The first thing you ask yourself when you arrive in Funchal, or Madeira in general is: How did they manage to build cities on hill tops, slopes and mountains? Would a building company from around the world manage it? – Fixing and aligning the land that will be the place for a new house? Those questions I have not yet found the answer for, and if you by any chance know it, please tell me so in the comments below! However, this is not an engineering article, but rather one that will offer you a feeling of Funchal together with some ways to experience the biggest and most populous city on Madeira, an autonomous Island belonging to Portugal.
First impressions of Funchal, Madeira
Arriving in Funchal’s harbour, close to the city centre, and looking around you, you will get the feeling that you are still in a time when colonists started building the town from scratch, when forts where the main weapons of defence against pirates or other enemies and when the only way to reach the island was by ship. As with all places, history plays a major role in how the city is shaped nowadays and the different remnants that you can discover while exploring Funchal. Being founded in 1421, by a Portuguese navigator called João Gonçalves Zarco, Funchal is the main city of the island of Madeira, where around 130000 people spend their daily life, in a beautiful paradise.
And the city is indeed a beautiful paradise when one looks at it from the outside. However, after discussing with our host from the place we stayed at, I found out that locals of the city and island are not really living the “perfect” life as we think. Salaries are lower compared to other European countries and it is more challenging for them to afford much. For example, one taxi driver I discussed with, told us that due to his low salary, he could not afford to buy a house in Funchal, but rather had to look for a cheaper place in the nearby city. It reminded me about the situation in Romania.
So, Funchal and all other cities in Madeira, depend on tourism. I would recommend trying to support the locals by booking tours and activities provided by locals, rent apartments through airbnb or check for sustainable options when it comes to booking hotels, such as booking.com offers “Travel Sustainable” filter option. We stayed at Santa Maria Hostel in a private room and it really was a great experience, living in a room with a lot of character, right in the old city centre of Funchal.
How to experience Funchal?
From exploring the old city centre with its colourful streets, to enjoying the ocean, the historical remnants and beautiful exotic gardens, you can easily spend many days and always have the feeling that there is something more to discover.
1. Explore the picturesque old town streets
One thing you will notice right away when walking through Funchal’s old town is the art that surrounds it. On every street, wall and doors, you will uncover a new artistic element that gives it a special feeling. When exploring the old town, I got the feeling I was walking through an open-air art museum, stopping by every creative piece trying to figure out what the artist wanted to express.
Later I found out that the most famous street in Funchal, Santa Maria, which has every door bearing a painting, was avoided by people in the past. Before the government of Madeira payed for the painting and beautifying of the street, it used to be one where drugs and prostitution were the main sights. Talking to the owner of one of the restaurants from Santa Maria, I discovered that when he was little, his parents wouldn’t let him walk close to it. So imagine how much this street has changed in 50 years! From a previously “dangerous” place to the nowadays artsy street, filled with restaurants, pubs, tourists, and locals, where one can enjoy a wonderful evening surrounded from all parts by history and art.
Also, one fun fact about the old city is that it is the place where locals go out as well. If you ever want to experience a local atmosphere in Funchal, I definitely recommend you to visit a place called “Tapas do Anibal”. Their fish tapas are amazing, and combining it with Portuguese or Madeiran songs accompanied by singing locals – if they are in the right mood for it, – will offer you an unforgettable experience.
2. Imagine you’re a pirate by the Forte de Sao Tiago
While walking through the old town, towards the east part, I came across a large yellow construction, a fort – built between the 17th-18th century. Even though the colour was still full of pigment, you could see on the walls that it had been put through the test of time. There were places where the coating from the walls was slowly disappearing, and you were just left to imagine a time where the fort was in full functionality, defending the island from incoming pirate ships. However, that was not the only purpose the fort has been used for. During the years, it has been used to lodge British Army troops, as well as shelter for victims from the flood in 1803. One thing though: look at how small these towers are! I can imagine only one person would keep watch in them, while having a fast response in times of danger.
Wandering from one side to the other, up and down the stairs, one tower to the next, I felt as if I was in a time when officers were guarding the fort, wooden ships were the main sight on the ocean, and when Funchal contained only a few houses here and there, where the new incomers would accommodate to their new exotic environment. Even though these images are long gone, the fort is still standing today, watching over Funchal and its surroundings. You can visit it at any time of the day, as it is only possible to explore on the outside, and it is also free of charge.
3. Relax by the ocean and feel its breeze
When looking at the ocean far away in the distance, not being able to see any other lands as long as your eyes can reach, makes you wonder how small we are in this universe. How disconnected the Island of Madeira is from the rest of the world, somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean. When you look out in the open ocean, it is like escaping the mundane life and entering a world that makes you live in the moment, enjoying every ocean breeze, the sunshine caressing your skin and the taste of salt water in your mouth. This was the effect of the ocean on me. I could disconnect entirely from my daily thoughts and focus on the beauty of nature.
There are many places by Funchal’s water side, where you can experience the ocean to its fullest. You can either stop by a cafe in the area, where you can enjoy something to drink or eat as well, or simply find your own special spot when walking next to the water side. You will also see many local fishermen taking advantage of the ocean’s resources. I am wondering if they are only fishing for their own families or also selling some of the fish to the local markets. Maybe both. However, one thing I would have loved to find out is if they still see the beauty of the ocean as I did, or if they are too used to it. I guess the saying that “the grass is always greener on the other side” could apply in this case too.
4. Learn more about the history of Madeira & Funchal at the Military Museum
Do you love history? If the answer is yes, the Military museum of Funchal, located in the old town, right next to the Palace of Sao Laurenco is a place you will enjoy. Especially if you love seeing an exposition of historical armaments dating from the 17th century. Why we decided to go there wasn’t only because we love history and wanted to learn more about Madeira, but rather we also wanted to have a chance and enter the palace.
Nowadays, the palace is housing the official representative of the republic for the Autonomous Region of Madeira, as it has been doing for a while with governing officials, since its initial purpose of defending the island had been changed. Soldiers are guarding the entrance to the palace, and you are not allowed to enter the courtyard from that spot, but rather through the museum, which is located on the southern part of the palace.
The palace & museum
And you might wonder why we wanted to see the palace from the inside? Well, imagine walking around this massive construction from the 16th century, which even today has canons aligned one after the other on their defence wall – yes you could see them from the outside, making you really feel like in a pirate movie. You know what I am talking about… like Black Sails or Pirates of the Caribbean. Guess it was always one of my dreams to experience the view of such a place live and very close to me. I wanted to stand next to the cannons and imagine what life the officers in charge of them had. Was the range close enough to fight off ships? Or was it only for land combat? No matter which of them, they would definitely stand on guard and watch over the island from all directions.
The entry price for the museum was around 2,5 €. I don’t remember the exact price, but I do remember it being pretty low compared to the exotic gardens on Monte. And I believe that for a good history lesson (if you are passionate about it like I am) and seeing a wide range of historical weapons, together with the courtyard of the palace, I believe it was well worth it.
5. Eat breakfast and enjoy the view over Funchal at Miradouro Pico dos Barcelos
There is something about views from above that I purly love. I don’t know if it relates to the feeling of freedom that it gives me, being able to watch over the whole city without anyone else noticing me, or just the awe inspiring moment that I have up there, when I see how perfectly each street connects to the other, how each house, each neighbourhood is arranged giving the city an order within the chaos of many elements which build it up.
Besides this incredible experience you will get up there, being able to see how the city of Funchal is built up on hills, somehow merging with the ocean, you can also enjoy something to eat and drink while contemplating on the amazing view – both early in the morning, when you can distinguish shapes and forms, encompassed by a never-ending blue splash of colour, and in the evening, when you will only see something similar to the outer-space, shimmering lights everywhere lightning up their pitch-dark surroundings.
6. Experience Portuguese colonial architectural style
And when you close-up on the shapes and forms that make up the city of Funchal, you will see the influence of Portuguese colonial architecture.
One element that characterises this style is simplicity. You won’t see ornate buildings, with plenty of arches, columns, or carvings, but rather buildings that inspire peace. The mix between white and dark brown, where the brown is only highlighting some important elements of the construction, such as the windows’ and doors’ frames, or wall endings, offers the buildings a perfect fit on the island. No matter what, I do love this mix of colours and the peaceful feeling they offer.
7. Take the cable car up to Monte and visit the exotic gardens
One way to reach up on the hills of Funchal is by taking a cable car from the old city centre. There are two reasons why you would like to try it out. One, you can visit Monte Palace, which historically used to be a luxurious holiday estate for wealthy people. Nowadays it is transformed into beautiful exotic gardens. Second, you can experience a perfect view over Funchal and the excitement to see the city from above in a moving cable car.
When you reach Monte and get off the cable car, you will notice that the entrance to the gardens is very close by, almost like they placed it there strategically for tourists. Right from the start, you will see enormous vegetation rising up behind the garden’s walls, with plentiful walking paths amidst it. The entry price is 12,5 €, and after spending a few hours walking around the enormous gardens, discovering many plant species, Portuguese tile panels, experiencing African art, Madeiran houses, watching over waterfalls, koi ponds and the whole city of Funchal, I felt that it was worth it.
The gardens are very extensive, allowing you to spend a full day reading about plant species or just relaxing on one of the many benches placed in perfect serene locations.
8. End your visit to Monte by taking a Toboggan
And again, being placed very strategically next to Monte Palace, you will find the most touristy attraction in Funchal – a toboggan ride on traditional wicker basket sledges, taking you down the hills towards the old town of Funchal. You won’t actually reach the old town on the sled, as the ride is only 2,5 km, however you will be very close to the city centre to take a walk from where the ride ends – and this time it will be downhills, making it so much easier.
Our question was – is it worth it to pay 30 € for a 2,5 km downhill ride? Well, being in Madeira once in your life, I would say yes. It is pretty expensive, however, you will get an unforgettable experience, on the hills of Funchal. I can say it was so much fun, like being on a roller-coaster on the street. I wish I knew who had the idea of such an activity. Taking a wooden sledge, and having two sturdy men on each side coordinating their moves perfectly while steering the “vehicle” down the street. It was a bit scary as well, knowing that cars could pass by any time as well, but I trusted the locals to know what they were doing. And we ended up safely at the destination point.
Funchal in a nutshell
I already miss Funchal, the culture, food, old town streets and the warm sunny days. Speaking of, the weather there is perfect all year round, so you can visit any month you would like. In January there were not so many tourists, making it perfect to really experience Funchal, talk to locals, enjoy places in peace and quiet and discover the city at your own pace, without worrying about it being overcrowded. What feeling does this place give you? Well, I can say that once there, you will not want to take the plane back home 🙂