Painted Doors in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal

Funchal is more than its beautiful, expansive botanical gardens. There are many things to see, do and eat in Funchal. It’s also a city that has a great vibe in its narrow streets, lined with lovely restaurants and shops; it also has a number of fascinating and curious establishments of ambiguous purpose. I love it because it has wonderful cafés and pastelerías, and a large central market frequented by locals and tourists alike.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
The apartments in Funchal all have lots of plants hanging off their facades

Fort of St. Jose

We are still not entirely sure what the ancient fort of St. Jose is. When we climbed up the stairs to enter the dark room that looked as if it were a hole bored into the bedrock of the island fort, we were greeted by a man claiming to be the prince of Pontinha – the tiny island we were standing on.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
The way up to fort St. Jose

At first we thought it was a joke, but a google search pulled up this Guardian article that shows the man’s claims are completely legit. There’s nothing much to see here and yet it is a must see. Mainly because the claims seem crazy and bold, and also because it’s really weird. There’s all sorts of funny knick knacks strewn all over the place, but my favourites are the ones with smart witticisms about life and the afterlife.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
The cat and the mouse – installation art at Fort St. Jose

Design Centre Nini Andrade

If you are looking for respite from the heat and the crowds, the Design Centre Nini Andrade is a refuge. It caught our eye when we first took the bus into town. There’s no missing it, an imposing island-building on the harbour topped by a minimalist structure on an artificial outcrop.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
The Nini Andrade Design Centre

It doesn’t look too inviting from the outside, but once inside, its interior is the absolute opposite. Charming, welcoming and calming, its design reflects the design philosophy of its creator, the architect Nini Andrade.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
View of the Atlantic from the Nini Andrade Design Centre

There’s a lovely little bar and restaurant you can get to by way of a secret elevator hidden in the rock the building is constructed on. Once you’re up there, it feels like another world. In fact, I felt like I was on a private cruise ship, sailing across the Atlantic ocean.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
A bird, a boat and the great big ocean

Painted Doors in Funchal

While you’re in Funchal, you should take your time to walk down the Rua de Santa Maria. Its known for the graffiti on its doors and walls. They are beautiful, quirky, inspiring and thought provoking.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
The colourful painted doors and windows of Funchal

There’s lots of bars and restaurants on this street, and during the day, you’ll probably have to fight your way through boatloads of tourists from the cruise ships. I think seeing the art under these circumstances aren’t the best, so try and come early in the morning or later in the evening when the streets are clear.

There are also a few art galleries that sell all sorts of handmade souvenirs that are worth a look. The gifts you’ll find on this street are anything but tacky, they are mostly handmade and rather beautiful.

Mercado dos Lavradores

In the heart of Funchal’s old town is the “Mercado dos Lavradores”. It’s a riot of sights, sounds and aromas, and a whiff of age old tradition. To enter, you first have to walk past some very enticing cafés, with their displays of delicious Madeiran pastries and strong aromas. If you manage not to get sidetracked into one of them, you’ll enter a colourful square lined with fruit and vegetable stalls on each side.

things to do and see in funchal
The Mercado dos Lavradores is a riot of colours and smells

I’m from South-East Asia, so I’ve seen my fair share of strange looking fruit and veg, but there were many I did not recognise in this market. Among the most interesting was the Monstera, which looks like a green ear of maize. To eat it, you run your fingers across the skin, which comes off in chunks, revealing the sweet, soft fruit underneath. There were also five or six different types of passion fruit, and several others I was more familiar with, like the guava and custard apple –  called anona in Portuguese.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
Fresh black scabbard sitting on ice

The true heart of the market however, is on the level below the fruit and vegetable floor. Here, fresh meat and fish are sold, and by lunchtime, most of the stalls have closed for the day – so make sure you get here early! As you can imagine, most tourists do not buy fresh fish or meat to cook in their hotel rooms, so the clientele here are mostly locals.

Tourist taking photographs of the fresh seafood on offer

I love eating seafood, and I love shopping for it as well. It was wonderful perusing all the fish they had on offer. The black scabbard is a staple of Madeira, and there was plenty of it in all the stalls. For me, it was a rather strange looking fish, with its long body – almost like an eel. I also found out later, at lunch, that it is a rather delicious fish too!

things to see and do in funchal
Dried chillies hanging from the awning of a shop

O Tasco

O Tasco is a lovely bistro tucked into the corner of a hill at the end of the main stretch of restaurants and bars along the Funchal’s shore. It’s a little bit away from the other restaurants and bars, yet still packed, so you know it’s going to be good.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
The entrance to O Tasco

The menu is simple, with an assortment of starters you can choose from and a selection of three different types of fish, all grilled to perfection. There’s meat on the menu, but we feel that Madeira is all about seafood, so we focused on that. We ordered the starter selection, which is a choice of their three most popular appetisers, grilled parrot fish and black scabbard. The starters are delicious and creative, combining traditional ingredients with modern cooking ideas; The grilled fish was absolutely perfect, fresh, sweet, and cooked wonderfully. The side dishes of beans and vegetables, although simple, complimented the mains really well.

Penha D’Águia

In any city or town we visit, there’s usually one place we will always keep coming back to – in Funchal, this place was Penha D’Águia. It’s a pastelería in the middle of town with a huge selection of amazing cakes and cookies, both traditional and modern.

things to do and see in funchal
The front of Penha d’Águia

My favourite cakes were the quijadas, which is a pastry that’s a cross between a cake and a cookie. My other favourite was the chocolate stuffed custard tarts. I think they’re supposed to be a twist on the traditional pastel de nata, but I’m not quite sure.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
The wide selection of pastries on offer

Although Funchal is a pretty small city, there’s a lot to see and do. Especially if you like gardens, art and the finer things in life, like food and wine! The people of Madeira have gotten their priorities in life straight, that’s for sure.

things to see, do and eat in funchal
A little family of boats

About The Author

Danijel is a professional travel and music photographer and video producer.

4 Comments

  1. Have been coming to madeira for over a dozen years now and your review was totally spot on.

    • Thanks a lot Peter 🙂 If you have any recommendations, do let us know, always up for more information, especially form a virtual insider 🙂

  2. Thanks . For a different take on touring the island try madeira trike tours( see their web site)they are based under cr7 hotel. It was a great experience.

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