Driving in Madeira: How difficult are the roads?


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On my first visit to Madeira, I had planned to explore the island of Madeira by self-driving. But then… I heard some concerning stories about the road conditions. Is driving on Madeira truly as scary as some say?

I had set my mind on renting a car for my entire Madeira trip for the most freedom and flexibility. But only days before my flight, someone told me that driving on Madeira is meant to be insane. 

Apparently: lots of twisty mountain roads, crazy inclines, and super narrow streets.

Surely it could not be that bad? I did a quick Google search, which landed me on several Madeira blogs with titles including ‘dangerous’, ‘super challenging’, and ‘scary’. Oh dear. 

GIFs of cars flying off cliffs were now looping through my mind.

Was driving in Madeira just a really bad idea?

Using public transport on Madeira

Not being sure about the situation, I tried using the bus network first. Sadly, in practice, the bus network is not so useful for tourists.

When looking at a map of the bus network (see PDF) it seems like you can reach pretty much anywhere on the island. Nice! There are four different bus companies, which is a bit confusing, but at least the network seemed pretty good.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll find only a few sightseeing spots are actually reachable by bus (such as the peninsula of São Lourenço). Most of the interesting sites are far away from any bus line, or buses go there only once or twice a day.

I quickly gave up trying to get around by bus. Despite a bit of trepidation, I realized that renting a car in Madeira is simply the best way to see the island, so I picked up a car in Funchal and set off.

Driving conditions on Madeira

Let me share my honest report on what driving is like in Madeira. Although there is some truth to the warnings, they do seem enormously exaggerated! In fact, I’m left scratching my head a bit at some of the anxious takes out there.

To be sure, Madeira is a volcanic island with very little flat land. Just take a look at a relief map and you’ll see it’s just a giant festival of peaks and valleys. Even the capital is built on hillsides with many sharp elevation changes.

Given this terrain, I was actually positively surprised by how easy to drive many of the roads are.

Around the capital, the driving conditions are the most straightforward, thanks to two-lane motorways that let you easily get around the southern parts of the island.

Elsewhere I had expected only twisty mountain roads, but in fact, there is an extraordinary number of tunnels all around the island, which serve as Madeira’s main traffic arteries. Getting from A to B often involves merely going through a long series of tunnels, punctuated by small roundabouts that connect to the local destinations.

So, for like 70% of the time, I found myself either on highways or going through straight-as-nails tunnels.

Easy peasy.

That said…

It’s true there are some pretty crazy roads in more remote locations. This includes small streets in mountain towns that can have some truly wondrous 20° inclines.

The old coastal roads around the island (from before all the new tunnels were made) are not used as much anymore, but some are still there for you to drive. They’re scenic but also narrow and beside steep cliffs. These old roads are great for an adventurous road trip (and they feature often in blogs about Madeira), but they are also not required if you just want to get to a specific destination.

If you’ve driven mountain roads anywhere else in Europe, you’ll basically know what to expect. If you are a less experienced driver, then you can choose to stick to the easier main roads.

One of the old coastal roads — often these are no longer accessible!

Renting a car on Madeira

I was glad I ultimately chose to book my own rental car.

I had an absolute blast driving around the island!

I loved discovering some of the hidden gems and going to hiking trails without needing to book a guided hike with a pick-up. It’s definitely the best way to explore the island.

When booking your rental car, I do recommend getting a car with at least a decent bit of horsepower. I normally get a mini to save money, but in Madeira I think a compact is a bit nicer, just so you can handle a steep road more easily.

While most roads are normal, Madeira is probably not a place where you’ll want to have 5 people crammed into a mini just to save some money.

It’s also a good idea to book your rental car ahead of time. I almost didn’t get one because I left it so late!

Compare Car Rentals

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Madeira driving tips

I should probably acknowledge that every driver is different.

I’m not the world’s greatest driver and twisty mountain roads are definitely not my specialty. I learned to drive while growing up in the Netherlands and, well… have you seen the Netherlands?

Still, I survived just fine.

Then again, I’m 38 and have done a fair bit of driving in various European travel destinations. Perhaps some of the more extreme warnings on other blogs have come from younger drivers or those not accustomed to driving on the right side or driving manual.

If you’re used to automatic, be sure to book well in advance as there is a limited stock of automatic rentals in Madeira.

In the west is an area where cattle roams free

The roads are generally the most ‘adventurous’ among the high peaks in the center of the island, followed by the roads in the north around Sao Jorge and Faial and a few bits in the far west.

If you want to have an easier time, take the new roads (basically any with the designation ‘VE’) and avoid the very old coastal roads (like the remnants of ER101).

Oh, and don’t let Google or Apple Maps lead you down some zigzaggy recalculated route that only shaves a few minutes off your travel time.

The map apps are very good for the main point-to-point routes but they have a habit of sending you down difficult little streets when you’re in remote villages. Sometimes it’s better to ignore the GPS and just follow the road signs.

The above photo shows the craziest incline I found during my two weeks. This was a side street deep inside a village, so not the typical situation when driving in Madeira.

Hopefully, I’ve given a balanced preview of what to expect. Madeira could be a bit more stressful if you haven’t had your license very long or you’re not the most confident driver. In such a case, you could consider booking tours on Madeira as a more convenient way to see the sights.

Otherwise, driving in Madeira is not as extreme as I’d been led to expect; in fact, having your own rental car is a glorious way to explore every corner of this amazing island.

Note: I wrote this post after my first visit to Madeira in 2021. I’ve rented cars in Madiera many more times since, but I’ve kept this post as-is to reflect my original experience with driving in Madeira.

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