiful charms.

Cruise port location

Cruise ships dock in the main harbour. If you dock directly at the quayside the centre of the city lies just a 20 minute walk away. It’s a slightly longer walk from the outer quay. 

Can I walk to any places of interest?

The dramatic Nini Design Centre overlooks Funchal’s port and is worth popping into both for its cultural interest and its restaurant. The city centre lies within walking distance along a pleasant waterfront.

Getting around

Funchal city centre is relatively flat and easy to navigate, though the island in general is famously rugged and mountainous. An efficient network of local buses snakes off around Madeira and there is also a handy cable car service up to the popular village suburb of Monte.

A toboggan run in a wicker basket is one of Funchal's most popular attractions Credit: iStock

What to see and do 

There is plenty in Funchal to keep you busy for a short or long stay and you won’t need an excursion as the city centre lies close by and it is easy to navigate. Hire a car or take a taxi and the rest of this fascinating island awaits. If you want someone else to tackle the winding mountain roads hop on an excursion.

What can I do in four hours or less?

The epicentre of Funchal sightseeing is the Zona Velha, the old quarter that has blossomed in recent years. Its narrow bougainvillea and jasmine shrouded streets are awash with cafes and bars. A creative painted door initiative has been integral in the city’s renaissance – stroll along Rua de Santa Maria to savour the most dramatic portal art.

To experience another side of Madeiran life and for epic views of the city board the cable car to the hillside suburb of Monte. You can enjoy the breezes and grab a cooling drink with sweeping views. 

Ditch the bus and cable car and board a traditional wicker sledge for a ride back down towards the centre from Monte. Toboggans, powered by two sledge drivers, have been scooting downhill since the 19th century, and while the experience is not for the faint hearted, it's a fun way to travel.

Tours are easy to organise independently, but if you prefer an official one Marella Cruises ‘Taste of Madeira & Cable Car’ excursion is fairly typical. It kicks off with the cable car ride from Funchal to Monte, before continuing to the striking Church of Our Lady of Monte. You then get to choose whether to catch the bus back down or brave that ride in a wicker toboggan. There is time afterwards to relax in Funchal’s famed Botanical Gardens before a last stop at a souvenir shop where you are served a glass of the island’s famous wine.

Camara de Lobos is a traditional fishing village, five kilometres from Funchal Credit: iStock

What can I do in eight hours or less?  

You can easily spend a whole day in Funchal’s centre and not get bored. Start with a visit to the Nina Design Centre, then wander along the waterfront into town, checking out the Zona Velha and heading up to Monte on the cable car after a lazy lunch, before a toboggan ride back down.

Alternatively, head for an old favourite of Winston Churchill, nearby Camara de Lobos. The seafood is as much of a draw as the poncha (the local rum punch) in restaurants down by the boat-sprinkled harbour. It’s a great spot to relax in picture-postcard surroundings and enjoy the slower pace of Madeiran life.

With a hire car you can push on and check out some of the highest sea cliffs in the world at Cabo Girao, or enjoy a walk along one of the levadas – irrigational channels that have now been put to good use as walking routes. P&O Cruises offers a ‘Leisurely Scenes of Madeira’ excursion that travels to Camara de Lobos and then continues through the eucalyptus forests towards a viewpoint at Cabo Girao.

Pico dos Barcelos has spectacular panoramic views of Funchal and the surrounding villages. The summit of Pico do Serrado has remarkable views of the interior of Madeira, before the adventure culminates at Eira do Serrado Hotel, where you can savour a cooling drink and a piece of cake.

Madeira is known as the 'green pearl' of the Atlantic Credit: iStock

Eat and drink

Madeira is, of course, famous for its sweet wines, which have been popular with British drinkers since they were referenced in Shakespeare's Henry IV play. The local seafood is also superb, best enjoyed at Villa Peixe in the fishing village of Camara de Lobos – you choose your own from the catch of the day, then it is grilled in front of you. The local scabbardfish (known as espada) is not a great looker, but it is utterly delicious.

Don’t leave without…

Buying a bottle of that famous Madeira wine. While much of the wine produced is indeed sweet, the island actually shows a fair deal of diversity in the wines it produces these days. 

Need to know

Flight time

British Airways and easyJet both fly direct to Madeira from London with a flight time of around four hours.

Safety 

Most visits are trouble free. It’s still best to be aware in Funchal and other population centres for pickpockets.

Best time to go

Madeira does not quite have the same balmy weather as the islands further south in Macaronesia, with comparatively cool winters and lots of rain. The best time to visit this garden island is in spring from March – May when the resplendent local flora is in spectacular full bloom.

Closures 

Shops tend to open at around 9am and then close at either 8pm or 9pm, with many more traditional businesses taking an hour or two off for lunch. Smaller shops often only open on Saturday mornings and then close entirely on Sundays. Malls tend to keep longer hours than the smaller shops.