This post presents the Portuquese city of Funchal, the capital of Madeira. We spent a day exploring Funchal sights, walking around and taking great photos.
Funchal has a beautiful setting, surrounded by mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. And the old historic centre is like from a fairytale: black and white Baroque houses and streets paved with round sea pebbles.
I also show the hotel in Funchal that has the best pool area and after dark we take part in one of the oldest Madeira traditions: Cantar os Reis, Singing of the Kings.
This is Funchal, Madeira seen from the Pico dos Barcelos lookout. Funchal is sheltered by mountains to the north, east and west. It all looks like a huge amphitheatre.
As you can tell from the picture, Funchal is not really small, it is the capital of Madeira and has half of the island’s 268.000 inhabitants.
We spent an after-Christmas week in Madeira, half of the time exploring Funchal sights and Funchal surroundings and the rest in the northern and western parts of the island.
– What is this hundreds of years old city like, founded in 1425, and what can you do in Funchal?
We left our car at the hotel and spent a day walking around in the city. Below you have the map of Funchal and on the map I have marked our walking route.
Exploring Funchal Sights: Map of Funchal
A good place where to start exploring Funchal sights is the Old Town and its fort in the east. From there we walked through the Old Town to the Farmers’ Market and along the harbour to our hotel pool spending a few hours there. Later in the afternoon we walked on to the historic centre of Funchal for more sightseeing.
So we began our Funchal walking tour in the Old Town and Forte de Sao Tiago.
Zona Velha (Old Town)
Forte de Sao Tiago
This yellow seafront fort, Forte de Sao Tiago was recently restored so it looks newer than it really is. It was built in 1614 to defend Funchal against attacks from the sea.
Today that kind of defence is no longer needed and the Forte de Sao Tiago has been transformed to a museum of contemporary art.
The fort is in the oldest area of Funchal where the poorest people of Madeira used to live. You can still tell that it is a run down area, the houses are aged and it’s not clean like elsewhere in the city. But we went there to see how the area is transforming.
The main street of Zona Velha is the narrow Rua de Santa Maria.
Rua de Santa Maria
Rua de Santa Maria is famous for its aged houses and painted house doors. Some years ago a public art project was taken in which several artists joined to prettify the street and get more tourists to the area. And it helped, the tourists found Rua de Santa Maria and its doors.
You can see examples of the doors here. And there are 200 more of them, decorating both sides of the street and other streets nearby. And as you can guess each door is individual.
The town houses too look individual. What about the house wall below? Like it or not? Zona Velha is an area of strong contrasts, the poverty that you can see and feel, the painted doors – and then all the seafood restaurants and pavement cafés where local fado is played at nights.
So Zona Velha is not only street art, it is a popular area of eating out in Funchal. The narrow lanes hide rows of restaurants serving fresh seafood. And locals and tourists flock in this area at nights.
At lunch time it’s much less crowded and you can easily find a seat at any Rua de Santa Maria eatery. An interesting area, and maybe so different from what you normally see as a tourist.
Some more street views before we leave the Zona Velha:
As you can tell on the photos the morning was cloudy so we decided to go indoors. So we headed to the Farmers’ Market, Mercado dos Lavradores.
Mercado dos Lavradores
Mercado dos Lavradores is the place where farmers from all over the island come to get their products sold. In addition to farming products other things like Madeiran flowers, baskets and craft are sold on the market.
These women were sitting outside at the mercado entrance. Their clothes were as colourful as the exotic flowers they were selling. So typical strong Madeiran colours.
It is nice indeed that flower sellers in Funchal still wear traditional clothes: striped woollen skirts and red waistcoats and cardigans. And black hats.
The Farmers’ Market itself is a lively meeting place of the locals that travel by bus from all parts of the island to meet their friends and get their fruits and vegetables. And these products, they really look good and fresh!
I tried to ask what these fruits are but the seller only told me they are frutos deliciosos, like the label already said. Later I found out what this delicious fruit is. It has a difficult name: split leaf philodendron.
Look how neatly all different sorts of fruit are piled!
In addition to the more common fruits Madeira produces such exotic fruits as pitanga, quince, pawpaw, loquat and of course guava, pomegranate and passion fruit.
I found a website that presents photos of the exotic Madeira fruits and explains them in a very illustrative manner. Fore more information on Madeira fruits see the Madeira Exotica website.
We came out from the Mercado and stopped to look at the women and the flowers, and the beautiful traditional azulejo tiling on the wall behind. This kind of ceramic tiles are very typical of Madeira and all Portugal.
And what happened then – the SUN came out! Madeira January weather varies and you never know if today is going to be a sunny day or not.
So when the sun came out we just had to rush to our hotel pool before the next clouds appeared. We took the straightest way to our hotel, through the port of Funchal.
Funchal harbour is big and busy and has lots of traffic and restaurants on the quayside. Huge ocean cruisers with thousands of passengers stop here for a day or two and there’s also a large marina for those that arrive with their own yachts.
Here you can see local men playing cards in a seafront park. We saw all over men playing cards and board games and they all looked so concentrated. But we – we wanted beach life.
Beach Life in Funchal
So we jumped in the turquoise waters. If you are a sun lover and visit Madeira try to choose a hotel close to where you are spending your days. So you can easily interrupt what you are doing and get those sunny moments.
Funchal has lots of small hotels and guesthouses in the city and many of them don’t have pools. There are hardly any public beaches or beaches at all since the Madeira shore is steep and rocky. This all means Funchal beach life is limited to hotel pools.
So we wanted our hotel to be at walking-distance from the city centre – and we wanted to have a good pool. Coming from a country that has snow in January you just want some sunshine and beach life on your holiday, even if your main interests are elsewhere.
So we checked in at Royal Savoy Hotel Madeira and got a room with splendid views and a huge balcony where each two of us could have our own peaceful corner.
We had a glass of wine and an easy afternoon. You can see how rocky the Madeira shoreline is. Royal Savoy Hotel is located on a small peninsula next to the harbour and you have the ocean on both sides – even if you can’t access it. Sometimes you can, depending on how rough the sea is.
Pools and a Garden
The Royal Savoy pool area is the biggest and best of all the hotel pools in Madeira. There are many different pools some of which are heated and an indoor pool.
The pool area was beautifully landscaped which we liked a lot and there were private corners between rocks.
So we used this beautiful hotel as our base for exploring Funchal sights and Funchal surroundings that I will tell later about in other posts. One more photo of our Funchal hotel pool:
The pool area also had a small garden with a pond, waterfall – and a small artificial levada!
I have to admit that we didn’t have time for levada walking in Madeira. We had a car and made road trips to all parts of the island which we thought would give us more.
But in this garden with a tiny levada I was dreaming about levada walking…
So the hotel was a good choice, the staff was wonderful and the service as good as it can be. And above all, the breakfast was rich and delicious. Recommend! If you got interested, here’s a link to the Royal Savoy website:
But of course we didn’t travel to Madeira for a hotel. We were there to see Madeira, so let’s go back to the city!
Parque de Santa Catarina
The landscaped park Parque de Santa Catarina is on a hill where you get good views to the bay and the harbour and the city beyond it.
In Parque de Santa Catarina we found a statue of Christopher Columbus. Why is Columbus here?
Yes, he lived in Madeira. He came to Madeira in 1478 to buy sugar and married the governor’s daughter. They lived in Porto Santo, a small island north of Madeira but Columbus had his office in Funchal.
However after a number of years Columbus wife died and he moved to Spain where he got his coming journeys financed.
So we entered the historic city centre. It was a normal Thursday afternoon.
Groups of children were walking to the playground, people were sitting in pavement cafés and relaxing on park benches, and taxi drivers were waiting for customers.
Most Funchal hotels are located in the hotel zone a long walk but a short taxi drive from the city.
So we walked along Funchal’s main avenue, the tree-lined Avenida Arriaga. Avenida Arriaga has a paved pedestrian area with benches and only limited access for cars. It’s the place in Funchal where locals stroll and spend their leisure time.
Avenida Arriaga is lined with black and white Baroque buildings like this Bank of Portugal Funchal office and the Palacio do Governo Regional next door to it.
Most of the buildings are centuries old but the Bank of Portugal building was built in 1940. But they sticked to the traditional style. It is imposing that they want to keep the old building style and colours. It makes the city look appealing.
This is a side street of Avenida Arriaga, Avenida Zarco. Like many other streets it is lined with jacaranda trees that make streets all blue and purple in the spring. If I’m ever going to return to Madeira I’d love to come in the spring to see the jacaranda flowers!
The Palacio do Governo Regional has a pretty patio and colourful tiling on the walls. This kind of tiling is very typical of Madeira.
But let’s look at the municipal park that is all filled with Christmas stuff.
Jardim de Sao Francisco
Jardim Sao Francisco is a leafy flower-filled park in Funchal historic centre. Could this be Funchal’s official Christmas park? Maybe, the decoration is so abundant.
The Madeirans have prepared all kinds of Christmas trees, small Christmas huts and a long Christmas train for Funchal children to play in.
The Cathedral (Sé) and Nativity Scene
And there is the Cathedral (Sé). You wouldn’t guess how old the cathedral is. It was built in the 15th century when the first settlers arrived in Madeira and it still looks the same, after 6 centuries.
Portugal is a Catholic country and the Catholics have their beautiful nativity scenes.
You can see them everywhere, in every village centre and on every square. This one in front of the Cathedral was one of the biggest I have ever seen. Real-sized camels, kings and holy family.
Funchal Squares and Building Style
As I already mentioned all houses in Funchal historic centre are built in the same style. Windows and doorways are framed with black stone which makes a strong contrast to the gleaming white walls. They use wrought-iron balconies and all roofs are red.
Many of these buildings are quintas, elegant mansions built by wealthy citizens. Most houses are built in Baroque style like this palace that contains a huge art collection, the Museu de Arte Sacra.
The Museu de Arte Sacra as built in 1600 by wealthy Madeiran sugar merchants that sold their sugar to the Flemish countries. At that time sugar was very valuable and they bought precious Flemish and religious art instead.
This is the patio of Camara Municipal, the town hall. The Camara Municipal is located on the biggest square of Funchal, Praca do Municipio.
The square, the patio and all streets in central Funchal are paved with carefully selected sea pebbles, all of the same size.
Grey, black and white stones are laid in mosaic patterns. Incredible, beautiful and so practical! Stones will last forever.
So when you walk in Funchal, look at the pavements, they are a work of art.
But we went back to Avenida Arriaga to look at the Christmas market where traditional habits and country life was demostrated and traditional bread baked.
And of course, there was again a nativity scene. Also a big one. Is all this built just for Christmas or is it here all year round?
All nativity scenes have the three kings. The Three Kings Day was to be on the next day and we were wondering if we would see any kings tonight.
We now headed to the municipal park again since it had got dark and all Christmas decoration had lights.
Jardim de Sao Francisco Christmas Lights
We walked around in the municipal park staring at the beautiful lights and noticed that for some reason more and more people were gathering in the park. Why did they all come here? Yes, they all came here to sing for the three kings.
Cantar os Reis
There was a scene and crowds of people, most of them Madeirans, sitting all around it. Pieces of some kind of cake were being laid on the table.
That was the Kings’ cake that each of us got a piece of, together with a little glass of wine. But before the cake there was going to be singing performances.
Cantar os Reis is a Madeiran tradition, one of the oldest and most popular traditions of the island.
On the evening of January 5 Madeirans in all villages go door to door and sing traditional songs that only belong to this occasion. This happens in all Portugal and most of all in Madeira and this means the end of Christmas.
These are the three kings Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar and of course they were present in their own party.
Cantar os Reis in a big thing in all Madeira and this was the biggest of them all. Groups from each village came to Funchal and sang their carols and at the end they all sang together.
We were happy to be able to participate in Cantar os Reis. Cantar os Reis and the Christmas season is only one of the many festivals Madeira offers round the year.
In the spring they have the carnival and the flower festival and in the autumn wine festivals, and much more, look at the photo. If any of these festivals take place at the time you’re visiting, join it and learn about life in Madeira.
But for us, no more festivals tonight. We had a late dinner and walked back to our hotel and enjoyed the magnific evening lights of Funchal, they have them everywhere.
Look at these lights outside the Cathedral Sé, in the trees of all the main avenues and in our hotel, both inside and out!
More on Madeira Travel
Check out my other post on Madeira:
For more information on Madeira check out the official website of Madeira Tourism: