A perfect 7-day itinerary to the highlights of Madeira

Madeira is one of those places that has everything. From beaches to lush green forests to mountain peaks, amazing viewpoints and great food. It’s heaven for nature photographers like me but also for people who like being outdoors, hiking, tanning at the beach,… I went there for 1 week with 2 friends of mine because of our interest in nature photography and Madeira just blew our minds. It’s a place I will definitely return to as there’s a lot more to see. In this blog, I’ll write down the perfect 1 week itinerary to see the highlights of this island.

Madeira lies in the Atlantic Ocean out of the cost of Portugal. Many people call it the Hawaii of Europe and if you go there you’ll easily see why. The cliffs, tropical vibe and volcanic landscape make you feel like you’re on an island far away in the tropics. I’ve listed some tips and must know items down below at the end of the blog, but I already want to mention now that we used a rental car to explore the island as this gives a lot more flexibility than taking public transport or booking tours (which is all perfectly possible to see most of the highlights, but we like to be as flexible as possible and stop where we want to). We booked our car with Sixt, it was the best price we could find for our travel dates.

As always, I do tons of research before going somewhere and always look for the most beautiful spots, viewpoints and fun things to do. We’re rather adventurous and try to see as much as possible with the time we have but you can adjust the itinerary to your liking. We adjusted our itinerary upon arrival as the weather was really bad for our first 3 days so we first went to the spots where we would not be bothered by the bad weather. We had a hotel booked in Funchal for the whole week but when looking back, it’s better to spend a few nights in the south and a few nights in the north of the island to reduce your time in the car. Now let’s get started.

Madeira cliffs along the coast of Seixal

  • Day 1: Arrival in Madeira + afternoon in Funchal
  • Day 2: Hike PR9 Levada do Caldeirão Verde + Levada dos Balcões
  • Day 3: Fanal + Ribeira da Janela + Seixal + sunset at Miradouro do Ponta da Ladeira
  • Day 4: Hike PR8 Ponta de São Lourenço + afternoon by the pool
  • Day 5: Sunrise at Pico do Arieiro + pool time + Funchal + sunset at Bica da Cana
  • Day 6: Hike PR1 Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo and back
  • Day 7: Hike PR6 Levada das 25 Fontes / Levada do Risco + Garganta Funda + sunset at Miradouro do Raposeira

Fanal forest

Day 1: Arrival in Madeira + afternoon in Funchal

We arrived at the airport just past noon and decided to explore Funchal first. Funchal is the capital of Madeira. It’s by far the biggest city on the island and it has a really beautiful historic city center. We decided to take it slow and just strolled around the city streets, the harbor and the city parc with all it’s tropical plants. The city has a lot of beautiful old buildings and giant trees covering the streets. I can’t compare it to any city I’ve seen before but I just loved the look of it. We strolled around, got something to eat and checked in at our hotel in the evening, which was just outside of the city center. There’s lots of things to see and do at Funchal, which we didn’t because we decided to take it slow on our first day, but some of the best rated things to do are:

  • Visiting the old city center
  • Taking the Monte Cable Car
  • Visiting Monte Palace Tropical Garden
  • Wicker Toboggan ride (sleighing down the steep streets)
  • Madeira Botanical Garden
Beautiful street in Funchal

I didn’t take much photos of Funchal because we were tired of the early flight so I guess I should go back!

Day 2: Hike PR9 Levada do Caldeirão Verde + Levada dos Balcões

We had hoped to do a sunrise at Ponto do Rosto and do the PR8 Ponta de São Lourenço hike but the weather would be bad for the next 3 days with only a little bit of sunshine so we changed our plans and went to hike the PR9 Levada do Caldeirão Verde, which is one of the prettiest levada hikes on the island. A levada is an irrigation canal and Madeira has more than 3000km of levadas on the island. These levadas bring the rain water of one side of the island to the other because it rains a lot more in the north than it does in the south of Madeira. The PR9 Caldeirão Verde will lead you through the heart of Madeira and makes you really feel like you’re in the jungle. You will be treated with some gorgeous views and waterfalls along the way. There’s a paid parking lot at the start of the hike.

Hike details: 13 km in total (6,5 one way), this will take you around 4 hours and it’s easy to do (barely any elevation gain).

The hike takes you along narrow paths which makes it challenging (but not impossible) when passing other hikers if the trail gets busy. I suggest you to bring a headlight because you will pass some tunnels which are completely dark. After +/- 2 hours of hiking you come by one of Madeira’s biggest waterfalls, Caldeirão Verde. We hiked until this point and then returned to the car.

The hike starts and ends at these really cute houses where you can get a drink before/after.

It was early in the afternoon when we ended the hike so we decided to drive to Levada dos Balcões. This viewpoint treats you with superb views over the inland mountains all the way to the seaside. We just put Levada dos Balcões in Google Maps and parked the car at the side of the road where the walk starts. It takes only about 15/20 minutes to reach the viewpoint.

View at Levada dos Balcões

In the beginning there were a lot of people but we just waited for 30 minutes until we had the view all to ourselves. We wanted to be alone because this viewpoint is known to have lots of little birds flying around and if you are patient enough, they come eat out of your hand so be sure to bring something to eat for these little guys!

Day 3: Fanal + Ribeira da Janela + Seixal + sunset at Miradouro do Ponta da Ladeira

It seems like this is a long and exhausting day but most of these spots don’t require a lot of walking or hiking so it was actually pretty relaxed. All of these spots are on the Northwest side of Madeira so we combined them as it’s more than a 1h drive from Funchal. The weather was still bad but for these locations this wasn’t much of an issue to us, especially because we really wanted to visit Fanal when it’s covered in heavy mist. On our way to Fanal, we passed a road with a free car wash, just like the famous Cascata dos Anjos, a small waterfall in the middle of the road.

For me, Fanal forest (also called Laurisilva) is in my top 3 highlights of Madeira and might even make it to number 1 of that list. It’s just nothing I’ve ever seen before. The fairytale like laurel forest if one of the last laurel forests on the planet. These trees have all sorts of forms and are covered in different kinds of moss. Due to the high humidity and relatively mild, stable temperatures they have the perfect opportunity to grow. Fanal forest is located on the Northwest side of Madeira which is often covered in clouds, this makes for the perfect conditions to visit Fanal. It’s one of the few spots you just don’t want any sunshine as it’s so mystical to visit it when it’s covered in dense mist. The best place to park at Fanal: click here for Google Maps. From here you walk right into it!

There is a path between the trees but we just wandered around. I think we spent over 2 hours here in the mist and the rain but for us these were the perfect weather conditions to get some special photos. When it’s covered in mist like when we went, you can’t see more than 20m in front of you. If you don’t want to miss any spots, just use Google Maps on satellite mode and you’ll find your way around (and back to the parking lot). There are cows walking around as well so watch out and give them their space. When we went in the beginning of May, there were quite some freshly born calves as well which was pretty cute.

We were soaking wet when we left but it was so worth it. Time to dry up a bit in the car. On our way down to the coast, we made a short stop at the famous sea stacks of Ribeira da Janela. We didn’t go down to the beach but there is a small viewpoint right in front of the sea stacks.

From here it’s only a short drive to Seixal. Seixal is a city located in the North of Madeira and it’s part of the township of Porto Moniz. Seixal is famous for it’s black beach with a stunning backdrop of huge cliffs and a beautiful waterfall.

There are also some natural pools (which you can find in different spots on Madeira as well). We visited Seixal for the black beach (which we couldn’t really enjoy because of the bad weather). When we arrived, it started to rain a bit so there were not many people around. After a few minutes the rain stopped and we had the beach almost all to ourselves.

Seixal by drone

The day was coming to an end and despite the bad weather, we wanted to test our luck by catching a nice sunset. We drove to Miradouro do Ponta da Ladeira. There’s a small parking spot and from there, you can see a small sketchy path which goes down. It only takes you 3-5 minutes to reach the viewpoint. We had a short moment of sunshine before the sun disappeared behind the clouds but it was a great moment. There were only a few other people which made it even more special.

Day 4: Ponta do Rosto + Hike PR8 Ponta de São Lourenço + afternoon by the pool

We started the day with the hope to catch a nice sunrise at Ponto do Rosto but the weather was still bad so we didn’t get lucky here. We stayed a while to get some photos as the views are still incredible and then drove on to do the PR8 Ponta de São Lourenço hike. The start of the hike is only a short drive from the Ponta do Rosto viewpoint.

The landscape here looks totally different from the rest of Madeira. A long time ago, there were multiple volcanoes here but now it consists of cliffs and dry landscape. It’s a unique part of Madeira and along the way, you’re treated with many beautiful views, like Miradouro de São Lourenço and Ponta do Castelo. Both of these viewpoints are really impressive!

Hike details: 7km, this will take you 2-3 hours with a height difference of 470m. It’s an easy walk and at the end you have the chance to take a rest and get something to drink/eat.

End of the Ponta de São Lourenço hike

The rest of the day we decided to just relax and spend the afternoon by the pool. In the evening we went to Funcal to get something to eat and had a delicious Prego Especial, THE Madeira sandwich at Theo’s Bazar Café. We also went to this local cocktail bar which serves delicious cocktails, called Rei da Poncha.

Day 5: Sunrise at Pico do Arieiro + pool time + Funchal + sunset at Bica da Cana

Sunrise at Pico do Arieiro

The weather finally seemed to be clearing up so we made our way to Pico do Arieiro for sunrise with the idea of doing the hike to Pico Ruivo. You can easily find Pico do Arieiro on Google Maps and you can’t miss the parking lot. Sunrise in the beginning of May was around 7h20 so we arrived by 7 AM and there were already quite some cars parked and at least 40-50 people waiting for the sun to rise. Needless to say this is the most famous spot in all of Madeira. Maybe it was extra busy because the previous days were so bad and now the weather conditions were perfect with a cloud inversion (when the clouds are below you) and with a view on the highest peaks of Madeira. We hoped it would be less crowded but the views were stunning!

After a while of photographing the sunrise, we wanted to start the hike to Pico Ruivo but as soon as we started, the clouds started moving up and after 5 minutes, everything was covered in clouds. We did the 1st kilometer but it was really cold as well so we decided to go back and do the hike the next day. It’s the prettiest hike of Madeira so we wanted to enjoy it in full glory and not walk in the clouds the whole time.

We drove to our hotel in Funchal, where the sun was shining bright and spent the day by the pool until the early afternoon. We went back to Funchal to get another cocktail and something to eat. Then we left to see the sun set at Bica da Cana. To see Bica da Cana, you can park your car at the side of the road and follow the way up for about 10 minutes. It’s a lesser known viewpoint and when we arrived, there were only a handful of other photographers.

At Bica da Cana

We were above the clouds again and enjoyed watching the clouds fall down into the valley below.

Day 6: Hike PR1 Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo and back

We dicided to set the alarm early again for another chance of catching sunrise at Pico do Arieiro. The day before, we weren’t really prepared for our sunrise mission and ended up at the viewpoint called Miradouro do Juncal. This viewpoint is very easy to access (only 2 minutes from the parking lot). Even though the views are gorgeous, it’s the viewpoint where all other tourists come to watch sunrise at Pico do Arieiro and we wanted a spot that would be less crowded.  

Our preferred sunrise viewpoint at Pico do Arieiro is called Miradouro do Ninho da Manta. Here you’ll also find some people but it’s less crowded than the first viewpoint I mentioned. You can easily find Miradouro do Ninho da Manta by starting the hike to Pico Ruivo and after 15 minutes you come by this balcony. We stayed here to watch the sun come up, took some photos and started the hike around 8h30.

Hike details: 11 km in total (about 5.5 km one way), this will take you 5-6 hours with an elevation gain of 1200 meters. You start the hike at Pico do Arieiro, which is at 1818 meters and end the hike at Pico do Ruivo (highest point of Madeira) which is at 1862 meters. That isn’t a big difference but the hiking trails descends and rises a lot along the way. There are other options to visit Pico Ruivo as well if you don’t want to do the full hike. The hike itself is gorgeous with some of the prettiest views ever but it’s also quite heavy so take your time.  

The best tips for the hike from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo that I can give:

  • Take enough water with you
  • Take sun protector
  • Start the hike early as it’s one of the busiest points of Madeira and it’s way nicer to experience it without hundreds of other hikers blocking your way

When we got back, we didn’t have much energy left so we decided to relax for the rest of the day.

Day 7: Hike PR6 Levada das 25 Fontes / Levada do Risco + Garganta Funda + sunset at Miradouro do Raposeira

On our last day in Madeira we had a few options left but we chose to do the PR6 Levada das 25 Fontes / Levada do Risco because we hadn’t seen many waterfalls yet. From the parking lot to Levada do Risco you can either walk down yourself or take a minivan that drives people up and down. The walk to the waterfall is only 3km from the parking lot so we decided to walk. Levada do Risco itself is really cool and we had some fun feeding the birds asking for food. In the end we decided not to hike further until Levada das 25 Fontes, which is another 2,2km.

Afterwards we had a drink and grabbed something to eat at the cafe near the waterfall, before heading back up. Next stop: Garganta Funda. Garganta Funda is one of the highest waterfalls in Madeira with a height of about 140 meters. What should be one of Madeira’s most impressive waterfalls, was for us the most disappointing view ever. Because the sun had been shining bright the past few days, there was barely any water. The viewpoint is cool but I highly recommend visiting this spot after a rainy day. I didn’t even take a photo as we were really disappointed.

To end our final day in Madeira, we wanted to catch one last sunset. We chose to go to Miradouro do Raposeira because it was on our way back to the hotel. It’s not a famous viewpoint and we were all alone. In the beginning we had some nice light from the sun but it was quickly blocked by the clouds. It was not the sunset we had hoped for but we did get a short glampse of golden hour. Afterwards we drove back to the hotel because we had a nearly flight to catch.

Last but not least, there’s some tips I really want to share with you before you go:

  • Check the webcams of Madeira regularly, it might change your plans depending on how the weather is at different locations
  • 1 week is enough to see the highlights and have some time to relax but you can easily spend more time on the island as there’s a lot more to explore
  • Be prepared to drive some steep roads (rent a car if you can, it gives you more flexibility)
  • Take a headlight if you want to do some early hikes. Some people like to start off at sunrise to beat the crowds and tour busses
  • Take sun protection with you everywhere
  • Dress in layers as the weather can vary a lot in short timeframes
  • Dolphin and whale watching in Madeira is really popular too. We didn’t book a tour this trip but it’s something I will certainly do if I return
  • Try some of Madeira’s specialties. The food is great!

Equipment used:

  • Camera: Sony A7 III
  • Lenses: Sony 24-105mm f4 & Tamron 70-180 f2.8 & Tamron 17-28 f2.8
  • Drone: Mavic 2 Pro with Polarpro filters 4, 8, 16

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