Free or Nearly Free Things to do in Madeira

Our upcoming Transatlantic cruise includes stops at several unique islands in the Atlantic. The first of these islands is the Semi-autonomous Portuguese Island of of Madeira.

Madeira is a small island in the Atlantic West of both Africa and Europe. It was uninhabited until claimed for Portugal in 1420. Soon the Portuguese came to colonize and farm the rich wooded isle. During the late 1400’s it became a center of wealth brought to the island by the lucrative sugar trade.

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When the cheap Caribbean and Brazilian sugar bottomed out the market, Wine soon took over as the island’s main export. Perhaps this island is best known, even today, for this somewhat sweet, rich, fortified wine that enjoyed popularity in the US Colonial times. (Thomas Jefferson had a great love of Madeira Wine)

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The cruise lines offer many different tours that will give passengers a fairly sweeping overview of the island. Some of these tour specialize in the capital town of Funchal, while others focus on wine or scenic vistas. However if you are looking to skip a ship’s tour and strike out on your own, there are many free or affordable options.

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The cruise ships dock in Funchal. From there it is just a short walk to many of the city’s free attractions. The Funchal Cathedral built between 1493 and 1515 features unique artwork including a Portuguese Knot work ceiling based on Muslim art styles and ornate alter pieces made in Lisbon. It is open from 9am to 12:15 and 4-6pm daily and admission is free. Next, visitors may want to stroll through several of the beautiful gardens for which Madeira is famous. In the down town area you can find the Jardim de Santa Catarina, a terraced park which over looks the harbor and includes statues of Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus. Jardim De Sao Francisco is a colorful garden located in the city center on the site of a former Franciscan monastery, featuring flowering plants and enormous trees. Lovers of military history and pirate lore might want to pay a visit to Palacio d Sao Lourenco. This historic fortress has displays on the Pirate Betrand d Montluc, who ravaged the city in 1566, for 15 days. He died from wounds sustained during the attack. The fortress is open to visitors from 9:30 am to noon and admission is free. Finally, for a little window shopping or real shopping visitors might want to pay a visit to the Mercardo dos Lavadores, a market featuring fruits, flowers, wine, honey and souvenirs. This market is both the business and social center of Madeira. You may want to end your walking tour of Funchal with a visit to one of the many wineries. Perhaps the most famous and easily accessible is the Adegas de San Francisco located in the heart of the city on Avenida Arriaga. You can visit the winery for free and even sample some of the wines at in the Max Romer Tasting room. However is you want to splurge you can take a tour of the facilities for either a basic tour for 4 Euros, or a more in depth tour for 6 Euros.

If visitors want to splurge a little bit during your visit to Funchal with out taking a ships tour, the city presents several options. Perhaps the most scenic is the gondola cable car ride to Monte. “Monte” means mountain, and this area was once a suburban retreat from hustle and bustle of the town of Funchal. Monte has several gardens, a famous church and spectacular view. Passengers can purchase a round trip on the gondola for around 14.5 Euros. However visitors may want to take the cable car up the mountain and then sledge down the mountain in one of Madeira’s famous guided wicker toboggans. Uniformed drivers guide passengers down the mountain over the smooth cobble stone streets in wicker tobboggans with metal runners. The drivers used their feet equipped with specially soled rubber shoes to break and steer the sledge. The cost of a one way ticket is approximately 10 Euros, and the price of the toboggan down the mountain is approximately 10 Euros per rider plus at least 10% tip. The toboggans only take passengers about 1/2 back to the city. From there it is a pretty easy walk for those accustomed to walking or passengers can catch a cab. A word of warning, the cab drivers at the end of the sledge run charge much more than they should to simply return passengers to the water front, so you might fare better to walk a few blocks and catch a cab from there.

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Another splurge that visitors may wish to enjoy is the newly opened Madeira Story Center. This museum tells the story of museum from its ancient beginnings as a volcanic isle, through it growth as a wealthy exporter, to its present day status a prosperous region and vacation paradise. Admission is a bit of a splurge for budget visitors at 9 euros for adults, and 4.5 Euros for children, but with its extensive exhibits and interactive displays, it provides a single stop from which visitors can obtain a broad understanding and history of the island. They also offer discount tickets when combining purchases of multiple Madeira attractions.

Funchal has several other sites which charge a nominal admission fee that might be of interest to cruise passengesrs, time permitting. Convento de Santa, Clara, a Franciscan nuns cloister founded in 1476, features unique statues, carvings and a lovely chapel with a silver tabernacle and Assumptions painting. The convent has a 2 Euro admission charge. Located near the convent is the Musea Quinta das Cruzes. This archeological with artifacts Madeira’s early days in the late 1400’s to early 1500’s, also features botanical gardens, “sugar box” furniture, a chapel that holds the grave of an early settler, and displays of trade goods and famous merchants who became wealthy from Madeira’s riches. The museum also has a 2 Euro admission charge.