Madeira is an unquestionably amazing place for hiking. This is thanks to its varied microclimates but also its dense network of small mountain aqueducts called levadas, which paved the way for unique trails all over the island.
During my two-week stay I went hiking in Madeira almost every day. Here I’ll share some tips for the different types of hikes on Madeira you won’t want to miss — and how to get there.
How to get to the trailheads
Most trails are honestly difficult to get to if you don’t have your own transportation. I tried using public buses in Madeira for a while, but this was very frustrating as they typically only go to urban centers, not the more remote locations where trails usually start.
For this reason, I don’t recommend relying solely on public transport. That said, at least one hike is fairly easy to reach; you can get to São Lourenço using Bus 113 (SAM) in Funchal, which takes about 90 minutes one way. There may be a few other public transport options if you get creative or you’re willing to walk a lot more, but typically the buses don’t stop anywhere near the trailheads.
It’s much better to rent a car in Madeira. While some remote roads can occasionally be challenging if you’re an inexperienced driver, the highways and tunnels are very easy to drive. Having your own car is the best way to explore the island and have complete freedom to go hiking anywhere. If you’re thinking of self-driving, do check out my guide to driving on Madeira to know what to expect.
If renting a car is not an option for you, there are still numerous tour agencies that can pick you up in Funchal and take you on a guided hiking tour.
One disadvantage is, well, having to pay for the tour. Then again, it saves you the trouble of having to drive, it can be more fun to hike in a group, and the guides can tell you interesting things about the island and its ecology. You can find some excellent hiking tours on GetYourGuide that you can book before or during your stay (but it’s always better to book ahead).
Top guided hikes in Madeira
Includes tour guide + pick-up
- Levada Walk in the Rabaçal Valley The most popular hike in Madeira to the ’25 waterfalls’ area
- Pico Arieiro to Pico Ruivo The most epic mountaintop experience… walk above the clouds!
- Caldeirao Verde Waterfalls Walk Another highly-rated levada walk in the center of the island
- Serra de Água Valley Walk A levada hike that’s a bit more off the beaten path
- Laurisilva: Walk with Local Mountain Guide Learn about the ancient laurel forests from a local expert
- Fanal Levada Walk Visit this magical forest that’s almost always shrouded in mist
Best hikes on Madeira
Due to being in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, Madeira has various microclimates resulting in highly varied landscapes.
The north side of the island is a lot greener and lusher, as clouds from the ocean get trapped here against the central mountain range. It’s fantastic hiking territory, but do bring a rain jacket just in case.
The south side of the island is a lot drier and sunnier, while in the northeast it’s completely open without any tree cover, which is in strong contrast to the wet forests elsewhere.
Furthermore, the north of the island is home to one of the largest surviving laurel forests, a type of primal forest that covered much of Southern Europe millions of years ago. These laurel forests show off a lot of endemic and rare plant life and trees and make for some particularly unique hiking environments.
Broadly speaking, there are four different types of environments for hiking on Madeira, each giving you a different experience:
The open headland
The northeast corner of Madeira features a long snarling peninsula leading up to a lighthouse at its most extreme point. The area is characterized by wide open space and gnarly seaside cliffs and many consider it one of the best hiking areas in Madeira.
The main trail starts at Ponta de São Lourenço. From there, it takes about an hour to reach the isolated cafe called Casa do Sardinha (Sardine House) surrounded by palm trees. Optionally, you can hike further from this point up to a gorgeous viewpoint called Miradouro Ponta do Furado which overlooks two uninhabited islets.
The eroded landscape and dramatic cliffs make for an extremely scenic environment. Since this area is quite exposed, it can sometimes be rainy or cloudy while other parts of the island are completely sunny, so check the weather before going.
I did this hike in the early morning which turned out to be a wonderful time for it, as the morning light was beautiful and the sun was not yet so hot.
The misty forests
The northwest area around Fanal is almost permanently shrouded in mist as trade winds push clouds against the central mountains. The gnarly trees shrouded in clouds make Fanal look like a spooky forest, while choruses of croaks from frogs living in the ponds create an even more of an enchanted feel. It’s incredible how completely different this is to the dry northern peninsula.
Several trails run through this area, but you can also easily park your car and wander randomly for a while, as there are various paths cross-crossing the open fields. Just check your map as in the thick fog you can get lost! Bring a coat and long trousers even in the summer as the temperatures drop considerably in this magical cloudy forest.
It is also possible to see Fanal as part of a guided walk.
The mountain peaks
The central peaks are utterly stunning and (unsurprisingly) feature in many drone shots and in tourist brochures of Madeira. The most commonly walked trail here is between Pico Ruivo and Pico do Arieiro. Pick a good day to do it when clouds do not obscure the views.
While this 10km trail is unfortunately point-to-point and not circular, there are tour services in Funchal that can deliver and pick you up at the trailheads at specific times. You can easily book a Pico do Arieiro guided walk at GetYourGuide, a platform that will connect you with local tour providers.
Some hikers try to catch the sunrise at Pico Ruivo, which will involve either sleeping there in a tent, or getting up very early. It’s legal to pitch a tent at Pico Ruivo with prior permission from the tourist office, but it’s recommended only in summer, as night temperatures can be thoroughly freezing even during this time of year. With Pico Transfers you can book a transfer to the campsite and back.
The twisty levadas
Finally, you shouldn’t leave Madeira without doing at least one levada hike!
What makes hiking in Madeira especially fun are these small aqueducts intersecting the island nearly everywhere. The levadas were constructed to bring excess rainfall from the north side to the much drier south. They were originally not exactly designed to be hiking paths, but many of them turned into them over time.
Since it’s a unique aspect of Madeira, it’s a great idea to hike at least one levada trail during your stay.
There are so many that it can be hard to choose, but there are several that are especially popular, like the Levada das 25 Fontes and the Levada do Caldeirão Verde. These can get a bit busy at times, but they are also fun and beautiful walks, with the opportunity to drink or eat at a cafe near the trailhead. The waterfalls also make for very scenic waypoints on these hikes.
A few of the levadas may be a bit challenging if you’re afraid of heights, as sometimes all that separates you from the cliffs is a thin metal rope. The trail descriptions on the official site will let you know what to expect. This is more of a concern with some of the less-walked lavadas.
My personal favorite is the less-known Levada do Moinho near the town of Ponta do Sol. You will need to drive into the village to these coordinates. Note that some of the streets in this town have extreme inclines; to avoid these you may want to park near the church and drive the same way back following your hike.
When I arrived at the trailhead, salsa music was playing over the speakers around town, making me feel like I had landed somewhere in Latin America. As I went into the valley, I could still hear the distant beats from behind the church tower. Eventually, the path reaches a gorgeous waterfall where you can stop for a picnic.
While I rested by the waterfall, I got incessantly harassed by a small lizard, who first tried to chew my headphones, then my fingers, and then finally ran off with the tomato in my sandwich. I guess the little fella was hungry.
On the way back on the Levada do Moinho you’ll have two choices: either go back the same way or, if you’re not so afraid of heights, take the higher trail on the way back. This also follows a levada but actually goes through a small tunnel, as well as looping behind a waterfall (so Indiana Jonesey!).
The higher trail goes past some cliffs which may give you a bit of vertigo if you’re sensitive, though it’s a fun adventure with some highly rewarding views — and my recommended ‘hidden gem’ of a hiking trail.
Tips for hiking independently
The official site of Madeira has done a good job listing all of the marked trails and their levels of difficulty. It’s worth reading the descriptions as they may contain warnings about the suitability of certain trails. Due to the narrow mountain paths (often running alongside the levada water channels), some trails are not recommended if you are very afraid of heights, or they could be a bit dangerous in bad weather.
Most hiking trails are rated easy though. You don’t need to be an experienced hiker to enjoy the wildly varied natural environments on the island.
The official trails are all very well signposted, but you may still find it useful to download an app to make it easier to know where you are. The Maps.me app has offline maps that include hiking trails. You can also download the WalkMe – Hiking On Madeira app which was created by locals and has detailed information and GPS tracking.
It’s also a good idea to get the WeatherMadeira app, which offers local weather forecasts and live webcams that are much better than general forecasts on Google and such. Due to the many mountains and microclimates, the weather can change very easily and can be highly localized, so it’s always a good idea to check this app even if the sun is shining in the location you’re staying.
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