One of the most asked questions about Madeira is whether you need a car to explore it. The answer is yes and no. But honestly… mostly yes.
The gist of it is this: if you can afford renting a car for your stay, and you have a driver who is comfortable with driving on mountainous and/or rural European roads, then you will be doing yourself a huge favour by getting your own vehicle.
Many of the most interesting sights, hikes, viewing points, and villages are best reached by car. In many cases, they can only be reached this way.
It is still possible to experience Madeira by using public transport or taxis, but there will be some major limitations that we will explain here. Besides self-driving, the best option is to book some group tours.
How much can you do without a car? These are made-up numbers for illustrative purposes, but probably about 50% of the sights and hikes that typically get recommended are unreachable without a car. Another 30% or so are technically reachable by public transport and walking but it’s highly impractical to do so. Only about 20% or so of the typical ‘things to do’ you can cover easily by walking (in Funchal), taking short taxi rides, or using some of the few convenient bus connections. Using tours will increase your possibilities a lot.
Our attempts to not use a car
On our very first visit to Madeira, we ignored the advice to rent a car and tried to just do without. We saw a map of the bus network and concluded it surely wouldn’t be too difficult to do things using public transportation.
We went to the tourism information office in Funchal to get some more details. We asked how we could visit some of the sights (like the Cabo Girão viewpoint) and the response was some, well… not-so-subtle eye-rolling. The staff begrudgingly indulged our questions about public transport, giving us the sense that this is not ‘the way’ in Madeira.
We gave it a shot anyway. After two days, we gave up frustrated.
Although the bus network in Madeira looks good on paper, there are problems with using it as a tourist:
- Firstly, it’s not an integrated network, but four separate ones run by different companies with their own systems, stops, and schedules, which makes it very confusing.
- The buses go mainly to the main transport nodes for locals (e.g. the major towns) and not to the sights that are spread out around the island. The focus is on providing basic interurban service for locals, which is not unreasonable, but that makes it much less useful for tourists.
- Many of the routes have infrequent services and, above all, they are slooooow. As an example, a bus ride from Funchal to São Lourenço takes at least 90 minutes, while it can be done in about 35 minutes by car.
Renting a car
This is why, when asking on travel forums or chat groups about Madeira, all the locals just say “rent a car”. This is the advice we’re repeating as well. It’s just the easiest way to get around by far.
However, Madeira is extremely mountainous, so some of the roads can be challenging. And if you’re, say, American and unaccustomed to narrow European roads, or British and used to driving on the left, then driving in Madeira could be all the more intimidating.
It all depends on the individual driver and experience level, but some may find the roads just a bit too challenging, in which case tours will be your best option.
Read our other posts for more info:
- How difficult is the driving in Madeira?
- Renting a car in Madeira: everything you need to know
- Driving distances in Madeira
Madeira without a car
While not ideal, you can still plan a trip without using a rental car. Our advice in this case is not to search generally for “things to do in Madeira” as then you might be disappointed with what you can’t do. Instead, search specifically for things that will be accessible to you and then select from these.
Here are some ideas:
- Funchal is ideally explored on foot. You can spend a day or two in the capital.
- A cable car from central Funchal lets you easily reach Monte, home to botanical gardens and the famous toboggan rides (wicker basket cars that go downhill).
- You can hike in São Lourenco (the eastern headland). It’s quite slow to get there by bus, but it’s a direct connection and fairly easy to figure out.
- You can also hike around Curral das Freiras (a mountain town). The bus takes about 45 minutes from Funchal and goes direct.
- If you want to hike the epic Pico do Areiro (the highest point), you need to book a shuttle service. There is no bus going there and taxis are around €70 one-way which is… a lot. But this is one hike where a transfer service is ideal (even if you have a car), since this hike is not circular but point-to-point.
- You can reach several beaches fairly well by bus, including the ones at Ponta do Sol and Machico.
And finally, you can have a great time in Madeira by booking tours on sites like GetYourGuide or Viator. They’re not that expensive, with lots of half-day or day tours starting at around €30 per person.
Most tours include pickup in Funchal or nearby areas, so you avoid having to take taxis or buses at all.
While you obviously won’t have complete freedom on these tours, they will take away all of the frustration of using the very limited public transport system, or any of the anxiety some may feel about driving the mountainous Madeiran roads on their own.