Funchal is the charming, capital city on the island of Madeira. The majority of the population of this volcanic island live in sprawling Funchal, which stretches from the Atlantic shoreline into the steep hills behind the city. There are lots of things to do in Funchal, many of which are free, making the city a fantastic family holiday destination.
Things to do in Funchal
Funchal has an attractive city centre packed with grand buildings with ornate architecture. Sections of the main Avenue Arriaga are pedestrianised and are lined with beautiful purple jacaranda trees. The colourful trees contrast with the famous black and white mosaic paving of the city. The main sights are within a compact area and are easily explored on foot.
Funchal Cable Car (Teleferico do Funchal)
The Teleferico do Funchal is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, especially with cruise ship daytrippers.
The cable car starts at the promenade in Funchal Old Town. The cable cars rise steeply above the tightly packed houses and winding city streets of Funchal to arrive in the village of Monte, 580 metres above sea level. The ride provides fantastic views of the city, marina and the Atlantic ocean and lasts around 15 minutes.
The cable car can be used to visit the Monte Tropical Garden and the Botanical Garden – or just for the thrill of the ride itself! Many visitors travel up on the cable car and return to Funchal by the iconic Funchal wicker toboggans.
You can choose between one way or return tickets or a combination ticket which includes the cable car to get to the Botanical Gardens.
Open daily from 9 am – 5.45 pm. One way tickets cost 11 Euro for adults and 5.50 Euro for children. Children 6 and under are free. Visit early to avoid long queues!
Funchal Wicker Toboggan (Carros de Cestos)
A ride on the traditional wicker toboggan or ‘baskets’ which descend at speed down the hilly streets of Funchal are most visitors ‘must do’ attractions in Madeira. I know of nowhere else in the world where you can ride on impossibly steep city streets, past homes and shops, alongside driving cars, in a straw basket on wooden sledge runners with no brakes!!!
The journey is the same route the toboggans have taken since 1850 when they were primarily used as public transportation to Funchal by the residents of Monte.
As a result, the road surface today is shiny and smooth though be prepared for bends and bumps in the road! The exhilarating ride lasts around seven minutes reaching speeds of up to 30 mph. The straw boater wearing, white-uniformed ‘drivers’ – Carreiro’s de Monte – do a skilled job of controlling the baskets with their rubber-soled shoes.
Know before you go
We debated whether to ride the toboggans as the ride is not cheap for a family. Plus, reviews were mixed, ranging from ‘thrilling’ to ‘boring.’ However, we decided this would be a unique experience we haven’t had before and would be unlikely to have again!
The trip is thrilling and a little unnerving (be prepared for travelling sideways at times)! We all enjoyed our short ride, particularly the kids who squealed and laughed all the way down. They say it is their highlight of our family trip to Madeira!
The experienced toboggan drivers keep the queues moving but expect a wait at peak times; when the drivers arrive at the end of the route, they load their toboggans onto a lorry and then board a bus which brings them back to the start of the route.
At the end of the 2-kilometre ride, you may receive a hard sell to buy a 10 Euro photo of your trip which is printed before you even finish the ride!
The toboggan ride finishes in Livramento, not in the city centre, and there will be taxi drivers touting for fares back to Funchal. Agree on a price before you travel and be wary of inflated prices. Instead of a taxi, you can catch a half hourly bus that departs from the main road near the toboggan terminus; timetables vary on weekend and holidays.
Alternatively, you can walk back to Funchal. It is a very steep, relentless downhill walk taking around 30 minutes. It was hard going (our legs hurt the next day!) but it was interesting to observe the quiet, residential back streets of Funchal.
Plus, we rewarded ourselves with delicious ice cream at the end of the walk!
Toboggan rides cost 15 Euro per person and the toboggans fit two people (or three if one is a small child). You cannot buy a ticket in advance, queue up and pay on departure. We were pleasantly surprised not to be charged for our youngest child.
Funchal toboggans run Monday – Saturday 9 am – 6 pm and till 1 pm on Sunday
Funchal Cathedral (Se Catedral do Funchal)
The 16th-century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption is a modest but lovely white facade cathedral standing in the centre of the city. It is recognizable from afar by its tall clock tower. The exterior stonework of the cathedral utilised stone from nearby Cabo Girao.
Inside the cathedral, drag your eyes away from the ornate, gilded altar and look up at the highly decorated cedar wood ceiling.
The church closes daily for a long lunch break between 12 pm – 4 pm so avoid visiting during this time. The cathedral has free entry.
Sao Lourenco Palace (Palacio de Sao Lourenco)
From the cathedral, walk past inviting terrace cafes and excellent street musicians to the 16th-century fortress, the Palace of St Lourenco. The Palace was once the home of the Governor of Funchal and guided tours are available to view recreated rooms from the Palaces history.
The free to enter Palace is closed on public holidays and weekends.
In the same courtyard as the entrance to the Palace is the small but interesting Military Museum.
Multilingual displays about Funchal’s military past include guns, uniforms and small cannons. (The free to enter stone built museum is very cool inside on a hot day)!
Blandys Wine Lodge
If sightseeing is making you thirsty, pop into Blandy’s Wine Lodge opposite the Palacio de Sao Lourenco. Visiting is by guided tour only and includes tastings of a variety of Vinho Madeira. There are daily tours in different languages.
College Church of St. John the Evangelist (Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista do Colegio do Funchal)
A short walk from the cathedral into the San Pedro district brings you to the grand City Hall (tours available at 11 am and 3 pm) and the Jesuit Orders’ Colegio Church of St. John.
The pretty square in front of the church is a photogenic example of the black and white mosaic paving Funchal for which Funchal is famous. Our son likened it to the icing on top of a birthday cake!
The 17th Century Baroque style church is decorated from floor to ceiling with museum-worthy frescoes. The altar is covered in gilded wooden sculpture -the craftsmanship and artwork on display is outstanding.
This was the only church we visited in Madeira that played pipe music. However, it wasn’t intrusive and it was very relaxing to sit listening to music whilst soaking up the art and architecture!
It is free to enter the church but to the left of the altar, you can pay 1 Euro to climb 82 rickety, creaking wooden steps to a tower lookout point. It is not very high as lookouts go in Madeira (!) but it does give an expansive view of Funchal city centre and the Marina.
Santa Clara Convent (Convento de Santa Clara)
Continue walking through the San Pedro area following signs to the Santa Clara Convent. The San Pedro area is a maze of narrow cobbled streets packed with churches and museums seemingly on every corner. It is a lovely area for a stroll.
A steeply rising street (you will get used to these in Madeira!) brings you to the Santa Clara Convent. This unassuming convent was a highlight of our family trip to Funchal.
Visitors must pull the bell at the large wooden doors at the Convent entrance (not the church doors) to gain access. The doors open onto a small, cobbled courtyard where you will be greeted by one of the nine nuns in residence.
A friendly, multilingual guide will then bring you on a short tour of the convent.
You can see the enclosed cloisters and market garden where the nuns grow their own fruit and vegetable and visit centuries-old tiny prayer chapels, tiled with traditional blue and yellow Madeiran tiles.
The guide will show you the five-hundred-year-old meeting room where the once large order of nuns used to gather for meetings, each nun having their own uniquely carved seat.
One wall in this meeting room contains two enormous wooden doors which when pulled back, reveal the wooden lattice grills overlooking the church where the nuns used to sit for mass, separated from the general public.
The tour ends with a tour of the 15th Century church which has to be one of the most beautiful churches in Madeira – and there is stiff competition for that accolade!
This church is a work of art. Its huge walls are adorned from floor to ceiling by unique Marvila patterned tiles.
The ornate silver work of the altar contrasts with the incredibly vibrant colour of the paintings on the five-hundred-year-old roof.
Our tour was enjoyable and educational – not just about the work of the Poor Clare nuns but also about the history of Funchal and Madeira. We felt as if we had stepped into a hidden world. I would highly recommend visiting the Santa Clara Convent.
Entry costs 2 Euro for adults and is free for children. The Convent is open 10 am-12 pm and 3 pm – 5 pm, closed on Sundays and holidays.
Funchal Farmers Market (Mercado Dos Lavradores)
Cross the river to visit the indoors Farmers Market. You need to arrive early in the day to see the extensive fish market in operation.
There are colourful flower stalls on the ground floor and an array of stalls selling all sorts of unfamiliar fresh and dried fruit on the first floor.
Vendors entice you in with free tastings but you will get a hard sell afterwards!
If you wish to purchase something, shop around as prices vary. Food prices are hugely inflated compared to local supermarkets.
It was worth visiting the market for its atmosphere and colour but the market feels more like a tourist venue rather than an authentic city market.
Open Monday – Saturday with free entry.
Rua da Santa Maria
A two-minute walk from the Farmers Market is the pretty, cobbled street Rua de Santa Maria. It is part of Funchal’s Old Town (Zona Velha) and the street itself dates back to 1430.
Today it is known for its painted doors, an imaginative – and successful – public art project to attract tourists to the area.
The narrow, pedestrianised street has become a tourist magnet and is lined with restaurants and cafes cheerfully vying for your custom.
However, with its tightly packed houses with overhanging balconies overflowing with succulents and vivid bougainvillaea it is a pleasant place to wander.
I’ll be honest and say that the quality of the 200 artworks on display varies greatly, but there are some gems!
This is a residential street and you may get a surprise when taking a photo of someone’s front door to find the owner coming out to go to work!
Madeira Story Centre
The Madeira Story Centre on the waterfront in the Old Town is a small, modern museum charting the history of Madeira.
There is a large shop and restaurant on site and is a good option for a rainy day in Funchal.
Open every day 9 am -7 pm. Adult entry is 5 Euro, children are 3 Euro.
Funchal Gardens and Parks
On an island dubbed the ‘floating garden of the Atlantic’ you know there will be some amazing gardens to visit in Madeira. You will be spoiled for choice in Funchal!
Monte Tropical Gardens
Monte Tropical Gardens is an ideal choice for visitors to Funchal as you can combine your visit with a ride on the cable car and wicker toboggan.
If you take the cable car up to Monte from Funchal, you arrive at the entrance to Monte Tropical Gardens. When you have finished your tour of the gardens, it is a five-minute walk through Monte to the departure point for the toboggan ride.
We loved our visit to Monte Tropical Garden and it is well worth allocating half a day to visit. (We thought we would visit for two hours but ended up staying over four hours).
There is an eclectic mix of things to see which succeeds in engaging even the most footsore of children.
The gardens are overflowing with diverse flora of all shapes, sizes and colours. We enjoyed the section on native plants from Madeira such as the laurel trees.
There is a stunning orchid area, pathways lined with cycads and ferns and ground grown amaryllis are everywhere. The different aromas as you explore creates a full, sensory experience.
There is a large central lake with pretty waterfalls mimicking the levadas that Madeira is famous for.
The gardens are 600m above sea level so there are fantastic views of Funchal to enjoy.
In addition to the plants (and swans, chickens and peacocks that wander freely), there are hidden sculptures and an ornamental Orient garden complete with a red pagoda and carp ponds.
Walkways are lined with panels of ornate tile art, some of which are hundreds of years old.
Plus, there is an exhibition of African soapstone carving and a fascinating room full of minerals, gems and geodes.
There are steep paths in the gardens, most of which are cobbled so I would recommend sturdy footwear and using a carrier for young children rather than a pushchair.
Steep drops are fenced but the fences have large gaps in them so be careful with small children.
Entry is reasonable at 12.50 Euro for adults and children are free. The Gardens are open every day from 9.30 am – 6 pm with cafes and toilets on site.
Before you leave Monte, visit the 18th Century Church of Our Lady of Monte (Igreja do Monte) which is accessed by a set of very steep stone steps, just before the start of the toboggan run.
The church is beautiful inside and is the burial site of the last Austrian Emperor, Charles I.
We travelled by cable car to Monte by bus (number 21) from the city centre. It took 10 minutes and was 27 Euro cheaper than taking the cable car.
However, as most roads are in Madeira, the route was steep, winding and not for the faint-hearted!
Madeira Botanica Garden (Jardim Botanico)
A beautiful garden with magnificent views over Funchal, the Botanical Garden was once a privately Quinta or estate, owned by the Reid family (of Funchal’s well known Reids Hotel).
Over 2000 species jostle for space in five colourful areas. Kids will enjoy the fruit tree and medicinal plant sections.
Lovers of geometry and symmetry will love the picture perfect flower beds! There is also a bird park and a small natural history museum on site.
Open every day 9 am – 6 pm. Adult entry costs 5 Euro, children over 6 years old are 1.80 Euro.
Santa Catarina Park
This small but pretty park is opposite the CR7 museum on the Marina. Due to its elevated position, it has lovely views of the city and marina.
There is a small pond, tropical flower beds and an interesting array of trees including the unusual Kapok tree. There is also a cute, free book swap point.
Our children enjoyed playing here on a rare expanse of grass!
Funchal Municipal Park
Opposite the upmarket restaurants and the Ritz Hotel near the Sao Lourenco Palace is the small but gorgeous Jardim Municipal do Funchal.
Cobbled paths wind around pretty fountains and tiny waterfalls, bamboo trees and overflowing tropical flower beds.
The different smells and bursts of colour are wonderful. It is well worth visiting this park to experience a diverse range of tropical flora in a small space.
Look out for the unusual Dragon Tree and Elephants Foot tree (most plants in this park are helpfully labelled)!
Funchal Marina is a pleasant place to walk if only to gawp at the impossibly large cruise ships that dock here on a daily basis.
The promenade is wide and dotted with flower beds, fountains, cafes and general seating areas.
It is also the home of the CR7 museum dedicated to the achievements of Madeira icon Cristiano Ronaldo.
The museum is basically a trophy room full of medals, cups and Ronaldo’s four Ballon D’Ors.
There is an enormous screen where you can select Ronaldo’s career highlights to watch and two wax models that you can have your picture with.
Do not expect a life history or any personal information!
If you are a football fan, a Ronaldo fan and if it is raining, then the museum is worth a visit. We went to keep Small Boy happy!
Outside the museum is a statue of Ronaldo (with a questionable likeness) in his famous celebratory ‘si’ pose. It is interesting to see what tourists have been touching for good luck!
Open Monday to Saturday, entry costs 5 Euro for aged 7 (of course!) and over.
Funchal is not known for its beaches but there are a couple of locations where you can access the sea.
Praia de Sao Tiago
In the city itself, there is the small Barreirinha Complex, a small rocky beach and lido at Praia de Sao Tiago. This is located at the mustard yellow Forte de Sao Tiago on the seafront, shortly after the Teleferico station.
Just before you arrive at the fee-paying complex there is free access to a small rocky beach. When we visited this beach, the waves were too rough for our children to swim and we had to watch out for broken glass and rusted metal on the shoreline.
I would strongly recommend catching a bus to Praia Formosa from Funchal as walking there from the city centre took us over three hours with children! The walk is not along a seafront promenade as some city maps suggest, but through a built up, congested hotel and tourist apartment area. Only a fraction of the walk is pedestrianised by the seafront.
Furthermore, access to Praia Formosa is not well signposted for pedestrians and we had to make several attempts to access the beach.
Praia Formosa is clean, rocky and the sea is rough in places with a steep incline into the sea. Follow the locals lead as to safe swimming spots.
There is limited parking available, public toilets, changing rooms and three cafes.
We were a little disappointed in Praia Formosa. It has a pleasant, family-friendly atmosphere but it is not very scenic and lacks investment which would benefit the local people who flock here.
Money has been invested into fee-paying lidos rather than the natural public beach. There are several lidos en route to Praia Formosa.
The largest is the Lido Beach Complex featuring large and small unheated seawater pools, ocean access, changing and catering facilities. On a hot day, a full day ticket is excellent value for money at 5 Euros for adults and 1.80 Euro for children over 10.
However, sun loungers and umbrellas cost extra.
If you prefer something smaller and in a more natural setting visit Doca Do Cavacas at the beginning of Praia Formosa beach.
Families with young children should consider visiting the quieter Punta Gorda complex.
Day Trips From Funchal
There are many options for day trips from Funchal whether you are interested in history, culture or nature.
Madeira offers a wealth of incredible hiking opportunities on its extensive levada network. There are walks for all ages and abilities though you need to do your research before you go. Read our tips for walking in Madeira here.
Just about everywhere on the small island of Madeira is reachable by car in a day trip from Funchal.
Roads are well maintained and well signposted and a network of tunnels has greatly reduced travelling times around the island.
However, before heading into the steep mountain roads of Madeira, check the weather forecast for the mountain area you are visiting; the weather in Madeira changes drastically from the coast to locations at altitude and can also change quickly. Check driving and road conditions too.
Driving in rural Madeira is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced driver. Roads are winding, steep, narrow and precipitous in places. You will need to be confident and well practised at engine braking and driving up and down slopes in low gear!
Travelling further afield from Funchal by bus will need careful planning. Timetables are limited on Sundays and holidays so check before setting off.
Alternatively, there are several companies in Funchal offering coach and small group day tours to locations around the island.
You will either arrive into Funchal by aeroplane or by boat.
Cruise ships dock at the Funchal Marina where it is a short walk into the city centre. The Marina is also a transport hub for several bus routes to other locations on the island.
Flying into Funchal requires nerves of steel – or clamp your eyes shut! The Cristiano Ronaldo airport has a very short runway, bordered by residential houses on one side and the Atlantic on the other. Part of the runway extends over the sea on stilts.
If like me you are afraid of flying, I would strongly advise not looking too closely at the runway on arrival or you may not want to get back on the plane to return home!
Funchal Airport has several car hire options. We highly recommend Rodavente. You can read more about this excellent company here.
There are public buses running the short twenty-minute ride to the city centre though some bus timetables cease early and others only run once an hour.
We booked a transfer with Sun Transfers.com. A door to door transfer for our family of five in a minivan only cost 28 Euro. Well worth the money when travelling with tired children!
Funchal Practical Information
Getting around Funchal
You do not need a car to explore Funchal. City sights are easily covered on foot. Parking is difficult to find and may require payment.
If exploring on foot, plan your sightseeing to group attractions by area to save you crisscrossing the city.
Maps are available from hotels and the tourist booth on the marina or from the tourist office on Avenue Arriaga near the Cathedral.
There are also helpful stone marker maps on the pavements showing you in which direction attractions are located and how long takes to walk to them.
You can hire bikes, a tuk-tuk or a segway from the marina but I would recommend walking. You won’t be distracted and miss any of the city’s fantastic architecture.
There are regular bus links around the city and to the tourist accommodation areas. For exploring further afield, there is a comprehensive bus network costing upwards of 1.95 Euro per person. Our children were often not charged a fare on public buses.
Timetables run early and late but are limited on weekends and public holidays.
If you are planning to rely on buses to complete linear levada walks you will need to do some careful planning. We found public buses to be reliable and punctual.
Where to stay in Funchal
Many visitors to Funchal choose to stay in the hotel district on the edge of Funchal which is packed with hotels and apartments for all budgets.
We walked through this area and whilst the hotels are attractive with lovely pools and other amenities, we felt the area was busy, devoid of both locals and atmosphere.
Other visitors choose to stay in the hills surrounding Funchal. You will be in a quiet location with beautiful views but visiting the main sights will involve using some form of transport and will eat up valuable sightseeing time.
I would highly recommend staying in the Old Town. You will not have a pool, or maybe even a balcony, but you will be at the heart of city life and within walking distance of all the sights.
We stayed in an immaculate two bedroom self-catering apartment on a quiet side street just ten minutes walk from the Cathedral. It was a spacious, well-stocked apartment for just £50 a night for five people.
Where to eat in Funchal
Funchal is packed with restaurants and cafes and eating out is generally reasonable. Meat and seafood feature heavily on menus. Funchal also has recognisable brands such as Subway and Pizza Hut.
I would recommend stopping at a local cafe at least once to sample delicious Madeira cakes.
The Portuguese pastel de nata (custard pie) is a local favourite and the Madeiran honey cake is a popular take-home souvenir.
Our kids loved the creamy orange eclairs. We were usually able to have five assorted cakes and five drinks for under 7 Euro.
If you choose to self-cater there are lots of small, family-owned grocery shops to pick up supplies and homemade cakes. The orange topped, homemade sponge Madeira cakes are not to be missed!
Prices are only slightly higher than the supermarkets and we found these smaller shops well stocked and easier to navigate. Plus, shopping local spreads the tourist dollar!
There are larger supermarkets around town and inside the Anadia shopping mall. Pingo Doce or Continente are large supermarket brands.
We are not usually big city fans but we all enjoyed our stay in charming, friendly Funchal. It is an attractive, friendly city full of great architecture adorned with colourful tropical plants. There are interesting and fun things to do in Funchal for all ages and interests. We would love to return…but by boat for me!
Have you been to Funchal? What were your trip highlights?