With its towering mountain peaks, lush forests, epic viewpoints, and numerous small sights, Madeira is absolutely made for a road trip. Here, we’ve put together two routes that include some of the most fun-to-drive roads.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need to follow a particular route to enjoy the island. If you’re in Madeira for a while, you can take point-to-point trips to key sights and make serendipitous discoveries along the way. However, these circular driving routes will help you see a lot in one day.
Both routes involve around 3 hours of driving (without stopping), but you need a full day to enjoy all the stops. The routes start in Funchal, but you can modify them if you’re based somewhere else.
By the way, we’ve included some fun details in these routes that aren’t mentioned on other blogs!
In this article…
Route 1: Western Madeira
This day trip will take you along the sunny south coast, via the expansive plateau of Paúl da Serra, to the north coast at Porto Moniz. You’ll drive back via the north coast and viewpoints at Boca da Encumeada.
We’re taking the scenic way! Check the embedded Google Maps to see the exact suggested route, which often deliberately avoids expressways or tunnels.
Câmara de Lobos
Head west from Funchal using the VR1 expressway, but get off pretty quickly at exit 7 for Santa Rita Ariero. Take a left and follow this road, passing by various banana plantations, until reaching the small harbour of Câmara de Lobos.
We’re still on the outskirts of Funchal here, but the small parish will make you feel like you’ve already left the city. Known for its fishing traditions, you’ll see some of the characteristic colourful fishing boats known as Xavelhas along the harbour. It’s a wonderful place to stretch your legs and grab a coffee or breakfast.
From here our driving route takes us to Cabo Girão, a viewpoint atop a 550m (1800ft) tall sea cliff.
If you’re not afraid of heights, you’ll surely enjoy the Cabo Girão Skywalk, a platform with transparent glass that lets you look directly down at the cliff face. It has the unique distinction of being “the highest cliff skywalk in Europe”. It costs €2 to enter.
It gets quite crowded here once tour vans or coaches arrive, since it’s on the typical Madeira tour routes, but the views are still worth jostling for a spot.
Fajã dos Padres
Next, head to Fajã dos Padres. Fajã is the name for a small flat area of land at the foot of tall cliffs, a geological feature that Madeira (as well as islands of the Azores) are known for.
The cable car that takes you to Fajã dos Padres is a bit of a hidden gem, especially compared to the much busier Cabo Girão. The 300-meter ride straight down is the only way to access the deserted stone beach and it’s quite a thrill!
It costs €12 for a return ticket (free for children up to 11 years).
Stroll through the arched path past the small banana and mango plantations. A small cafe/restaurant lets you enjoy a drink while admiring the peaceful ocean views. The food here doesn’t get the best reviews, but the setting is gorgeous and worth appreciating for a while.
Ponta do Sol
Before getting to Ponta do Sol, you can stop by the Banana Museum of Madeira, one of the best small museums in the island. It includes insights into banana cultivation with 3D displays and the possibility to explore a plantation.
The picturesque village of Ponta do Sol (Cape of the Sun) is so named because it has some of the most sun exposure on the island, with even the surrounding mountains struggling to cast a shade. Bananas grow incredibly well here, so you’ll see quite a few orchards on the terraced hills.
If you can’t find a place to park, try the old unused tunnel near the seafront, which has been turned into a kind of parking garage.
Ponta do Sol has a pleasant mini beach boulevard and a pebble beach protected by a pier, making it a good swimming spot for kids (and adults too). A little stone bridge leads to a rocky pier from where you can take photos.
This is again a great spot to grab coffee or food, but if you’ve already done so by now, you can also choose to tackle Ponta do Sol on your return (near the end of this driving route) to enjoy the ocean view with a sunset glow.
Worth a detour is the Anjos Waterfall, which splashes straight onto the old ER101 road, thus having become a bit of an Instagram hotspot. You can enjoy the natural car wash and/or stage some photos here before heading on.
Paúl da Serra
Following ER209, this section involves about an hour of continuous driving along some really fun-to-drive rural roads.
If you are already accustomed to Madeira’s crazy spaghetti soup of mountain roads, then what awaits you at Paúl da Serra may surprise you. The straight-as-a-line roads at the plateau of Paúl da Serra are unique in Madeira, with no other part boasting such flat land.
The windswept nature area features mostly grasslands with patches of shrubs and purple heathers. Some areas allow cows to roam freely, so be sure to watch for any stray cattle.
With an average elevation of 1500 metres, Paúl da Serra offers some sublime views of the island. You can type miradouro into your maps app (or look for the signs) to catch a few along the way.
You have two options for driving to Porto Moniz:
- Option A: Take the ER110, a nice drive over the mountain rim, with the possibility of stopping for a hike, such as the PR6.1 to Levada do Risco or the PR6 Levada das 25 Fontes.
- Option B: Take the ER209, a lovely drive that lets you stop at Fanal, a forest known for its mistiness and gnarly Laurel trees, giving it a fairytale-like atmosphere. Seeing this does not involve a hike but is an open space you can just walk around.
Option B is what we’ve shown in the Google Maps route.
Porto Moniz is a small coastal village known mainly for its natural pools formed by volcanic rocks. Here you can swim in the sea water while being pleasantly shielded from the crushing waves.
The village has a few small other attractions, such as the Madeira Aquarium. There are also many good fish restaurants where you can stop for lunch.
From Porto Moniz, you can drive the spectacular coastal route via Seixal to São Vicente. This is one of the most tunnelled routes in Madeira; the 19 km stretch of road originally took 16 years to construct.
You’ll be driving past dramatic cliff faces and getting stunning ocean views whenever emerging from a tunnel. Occasionally you’ll see the remnants of the old ER101 road, which snaked its way along the cliff edges but is now abandoned and strewn with fallen rocks.
Boca de Encumeada
For the final section, we’ll drive accross this 1000m+ central peak. Be sure to follow road ER228 and not the newer VE4, which enters a tunnel that skips past all the good stuff. By taking the old road, you’ll pass at least half a dozen epic miradouros (viewing points).
At the end, you’ll get back on the main road VE4. From here it takes about 25 minutes to reach Funchal.
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Route 2: Eastern Madeira
This driving route will take you through some of the most mountainous and dramatic landscapes in Madeira. It’s best to have a full day to enjoy this route at a relaxed pace.
This route focuses on small mountain roads featuring many incredible viewpoints. Along the way, you can also stop at a trout farm, vineyard, and rum distillery.
Leave Funchal northbound via ER103. If you haven’t done so already, you can stop by Monte, a parish known for its stunning botanical garden, as well as the practice of sliding down the road on a toboggan (a somewhat pricey but fun tourist activity).
Continue onward to Miradouro do Terreiro da Luta, a viewing deck with a wonderful angle on the forests and Funchal below. There is a chapel and a small bar with a talking parrot.
Pico do Ariero
After about 3 km, take a left turn, to take a side trip to one of the highest points of the island, Pico do Ariero. You’ll pass by an ecological park and the astronomical observatory. Among the mostly rocky volcanic expanse, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most sweeping views of the island.
There is a parking lot and cafeteria very close to the peak, so you do not have to do any hiking to see the Pico do Ariero. You’ll see a lot of walkers here though, as it is the starting point for the hike to Pico Ruivo, the island’s highest point which you’ll be able to see in the distance.
Head back the same way and take a left on the ER103 in the direction of Ribeiro Frio.
This tiny village is located in a lush green area that’s bursting with ferns and mossy paths. It’s a popular starting point for several levada walks.
You can take a look around at the Ribeiro Frio trout farm, which has several hatcheries and aquaculture basins. You also have the opportunity to eat some phenomenally fresh trout in the adjacent restaurant.
Santana & the north coast
Our drive continues past many miradouros (viewing points) and across an old stone bridge to reach the northern VE1 road. Here you can take a left and drive to the village of Santana.
Now, we must be honest: Santana is a bit of a tourist trap.
It’s known for having several well-preserved examples of traditional A-frame thatched-roof houses that were once common on the island. Based on how often pictures of these are used to promote Madeira, you’d think the whole island is full of them, but honestly only a few survive.
Santana is definitely on the tourist coach bus trail with large groups often stopping for overpriced food at the roadside restaurants. But we still rate it as ‘worth a look’ if you’re passing through here.
If you crave a little more authenticity, you can continue to São Jorge or the next over village called Arco de São Jorge, which has a small wine museum and some stunning views of the wild northern coast.
We now suggest turning back and driving eastward via Porto da Cruz, where you can stop by a historical rum distillery. Then take the ER108 and then the ER102 via Camacha. The small rural road here is very snakey and scenic.
On your way back to Funchal, you can stop by the Palheiro Gardens. These beautiful botanical gardens are less well-known than those at Monte and it’s where you can truly have the place to yourself.