As one of his favourite holiday destinations in the world, Winston Churchill called Madeira a ‘floating garden.’ But in the case of Funchal, the island’s capital, it could just as easily be classed as a living museum. That’s because the influence of the city’s emerging years in the 15th century still pervades today, especially in the Old Town and Monte, the neighbouring hilltop district.
Indeed, one of the most exciting and popular pastimes is to ride a wicker toboggan down the steep car-free roads that lead from Monte back into Funchal. But even if you’re not up for such thrilling activities, Funchal still has the ability to captivate your spirit. This is certainly the case in the large number of botanical gardens dotted around the city. Meticulously cultivated with exotic plants, serene pools and flowers of every colour, they’re a dreamy way to spend an afternoon in Funchal. Somehow, they seem to have held on to a primness unique to the English Victorian era, and it’s likely you’ll find yourself sipping tea at an ornate tearoom whilst admiring the genteel view.
A stroll into the centre of Funchal does much to heighten this general sense of peacefulness too. Pristine white townhouses lead you into secluded squares decorated with fountains and statues, whilst the beautiful churches and the Funchal Cathedral are not to be missed.
But perhaps one of the most noticeable aspects of Funchal is how is takes a unique approach to everything. For instance, Madeiran food and drink features delicacies that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, and you’ll get to sample these at the numerous traditional restaurants in Funchal. Even sunbathing has a distinctive approach here, as rock pools and the Lido area of several open-air swimming pools are a fantastic replacement for the usual bucket-and-spade beaches. Although in every eventuality, Funchal is a city where new experiences are made to feel familiar.
It’s likely that when you think of holidays in Funchal, you imagine rising green hillsides, overflowing with fragrant flowers of pink, purple and yellow. And it’s certainly true that Funchal and its hilltop neighbour Monte have lush landscaped gardens in abundance. However, what you may not know is that Funchal has just as much beauty to offer in its man-made attractions. Pristine white palaces and grand houses decorated with ornate teak woodwork converge around open squares and narrow cobbled streets. With such tradition on show, you’ll discover that the churches, cathedrals and museums here are as elegant and interesting as any you’ll find on mainland Europe.
But back to those botanical gardens. Funchal has been quite rightly famed for the astonishing attractiveness of its local landscape. The consistently comfortable climate allows plant life to thrive, resulting in no less than six gardens for you to explore in the nearby area. The most famous of these is the Palheiro Gardens, which somehow still retains the leafy Victorian style it had when it was first created in 1885. On your stroll around the gardens, you’ll see glassy green lily pools, trim hedges, firs, and a smattering of vibrantly coloured flowers. Perhaps yet more beautiful still are the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, nestled in the hills of Monte and best reached by cable car from Parque Almirante Reis. The Japanese Garden here is simply exquisite, where you’ll see glistening orange koi gliding gracefully by in serene pools, surrounded by cascading waterfalls, flowing fountains and sprouting bonsai trees. Its white triangular peaked palace houses yet more delights, with ancient oriental ceramics and African tribal sculptures and masks. Looking out from the palace, the orange-topped white houses of Funchal drift all the way down to the sea.
Returning to Funchal, one more garden we simply must mention is the Madeira Garden. The Madeira makes the most of its hilltop location with wide open spaces that look out upon the sea and the neat rows of white houses below. There’s a real artistry in the colour of the flowers on display, where flowerbeds are trimmed into patterns of searing bright reds and yellows.
But away from all of the greenery that Funchal is famous for, a venture into the atmospheric avenues of the town itself will leave you no less delighted. A dense network of white, yellow and pink pastel houses will lead you towards the Cathedral of Funchal. Built in 1514, the understated white and brown brickwork outside hides an interior of gleaming gold and incredibly colourful paintings. In fact, Funchal has a fine line in ornate 16th century churches, which are often far more elaborate inside than their exteriors suggest. Colegio Church, which presides over a pretty black and white tiled square, is another example of this trend. Its brilliant white walls and jet-black woodwork are a complete contrast to its shimmering altar of gold and decoratively painted walls.
The buildings in Funchal have a unique whitewashed style of their own, something that is continued at the Sao Lourenco Palace. This historic structure dates back to 1529 and has been the residence of countless captains and governors of the island. Today, it houses an interesting exhibition about the construction of the fortress and its rich history that is inextricably linked with the development of Madeira.
Whilst Funchal is literally overflowing with gardens and historic sites, conveniently, because Madeira is such a compact island you could still easily reach some fun family activities outside of the resort. For instance, the Santa Cruz Water Park is only 11 miles away, and it features nine different slides, two swimming pools and a lazy river, all set at the waterfront for stunning views of the Atlantic. Plus, for even more family fun the Santana Theme Park is just 20 miles away. This highly original site encompasses high adrenalin activities like bungee jumping and cable sliding with traditional craftwork shows and landscaped lakes and gardens.
Finally, for if you fancy a spot of golf, there’s nowhere more idyllic than Palheiro Golf Club, around six miles from Funchal. This course was only built in 1993, and the surrounding Atlantic Sea makes an impressive backdrop to the long, meandering fairways.