The Madeira Archipelago is a region of Portugal, but closer to the coast of Morocco and the Canary Islands than Lisbon.
Madeira – Family holiday guide
The Madeira Archipelago is a region of Portugal, but closer to the coast of Morocco and the Canary Islands than Lisbon. Madeira’s the main island and just slightly smaller than Lanzarote. World famous for a gloriously lush, green and unspoiled landscape, outdoor adventuring and eco-holidays here are the stuff of legend. The rugged north coast’s a mecca for serious surfers. 500 years of history traces around captivating towns and villages. Beaches are peaceful and dolphin and turtles and whales migrate offshore. All less than four hours flight from the UK and with year round sunshine.
Why go on holiday in Madeira
Direct flights from the UK to Madeira year round, take just under four hours.
Madeira was voted ‘World’s Leading Island Destination’ in 2015 and 2016 and nominated again in 2017.
The island’s landscape is designated as a UNESCO Natural Heritage of Humanity site.
The protected Natural Park of Madeira covers more than two thirds of the island.
Santana, on the north coast of Madeira, is a UNESCO World Biosphere.
Destination Madeira has held Quality Excellence status since 2009: the award is made by the World Centre of Excellence in Destinations (CE) governed by the World Tourism Organisation; it encompasses a broad spectrum of categories including culture and heritage, visitor attractions, transport and accommodation.
Even in January, Madeira’s temperatures are seldom lower than 17˚. Summers are long and sunny with highs of 30˚ from May to October.
Where to go
Relative to its size, Madeira has a good choice of places to stay. Historic 18th and 19th century Quintas (opulent estate houses) have been transformed into charming boutique hotels all over the island. Resorts range from all-inclusive, beachfront luxury to award winning eco-inns: the majority are four and five star. And there are also fun family campsites, holiday villages, pretty independent pensions and good value self-catering villas and waterfront apartments.
Madeira’s pretty capital is number six on the TripAdvisor, ‘Top Ten Cities in Europe’ list. Small enough to walk around easily, it’s packed with 500 years of history. The Portuguese roots are more Alfama than Albufeira, but there’s a strong spirit of independence and very little risk of ever mistaking Funchal for anything but its own delightful self.
- Santa Maria Maior is Funchal’s historic quarter and dates back to the 15th century. Lovely to stroll around on a sunny afternoon, it’s connected to the lush Monte district by cable car.
- Locals also know the old town as ‘Zona Velha’, visit for good restaurants, cafés, bars and shopping around its charming cobbled streets and alleys.
- São Pedro is the museum district and the city’s cultural centre and home to impressive Fortaleza do Pico.
The heartland of Madeira’s protected natural landscape and the island’s eco-tourism, this is where to find the Indigenous Garden and some of the quaintest heritage towns and villages.
For best weather, longest hours of hot sunshine and sheltered beaches, Ponta do Sol is Madeira’s holiday heartland. Don’t imagine high-rises and brash nightlife; the town’s elegant and historic; just lively enough to be interesting and has several outstanding hotels and beach resorts.
Sheer hillsides dropping into the Atlantic, sea waterfalls that wash over causeways, gleaming rock pools and soaring cable cars linking sea and mountains, Porto Moniz is breathtakingly beautiful and capable of some of Madeira’s highest visual drama – and the competition across the rest of the island’s strong.
The archipelago’s second largest island lies north east of Madeira, has its own airport and is best known for the enormous golden beach with stretches for an unbroken 9km along its southern coast.
- The regular ferry crossing from Madeira to Porto Santo takes two hours and 15 minutes. Summer round-trip day cruises are great value adventures with kids.
- Porto Santo is famous for golf courses with spectacular views, and luxury resorts and spas along its beachy south coast.
What to do
- Christiano Ronaldo Museum, Funchal
Madeira has quite a few curious museums and CR7, dedicated to local son and the Best Portuguese Player of All Time, is one of them. But, interactive exhibits are fun for young fans.
- Madeira Film Experience, Funchal
600 years of Madeira’s history captured in a 30 minute movie. A good introduction to the island before you go exploring – there’s a free downloadable app too.
- Rota dos Cetáceos, Funchal
Dolphin and whale spotting off the coast of Madeira is even better aboard a traditional wooden sailboat – swimming with dolphins is extra fun in summer.
- Vereda do Pica Ruivo, hiking
A great mountain trail for older kids, it’s under 3km long but hikes up to the top of the island’s highest summit, Pico Ruivo, so feels pretty strenuous.
- Armazemdo Mercado, Funchal
A bright, fresh family space with pop-up shops, cafés, performance and Madeira’s charming Toy Museum: over 20,000 exhibits from the late 18th century to the present day.
- Go Karting, Faial
Tucked into a pretty cove on Madeira’s north coast this high-speed track is up for seriously competitive family races.
- Canyoning, Ribeira das Cales
Canyoning from easy to extreme in Funchal’s eco-park with cliffs, waterfalls, deep pools, gullies, canyons and wild rope courses.
- Stand-Up Paddleboard Island Tours
Calm waters, mysterious caves, sea arches, rock forms and local guides make SUP tours round Madeira amazing adventures for kids.
- Atlantic Festival, Madeira
The island-wide Atlantic Festival isn’t an ancient tradition but it’s the event that marks the start of summer with energetic celebrations all through June.
- Fortaleza de São Tiago, Funchal
Fortaleza de São Tiago has the type of immense sea views you’d expect from a 17th century first line of defence, it also houses Madeira’s Archaeological Research Centre and the island’s contemporary art museum.
Educational value for kids
- Madeira’s famous for flower-filled gardens and lush greenery but its spring cherry blossom it to a whole new level. The annual Cherry Festival at the beginning of June is a traditional family event to mark the first harvest.
- European Folklore Week in late August celebrates culture and customs peculiar to Madeira and kept alive by passionate islanders for centuries.
- Visit Madeira for some sun in early January and join the island in marking Twelfth Night with singing. Locals go door to door serenading their neighbours and Funchal hosts concerts for those who just want to listen instead. It’s all about family and friends so the atmosphere is amazing.
- Spend Sunday morning at Mercado dos Lavradores just outside Funchal. It’s the island’s best loved Farmer’s Market and always busy in summer. Fresh food, sunshine and free tasting? It’s the type of shopping kids love.
- Take a guided walking tour round Funchal or hop on board the open-top double decker bus: touristy but also very entertaining.
- The historic Achadinha Water Sawmill is the only remaining mill still working on the island. It’s in São Jorge and restored to show kids how life was lived in rural Madeira in the 18th and 19th century.
- Driving round Madeira with kids is a great experience and the island’s has several inexpensive half and full-day family tours. You can go it alone too, of course, but you won’t discover as many secrets.
Getting about with kids in Madeira
From yachts to cable cars, Madeira has transport well covered but hiring a car is the best way to explore this pretty island properly with kids. It’s not large but the landscape’s very diverse, full of interesting nooks and the variety of beaches are worth a few days self-drive in themselves.
Towns and villages are all easily walkable and guided tours go everywhere. It’s not the best island for road cycling with kids: there are no marked paths or designated lanes. If you want to bike a bit, local mountain bike tours are a good bet.