Taking a holiday to the Portuguese island of Madeira and wondering, is Funchal worth visiting? The answer is, absolutely! From tasting world-famous Madeira wine to visiting beautiful parks and gardens, jumping in saltwater pools to sunbathing on manmade beaches, and shopping at vibrant markets to attending Europe’s most fun carnival, we’ve put together a list of 7 unique reasons why Funchal is definitely worth visiting.
North of the Canary Islands and to the west of Morocco, Madeira is a popular destination for holiday-makers and cruise-goers alike. The island’s pretty capital – Funchal – is an unmissable stop on any trip to the island. As well as being Portugal’s sixth-largest city, Funchal is also known for being the birthplace of the country’s most famous export – Cristiano Ronaldo.
Football aside, the city is packed with historic buildings, incredible views, and things to see around every corner. Whether you like art, food, wine, architecture, gardens, or wine, you’ll never be short of unique things to do in Funchal.
1. Funchal’s historic streets are home to castles, cathedrals, and monuments
If you’ve visited Portugal before and enjoyed the historic sites of Lisbon, Porto, and Faro, you’ll love exploring the Old Town (Zona Velha) of Funchal. Down the city’s maze of cobbled streets and houses, visitors can discover hidden historic buildings, including the Capela do Corpo Santo. Located in the heart of Funchal’s Old Town, this chapel is dedicated to Saint Pedro Gonçalves Telmo – the patron saint of fishermen – and is one of the few 15th-century buildings that remain standing in Funchal today.
Nearby Rua de Santa Maria is Funchal’s oldest street. As well as being one of the best places in the city for nightlife, the street is home to many of Madeira’s most historic buildings and businesses. Worth a stop is the Fábrica de Chapéus – or hat factory – which has been running from the same location for more than 60 years. Not far away, on the Funchal seafront, is the São Tiago Fortress. Built in 1614 to defend the city from pirates, the iconic yellow fortress is one of Funchal’s most fascinating historic sites.
Another ancient structure that proves Funchal is worth visiting is the popular Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. The 15th-century gothic cathedral is the most important religious site on the island. Work started on the cathedral in 1493, not long after the first Portuguese colonizers had arrived on the island. Completed in 1514, the cathedral has a magnificent ornate roof and an impressive collection of religious artwork and relics.
Finally, don’t miss a chance to visit the São João Do Pico Fortress – known as the Castle on the Hill. You’ll need to be fit to make it to the castle, which sits more than 110m above sea level, up a very steep track. The fascinating building and incredible views over the city more than make up for the hard work.
2. The city is known for beautiful tropical gardens and parks
If you love green spaces and wonder, is Funchal worth visiting? – the answer is yes! The city is home to some beautiful, world-renowned parks and gardens. Start with a trip to the Madeira Botanical Gardens, set in the hillside looking out over Funchal Bay. Created in 1960, the Botanical Gardens boast more than 2,000 exotic plants from around the globe. Don’t miss the garden’s Loiro Park, which is home to a wonderful collection of rare and exotic birds from all over the world.
Another of Funchal’s unmissable gardens is the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. Designed by José Berardo, the garden has an impressive collection of exotic plants and birds, with beautiful and rare black swans amongst their most popular attractions. The Monte Palace Madeira Museum at the heart of the garden is the ideal place to learn about the gardens and view a stunning collection of collections of minerals from Portugal, Africa, South America, and more.
Lastly, don’t forget to visit the Jardim Dona Amélia or Municipal Gardens, in the heart of Funchal. Located in the city center, where the Convento de São Francisco once stood, the gardens were named in honor of the former Queen of Portugal. Wander around the lake to see exotic fish and birds and marvel at the flora and fauna from every corner of the globe.
3. Funchal is a great place to discover world-famous Madeira Wine
In 1776, when the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America was signed, the toast was made with a special type of wine; all the way from the Portuguese Island of Madeira. There are many references to Madeira’s famous export – from presidents to poets – throughout history. Madeira wine has been loved for centuries for its notes of; caramel, hazelnut, orange, burnt sugar, walnut, and peach. The island is known for its unique process of heating the wine and letting it rest over a period of time, which simulates the sea voyages Madeira wine used to undertake to reach ports all over the world.
If you’re visiting the island and hoping to try some of the famous tipple yourself, there’s nowhere better for a Madeira winetasting than the city of Funchal. There are several different wineries in the city, including Blandy’s – which has been family-owned for seven generations – and H.M.Borges, which has a wonderful, 19th-century tasting room. Although many of the smaller winemakers have now gone, the island has six producers who still use traditional techniques to ensure Madeira wine remains one of the finest in the world.
Finally, if you’d like to discover more about Madeira’s wine trade history, consider a visit to the Museu do Vinho (Wine Museum). The collection includes historic photographs and illustrations and information on the cultivation, production, storage, and export of Madeira wine.
4. You can take a dip at one of the city’s saltwater swimming pools
Madeira might not be known for its beaches (the volcanic island has no natural white ones of its own) but what it lacks in sand, it makes up for in swimming holes and pools. Natural and manmade swimming pool complexes can be found all over the island, but the best are located in the city of Funchal.
Funchal’s most famous swimming hole is Doca do Cavacas (formerly known as Poça do Gomes) is located at the far end of popular Formosa Beach. Doca do Cavacas is a beautiful area with natural rock pools, direct access to the sea, and space for sunbathing. If you’re looking for somewhere with more facilities, head for the Blue Flag Awarded Lido Bathing Complex. The most famous of Funchal’s swimming complexes, the Lido Bathing Complex has two pools and direct sea access. There’s a wide range of facilities, including; restaurants, snack bars, cafes, and toilets.
Alternatively, if you’ve spent a long day exploring the historic sites of Funchal’s Old Town, consider cooling off with a dip at Barreirinha. Located just next to the São Tiago Fortress, this lovely swimming complex has a small pebble beach and direct access to the sea. For a small fee, visitors can use the lifeguarded pool, changing rooms, and sunbeds.
5. Funchal has a unique, colorful art scene
Think that Funchal is all history, wine, and sunny days by the pool? Think again! The city is home to a small but growing art scene. Delve into the island’s culture at one of Funchal’s many museums, including the Sacred Art Museum and the Mudas.Contemporary Art Museum.
The award-winning Mudas.Contemporary Art Museum is located just outside of Funchal. Designed by architect Paulo David, the building blends perfectly into the Madeiran countryside. Much of its collection was transferred from the Forte de São Tiago, with contemporary Portuguese art dating from the 1960s to the present day. The museum has acquired many pieces from Portugal’s most important artists, including Lourdes de Castro, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, and João Queiroz.
Additionally, the Old Town has been made into something of a permanent gallery and offers a lovely, free way to see art in the city. As part of a bid to revamp the Zona Velha (Old Town) of Funchal, the Painted Doors Project has transformed this once run-down area into a street art lover’s dream. Members of the public and guest artists were invited to create works of art on the doors of houses and stores along the ancient Rua de Santa Maria.
Finally, if you’re looking for a fun day out for the whole family, get your smartphones charged and head for the 3D FUN ART Museum. With around 40 different selfie scenarios – from being eaten by a shark to standing on the wings of a plane – small and big kids alike will love this unique Funchal museum.
5. You can shop at the 60-year-old Funchal Farmer’s Market
If you love colorful markets and have been wondering, is Funchal worth visiting? you must take a trip to the Mercado Dos Lavradores. This popular farmer’s market has been running for more than 60 years. Located in a historic building designed by Edmundo Tavares and featuring traditional Azulejo tiles by João Rodrigues, the market is home to an impressive array of stalls and wares. From flowers to fruit, vegetables, wine, and souvenirs, many of the producers have been at the farmer’s market for generations. One of the most famous attractions of the market is the fish and seafood market. There are more historic tiles to be spotted within the fishmongers so keep your eyes peeled.
If you need a quick break from the sights and smells of the market (especially after the fishmongers!), consider visiting the rooftop café. Here you’ll find locals and tourists alike enjoying fresh, reasonably priced meals and snacks.
If you happen to be visiting Funchal in December, take a trip to the market on the 23rd to experience Noite do Mercado (or the Night of the Market). This traditional Madeiran Christmas celebration sees people taking to the streets of the market to sing festive carols, enjoy local food and drink and dance all night long.
7. The Madeira Carnival in Funchal is known as one of the best in Europe
Want to experience one of the best Carnivals in Europe? Then Funchal is definitely worth visiting! The city comes alive during the carnival period, which usually takes place between February and March. The entire city becomes a stage for colorful performers, artists, and musicians but it’s the two carnival parades that really make this a special time to visit Funchal.
The first parade takes place on Saturday night when hundreds of people in dazzling costumes and decorated floats fill the streets. Many dance groups are involved in the organization of this parade, and you’ll be able to watch skillfully choreographed routines and performances to the backdrop of traditional music. It has the feeling of a much larger Carnival and has been likened to the atmosphere of Rio’s famous carnival in the past.
The second parade takes place on Shrove Tuesday. Known as the Trapalhão Parade (or the Slapstick Parade), this event commemorates a spontaneous parade that took place some years ago. Unlike the organized main parade, Trapalhão is open to everyone – locals and visitors alike. There’s no set theme and participants can come up with their own ideas for costumes and decorations. However, it’s common to see displays that poke fun at political figures and current world events. Both parades make their way through the city before ending at Municipal Square where a night of live music, competitions, and entertainment begins.
Is Portugal Worth Visiting?
If you’ve added the city of Funchal and the island of Madeira to your travel bucket list, you might be asking yourself, is mainland Portugal worth visiting? With charming cities, sandy beaches, warm, sunny weather, and delicious cuisine to try, the answer is an easy yes! Consider a trip to the Algarve, where you will find some of Portugal’s finest stretches of coastline and most delicious cuisine. Or explore the lesser-known city of Faro, with its cobbled old town and historic sites. Whichever part of the country you decide to visit, don’t forget to read our guide to the most dangerous animals in Portugal before you set off.