Funchal is more than its beautiful, expansive botanical gardens. There are many things to see, do and eat in Funchal. It’s also a city that has a great vibe in its narrow streets, lined with lovely restaurants and shops; it also has a number of fascinating and curious establishments of ambiguous purpose. I love it because it has wonderful cafés and pastelerías, and a large central market frequented by locals and tourists alike.
Fort of St. Jose
We are still not entirely sure what the ancient fort of St. Jose is. When we climbed up the stairs to enter the dark room that looked as if it were a hole bored into the bedrock of the island fort, we were greeted by a man claiming to be the prince of Pontinha – the tiny island we were standing on.
At first we thought it was a joke, but a google search pulled up this Guardian article that shows the man’s claims are completely legit. There’s nothing much to see here and yet it is a must see. Mainly because the claims seem crazy and bold, and also because it’s really weird. There’s all sorts of funny knick knacks strewn all over the place, but my favourites are the ones with smart witticisms about life and the afterlife.
Design Centre Nini Andrade
If you are looking for respite from the heat and the crowds, the Design Centre Nini Andrade is a refuge. It caught our eye when we first took the bus into town. There’s no missing it, an imposing island-building on the harbour topped by a minimalist structure on an artificial outcrop.
It doesn’t look too inviting from the outside, but once inside, its interior is the absolute opposite. Charming, welcoming and calming, its design reflects the design philosophy of its creator, the architect Nini Andrade.
There’s a lovely little bar and restaurant you can get to by way of a secret elevator hidden in the rock the building is constructed on. Once you’re up there, it feels like another world. In fact, I felt like I was on a private cruise ship, sailing across the Atlantic ocean.
Painted Doors in Funchal
While you’re in Funchal, you should take your time to walk down the Rua de Santa Maria. Its known for the graffiti on its doors and walls. They are beautiful, quirky, inspiring and thought provoking.
There’s lots of bars and restaurants on this street, and during the day, you’ll probably have to fight your way through boatloads of tourists from the cruise ships. I think seeing the art under these circumstances aren’t the best, so try and come early in the morning or later in the evening when the streets are clear.
There are also a few art galleries that sell all sorts of handmade souvenirs that are worth a look. The gifts you’ll find on this street are anything but tacky, they are mostly handmade and rather beautiful.
Mercado dos Lavradores
In the heart of Funchal’s old town is the “Mercado dos Lavradores”. It’s a riot of sights, sounds and aromas, and a whiff of age old tradition. To enter, you first have to walk past some very enticing cafés, with their displays of delicious Madeiran pastries and strong aromas. If you manage not to get sidetracked into one of them, you’ll enter a colourful square lined with fruit and vegetable stalls on each side.
I’m from South-East Asia, so I’ve seen my fair share of strange looking fruit and veg, but there were many I did not recognise in this market. Among the most interesting was the Monstera, which looks like a green ear of maize. To eat it, you run your fingers across the skin, which comes off in chunks, revealing the sweet, soft fruit underneath. There were also five or six different types of passion fruit, and several others I was more familiar with, like the guava and custard apple – called anona in Portuguese.
The true heart of the market however, is on the level below the fruit and vegetable floor. Here, fresh meat and fish are sold, and by lunchtime, most of the stalls have closed for the day – so make sure you get here early! As you can imagine, most tourists do not buy fresh fish or meat to cook in their hotel rooms, so the clientele here are mostly locals.
I love eating seafood, and I love shopping for it as well. It was wonderful perusing all the fish they had on offer. The black scabbard is a staple of Madeira, and there was plenty of it in all the stalls. For me, it was a rather strange looking fish, with its long body – almost like an eel. I also found out later, at lunch, that it is a rather delicious fish too!
O Tasco is a lovely bistro tucked into the corner of a hill at the end of the main stretch of restaurants and bars along the Funchal’s shore. It’s a little bit away from the other restaurants and bars, yet still packed, so you know it’s going to be good.
The menu is simple, with an assortment of starters you can choose from and a selection of three different types of fish, all grilled to perfection. There’s meat on the menu, but we feel that Madeira is all about seafood, so we focused on that. We ordered the starter selection, which is a choice of their three most popular appetisers, grilled parrot fish and black scabbard. The starters are delicious and creative, combining traditional ingredients with modern cooking ideas; The grilled fish was absolutely perfect, fresh, sweet, and cooked wonderfully. The side dishes of beans and vegetables, although simple, complimented the mains really well.
In any city or town we visit, there’s usually one place we will always keep coming back to – in Funchal, this place was Penha D’Águia. It’s a pastelería in the middle of town with a huge selection of amazing cakes and cookies, both traditional and modern.
My favourite cakes were the quijadas, which is a pastry that’s a cross between a cake and a cookie. My other favourite was the chocolate stuffed custard tarts. I think they’re supposed to be a twist on the traditional pastel de nata, but I’m not quite sure.
Although Funchal is a pretty small city, there’s a lot to see and do. Especially if you like gardens, art and the finer things in life, like food and wine! The people of Madeira have gotten their priorities in life straight, that’s for sure.