Updated: Oct 2
One of the best parts of cruising is going to places you might not have otherwise considered, like Funchal, Madeira.
This picturesque city has slightly more than 100,000 people and is the capital of Madeira, a Portuguese island in the North Atlantic Ocean. Funchal is magical, but before my ship entered its port, I had no idea I wanted to go there. Heck, I had no idea it existed. Within 15 minutes ashore, I knew it was one of my new favorite places in Europe, and even though I still had the whole day ahead of me, I didn’t want it to end.
I had no idea what to expect so I thought about taking a ship-sanctioned shore excursion. In the end, I decided not to take one. Instead, I chose to take my chances on making my own itinerary. I studied the ship’s recommendations and decided I could see the main city sites and still have plenty of time to stroll the streets if I did things on my own. And I was right! I packed in a ton of fun and never once felt rushed. Here are my tips for the best ways to spend five hours in Funchal.
To make the most of this beautiful port, I urge you to rise early and beat the crowds. If you get up at 6:30 a.m., you can be dressed, have a bite to eat, and be ready to go by 8 a.m. This was the projected arrival time for NCL Epic.
As soon as I heard the captain give the A-OK to get off the ship, I headed toward the gangway. Trust me when I tell you not to waste a single minute of time you have in this lovely place. I was the very first person to disembark for the day. And I was glad to have the quiet streets to myself for a few hours before most of the other cruisers made it off the ship.
It’s a bit of a jaunt from the ship to the heart of the action, but it’s a well-designed route once you get past the ship dock.
Simply walk off the ship and keep going until you reach a fork in the road. Make a right on Avenida Do Mar, and keep on walking. The level pathway, scenic view along the waterfront, and smattering of shops make it an easy stroll. You can turn left at the first main intersection to head straight into the tourist area. But I decided to up the ante and keep walking. I had a special plan for my morning.
I walked all along the pathway for about 45 minutes at a brisk pace. I had an ulterior motive: to get on the cable cars or, as they’re called locally, Teleférico do Funchal, before the crowds of tourists arrived. I made good time, arriving by 8:45 a.m. Sadly, they didn’t open until 9 a.m. so I could have walked at a more leisurely pace and enjoyed the sights. Still, even as I waited to get inside, throngs of tourists arrived. In fact, three busloads were waiting just behind me.
I swooped in as soon as the doors were unlocked and bought my ticket to the hilltop village of Monte. Monte has lots to offer in its own right, including beautiful gardens. You can purchase tickets to various attractions at the same time as you buy your cable car fare. Just remember, Funchal also has lots to offer too. Watch the clock so you have time to enjoy both places.
I bought a round-trip ticket and boarded the very first car of the morning. I’m terrified of heights, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t so bad. Treetops and roofs appear to be just a stone’s throw away for most of the ride up. There are a few places where you’re suspended fairly high above the ground, but the journey lasts only 15 minutes. You can do anything for 15 minutes, I promise. And the view is so worth any anxiety you may experience.
When you reach the end of your journey, there’s not a lot of signage telling you where to go. Because I was the first tourist at the top, there wasn’t anyone to follow. If you turn right, you’ll head toward the gardens. If you turn left, you’ll make your way toward the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. It’s a short walk either way you turn.
I was hoping for a few shops and cafés where I could while away the morning in Monte, but there was no such thing. After you walk the stairs to the church and take in the exceptional view of Funchal, there’s not a lot else to do…except for maybe the most amazing experience ever. Read on.
So the real reason I wanted to make my way to the hilltop town of Monte was so that I could ride in a wicker basket back down the hill. A wicker basket! I believe the locals call it a toboggan, but I call it like I see it. For the high, high price of 25 Euros for one person or 30 Euros for two, you can sit in a basket while two men push you through the village streets at relatively fast speeds. You can’t make this stuff up.
The men wear special boots that help them glide along the well-oiled streets. Occasionally, they slow the pace to let a car pass along at a crossroad. Along the way, men will pop out from the side streets to snap your picture. You can buy it later for 10 Euros, along with a cute history of the toboggan ride. I figured no one would believe me when I told them what I’d just done without evidence, so I snapped it up. There’s also a little market where you can haggle for souvenirs and a place where you can grab a bite to eat.
Pro tip: If you plan on taking the toboggan ride down the hill, you only need to purchase a one-way ticket for the cable cars. I learned this the hard way and could have saved myself a few bucks. Oh, and try to have cash for the toboggan ride. In theory, they take credit, but it’s a hassle. My “drivers” were quite unhappy about not being paid cash.
It’s important to note the basket ride only takes you partway down the hill. There’s still a long way to go to reach the bottom. You have three options, take a tour bus, hop in a taxi, or walk. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I like a good walk. But I can tell you, I am the only person who chose this option. And it was a long walk at a steep angle. I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it unless you’re really keen.
I stopped a few times along the way to take some snaps of my ship in the port. I also caught a few glimpses of locals going about their daily business. I like that sort of thing. It feels more intimidating, which can be hard to achieve with only five hours in Funchal.
I’d promised my traveling companion I would return to the ship by 11 a.m. so we could spend the rest of the day in town together. Believe it or not, I had already accomplished all of that excitement and got back to the ship 15 minutes early. To my delight, she was already waiting for me outside, leaving us even more time to explore Funchal.
We spent the rest of the day meandering through the city streets. We went into every shop, walked down every alley, and ate gelato. From trendy boutiques, like Dona Hortensia, to the local market, Mercado Dos Lavradores, there are endless unique shopping options. Zara, Mossimo Dutti, Mango, and all of the other major chain stores are present too.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the stunning scenery of the town square. Quaint cafés, like The Ritz, lush green spaces, and white buildings and cobblestone streets give Funchal a romantic glow. Praça do Município, the main square, the statue of João Gonçalves Zarco, and Sé Catedral do Funchal are not to be missed. I could spend a month just sitting at a café taking in Funchal’s beauty, writing a romance novel, and enjoying the atmosphere.
In the Old Town, the Rua de Santa Maria features a public art project that’s helping to revitalize the area. Known as Arte de Portas Abertas, it features more than 200 doors painted by local artists. It’s a feast for the eyes.
Alas, with only five hours in Funchal, by mid-afternoon, it was time to make our way back to the ship. I was sad to sail away from this fairy tale town, and dream of visiting Funchal again soon.