Are you looking for the perfect destination for your first solo trip? The answer could be a small Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean.
With its sensational landscapes and stellar safety record, Madeira is a near-perfect destination for those travelling alone. Dive into this Madeira solo travel guide to get the lowdown on why you should add it to your travel bucket list, where to visit, how to get around and where to stay.
It’s all you need to ace solo travel in Madeira.
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Why Solo Travel in Madeira?
Choosing a solo travel destination isn’t always easy. In an ideal world, you want somewhere that fits your interests, is easy to get around, has a good climate, is affordable and, above all, safe.
Portugal is an increasingly popular travel destination for solo travellers and the island of Madeira is no exception. Here’s why.
Stunning scenery – I have travelled to few other places that have such a wealth of natural gifts in a small area.
Featuring the world’s largest laurel forest, soaring cliffs, natural lava pools and canyons carved from volcanic eruptions, and dramatic rock formations, it’s a photographer’s dream destination. Throw the island’s riot of flora and fruit trees into the mix, and it will be hard to keep your camera in your bag.
However, Madeira is not the ideal destination if you are a beach-lover.
Although it boasts nearly 60 miles of coastline, most of its beaches are those of pebbles and black sand. Two of the island’s better beaches – Machico and Calheta – have imported sand.
World-class walking – Avid hikers won’t feel short-changed. Madeira’s levadas, irrigation channels that carry water from the north to the south of the island, provide an abundance of ready-made scenic trails.
Perfect climate – Madeira has warm, spring-like weather year-round with most rain falling between October and January.
Transport infrastructure – Four bus companies cover the length and breadth of the island. Whilst public transport isn’t perfect, fares are modest and buses will get you to most of the places that you would like to visit. For the rest, there are a number of inexpensive day tours.
Affordable – Madeira is one of the most affordable destinations in Western Europe for a solo traveller. The cost of living is less than on the Portuguese mainland, itself a relatively cheap destination.
Eating out is inexpensive. I rarely paid more than €20 for an evening meal with wine, a medium draught beer was around €1.50 and a glass of local wine was no more than €4.
Finally, solo travel in Madeira is so easy.
Is Madeira Safe for Female Solo Travellers?
Personal safety is the most important consideration of female solo travellers. Madeira is very safe for women travelling alone.
Crime, including pick-pocketing, is rare. Female residents that I quizzed said that they felt safe walking the island’s streets, even late at night.
The main risks are navigating the pavement-free streets of Funchal Old Town or being fleeced by an unscrupulous taxi driver.
That said, as with any solo travel destination, a little bit of common sense goes a long way. Stick to familiar streets after dark and make sure that you know your way back to your hotel or apartment.
Keep your valuables at your accommodation and use an anti-theft backpack when you are out and about. I always use this PacSafe backpack which has anti-RFID technology and a hidden pocket.
Top 10 Places to Visit if You are Visiting Madeira Solo
Don’t be deceived by Madeira’s diminutive size, just 35 miles long and 13 miles wide. Thanks to its mountainous terrain and torturous roads, it takes longer to get from A to B than you would imagine.
Nonetheless, with just a week in Madeira, you can easily hit the highlights, from fabulous Funchal to the cloud-capped peaks of its interior.
Here is my pick of the best things to see if you are travelling alone in Madeira, all of which can be visited using public transport or on an inexpensive day tour.
READ THIS NEXT: A Week in Madeira Without a Car: An Easy 7-Day Itinerary
Madeira’s attractive capital city is a jewel in the island’s crown. Far from selling its soul to tourism, this is a working city and one that has retained its culture and traditions.
Its pedestrianised streets are a joy to explore. From gorgeous gardens to colonial churches, there is plenty of things to do in Funchal for even the most restless solo traveller.
Get to know Funchal on a walking tour – Joining a walking tour is an excellent way to get your bearings and top tips from a local, and to meet other travellers. I did this one that was well worth its modest cost.
Praço do Municipio – Funchal’s elegant main square, paved with distinctive limestone and basalt mosaics, is lined with historic buildings. These include Igreja de São João Evangelistica do Colégio (Collegiate Church), Cámara Municipal (Town Hall) and Museu de Arte Sacra (Museum of Religious Art).
Funchal Sé (Cathedral) – this gilded jewel box is one of the few survivors of the early days of colonisation.
Mercado des Lavradores (Workers’ Market) – visit on a Friday or Saturday when the market is crammed with stalls groaning with produce from across the island.
Join a food and culture walking tour – One of the best ways to get to know a country and its culture is through its food. I joined this excellent walking tour with a local guide who introduced us to typical Madeiran food and drink, including poncha.
Blandy’s Wine Lodge – Go for a tasting at this Funchal institution, plus or minus a tour of the wine lodge
Funchal Old Town – Pick your favourite painted door from the 200 in the once run-down Old Town (Zona Velha).
Whale and dolphin-watching cruise – The waters off Funchal are rich with these beautiful mammals. More information here.
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2. Madeira’s Botanical Gardens
On the slopes above Funchal are two of Madeira’s most beautiful gardens: Jardim Botãnico (Botanical Garden), and Monte Palace Madeira Tropical Garden in the hilltop town of Monte.
To reach both of these gardens, take the cable car that soars above the hills from the base station next to Funchal’s seafront promenade to Monte Palace Madeira Tropical Garden. For the ride of your life, return to Funchal courtesy of the wicker tobogganists.
Monte Palace Tropical Garden is home to about 100,000 plant species from across the globe. It includes Japanese gardens, complete with wooden sculptures of solemn Samurai, a collection of Zimbabwean stone sculptures and cascading fountains.
Further downhill, the glorious Jardim Botãnico houses around 3,000 exotic species from all continents.
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3. Cabo Girão viewpoint
Just to the west of Funchal is the 3rd highest cliff in Europe. Cabo Girão towers 589 meters above the Atlantic, offering sensational views.
Scare yourself silly by stepping onto the Skywalk, a glass-bottomed floor separating you from the ocean below.
4. Cãmara de Lobos
Just five miles west of the capital, Cãmara de Lobos is one of the easiest day trips from Funchal by bus.
This impossibly picturesque fishing town found fame as the place where Winston Churchill liked to paint. Brightly coloured boats bob around its natural harbour and innovative street art grace some of its doorways.
READ THIS NEXT: How to Do a Day Trip to Câmara de Lobos, Madeira from Funchal
5. Nun’s Valley
This is another easy day trip from Funchal by bus #81. Alternatively, combine it with Cãmara de Lobos on an even easier half-day tour.
Curral das Freiras (Refuge of the Nuns), the sleepy village at the foot of the Valley of the Nuns, is famous for its chestnuts. However, the main reason for taking this day trip is the sensational views from the lookout point of Eira do Serrado.
6. Pico do Arieiro
If you are not hiring a car in Madeira, the only way to reach Pico do Arieiro is on a day tour or by taxi. Trust me; it is well worth it.
Pico do Arieiro is the 3rd highest mountain in Madeira (1818 metres) and is the only one that doesn’t involve a hike. From its windswept viewpoint, there is a 360-degree panorama, with the jagged peaks of a stratified canyon kissed by a sea of clouds.
You may have seen photos of these white stucco A-framed buildings with a bright red front door, red and blue window frames and a thatched roof. These are palheiros, a traditional form of Madeiran housing that is unique to the northern side of the island.
In Santana, there are careful reconstructions of palheiros, most of which are home to shops (one is the Tourist Information Office).
8. Porto Moniz
Tiny Porto Moniz, in the extreme north-western tip of Madeira, is famous for its natural swimming pools, carved from a tongue of volcanic lava flowing into the Atlantic. Both of its two lava pool areas are free to use (although the larger and better pool is closed if the sea is too stormy).
But you don’t have to swim to enjoy Porto Moniz (I didn’t). Just sit back and watch the waves do their stuff, nature’s free sight and sound show.
9. Porto do Sol
This is the place to get your sunset fix. As its name suggests, chilled Porto do Sol has a sunny spot in the warmest part of the island.
Porto do Sol is home to Europe’s first digital nomad village, housed in the John do Passos Cultural Centre. It is also a good base for levada walks.
10. Levada walk
Madeira is even better when explored on foot.
Level footpaths run alongside the levadas that wrap themselves around more than 1,300 miles of the island. It’s a solo hiker’s dream destination.
There is a levada walk to suit any age and ability.
One of the easiest that can be reached by bus from Funchal is the PR11, a one-mile there-and-back stroll from Ribeiro Frio to a panoramic viewpoint known as the Balcöes (balconies). The most popular – and most crowded – is the 3-mile Levada das 25 Fontes in the west of the island.
When is the Best Time to Visit Madeira?
Madeira has mild temperatures year-round. When I visited in November, I had unbroken sunshine and didn’t see a single drop of rain for my entire stay.
Visit in April and May if you want to see Madeira’s famous wildflowers at their most abundant.
The island is at its liveliest during the summer holidays (July and August), and at the end of December when the crowds descend on Funchal to watch its New Year’s Eve firework display.
Getting There and Getting Away
How to get to Madeira
Several scheduled and charter flights from across Europe land at Madeira Airport (FNC). Azores Airlines operate seasonal direct flights from New York City (JFK).
You can check flight schedules here.
Landing at Madeira Airport is quite an adventure. Its short runway is flanked by mountains on one side and ocean on the other, and is prone to troublesome crosswinds, making it one of Europe’s trickiest landings.
Funchal is also hugely popular port of call for cruise ships.
Getting from Madeira Airport to Funchal
You have three options for getting from Madeira Airport to Funchal: a taxi, a pre-booked transfer or the airport bus.
A taxi from the airport to Funchal will cost anywhere from €30 to €45, depending on the taxi driver and where you are staying in town.
I pre-booked a taxi transfer via Booking.com which cost £22. If you are travelling alone, shared shuttle transfers are more cost-effective but will increase your transfer time.
Cheaper still is the Aerobus, operated by SAM. I used that for the return journey to the airport and it worked very well.
It leaves the terminal building every hour bound for Funchal. The journey time to Central Funchal is 30 minutes and it costs €5 (2022 price). You can check the route, current fares and timetable here.
Getting Around Madeira as a solo traveller
The most flexible way of exploring Madeira is by car.
However, you should only rent a car in Madeira if you are a confident driver. Be prepared for narrow roads, hairpin bends on mountain passes and steep inclines.
It wasn’t for me. I travelled around Madeira solo using public buses and day tours.
Four different operators provide bus services in Madeira, each company serving a different area of the island. Whilst buses are cheap and will get you to many places you wish to visit, public transport is not perfect.
With timetables built to serve commuters, you may find that there are bus services at the beginning and end of the working hours and little in between. There is no public bus service to Pico do Arieiro.
To help you navigate Madeira’s sometimes baffling bus services get hold of the Madeira Bus and Touring Map before you travel.
I used day tours a lot when I was visiting Madeira. Not only were they cheap, reliable and went where I wanted to go, but they also ward off solo travel loneliness by providing great opportunities to meet other travellers.
I used and can personally recommend Lido Tours but other well-established companies are also available that offer similar itineraries. These are the tours that I joined and can recommend:
- Western Madeira Tour | CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION
- Eastern Madeira Tour | CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION
- Nun’s Valley Tour | CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION
Where to Stay in Madeira as a Solo Traveller
Choosing the right place to stay can make or break a solo trip.
Your accommodation needs to be comfortable, welcoming and, most of all, safe. As your room is likely to account for a hefty chunk of your travel budget, you want to make sure you are getting the best bang for your buck.
If you are not hiring a car, Funchal is the best place in which to base yourself. This is the island’s main transport hub and there are also a number of tour operators in town.
To be close to Funchal’s main attractions, I recommend staying in Funchal Town Centre or the Old Town. Although Funchal’s high-end hotels are located right on the ocean’s edge and will have fabulous sunset views, they are on the road heading west out of town.
I stayed in this lovely apartment with sea views on the eastern edge of the Old Town, a ten-minute walk to the cable car station. It is spacious, comfortable, affordable and benefits from a washing machine.
Here are a few other places that I have found that may suit other tastes and budgets:
Castanheiro Boutique Hotel
In an excellent location just off Funchal’s main square, this 4-star hotel has an outdoor pool and hot tub.
Sé Boutique Hotel
Located in the shadow of Funchal’s Cathedral, this chic hotel has a swimming pool and rates include a good breakfast.
Solo Dining in Madeira
Not only do Madeira’s restaurants serve some of the freshest fish on the planet, but I also have never come across so many other people dining alone. It was one of the few times in over three decades of solo travel that I didn’t semi-apologetically ask for a table for one.
Welcome to the new normal.
Here are a few of the places in which I ate in Funchal and liked.
Bela 5 Snack Bar
Address: R. Bela São Tiago 5A, 9060-291 Funchal
This simple café in the Old Town serves excellent grilled fish and is popular with locals. Service can be on the slow side but it’s worth the wait and the staff are very friendly.
Address: Rua de Santa Maria 68, 9060-291 Funchal
Another superb choice in the Old Town where I feated on the prawn risotto of my dreams.
Taberna do Capitão
Address: R. da Alfândega, 135, Beco do Açucar 3, 9000-059 Funchal
Housed in a historic building close to the cathedral this cosy restaurant serves authentic food at a reasonable price.