The Portuguese island of Madeira forms part of an archipelago that sits in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the northwest coast of Africa. The volcanic island is famous for its wonderful subtropical climate, its legendary fortified wine and its beautiful, geologically dramatic, landscapes. It’s a striking island home to year-round colourful festivals, delicious food and some excellent adventure activities.
Madeira island is a great option for a family holiday with something to keep everyone happy. If you’re planning to visit Madeira with kids then this post is for you!
Guest post: Copy and photos by Laura Weenink Reisachtig who visited Madeira with her daughter Pip.
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The best time to visit Madeira
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Madeira enjoys year-round good weather with hot summers, very mild winters and plenty of sunshine. The Mediterranean climate means that you can visit at pretty much any time of year.
December – February: Madeira is an ideal destination for some winter sun. Visit between December and February and you’ll be rewarded with mild temperatures of around 20C in the lower parts of the island. The mountain tops, however, may well have snow on them!
These months are a popular time to visit Madeira, particularly for the island’s famous Carnival celebrations which begin on the Friday before Lent and run to Shrove Tuesday. Book accommodations early if you plan to visit during this time.
March – May: Spring is a wonderful time to visit Madeira although be prepared for occasional heavy rain. The flowers and foliage are in bloom during these months, making the already beautiful island look particularly pretty. The Flower Festival takes place in May when the streets are full of parades and floats.
June – August: The average temperature during the summer months hovers around 24C but the hot dry wind that blows in from the Sahara can cause temperatures to rise to 33C. The summer months is the best time of year for whale watching.
September – November: Autumn sees fewer visitors making it a good time to visit if you want to escape the crowds. Daytime temperatures average 22C and the sea water temperature is still warm enough for swimming.
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How to get to Madeira:
Madeira is located approximately 1000km from mainland Europe. There are airports on both Madeira Island and Porto Santo Island with regular flights departing from Lisbon and Porto on mainland Portugal.
If travelling from the East Coast of the United States then you can connect via Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel island in the Azores.
On Madeira Island, visitors fly into the Cristiano Ronaldo airport, where you can grab a photo with a bust of the soccer superstar at the building entrance. You can travel from Madeira to the nearby island of Porto Santo by ferry, which takes 2 hours 30 minutes.
Things to do in Funchal with kids
Madeira’s largest city has been the capital for more than five centuries. The name Funchal derives from the Portuguese word ‘funcho’ meaning fennel. Years ago, the banks of the main rivers were overgrown by fennel and thus they decided to name the city after this herb. Funchal sounds far more exotic than ‘fennel town’!
During the golden age, Funchal was the city of the ‘white gold’, otherwise known as sugar.
Nowadays, this sweet capital is a laidback city with cute streets, charming squares and vibrant street art in the form of painted doors. The city is also the main port for giant cruise ships. From our hotel we could watch the ships seemingly coming and going but, from what I’ve been told, only two ships dock weekly.
Don’t miss the waterfront area of Funchal. This recently renovated area is where the cruise ships docks, where boat tours depart from, and where locals like to hang out. There’s lots of space for running around and a small park.
There is plenty to do in Funchal for everyone on a family vacation. Stroll around the cobblestone streets of the old town. Walk towards the boulevard and take a cable car ride up to Monte to enjoy views over the city.
Visit Mercado dos Lavradores – the Farmer’s Market
Mercado dos Levradores, is set in a lovely two-storey building in the centre of the old town of capital Funchal. It’s a good place to get a taste of the Madeira and the other island that make up the archipelago.
Walk around for half an hour and get a taste of the islands. The main floor of the market is dedicated to fresh produce such as fish, flowers, veggies and fruit, including some local finds that I have never seen before (20 different kinds of passion fruit for example!).
On the second floor you’ll find colourful and well-displayed stalls with dried fruits and souvenirs. In front of the building you’ll find lots of eateries and cafés.
Buried in a blizzard of toys at Museu do Brinquendo
Located around the corner from the market is the Museu do Brinquedo, an unusual toy museum that houses some 20,000 toys divided into seven different thematic rooms. It’s one of the best things to do in Funchal with kids, particularly if travelling with young children.
There’s a room with toys for boys, a room with toys from the USA, a room with trains…anyway you get the picture. There are lots of rooms with lots of toys!
The museum is housed in a restored factory that dates back several hundred years. I recognised lots of toys from my grandma’s childhood, as well as from mine and those of today’s kids. The Brinquedo somewhat holds the middle ground between a museum and a department store. It’s a very unique experience that you’ll only find in Funchal!
This privately owned museo is the creation of architect Jose Borges, who started collecting miniature bottles, matchboxes ands stamps when he was a child. At the age of 14 he decided to put together all the toys he had received from friends and family and just started a collection.
Tip: especially on a rainy day this museum makes an excellent alternative to outdoor activities.
Enjoy the Ronaldo show at the CR7 Museu
The CR7 Museum is dedicated to living legend Ronaldo Cristiano, is a highlight for most young football fans. Ronaldo was born and raised in Funchal and is the undeniable poster boy for the island. I must admit, Ronaldo is putting Madeira on the map.
The museum s pretty interesting even for non-football fans; as well as the collection of gifts from fans. I would say it’s not a museum, but merely an experience. There’s no “journey” per se where you are taken through Ronaldo’s career, instead, you’re just free to wander and take some photos with Ronaldo’s image.
My daughter Pip was glad she gave it a miss, but for football fans this is a great place to spend an afternoon.
Want to live the Ronaldo lifestyle? Book a night in the CR7 hotel. Buy a Ronaldo swimming trunk in the CR7 store plus a pair of matching Ronaldo slippers and take a dive in the CR7 hotel pool!
And, if you’re wondering what CR7 stands for, it’s the soccer superstar’s initials combined with his favoured number, seven.
See the views from Fort of São José
We stumbled across the Fort of São José while looking for the nearby CR7 Museum. The viewpoint from the ancient Fort of São José is wonderful, offering visitors a panoramic view of Funchal city.
The fort is famous for being the first place where those who discovered the island in 1419 first took shelter. Today, the fort is merely a big rock formation with two stairs, but it’s genuinely a bit of fun to visit this.
In 2006, the Guinness Book of World Records recognised the fort as the smallest country in the world. It serves as a (stray) cat sanctuary. Admission is by donation.
Hey Skipper, there comes Flipper!
It’s well worth taking a catamaran trip to see dolphins and whales while you’re in Funchal – especially when the sun is shining!
This best place to sit is on the front row – sitting on the netting at the front of the catamaran. Warning: you may get wet!
My daughter Pip sat at the front of the boat, glued to her towel, focused on each and every movement in the sea. And she – in fact, a whole bunch of kids – were simply speechless and impressed by the dolphins. Seeing these mammals from a distance is a wonderful sight – even if you only get to see a whale’s or dolphin’s tail.
Wild dolphins are natural born actors, just like Flipper in the popular children’s television show from the 90s. Just like kids, dolphins are naturally playful and love to show off. Bring along your swimsuits and SPF20+ sun cream. At the end of the trip the boat stops close to the shore to enable people to take a swim.
There are lots of catamaran tour operators located on the recently upgraded marina. We paid €40 per person for a 3 hour catamaran cruise.
Tip: The Beerhouse restaurant. Conveniently located close to the (catamaran) harbour. The Beerhouse is a bit of Germany in Madeira, situated on a jetty overlooking the harbour making it a great spot to sit outside and watch the world go by. Obviously they serve beer (they have an on-site brewery), German bratwurst (sausages), ‘pommes frites und schnitzel’ (schnitzel and fries), fine seafood and great ice cream.
Street Art of Rum de Santa Maria
The once shabby street of Rum de Santa Maria in Funchal’s Old Town has been given a new lease of life thanks to a public art program called ‘Arte de Portas Alberta’s’ (the art of the open doors). Today the road is home to over 200 works of art, most painted on the doors of the houses that line the road. It’s charming, colourful and a completely unique experience in Funchal.
Monte Palace Tropical Garden
It’s worth taking the Monte cable car ride not just for the views but to visit the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. Located at the fairytale-like Quinta Monte Palace, these beautiful gardens are one of the most visited gardens in Funchal.
Home to over 100,000 species of plant this is the place to come to see the island in bloom – in particular the section dedicated to Madeira’s flora.
If gardens are your thing then it’s a good idea to add the Madeira Botanical Gardens to your list. The Jardim Botanico is filled with a huge and varied collection of plants from around the world.
The gardens sit within an estate that dates back to 1880 on a hill, high above Funchal.
As well as the gardens dedicated to Madeira flora, there are French and Japanese inspired gardens as well as other gardens from around the world.
Slide down a street in a Wicker Toboggan
One of the most popular activities to do in Funchal is to ride down the steep streets in a traditional basket sledge. These wicker toboggans date back to the early 19th century when they were used as a means of transport by local residents who wanted to save time travelling along the steep hills between the village of Monte and Funchal, located at sea level, below it.
Today, visitors can relive the toboggan ride, pushed and steered by two runners wearing a traditional outfit of white shirts and trousers and a straw hat. The toboggans can fit two or three people and rides start from The Church of our Lady of Monte. The 2km run takes about 10 minutes and ends in Livramento, rather than in Funchal itself.
It’s a touristy experience but an undeniably memorable one!
Things to do outside Funchal
As much as we loved exploring Funchal, there’s lots more to Madeira than its capital. Outside of Funchal there are lots of fun activities to do and exciting places to visit. The following list is by no means exhaustive but includes the things that we enjoyed the most.
Visit the Volcanism Centre in Sao Vicente
Madeira was formed some 890,000 years ago by volcanic eruptions. As you explore its landscape the island will reveal this in the form of striated cliffs, peaks, undulating folds formed by lava flows, black sand beaches and lava caves.
For the best way to learn more about Madeira’s volcanic past you should visit the Volcanism Centre and the São Vicente Caves. The 700m underground walk through the old basalt lava tubes is the highlight of this sight. The volcanism centre itself contains text-heavy information boards about volcanoes and a short video, which, to be honest, is kind of dull for kids.
However, the hour-long tour through the well-lit caves is exciting for all ages, even younger children. To be honest, I am not a cave (wo)man, and thought it would be a bit claustrophobic, but the caves are impressively spacious. At one point in the cave, kids get the chance to clamber through a small tunnel, and come out on the other side.
Jeep tour: somebody scream!
We jumped in a 4X4 jeep and went on tour with a fearless driver behind the wheel and kids screaming (for joy) in the back. We made our way up to the Pico do Ariero (the island’s third highest peak at 1818m high), straight through the forest and rural landscape. We drove through the misty Queimadas Forest Park all the way to the top of Madeira’s second highest peak.
We did not spot any animals, however we noticed many laurel trees and eucalyptus trees (boy, they smell good).
Like to have a sneak peek at the highest peak?
Walk from the Pico do Ariero to the Pico Ruivo, the highest peak on the island. On a clear day the views are spectacular. I have been here before and could see for miles. This time it was too foggy.
Rates: a half-day jeep tour costs around €245 per vehicle. Or €385 per vehicle for a full day. Check tours and rates at the website of Mountain Expedition.
The laurel forest: fairytale trail
A considerable portion of Madeira island are classified as a nature reserve. One of the most wonderful places to explore on the island are the Laurisilva, the ancient Laurel Forest.
The ancient laurel forest is a UNESCO World Heritage sites which no visitor to Madeira should leave without seeing. Try the 11km guided levada walk from Ribeiro Frio to Portella. Levadas are walking trails that run alongside mini-canals that were developed to distribute water from the rainier northern part of Madeira island to the drier regions in the south.
It is not, however, an easy walk.
The good news is that the park is packed with trails for short or longer walks across heather, moorland and past dripping laurel trees. Due to weather conditions this magical place is often very misty, so this is your chance to spot some ferries.
Speaking of hiking? Madeira’s most popular activity are levada walks. With 200 levadas you could keep on hiking along beaches, waterfalls and through the mountains and banana plantations.
Porto Moniz Natural Swimming Pool
Not only can you hike through lava caves on Madeira Island, you can swim in natural swimming pools formed by volcanic lava! The natural outdoor pool of Porto Moniz sit in the village of the same name. The natural salt water swimming pools are made up of volcanic rock, which the sea flows into.
In addition to the swimming pool there’s a separate children’s pool, a play area and disabled access. You’ll find changing rooms and bathrooms here too.
The Cabo Girão viewpoint sits at 580m on the highest promontory in Europe. Come up here for views of the fajãs of Rancho and Cabo Girão from the skywalk; fajãs are compact areas of cultivated land at the foot of a cliff. You’ll also be rewarded with views over the ocean.
Daredevils use Cabo Girão for paragliding and BASE jumping.
A huge thank you to Laura for this post on visiting Madeira with kids. For more information about Madeira’s epic levada hikes and fun adventures such as Toboggan rides, tips form locals, background stories and more, see Laura’s blog here.