Do you really need a car in Madeira?


Our blog is reader-supported, so no banner ads 🙌 Affiliate links may earn us a commission.

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 local tours.

You can check for available rental cars at Discover Cars.

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:

  • 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 of course, but that makes it much less useful for tourists.
  • It’s not an integrated network, but four separate ones run by different companies with their own systems, stops, and schedules, which makes it all very confusing.
  • 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.
The buses are not ideal for sightseeing

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.

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 things you can do by walking or using public transport from Funchal:

  • Funchal is ideally explored on foot and has enough to do for at least a day or two.
  • 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). Getting there by bus is quite slow, but it’s a direct connection and fairly easy to figure out.
  • You can also do a short hike in the mountain town of Curral das Freiras. The bus takes about 45 minutes from Funchal and goes direct.
  • You can reach several beaches fairly well by bus. Ponta do Sol and Praia Formosa are black rocky beaches; the nearest (artificial) yellow sandy beach is in Machico.

Using tours to see more

Finally, you can have a great time in Madeira by booking tours on sites like GetYourGuide or Viator. Many of them are affordably priced, with lots of half-day or day tours starting at around €30 per person.

Most tours include pickup in Funchal, letting you avoid taking taxis or buses at all.

You can focus on water activities such as whale- and dolphin watching or canyoning, or (our favourite!) you can do a jeep tour to go sightseeing all around the island.

The 4×4 jeep tours let you see Madeira in a totally different way

If you want to hike the epic Pico do Areiro (the island’s highest point), it’s best to book a shuttle service. There is no bus going there and taxis are around €70 which is… a lot. Using a transfer service is ideal even if you have a car, since this hike is not circular but point-to-point.

You can also find plenty of organized group hikes, such as to the 25 Fontes or Fanal, which normally you can only reach by car because no buses go there.

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.

However, we still say that the very best way to see Madeira is on your own four wheels! Ultimately, this will give you the complete flexibility to go anywhere at any time and make your own discoveries along the way. Our favourite times in Madeira have been when exploring by car.

If you’re up for some very fun road tripping, you can check for rental cars below. Given that there is a limited stock in such a small island, we do recommend booking well in advance.

Last Updated:

Recommended Tours