Madeira is a popular destination for nature lovers The best spots cannot be reached on foot or by public transport so the only viable option is to drive yourself. In this article, we tell what is driving in Madeira like. Read what you should know before hitting on the wheel in Madeira.
Covered in the Article
- Madeira - Best Seen by Car
- Driving in Madeira - Practical Information
- Driving in Funchal
- Advice for Safe and Smooth Driving in Madeira
- The Best Driving Routes in Madeira
- Driving Around Madeira
- Bottom Line
Madeira - Best Seen by Car
Madeira is a flourishing island in the Atlantic Ocean located north of the famous Canary Islands. Though Madeira Island is geographically on the African tectonic plate, this archipelago is politically and economically European.
Madeira belongs to Portugal and it can easily be reached by air, for example with TAP Portugal. Thus, to the EU. The island has a mild climate and fascinating volcanic nature that makes travellers speechless. If you visit the Madeira Islands for the first time, we guess you will consider coming back as Finnoy Travel did. The island has a wide range of public transport routes but you can see more of the island by driving yourself. This won't only save time in moving from point A to B but driving a car also becomes cheaper in terms of transportation expenses while exploring the island of Madeira.
Arriving on the island with your car is possible but it can also be a quite complicated way to reach Madeira. There are ferry connections from mainland Portugal Madeira but taking your car through this route will take some of your valuable time and will cause additional costs. For a seasonal traveller, flying to Madeira Airport and hiring a car is a better option.
Requirements for Driving in Madeira
Obviously, you need a driver's license to drive in Madeira. A license from any EU country is accepted. For driving licenses issued outside the EU, they must be supplemented with an international driving permit to be able to drive legally. The traffic is right-handed so the driving direction is familiar for most travellers coming from Europe.
You must be at least 18 years old to drive legally but in practice, most car hire companies require the driver to be a few years older. The exact requirements vary from one car hire company to another.
Driving in Madeira - Practical Information
Driving during a holiday in Madeira is similar to driving in Spain. We list the most important things you need to know before hitting on the wheels.
Hiring a Car
You need to hire a car. We recommend hiring a car for the whole holiday because the island is big and offers much to see. The easiest way is to hire a car straight from the airport and return it to the same place. Some of the car hire companies are inside the airport terminal but the cheaper ones will fetch you on your arrival from the airport terminal with a shuttle bus to their office nearby. This will take 30 minutes of your time but saves some of your budget especially if you intend to hire a car for many days.
The traffic rules in Madeira are pretty usual. We list the most important things to understand.
- A driver's minimum age is 18 years old.
- The maximum speed limit for drivers who have held a driver's license for less than 12 months is 90 km/h.
- Seat belts are mandatory. A responsible driver is aware that seat belts save lives.
- The permitted blood alcohol level is 0.05%. A basic safety rule is that while driving, no alcohol intake.
- Anybody under the influence of alcohol, is not permitted to sit in the front seat.
- Children under 12 years or with less than 1.35 meters in height can be ridden only in special child seats.
- Children under 12 years are not permitted on the front seats.
- You drive on the right side and overtake from the left.
- All vehicles must use dipped beam headlights in poor visibility or when driving through a tunnel.
- It is unlawful to use mobile phones without a hands-free system while driving.
- GPS devices showing the locations of fixed-speed cameras are not permitted in Madeira.
Traffic culture in Madeira is friendly. The majority of drivers are travellers visiting the island who drive carefully and follow the traffic rules well. Local drivers are more experienced and may drive faster, but also they are friendly and follow the rules. We have never been worried about the other drivers in Madeira.
We advise that you give way to local drivers when you see them driving faster than yourself. Especially in the mountains, it is a good idea to stop if there is a faster car coming behind you. In the Madeira mountains, there are plenty of places to stop even every 5 minutes and there are usually also good viewpoints (Miradouro in Portuguese). Do not increase your speed unnecessarily even though you might feel pressure from the other drivers.
Madeira has a new road infrastructure covering about 2/3 of the island. There is also a wide highway network circulating the island. Speed limits vary from 70 to 90 km/h on the highways. According to our experiences, highways are the easiest way to move from one place to another. Traffic is busy but it flows smoothly.
Even though you can drive faster on highways, travel distances between places are often long. The highways follow the coastline with a few exceptions so driving from the south to the north requires a lot of extra driving. In Madeira, you will encounter countless downhills, uphills and many tunnels. To keep your speed steady, you need an efficient car. We recommend choosing a highway route instead of passing mountains.
To certain sights, the only option is to drive up to the mountains. Distances in the mountains may look short at a glimpse but there are lots of steep roads up and downhills with tight curves, which make driving slower. The roads in the mountains are also narrow so you can't drive faster than 40 km/h, sometimes only 20 km/h. Most mountain roads have good surfaces, but if you choose the wrong road, the surface may be awful. Hence, careful route planning is vital while driving in Madeira.
We advise relying on Google Maps but avoiding the smallest roads is still a wise choice.
Madeira Island is famed for its extremely picturesque mountains. On the other hand, mountain driving is the most dangerous part of driving in Madeira. The uphills can be too steep, even 25% and a lot of super curvy roads. It takes a few hours to get used to driving on the mountain roads in Madeira. In some parts of the island, the roads are also extremely narrow. It is not a problem as long as there are no other cars but you need to slow down or even reverse when opposite traffic is coming. There are not many places for sudden drops and usually, those places have fences installed.
To make mountain driving easier, we recommend hiring a small car. They are simpler to drive on narrow and steep roads. A drawback is that the small cars have also smaller engines which makes driving uphill slow. Even gear number 2 may be too high for uphills. It is important to keep the speed at a moderate level when coming down. There is a risk of overheating the brakes. Use engine braking and stop now and then to let the brakes cool down. If the brakes start smelling, it is time to stop immediately. This is important to remember as the car hire companies' offices can be far from your location in case of total car malfunctioning. Having a small car, driving at a low speed and having good route planning are the keys to relaxing and smooth mountain driving.
In the mountains, the scenery varies a lot. Also, the weather can change quickly. The sunshine may change in a few minutes to a thunderstorm with heavy rain and hail. When the road gets covered by ice, do not drive until it has melted.
Surely, parking is one of the challenges when driving a car in Madeira. In the mountains and small villages, you will easily find a parking spot. However, around the hotel areas in Funchal, finding a parking place can be a nightmare. One traffic rule to remember: You must park in the same direction of traffic. Parking facing oncoming traffic is illegal.
In the Funchal area, there are international traffic signs describing the parking rules. Everyone who has a driver's license will understand the signs easily. But according to our experience, drivers are not following the parking rules well. Cars are parked everywhere and parking tickets are not always obtained.
The most difficult thing is to find a parking place near your hotel. Hotels' parking areas are usually full. If you are lucky to find a free place near the hotel, driving the car to that place is probably more difficult than you are used to. Without parking sensors and cameras, you need someone to help check the surroundings. During our second visit, we stayed at Hotel Dorisol Mimosa whose own parking hall is located in a basement with very big poles around making parking difficult and every parking spot is optimized to the maximum. As a result, it is easy to spot much damage around, cars hitting the poles and walls. Without someone to help the driver check the outside surroundings, you may easily cause damage to your hire car or others' cars or the surroundings. A helpful tip to increase your chance of securing a parking spot in your hotel area is to arrive at the hotel early in the evening before the others.
The risk of causing a scratch to your hire car is high as oftentimes, there are tight parking spaces of hotels in Madeira so for this reason, it is better to have insurance without excess. Issuance of parking fines is not intense. At least we haven't seen parking inspectors doing their job actively. If there were more fines issued, people would park more carefully.
In nature spots, parking is simpler. Sometimes, there are free designated parking areas, but quite often, you just park the car anywhere where it does not disturb the traffic. It is uncommon to see parking signs on the mountains.
Driving in Madeira is relatively safe. As long as you drive carefully, follow traffic rules and keep the speed low enough, driving does not impose high risks. In the mountains, there is not much traffic and you can drive for a long time without seeing any other car. It is still important to keep alert and maintain a low driving speed. Obstacles, like animals, can appear along the way anytime.
Driving in Funchal
Funchal is the biggest city and the capital of Madeira. There is traffic congestion every day and we do not recommend taking a car to Funchal. Driving in the centre of Funchal is slow and finding a parking spot is difficult. On the other hand, road signs are clear, there are well-working roundabouts and many traffic lights to make driving easier. Still, we recommend roaming Funchal preferably on foot and using a car only to reach distant destinations on the island.
Advice for Safe and Smooth Driving in Madeira
We list the most important advice on how to drive safely and how to ensure a smooth driving experience in Madeira:
- Hire a small car, especially, if you plan to head to the mountains. Compare hire cars on Discover Cars. Remember to buy full insurance to avoid the high costs of scratches and other possible damages.
- Plan your driving routes wisely. We highly recommend driving on highways.
- While driving in the mountains, keep the speed low. There is poor visibility an also animals may appear on the roads by surprise. Be careful of the blind curves.
- Pack warm clothes in your car in case of stormy cold weather.
- Drive back from the mountains before the sun sets and you will find a parking place near your hotel.
The Best Driving Routes in Madeira
We list a few scenic routes in Madeira starting from the Funchal area.
Nuns Valley via Restaurant Poiso
From Funchal, there is a nice sightseeing route up to the mountains. The road is quite simple to drive offering nice scenery on a sunny day. It takes only 30 minutes to reach a nice mountain restaurant Poiso which serves local food.
From Poiso, we recommend continuing to Miradouro do Paredão which offers a perfect view down to Nuns Valley. This road is more difficult than the other roads in Madeira and it also closes before sunset. The road is narrow but a low speed is a solution. You can drive in the middle of the road the majority of the time because oftentimes, there are not many other cars on this route.
If you are not in a hurry to reach the Valley of Nuns, visit also Miradouro Eira do Serrado which is only a few minutes away. It gives another view of the beautiful Valley of Nuns.
The rest of the journey down to the Nun's Valley takes only 12 minutes and the last miles are easy to drive. A long tunnel brings you to the destination.
Pico de Arieiro
Pico de Arieiro is the second-highest peak in Madeira. We recommend driving from Funchal to the mountains to Pico de Arieiro when the sky is clear. It is wise to confirm the weather forecast before departing because the weather may change fast. We have never reached this peak before clouds have covered it. It is also cold up there so take warm clothes with you.
The roads from Funchal are in good condition but driving uphill is slow. The route is easy enough to be a first mountain driving experience. Be careful with the clutch as you need to do a few hill starts. Also, this route passes Restaurant Poiso.
On the peak, a nice cafe rewards the driver and passengers with tasty coffee and cakes. And if you like the view, you can continue by car to another peak - Achada do Teixeira - and easily hike to Pico Ruivo which is the tallest peak in Madeira. Pico Ruivo can also be hiked from Pico de Arieiro but the hike route is much more challenging.
Highway to Ponta de São Lourenço
If you do not like mountain driving, the route from Funchal to Ponta de São Lourenço is a perfect choice. By driving 45 minutes on the highway via multiple tunnels, you will reach the eastern part of the island. The traffic on the highway is busy but driving is still simple. The road goes below the runway of Madeira Airport. At the destination, you will find a lot of parking spaces and scenic walking routes.
Western and Middle Parts of Madeira
Madeira is a large island. People who stay at Funchal tend to visit the nearby areas. We recommend driving also to the west. The scenery is flatter but because the altitude is also lower, nature is greener.
From Funchal, join the highway VE3 heading to Ponta do Sol. This road is easy to drive and its route follows the coastline. From Google Maps, you can find nice sightseeing spots. For example, there are many cliffs offering perfect views of the sea.
Dirty cars can be "washed" free of charge in Madeira. This unique waterfall is located at Cascata dos Anjos.
Driving Around Madeira
Madeira may be small, but exploring its attractions by car requires more than a day. Although the distances are short, driving outside the highways can be slow. To fully experience Madeira, we suggest allocating 5 days to visit different parts of the island each day. Trying to cram too many destinations into a single day will leave you driving all day long. However, if your goal is to travel from point A to B, the highways and coastal tunnels allow for faster driving speeds.
- Are roads in good condition in Madeira?
- Yes. The highways in Madeira are in excellent condition. Mountain roads have typically good surfaces but they are narrow.
- Should I drive on the highways or via the mountains?
- Driving on the highways is faster and simpler. However, by driving In the mountains, you will see more panoramic views.
- What are the speed limits in Madeira?
- On the highways, the limit varies between 70 and 90 km/h. In the mountains, you can barely drive faster than 40 or 50 km/h.
- Should I hire a big or small car in Madeira?
- A small car is much more practical for parking and mountain driving. The only con is that it has also a smaller engine.
- Is hiring a car in Madeira expensive?
- It is not if you book a car early enough. We recommend comparing prices on the Internet.
- Where to hire a car in Madeira?
- We recommend comparing hire cars on Discover Cars.
- What should I know about mountain driving?
- Drive slowly and prepare so that obstacles can appear surprisingly. Avoid overusing brakes and not overheating them.
- Is there a wide availability of parking places in Funchal?
- No, there is not. And those few places get occupied fast.
Perhaps many travellers wonder how they can drive during a holiday in Madeira for the first time. As a first-time visitor, you might be worried that the traffic culture is difficult and the roads are in bad condition. Luckily, the reality is much better.
Madeira has a good highway network with many tunnels. The roads are in pretty good condition and local drivers adhere to traffic rules very well. Driving around the coastline is as simple as in any city.
Getting into mountains is a little more challenging. Luckily, the traffic in the mountains is peaceful and the majority of the roads are in decent condition. By keeping the speed low, driving in the mountains is not difficult.
Have you driven in Madeira? Tell us your driving tips!
About the Author
Ceasar, an immigrant in Finland, co-founded Finnoy Travel out of his passion for exploring new horizons. His content primarily centres around immigration, travel, and life in Finland. An avid road tripper, Ceasar also shares insider tips on car driving abroad.
When not embarking on adventures, he meticulously proofreads every article before it gets published on the Finnoy Travel site. His responsibilities also extend to managing the social media channels of Finnoy Travel.