Tradition, culture and good times in Madeira

Andy Stevens / 06 February 2017 ( 29 June 2017 )

Your guide to the incomparable traditions, cultural and natural highlights, plus other exciting things to see and do when you visit the much-loved Atlantic island archipelago of Madeira:

Discover the beautiful island of Madeira. Find out more about Madeira holidays here

Madeira - a bit about the history of the island

Madeira and its neighbouring island, Porto Santo, were discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1419.

The colonisers wasted no time bequeathing the archipelago to the Portuguese crown as a desirable and lucrative Atlantic outcrop for overseas trade and Portuguese settlers. 

At first wheat, and then sugar cane, turned Madeira into a source of wealth for the new mother country.

From the 1700s and onwards the Portuguese had the foresight to create vineyards on the island.

And so emerged Madeira's eponymous and distinctively sturdy brand of wine, adding immeasurably to the island's growing riches and retaining a worldwide fame to this day.

Madeira's permanent place in the mindset of discerning tourists first emerged in the mid-1800s, when northern Europe's well-heeled sunseekers started flocking south in search of warmer seasonal climes.

The island's dazzling natural beauty which the early tourists came to adore is forged by the happy accident of its isolated geographical location, at the confluence of warm and cold ocean currents. 

This famously makes Madeira home to flowers and plants rarely - and sometimes never - seen elsewhere on the planet.

Soon, word of this unique environment spread to wave upon wave of visitors down the years, each keen to savour the splendid Madeiran flora and landscapes for themselves.

Discover the beautiful island of Madeira. Find out more about Madeira holidays here

Madeira traditions

Madeirans need no excuse for a good street party. Indeed, the island could easily lay claim, should it wish, to being the home of the festival.

At this point, immediately suspend any modern preconceived notions of the word festival you may have gleaned at home. 

Madeira festivals are as far removed from people sitting in a field eating pulled pork in a brioche bun while staring at a live band on a distant big screen as you can imagine.

Madeira festivals are full-on family affairs, blended with a riot of colour, joyful exuberance and tradition. 

And there are so many of them all year round to suit every taste when you visit the island, that you're certain to find plenty to enjoy whenever you choose to visit, from food to flowers, wine to jazz and more.

The Madeiran festival fun times kick off in the run-up to Christmas, through the New Year and onwards. And that's just for starters. 

But first let's jump forward to balmy spring days, when Madeira's capital Funchal hosts the finest of them all, which more than anything encapsulates the island's traditions: the Madeira Flower Festival.

Here you won't fail to be wowed by this free celebration over several days of Madeira's floral glories. Funchal's streets are bedecked in flowers and flower sculptures, while you can immerse yourself in a flower show like no other at Praca do Povo in the city centre.


On top of that, the flower festival includes a charming children's peace parade with local youngsters dressed in their finery, and a flower market where you can further savour the island's unique blooms. 

There's a big parade on the Sunday of the festival, too, with floral floats and troupes of partying people done up to the nines in traditional local costume.

Madeira and its neighbour island Porto Santo offer something for the energetic to shake off any lingering New Year excesses with their annual Walking Festival in the latter part of January.

The five-day walk - which doesn't mean you have to walk for five days, perish the thought - combines daily trails for people of varying abilities through inspiring forests and landscapes, offering an insight into Madeiran history and nature in the expert hands of a professional guide.

New Year's Eve is always something else in Madeira, as Funchal Bay takes its out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new celebrations sky-high in an ever-spectacular fireworks display.

Carnival time, however, is when the whole of Madeira shakes it down in a joyous five-day party of music, dance and all-round colour as samba dancers strut the streets summoning up echoes of Rio, but all done with a magical Madeiran pizzazz you'll find nowhere else.

Cultural Madeira

A compelling range of museums, art galleries, churches and unchanged places of historical interest compete with Madeira's famed natural beauty for visitors' attention.

Funchal's Se Cathedral was completed by Portuguese colonists in the 1500s, and draws its architectural influences from Gothic, Manueline and Moorish among others.

Some of the cathedral's treasures are now displayed in the city's Museum of Sacred Art, which hosts an impressive range of paintings and artefacts, including Flemish art and sculptures from the 15th and 16th centuries, showing Madeira's pivotal role in the colonial sugar trade.

Funchal is also home to the delightful Quinta das Cruzes museum. This collection is a marvel of the old Madeira, housing antiques, furniture, pottery, marble and ornaments which shine a light on the home life of the island's nobility in centuries past.

The village of Santana in the north-east of the island offers an authentic and well-preserved glimpse of traditional village life in 16th century Madeira.

Its triangular thatched cottages are picture-perfect and - you've guessed it - the village hosts a traditional folk festival every July which draws the crowds in dance and celebration.

Madeira cuisine

In its gilded solitude out there in the Atlantic off south-west Europe , fish specialities are heavily to the fore on a traditional Madeiran dinner plate.

That said, Madeiran fish dishes aren't the expected fare you'll find in some parts of coastal southern Europe.

They have their own twist borne of island life, both at hand on the land and by net from the sea.

Take espada (black swordfish) with banana, for example; a tender and tasty traditional dish. 

Bacalhau com Late brings cod, potatoes and milk together in sumptuous culinary union, while Bife de Atum a Madeirense is an aromatic lure for hungry diners: tuna steak seared over a wood fire.

We can't salivate further over Madeira's fruits of the sea without namechecking Caldeirada de Peixes Variados; a flavour-laden bubbling broth of all things piscine, plus tomatoes, potatoes and onions.

Meanwhile, those of you visiting Madeira with a sweet tooth will always make a beeline for the island's signature bolo de mel honey cakes, which you can sample more or less everywhere.

Aspects of Madeira's culinary heritage get their day in the sun as well with a programme of seasonal food festivals.

These include the Festa da Cereja (cherry festival), a, yes, banana festival, the self-explanatory Santana Lemon Festival and the Festa da Lapa, a three-night shindig in homage to the humble limpet at pretty Paul do Mar harbour, with plenty of music, dancing, local beer and grilled gastropods as guests of honour.

Number one showcase for foodies on the island is the Machico Gastronomy Festival in late July/early August.

The south-eastern seaside town plays host to a mouthwatering 10-day celebration of Madeiran culinary glories, including espetadas (traditional grilled meats on skewers), fish and shellfish, those limpets again and not forgetting fathoms of the island's famous wine.

Shopping and other things to do in Madeira

Madeira's capital Funchal has its fair share of modern shopping arcades, such as Forum Madeira, which is home to a number big-name brands.

But we'd confidently hazard a guess that home-from-home mall shopping isn't really what you're looking for when you travel somewhere as special as Madeira.

Places such as the small shopping centre of Arcadas de Sao Francisco in central Funchal have much more charm, with cafes and little shops nearby selling traditional handicrafts to tempt you.

And it's here that's the perfect place to make your Madeira wine purchases: the famous Blandy's Madeira wine vaults are right there for you to visit.

Old town Funchal is home to the authentic and traditional Madeiran market experience which is Mercado dos Lavradores.

This colourful farmers' market has been plying its wares since 1940; its multi-coloured blizzard of exotic and intriguing fruit and vegetables piled high for sale are things of beauty to behold (and buy) in themselves.

The Sunday market at Santo da Serra is worth a visit, and benefits from beautiful gardens nearby where you can take a relaxing stroll.

The green-fingered among you should also head for Funchal's Doña Amelia Municipal Gardens. It's a perfect place truly to savour the floral riches of the island, with the plants, flowers and trees handily name-tagged so you know exactly what you're looking at.

If you still have the bug for other beautiful gardens, then take Funchal's memorable cable-car ride from Inn Quinta do Bom Sucesso to the Botanical Gardens, with jawdropping panoramas of city, country and ocean on your journey.

No visit to Madeira is complete without taking one of the island's estimated 200 levada walks, which often run parallel to the island's network of mini canals.

These nature trails vary is degrees of difficulty from the gentle to the mountainous. But they are an unbeatable way enjoy up close the beauty of Madeira's lush and varied landscapes, including forests, peaks, waterfalls, lakes and canals.

And if it's even more thrills of nature that float your boat, there are whale, dolphin and seabird-watching boat trips you can book from Funchal Marina, for an inspiring first-hand taste of the Atlantic's magnificent marine life.

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