Funchal Or Lisbon? Mainland Or Island Capital This Year?

Funchal or Lisbon
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So, you can’t choose between Funchal or Lisbon? Talk about nice problems to have! These two towns offer an immersive hit of Portuguese culture and history, along with oodles of great dining and cracking hotels. But they are actually very different places, with very different vibes…

One is the bustling hub of the whole country, perched on the Tagus River estuary with its Age of Discovery monuments, enthralling museums, and buzzy nightlife quarters. The other is the main town of Madeira, which means it sits way out in the midst of the wild Atlantic Ocean, offering a unique mix of island culture and a history that goes back more than 500 years.

This guide will help you pick Funchal or Lisbon by laying out all the differences of the two places. We’ll take a look at where’s easiest to get to, where has the liveliest nightlife scene, and which one’s better for adventurers on the hunt for out-there day trips. Ready? Let’s get started…

Funchal or Lisbon for easy of travel?

Flying into Lisbon
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Just look at the map – that should be enough to tell you that Lisbon is way easier to get to than Funchal. Yep, the capital of Madeira clutches a rock some 550 miles from edge of Western Europe. It’s actually closer to Africa, as the nearest other capital is Rabat in Morocco. That said, the popularity of Madeira as a winter-sun hotspot means that there are loads of flights on offer. They jet into the Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport in Santa Cruz. Many only run seasonally, linking the town with major European cities like Amsterdam, London, and Munich. There’s also a connection to New York JFK and regular links to Lisbon.

Talking of Lisbon…the capital is home to the main airport in Portugal. It hosts the bulk of the major international connections, both cross-European and trans-Atlantic. That includes loads of low-cost connections to the UK and Italy and Poland with carriers like Ryanair and easyJet, along with premium arrivals on BA, Air Canada, and Lufthansa. Lisbon can also be reached by sleeper train from Madrid, and by car on major cross-EU highways.

Winner: Lisbon.

Funchal or Lisbon for general vibe?

Madeira vibes
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Lisbon is probably the liveliest city in the whole of Portugal (although we’re certain that Porto locals would have something to say about that!). Still, the point is that it’s the place to be for nightlife, café culture, food – you name it. In recent years, Lisbon has also branched out to become something of a digital nomad hub, so you can expect to find a very international crowd, especially in upcoming areas of the city like Principe Real and Ajuda. During the summer months, it’s very busy, with thousands upon thousands of tourists and day trippers sharing space on the plazas. Winter is less happening, but a great time to get a feel for the more authentic side of the town.

Funchal is a real charmer of a place. However, with just over 100,000 residents, it’s much smaller than its parent capital over on the mainland. There are also two distinct sides to the city. There’s West Funchal, a grand, modern enclave of shopping streets and squares. Then there’s the Zona Velha, also known as East Funchal, where old fishing cottages crowd recently rejuvenated promenades filled with bars. Both other very different atmospheres, though we’d say they’re each palpably more touristy than Lisbon overall.

Winner: Lisbon because it’s one of the most vibrant cities in the country!

Funchal or Lisbon for things to do?

A street in Lisbon
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Funchal isn’t just the gateway to the rugged mountains and wild forests of Madeira Island. It’s also a viable city-break destination in its own right. Yep, stick to the town and there’s plenty to keep you busy. We’d start with a sightseeing tour of the Zona Velha, where colorful coffee shops spill onto alleys lined with trees. Also be sure to take in the Funchal Cathedral, a 500-year-old church built largely from volcanic rock. Shoppers will love the Mercado dos Lavradores, the island’s premier farmer’s market, while an urban cable car can take you to the summit of some coast mountains for sweeping views.

Then there’s Lisbon. This is one darn enthralling city to say the least. Simply walking around neighborhoods like the Alfama and Baixa is a joy, as you explore both narrow lanes overshadowed by age-old cottages and grand plazas topped by elaborate gateways. If it rains, you can drop into the museums, which include Museu Nacional do Azulejo (one for tile lovers) and the Museu de Marinha (which chronicles the life and times of some of Portugal’s great explorers). At night there are party-mad districts or chic eateries to pick, along with enticing markets at the Time Out food hall and Feira da Ladra.

Winner: Lisbon – it’s bigger and there’s more to do.

Funchal or Lisbon for price?

A shop in Lisbon
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

We wouldn’t say that Lisbon is up there with the most expensive cities in Europe. In fact, we’d put it more in line with Central European cities like Krakow or Bratislava. You can get a beer in a bar for about €1.80 ($2) and expect a decent meal in a midrange restaurant to come in at about €30-36 EUR ($41-48) a head. Hotels are likely to be the biggest cost. They average between €40-80 a night in the high season, although there are some great hostels in the town that offer dorm beds for just a fraction of that.

Most estimations have it that Madeira is about 5% cheaper than the Portuguese capital. That might come as a little bit of a surprise since this is an island city. However, it’s borne out by the stats, which show that beers cost about €1.70 ($1.90) and meals are just a touch cheaper than in Lisbon, especially if you eat local food at one of the traditional Madeiran taverns. Hotels are the only thing you could find are more expensive, but only during the peak winter-sun period. While prices for accommodation are dropping on the mainland, they can soar here, to cost upwards of €80 a night and more for the most luxurious stays of all.

Winner: Madeira.

Funchal or Lisbon for food?

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One of the main reasons that foodie travelers might want to choose Funchal over Lisbon is the fact that it’s a gateway to the unique Madeiran kitchen. The cuisine of the island is a mix of salty seafood and European cooking by way of African spice. There will be ample opportunity to sample dishes like polvo octopus off the grill, fresh lapas (limpets) served with slices of lemon, and prego steak sandwiches. You’ll also be able to venture out to the countryside and visit a proper Madeira vineyard, where tastings of the local Madeira wine are on the menu.

As for Lisbon, well, you might be better off asking what food you can’t get in the capital. There are quaint little taverns in the Alfama area that serve grilled Portuguese sardines straight off the coals. There are boho cafes with Aussie breakos and avocado on toast in the hipster districts. There are also spice-plumed Indian eateries with hot curries in the area of Martim Moniz. It’s exactly the eclectic mix of cuisines that you’d expect of a modern capital with an international crowd of residents.

Winner: Lisbon because you can eat pretty much whatever you want here!

Funchal or Lisbon for day trips and excursions?

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Lisbon certainly isn’t short on daytrip options. In fact, lots of travelers will base themselves in the capital and spend their whole holiday going this way and that on day trips to check off some of the top sights in the country. A lot of awesome places are within easy striking distance. You can either book onto a planned tour or rent a car and do them yourself. We’d recommend checking out:

  • Sintra – A UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to exquisite palaces that were once the residences of the Portuguese kings and queens.You can even get here on the train from Lisbon.
  • Cascais – A stylish town with elegant casinos and hotels on the Costa Estoril, the pretty coastline to the west of Lisbon.
  • Peniche – A surfer’s mecca, visit this town 1.5 hour’s drive from Lisbon to catch your first waves on Baleal Beach.

Funchal manages to just about trump what Lisbon has on the doorstep by being the gateway to the entire of Madeira. Yep, you get a complete island to play around with when you land here. And it’s an island filled with bucket-list hikes and lookout points and pretty coastal stretches, too. We’d recommend checking out day trips to…

  • Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo – Adventure-seeking travelers with a good level of fitness can hike these peaks to catch stunning sunrises.
  • Cape Girão – You can do a gravity-defying skywalk on these soaring cliffs above the frothing Atlantic Ocean.
  • Curral Das Freiras – An incredible valley with a village perched on a steep precipice.

Winner: Funchal – it’s the gateway to Madeira!

Funchal or Lisbon for nightlife?

A kiosk in Lisbon
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

There’s simply no way that Funchal can beat Lisbon on the nightlife front. We’re not saying that the island capital is boring. Far from it. We’re just saying that Lisbon has the best nightlife in Portugal (again, those Porto locals might very well disagree here!). Hit the Bairro Alto at 11pm and you’ll see what we mean. Things start with the open-air bars of Pink Street and then move north to the speakeasies and cocktail bars. You’ve also the sunset kiosks where the drinking starts in earnest at 6pm, and a number of uber-lively clubs that go on all night long.

As a much smaller city, Funchal has a smaller selection of nightlife venues than Lisbon, and it kind of relies on the influx of tourists to keep the bars functioning. The best places to hit are Vespas, the original Funchal disco that now has several rooms, and Club Dubai, a more modern addition that plays chart music. Really, though, the scene after dark hits a zenith in the Zona Velha area, where cool beer joints and cocktail places now beckon on the plazas.

Winner: Lisbon.

Funchal or Lisbon – the verdict

We’d probably say that Lisbon is the more enthralling of these two destinations overall. It’s the best place to visit if you haven’t been to Portugal before and want to get a feel for the history and the culture of the country. That’s down to the quality museums, the atmospheric neighborhoods, and the places you can see on day trips. It’s also the better option for partiers.

However, Funchal shouldn’t be totally written off. It’s a good winter-sun option and means you’ll get access to the whole of Madeira Island. It’s also a great place to get an authentic vision of Portugal’s offshore domain, through wine tasting and volcano hikes.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.