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Fortaleza do Pico Stadtpanorama Funchal Madeira Portugal
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Schoening

Europe's loveliest cities: Funchal

Frederike Müller
October 4, 2019

Exotic flowers, rugged rocks, a mild climate all year round — Madeira is a desirable place for many people. The capital of the Portuguese garden island in the Atlantic Ocean is the old trading town of Funchal.


Funchal is located on the south coast of Madeira. A quarter of a million people live on the island, which is 57 kilometers (35.4 mi.) long and 22 kilometers (13.7 mi.) wide. About half of them live in the capital Funchal, which is famous for its richly blooming gardens. 600 years ago the cultivation of sugar cane originally made the Portuguese islanders rich; 300 years later it was the British trade with Madeira wine.

Urban art doors in Funchal's Rua de Santa Maria
Funchal's old town street Rua de Santa Maria, where artists have transformed bleak doors into urban artImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Widak

In the 19th century, the European aristocracy discovered the island capital Funchal as a secluded holiday destination. Today, most tourists arrive here by cruise ship or plane. And stay a week — or even just a weekend.

A perfect weekend

But what can and should you have seen in 48 hours in Funchal? DW presenter Meggin Leigh has checked this out in the series "Meggin's perfect weekend" on the DW-TV magazine Euromaxx.

Here are Meggin Leigh's very own tips for Funchal: 

Culinary tip 

Try black scabbard fish in the restaurant Santa Maria in the old town and sample Madeira wine atBlandy's Wine Lodge

Activity tip

Take a ride in a wicker basket sled from the starting point at the cable car station on Mount Monte in Funchal

Shopping tip

Buy a Strelitzia flower — also known as a bird of paradise — at Mercado dos Lavradores, a historical two-story market hall in the old center of Funchal

Even more culinary delights

Portugal Restaurant in Rua de Santa Maria
The paradise flower is omnipresent — also as eye catcher in restaurantsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Kovalev

On the oldest street in Funchal, the Rua de Santa Maria, visitors will find one restaurant after the other. Here you should try dishes like the black scabbard fish with Madeira banana, a traditional specialty. 

The national dish of Madeira is the Espetada beef skewer. It is grilled over an open wood fire. In the past, the branches of the laurel tree were used as a skewer. 

The British were responsible for the worldwide reputation of a local drink: they traded Madeira wine internationally. It even made it into its own museum: in the wine cellar of Sao Francisco, which is today part of the "Blandy's Wine Lodge". Also a reflection of the island's British heritage: the Bolo de Mel, a honey cake with fruits and nuts.

Old bottles of Madeira wine
Rarity in the cellar: old bottles of Madeira wineImage: picture alliance/Arco Images

Funchal's bars, however, feature honey in another high-proof drink: Poncha made from a spirit made from sugar cane, honey and lemons. In the past, fishermen used to use it to warm themselves after a cold day at sea.

A paradise for an active holiday

Madeira is a classic destination for hikers, and Funchal a great starting point for excursions. You can for example visit the primeval laurel forest in the north of the island, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999; or the highest mountain with 1862 meters (6109 ft.) on the island, the Pico Ruivo. Many hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails stretch along the levadas, artificial irrigation canals created by the first settlers almost 600 years ago all over Madeira.

Thanks to the rich volcanic landscape, tourists are spoiled for choice when it comes to vantage points across the island.

Café in the district Monte in Funchal
Café break for hikers on the way up to the Monte, Funchal's local mountainImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Hollemann

To warm up, hikers can climb Funchal's local mountain Monte or, like DW reporter Meggin Leigh, take the cable car to the top.  At the top, not only a fantastic view, but also the Tropical Garden of Monte Palace, awaits you. It is one of Funchal's many tropical gardens, which, like today's Funchal Botanical Gardens, originated from former British country estates. The plants in the lush gardens of the flower island bloom even when winter still prevails in the rest of Europe.

Visitors can hover above the city while paragliding or hang-gliding. Take-off points are located in the Funchal Ecological Park. Or set off from Pico da Cruz in the middle of Funchal's center near the harbor. Many dolphin and whale watching tours start from the marina, but fishing trips are also popular.

Souvenirs, Souvenirs

Camacha, a local basket weaver in Madeira
Vimes is what the art of basket weaving in Madeira is called — it doesn't have to be a garden chair, a bread basket might do the trick, too Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Gierth

Probably the most popular souvenir is the Strelitzia flower, which is also known as a bird of paradise flower. Other typical souvenirs are hand-embroidered tablecloths, blouses or nightdresses. Lace and tapestries are made in around 30 workshops, just as they were 150 years ago. The British royal court is one of the prominent customers for Madeira lace. Many shops can be found in the old town, for example in Rua dos Murças. The handmade quality of locally made products like lace and wickerwork is guaranteed by a seal of quality from the IBTAM — the local organization in charge of embroidery production on the island.

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