Renowned as the ‘Pearl of the Atlantic’ to some, revered as ‘God’s floating garden’ to others, it’s no understatement to suggest that Madeira is rightly classed as Portugal’s most beautiful island. In fact a small archipelago situated north of the Canary Islands some 500km off the coast of West Africa and 1000km from Lisbon, Madeira is a vibrant, verdant island rich in vegetation and stunning topographical landscapes, from lush river valleys and dense forest to sheer coastal cliffs and wide expanses of terraced hillsides covered with vineyards and banana plantations. And thanks to its warm summers and mild winters (courtesy of the Gulf Stream), Madeira is an enchanting year-round holiday destination.
Discovered by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century, Madeira enjoys a rich history in addition to its attractive panoramas. Undisputedly Madeira’s liveliest and most interesting place across the island, Funchal, its capital, enjoys a magnificent setting on the Bay of Funchal, one of the most spectacular bays in the world rivalling even Rio de Janeiro. This is the perfect spot to sit awhile at one of the beachfront cafes and take in the exquisite panoramas, with a glass of sweet Madeira wine in hand.
The city centre itself is compact and easily explorable on foot, its narrow, cobbled streets playing host to a lively daily market (not Sundays), the Mercado dos Lavradores; a beautiful 16th-century cathedral – the Sé – boasting intricate geometric designs and Arabic influence; in addition to some interesting museums including the Museu de Arta Sacra, the Casa Museu Frederico de Freitas and the Museu da Quinta das Cruzes, once the home of a former Genoese wine-shipping family.
Just 3km outside the centre of Funchal, the city’s Botanical Gardens cover 12 acres of terraced hillside and are awash with riotous floral colours and scents whilst 5km northeast of the city, the Quinta do Palheiro, also known as the Blandy Gardens, is a beautiful estate worth exploring. The Parque Santa Catarina meanwhile offers fantastic views over Funchal and the bay; just above the park sits the Quinta Vigia, the official (pink) residence of the President of Madeira, closed to the public but its 18th-century chapel is open to visitors.
If you’d rather appreciate the world-famous Madeira wine in greater detail and depth, the Adegas de São Francisco (more commonly known as Blandy’s Wine Lodge), is an essential. Taking its original name from the convent that once stood on this site, a visit here offers a fascinating insight into the wine-production process with time aplenty for tasting, too. Visit Madeira in September during harvest season and you’ll be lucky enough to take in the island’s annual Wine Festival.
Other Funchal pre-requisites include taking the cable car to the top of Monte, where you’ll see the island’s holiest church, the white-stucco church of Nossa Senhora de Monte, containing the tomb of Emperor Charles I of Austria, the last Hapsburg monarch. Last but not least, no visit to Funchal would be complete without a toboggan ride in a large wicker basket down the steep slopes of Monte back into the city centre. A thrilling way to end a short break on Madeira, Portugal’s most beautiful isle.