If you're wondering where is the best place to travel in Portugal, I'm here to tell you about one of my favorite. In a sparkling sea of deep cobalt blue just off the northwest coast of Africa, you'll find Madeira: a rugged island with mountains soaring straight out of the water. If you don't already know its country of origin, based on its geographic positioning you'd likely guess Morocco. But this tiny island is Portuguese through and through. Known for its famous namesake wine and warm, subtropic climate, Madeira is a little slice of heaven that you won't want to miss.
When my friends Caitlin (Augusta Leigh Photo), Caroline (The Belle Abroad) Chelsea (Passport to Friday) and I started planning our trip to Portugal, I had honestly never even heard of Madeira. But being that I'm always up for an adventure, I naturally said yes without needing a ton of convincing (plus, I trusted my fellow-travel-loving-friends). I quickly learned that the only reason people wouldn't want to plan a trip here is because they still don't know it exists. So if that happens to be the case for you, allow me to introduce you to this island that's bursting with more charm, beauty + experiences than you could ever begin to imagine.
If you're wondering "What are the best hotels in Madeira?" I'd argue you won't find one better than Belmond Reid's Palace. Set in subtropical gardens overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, this property has, for more than a century, been the ultimate place to stretch out in the sun and relax- and that’s exactly what we did immediately upon arrival. Not only do they have space to lounge right by the sea, they also have 3 pools with equally spectacular views (we spent time in all these spots to maximize our time at the property!)
To keep making the most of all the Belmond Reid’s Palace views, we opted to have breakfast ordered into our room one morning so we could enjoy the beautiful views from another vantage point. We also loved going to the formal dining room for breakfast the other mornings to enjoy the beautiful design and the sprawling buffet.
Overall, the entire Belmond Reid’s Palace property was impeccable, the staff couldn’t have been more accommodating and I would highly recommend anyone stay here while visiting the island. Our trip wouldn’t have been the same without it!
ROAD TRIP AROUND THE ISLAND
There are so many things to do in Madeira, I don't even know where to start! We partnered with Visit Madeira to take a little road trip around the island and explore some other parts other than where we were staying (which was the greater Funchal area). I can’t recommend renting a car and exploring the island enough- we saw some of our favorite bits this way! When planning your itinerary, be sure to include:
1. PICO DO ARIEIRO
We literally drove through clouds to reach the top of Pico do Arieiro (which, full disclosure, was a bit scary at times!) But the views from the top were well worth any nerves we had to overcome to get there. I felt like we were in a scene from Jurassic Park! The photos (while stunning thanks to Caitlin!) still can't quite do it justice- you just need to experience it for yourself!
Next, we drove to the quirky small town of Santana, known for it’s charming thatched roof houses. These little guys had so much personality, and it was cool to see a more rural, less touristy part of the island.
3. SAO JORGE
Finally, we went to Sao Jorge- which had some of the only sea-level beaches (although still no sand) that I saw on the island (Maderia is predominantly a cliffy terrain). We loved exploring all the little villages around the area and couldn't seem to stop admiring all the breathtaking views.
EXPLORE THE CAPITAL: FUNCHAL
We all fell head over heels in love with Old Town Funchal. Cobblestone streets line the ancient alleyways where you can stroll and shop by day, or sit outside + drink Poncha by night (Poncha is the traditional alcoholic drink of the island and made with aguardente de cana- which is distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice, honey, sugar, lemon rind and usually a fruit juice). This area is simply exploding with charm and definitely a spot you want to allow yourself some time to wander. I'd also recommend coming to this area for dinner- we loved sitting outside and listening to the live music!
We knew we had to try Madeira wine while on the island. If you’re unfamiliar with this type of wine, it's essentially a fortified wine made on the island. Maderia actually has a long winemaking history, dating back to the Age of Exploration when it was a port of call for ships heading to the New World (or East Indies). They added grape spirits to keep the wines from spoiling. Today, they keep this unique method of winemaking (which involves heating the wine).
Given it’s unique style + background (and the fact that we all love wine in general) we knew we wanted to do a tasting. We went to Paixão do Vinho, which was an incredible little find. The space had a nice patio where we sat outside, and a robust tasting menu (which included delicious snacks like figs, nuts and a variety of cheeses). The mid-level tasting was our personal favorite as far as wines go. But my favorite part of the night (aside from the delicious wine + food) was how welcoming the owner was. He made a point to go into great detail explaining the wines to us, and even gave us some great recommendations around Madeira. If wine varietals pique your interest, be sure to add this hidden gem to your itinerary while on the island!
There's one thing you simply can't come to the island without doing. Boat tours in Madeira are a must, but I especially reommend sailing with On Tales, They took us on a quick tour of the island by boat (which was stunning). But the main objective of our voyage? To see some sea life! This team knows a thing (or twenty) about how to spot wildlife (mostly dolphins and whales). Because of their expertise in locating these creatures, we were able to spot a school of dolphins. But this wasn't just seeing a dolphin or two - the school essentially invited our boat into the center as dozens and dozens of dolphins jumped + danced alongside us. It was magical and felt like the cherry on top of a simply wonderful trip.
Looking for restaurants with a view in Madeira? Look no further! Located in the historic Fort of São Tiago in Funchal is (arguably) the best restaurant on the island: Restaurante do Forte. Not only do they have a diverse menu brimming with gastronomic specialties, they also offer incredible views of the sea. We loved everything we ate (both the taste and presentation were impeccable!) and all agreed we would gladly eat here over and over again.
Madeira seems to be in a perpetual state of late spring/ early summer- which means ideal temperatures and plentiful sunshine. Opt for flowy dresses and any other staples you'd typically pack for a tropical vacation. Shop what we brought in our suitcases here:
Madeira was an incredible adventure I’ll never forget. If you’re looking for a tropical destination with rich European culture, this is most certainly the spot for you!
I’m so thankful for all the incredible experiences we had, and for the time I got to spend with my sweet friends. We all live in different destinations and don’t get to see each other nearly enough, so memories from trips like this are ones I’ll always cherish. Love + miss you gals already! x
More about Madeira you still want to know? Let me know in the comments below!
Thanks (as always) for stopping by, and stay tuned for more European adventures I’ll be sharing soon!