48 Hours In: Funchal

Last month, Madeira suffered the worst flooding in living memory, but the capital of this pretty Portuguese island is ready to welcome visitors once again.

By Emma Gregg
Saturday 20 March 2010 01:00

Click here for the 48 Hours in... Funchal map

Travel esssentials

Why go now?

One month ago, Madeira's capital was pounded by catastrophic floods and landslides, which killed 42 people across the island. Much of the damage has now been cleared up. With its grand seafront promenade, black-and-white mosaic pavements, attractive historic buildings and old-fashioned shops and cafés, Funchal is back in business. The annual flower festival takes place 15-18 April.

Touch down

The main scheduled carrier to Funchal is easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), which has flights from Gatwick, Stansted and Bristol. TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) flies from Gatwick; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Manchester.

The airport is 10 miles east of Funchal. The Aerobus runs about every hour from the airport to the Lido area (or Hotel Zone) on the west side of Funchal, via the city centre, for a fare of €5 (free for arriving TAP Portugal passengers who show a boarding pass). A taxi to the city centre takes around 25 minutes and costs €26-€30 (more at weekends and 10pm-7am).

Get your bearings

Madeira is 550 miles south-west of Lisbon, but retains its Portuguese roots – as well as strong connections with Britain. The island's capital climbs steeply away from the harbourfront into the steep, ravine-scored hillsides dotted with villas that surround the city like an amphitheatre. Most places of interest are close to the stony Atlantic shore, where three rivers that carve through the centre meet the ocean.

The seafront promenade, the Avenida do Mar, is recovering well from its recent battering; its palm-shaded cafés and bolo do caco (flatbread) stalls are as lively as ever. For now, the view is marred by the earth and debris piled on the beach during the clean-up operation, but this may soon be used for a land reclamation project. Set back from the promenade is the old town, Zona Velha, a jumble of terracotta-roofed cottages that was also hit. The city centre, around the cathedral (1), was less affected by the deluge. The tourist office (2) is at Avenida Arriaga 16 (00 351 291 211902; madeiraislands.travel); open at 9am daily, closing at 3pm at weekends and 7pm on other days.

Check in

In the wake of the floods, Funchal's hotels have suffered a drop in bookings so you can expect some tempting discounts over the coming weeks.

Residencial Chafariz (3) is a few steps from the cathedral at Rua Estanco Velho 3-5 (00 351 291 232 260; chafariz.webs.com). This quiet guesthouse has basic but tidy doubles from €50, including a simple breakfast.

Madeira has the best selection of five-star hotels of all the Atlantic Islands. The grande dame is Reid's Palace (4) at Estrada Monumental 139 (00 351 291 717171; reidspalace.com; doubles from €234, including breakfast).

Nearby a modern alternative with equally stunning ocean views is the Pestana Carlton Madeira (5) on Largo António Nobre (00 351 291 239500; pestana.com) where doubles cost from €175, including breakfast.

Funchal's hippest new addition is The Vine (6) at Rua dos Aranhas 27A (00 351 291 009000; hotel thevine.com), with a rooftop pool and a vinotherapy spa; from €220 including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the Story Centre (7) (00 351 291 000770; storycentre.com; 10am to 6pm daily; €9.60), a lively museum of Madeiran history and culture. From here, Rua Santa Maria leads to the art deco market hall, Mercado dos Lavradores (8), on Rua Brigadeiro Oudinot, best on a Friday or Saturday morning when the displays of subtropical fruit, giant octopus and evil-looking espada (scabbard fish) are at their most impressive. Head west along Rua Fernão Ornelas and cross Funchal's central river to reach the attractive Cathedral quarter, much of which is pedestrianised, with ornate balconies overlooking cobbled lanes. The city's finest square is Praça do Municipio (9), north-east of the broad, jacaranda-lined Avenida Arriaga.

Window shopping

The island's signature drink, Madeira, is best appreciated at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge (10) at Avenida Arriaga 28 (00 351 291 740110; blandys.com). Tours take place on Saturdays at 11am (or 10.30am and 3.30pm from Monday to Friday); the price of €5 includes a tasting. A bottle of the popular five-year-old vintage costs €11. A traditional accompaniment is bolo de mel, chewy cake made with molasses. One of the oldest makers is Fabrica St Antonio (11) at Travessa do Forno 27 (00 351 291 220 255).

For hand-embroidered linen – one of several Madeiran traditions started by British expatriates – head for one of the stores in the Bordal chain (00 351 291 222965; bordal.pt); one branch can be found in the new Dolce Vita centre (12) on Rua Dr Brito Câmara.

Lunch on the run

At the stylish Café do Museu on Praça do Municipio (9), a main course costs under €7. More substantially, Gavião Novo (13) on Rua Santa Maria (00 351 291 229238) serves Madeiran favourites such as espada with banana, and espetada (beef kebabs with laurel and garlic); for €11 or less.

Cultural afternoon

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Madeira prospered by supplying sugar to Flemish traders, some of whom offered priceless religious paintings as part-payment. Many of these can be seen in the Museu de Arte Sacra adjacent to the Praça do Municipio (9) at Rua do Bispo 21 (00 351 291 228900). Open 10am to 12.30pm and 2.30 to 6pm daily except Monday; Sundays 10am to 1pm; admission €3.

Visit the trio of museums (each €2.50) north-west of the centre. The Casa-Museu Frederico de Freitas (14) at Calçada de Santa Clara 7 (00 351 291 220578; open 10am to 5.30pm Tuesday-Sunday) is one of the classiest small museums in Europe. It occupies a mansion where a family lived until 1988, and has been preserved in immaculate order since then.

Move on to the Convento de Santa Clara (15), also on Calçada Santa Clara (00 351 291 211000; open 10am to noon and 3pm to 5pm daily except Sunday), a working convent with a chapel lined with beautiful azulejo tiling. Its neighbour, the Quinta das Cruzes (16) on Calçada Pico (00 351 291 740670; 10am-12.30pm and 2-5.30pm daily except Monday), is an imposing 15th-century mansion with an impressive display of silverware from chalices to babies' rattles.

An aperitif

Sip a poncha (rum punch) or pre-prandial glass of Coral beer at Café do Teatro (17) on Avenida Arriaga, which has pavement tables and a courtyard.

Dine with the locals

A stylishly distressed interior with contemporary art on exposed-stone walls is the backdrop to Armazém do Sal (18) at Rua da Alfandega 135 (00 351 291 241 285; armazemdosal.com) which serves delicious tuna carpaccio and superb beef. Chic, minimalist Riso (19) at Rua Santa Maria 274 (00 351 291 280360), specialises in risottos. Main courses at either cost around €16 to 25. To splash out, book a table at Il Gallo d'Oro, the gourmet restaurant at The Cliff Bay (20) on Estrada Monumental (00 351 291 708750; portobay.com). Its executive chef, Benoit Sinthon, recently won Madeira its first Michelin star.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The cathedral (1) at the east end of Avenida Arriaga has an elaborate cedarwood ceiling inset with ivory, but it pales in comparison to the 17th-century Jesuit Igreja do Colégio on Praça do Municipio (9); 9am to 1pm and 6pm to 9pm on Sundays (Saturdays 4pm to 6pm, other days 3pm to 6pm). Its decoration is an amalgam of azulejo tiling, frescos, gilded altars and barley-twist columns. The early 19th-century neo-classical English Church (21) on Rua do Quebra Costas was designed by the British Consul to look secular, in deference to Catholic Portuguese law. It opens 8.45am to 2pm at weekends and 8.45am to 4.45pm on other days.

Out to brunch

The Golden Gate Café (22) stands in its 1841 finery on the principal crossroads at Avenida Arriaga 27 (00 352 291 234383), and claims to be one of the "corners of the world". The wicker chairs are the perfect spot for a bica (espresso), pastries and sandwiches.

Take a ride

The cable car between the Jardim do Almirante Reis (23) on the seafront and the wooded suburb of Monte provides a panoramic view over the city (9.30am to 6pm, €10 one-way, or €15 return). At the top, you will find the 18th-century Nossa Senhora da Conceição, which was destroyed a month ago. But you can still climb up to the twin-towered church of Nossa Senhora do Monte.

The Monte Palace Tropical Garden (00 351 291 784756; montepalace.com; open daily 9.30am to 6pm, admission €10) is home to colonial-era and contemporary sculptures. Return on a carro de cesto, a wickerwork sledge, steered downhill by a pair of white-flannelled drivers (€25 for two people).

A walk in the park

Back in town, saunter under the oleanders and date palms in the Jardim de São Francisco (24), filled with majestic trees from Africa and South America, or relax to the sound of the fountains in Santa Caterina park (25).

The icing on the cake

Afternoon tea on the terrace at Reid's Palace Hotel (4) – English style, but with the addition of miniature portions of bolo de mel – is a civilised affair that's open to non-residents from 3pm to 5.30pm (€28). Reserve in advance, and look smart.

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