Funchal is the largest city in Madeira. It’s in the south, where most of the scarce ‘flatland’ of the island is located. The area of Funchal was chosen for the capital of Madeira because it is less steep than the rest of the island. It is still, however, very hilly ground, and getting around requires a lot of going up and down.
There’s quite a number of things to do in Funchal. An absolute must do is the Funchal cable car, which takes you up to the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. The gardens are very beautiful, and boast many plants from all over the world. The Portuguese love their gardens, as we’ve seen in Sintra and in Lisbon, and its no different here.
Teleferico do Funchal
To get to the gardens, you can take the Teleferico do Funchal, the cable car that leads you from the city centre to the entrance of the gardens. If you’re not afraid of heights, this is the best way to get there.
It’s the longest cable car ride I’ve ever been on – roughly about 15 minutes, and it’s pretty exciting: I enjoyed seeing the entire city recede under me as we approached the steep mountainside the gardens are grown on.
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
In the gardens, there are plants represented from every continent of the earth, with a particular focus on Asia, South America and Africa. The landscaping is inspired by the style of the neo-manueline era, and also by Orientalism – there’s a rather lovely, and large, Chinese garden here with many tasteful eastern motifs.
There’s a great cafe right outside the cable car exit which I highly recommend. It’s got excellent cakes, sandwiches and fruit juices – and it also has a great vibe. Not bad for a cafe located in a very touristy area! From their terrace, you’ve got a great view of the gardens below and glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean stretching out before you.
Right outside the cafe, you’ll see a rather remarkable tree – an olive tree with a large granite rock wedged within its split trunk. This tree is a thousand years old, which is pretty mind blowing when you think about it. There aren’t that many living things that old!
There are two museums in the gardens – one with African art on exhibit, another with lots of rocks and precious minerals on display. Both are really worth visiting, and entrance comes included with the price of your ticket. When we were there, the art on show was sculpture from Zimbabwe, and we loved it. It is how art should be (at least in our opinion). Beautiful and inspiring, not plagued by cynicism.
The mineral displays in the mineral museum are a must see for anyone who has ever been fascinated by rocks and minerals as a kid – and who hasn’t? It was fascinating looking at the large pieces of rocks on display that had been cracked open to reveal the precious, shiny deposits within.
The garden itself has a couple of lovely bronze pieces of sculpture. Again, we thought as art, they were absolutely wonderful – joyful and unpretentious, beauty for beauty’s sake.
My favorite section of the gardens was the orchid walk. It’s about a hundred meters of pathway lined with absolutely stunning orchids from all the world over. I’d never seen so many big and beautiful orchids as I did here. They were growing just about everywhere we looked. If you’ve tried to grow orchids before, you’d know how difficult they are to cultivate – I certainly have a strong appreciation for the gardeners that work here.
It was really lovely walking around the gardens, exploring all the winding paths that feed in back on themselves and branch out only to rejoin again further up or down the hill. I loved the blossom covered streets and the overhanging canopies that shaded the walkways, the tasteful pavilions and the flower and plant arrangements that dotted the gardens.
Santa Catarina Park
Right across the Cristiano Ronaldo hotel is the Santa Catarina Park, a lovely large park overlooking the Funchal bay. It’s not as large as the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens of course, but it is easily accessible and free. It’s a great place to visit when you’ve some time to kill, or you simply want to get out of the crowds in the streets.
There are many trees and flowering shrubs from all over the world – you’ll notice many similar plants to the ones in the Tropical Garden. There are also a few small aviaries, although I thought the birds in them were a little bit sad. But then again, a caged bird is always a sad thing to see, I suppose.
There’s a private part to the garden which looks like the grounds of some municipal building. You’ll have to pay the dollar entrance ticket fee to get in here, but it is well worth it. It’s small, but really lovely and well maintained. Also, because of the entrance fee, there’s almost no one in it, so you get it all to yourself.
Along with the huge variety of plants, you’ll also see plenty of beautiful birds and insects hiding among the vegetation. Most of the birds aren’t too afraid of humans, so you can get quite close without them startling and taking flight.
Funchal is a city that is both surrounded and filled with nature. The people of Madeira, and those that visit the island can’t seem to get enough of its natural beauty. Even though Madeira’s lush forests are only a few minutes away from the city, Funchal has nevertheless been designed with the intention of bringing as much nature into its built environment as possible. It is one of the most relaxed and calming urban spaces I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit.