Guys, as a proud daughter of Portuguese immigrants you know it would only be right for me to talk about the Motherland. Let’s be serious, I know some of you are thinking “I’m surprised it took you this long”. I know I know, so today on this dreary Monday I want to bring you ten reasons why you should make the pilgrimage to the awe-inspiring, warm island of Madeira, Portugal.
I’ve been going to Madeira since I was 8 years old. I’ve been now three times and each time I’ve had the pleasure of spending a month there. Every time I’ve gone it’s been a different experience and the island has yet to show me all it has to offer. I saw it fitting to talk about some of the greatest things I’ve gathered about this magical place as of now.
1. The Mercado
The Mercado dos Lavradores (Worker’s Market) is a sight to behold. In the heart of the popular city of Funchal there is a constant hustle and bustle of locals romping around. However, you’ll quickly notice that most make their way into the Mercado to start their day and you should too. Upon walking into the building your senses will have no idea where to begin. Exotic flowers protrude from every corner possible treating your eyes to vibrant colors of oranges, reds, and yellows. Once past the flowers your nose is quickly assaulted by the scent of fresh fruit coming from the surrounding stands. Stand owners are often pleasant and willing to barter so never settle for the first price. EVER.
It is not just flowers and fruit that line the walls of this open air market. Some stands will sell random antiques and the influx of tourists mean that there are also cheesy souvenirs and knock off purses you can buy. But the part that really sticks out in my mind is if you continue going straight past the rainbows of fresh fruit and vegetables you will hit the fish market. Portugal being the strong fishing hold that it is means that of course there would be a gaggle of fishermen fresh off their boats ready to reap the fruits of their labors. Watching the men clean and sell their seafood is a sight in itself and tourists line up with their cameras to take in this sight. It is certainly not one you want to miss and a trip to the market is the best way to start your adventures in Funchal.
Lets just have a little chat about the delicious elixir hailed by the locals called PONCHAAAAAA (you will be just as excited when you try it)! There are stands all over the island offering some strapping gent to whip up a pitcher of poncha. Also known as Madeira Honey Punch this traditional alcoholic drink is made with sugar cane alcohol, honey, sugar, lemon rind and different fruit juices depending on the version. When prepared your bartender will come over with all of these fresh ingredients throw them in a pitcher and start making this liquid gold. The key to preparing the drink is making sure you use a poncha stick, trust me, it is not real poncha unless they use the stick to stir. But let me give some fair warning, these fruity delights pack a mean punch so drink accordingly and enjoy!
3. Porto Santo
Porto Santo is to Madeira like Block Island to Rhode Island. You hop on a ferry for a couple hours and then the next thing you know you’ve landed in a beach paradise. The ferry ride alone is worth the 45 euros, while sailing you’re able to view a great deal of the Madeira coast. Buildings shine with colors of gold, blue, pinks and oranges and your camera memory card will fill right up trying to capture it all. The scenery of Porto Santo isn’t really much to write home about and in my opinion a bit barren compared to Madeira. Most people go there to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life back in the city. But it’s nice to escape here for a day or two and work on your tan at one of the crystal blue water, soft sand beaches.
If there’s one thing I seek out every time I have the pleasure of returning to Madeira is picado. The thing about picado is that it’s more than a meal, it’s an experience and for me some of my fondest memories. There’s places all over that offer the dish but I always make the trek to Nikita, a hole in the wall restaurant in Canico . A family friend took me here when I was 14 and each visit isn’t complete until I make it back. So here I am bestowing one of my favorite restaurants to all of you. So back to picado. Once you put in the order a waiter will come over and place a paper tablecloth and a pile of forks on your table. Brace yourself because here we go, a massive platter will come out and you’ll smell it before you see it. What does it smell like you may ask? Heaven in food form, that’s what. The platter is topped with cubed pieces of tender steak, hand cut french fries and smothered in a delicious brown gravy. The next part is just digging in, no plates just good friends to share a great meal with. So have a cold Nikita for me and get messy, they expect it.
5. Old Funchal
Walking through Old Funchal on a sunny day reminds you of what this busy port was like in its heyday. The architecture is what you would find in any old town in Europe. Most streets are barely big enough to fit a compact car and the narrow alleyways shine in the morning light. The streets are also littered with outdoor cafés but take my advice, DON’T EAT HERE. The restaurants hike up their prices because there is a constant flow of cruise ships coming in full of tourists in the summer. This is the type of place you want take a leisure stroll through after you picked up some goodies from the Mercado.
Not only is this area rich in history but also the arts. In 2011 the city of Funchal encouraged artists from all over the world to transform the shabby doors that lined the historical streets into unique works of art. This created an array of noteworthy pieces with mediums such as paint, fabric, and metals. You’ll also find the museum of contemporary art in Old Funchal. Housed in Fort Sao Tiago (once a fort that would overlook the island and regulate the ships coming in for trade) is a collection of Portuguese art dating back to 1960. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00-12:00 and from 14:00-17:30.
Do me a favor, if you’re heading to Old Funchal pack your bathing suit. Some of my favorite swimming spots are over here. If you’re looking for a place to hang in the sun without having to pay look for the hidden path near the museum of contemporary art. Walk down this path and you’ll find a little clearing that allows for the perfect spot to catch some rays.
Okay so I will admit it, I don’t like seafood. There, I said it. I am a Portuguese person who does not like seafood. That’s like seeing the Loch Ness monster, you’ve heard it exist but nobody’s really seen it. Well here I am world. BUT since I come from a family of seafood lovers I had to throw Lapas on the list just for them! Lapas are a mussel that look like half a clam, called Lipets in English. Usually prepared in a cast iron skillet, these bad boys simmer in some butter and seasoning and then are topped with some lemon right before they are served. I will admit that the smell is intoxicating when they are delivered to the table and who knows maybe the next time I go I’ll work up the courage to suck one of these puppies down.
Some of you may be asking, “Okay so it’s shellfish, what’s the big deal?” Let me put it this way, the last time I went I promised my Dad that I would freeze some and bring them home. Needless to say when I arrived home with a suitcase that smelled like I left it in the seafood section my father was bursting with anticipation. When he cooked these babies up it was like watching a kid open that one present he begged for on Christmas morning. These are about as good as shellfish gets according to TL (aka, Tony Loura, the legend, my dad).
7. Public Transportation
I had to throw public transportation onto this list because most travelers are like me in the sense that they arrive to a new destination and they don’t have a car. Well fellow traveler, rest assure that public transportation in Madeira is certainly stepping up their game. Aside from undergoing massive construction projects to make streets wider to reach what were previously inaccessible areas, the bus system is extremely organized. A five day pass costs 21.40 euros (the price may have gone up since 2011) and is well worth every penny if you want to see more of what the island has to offer.
8. Beaches/Swimming Areas
If there is one thing I have learned about the Madeirense people is that aside from eating and laughing, they love to swim and they love to work on their tan. I mean you will totally be able to tell when these olive skinned beauties walk about and you suddenly regret buying SPF50. But that’s besides the point, there are literally swimming areas etched all over the cliff side coast. Some noteworthy places are the glacier pools of Port Moniz and the always classic Lido. But these swimming areas are EVERYWHERE, I cannot stress that enough. Some you have to pay to get into, others not at all. Some have massive pools and areas in the water you can swim out to, others are just a flat surface nestled in the cliffs that allow access to the inspiring Atlantic. It all depends on your budget but I can assure that no matter where you decide to get your swim on it will be perfect.
Now let’s talk beaches. The beaches are not as prevalent as the swimming areas because of the rocky coast, but the ones that are there are GOOOOOD. Some are sand, some are rocks, some are topless some not so much (found that out the hard way, but that’s another story). No matter what beach you end up at you won’t want to leave. As much as all the beaches are perfect in their own way, there are two that I seek out when I touch down in Madeira. The first is the beach in Machico. Machico is a small town nestled in between a mountainous landscape. After making your way through these mountains a glorious beach exposes itself at the mouth of this small town. This is the beach where the locals go to for good reason too. It may not be the biggest beach but the cafés are cheap and the water is warm, I mean what more do you really need?
Then there’s Ribeira Brava. The reason I love this place so much is because the ride allows for you to get an idea of what the Madeira countryside looks like. Within these mountainous green hills will be small villages strewn about. Something about those kinds of views really let you see how beautiful the world is. I managed to find my journal entry from when I was 20 and the last time I set my eyes on Ribeira Brava and found the passage to be wickedly appropriate:
“Ribeira Brava, where the water is a crystal clear see through blue, the roads are steep and carved out of the mountains as if to not disrupt their beauty and it’s green as far as the eye can see, wish you were here.”
A visit to this gorgeous area is one that is worthy of making the list.
Now part of me was a little reluctant to put Santana on the list because it’s probably the number one place to visit as a tourist and my intention is to get you off that path. But then after thinking about it I realized that part of going to Madeira is going to Santana. There is a level of appreciation that comes from seeing the triangle homes that allows oneself to see what it was like on the island during a more simple time. The last time I made it out here they were having a 48 hour folklore dance festival. The feast allowed for places to make carne espetada (blade meat) over a fire pit and buy bolo do caco (some of the best bread you will ever have, jus’ sayin’) all of which being made right in front of you. Not the mention the flowers that added to the already noteworthy scenery.
10. Ponte do Furado
If you make your way to Madeira then make a point to get to Ponte do Furado. Located at the eastern, farthest point of the island this is where the nature lover in you will thank me. The hike to the tip of the island takes about 5 hours (there and back and also could be less or more depending on your pace). During this hike you will be faced with some challenging hills and stairs carved directly into the mountain that make you wonder if a gust of wind can push you off a mountain but it is all worth it.
Now my tip for this place is 1. PACK THE RIGHT SHOES!!. I cannot stress that enough. At the time I hadn’t really discovered my love for hiking yet and thought that cheap flip flops were perfectly sufficient footwear for a five hour hike (I also thought a fedora was a good idea too, I guess you could say I was a n00b). The hike itself is not easy but with the right set of shoes it probably would have been significantly better. But the mountains wrapped in oranges, purples and reds will push you along if you forget to pack your hiking shoes.
Tip #2, walk all the way to the end of the trail. It may be grueling but the swimming hole waiting for you at the end will be worth every bit of pain your feet may be feeling. Some genius literally carved steps that lead right into the water so that you can sit back and relax after taking in the sights of the hike. This was by far my favorite experience I’ve ever had while in Madeira and #1 on my list for when I return.
There are so many reasons why visiting this small island in the middle of the Atlantic should be on your travel list. I could really go on for days and there is still so much that I want to explore in the future. If you have some experiences that you want to share with me if you’ve been then please do! As always, keep travelling!