Stylish and sophisticated, Funchal is the bustling capital and main tourist resort on the island of Madeira which in 2008 celebrated its 500th anniversary as a city. Its name derives from the Portuguese word for fennel (funcho) apparently after Italian sugar merchants noticed how the plant grew in abundance on the cliffs surrounding the bay.
It was discovered by João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira in 1419, who were sent out to find more land with the objective of suppressing the significant shortage of cereal on the mainland. Madeira became one of the most important strategic points for Portugal during the Discoveries Period. It eventually grew as a result of the sugar and banana trade, and with the export of Madeira wine to England in the 17th Century.
Today, Madeira has around 240,000 inhabitants and derives most its wealth from the tourism industry, which boasts scores of luxury hotels along the bay’s waterfront. It enjoys an all-year-round warm climate where average temperatures remain between 19 and 25ºC. What is significantly special and unique about Madeira is how it offers such a dramatically different landscape. A tour around Madeira will show you the beauty of the high cliffs that provide breathtaking views; rounded hilltops covered with an infinite lush green vegetation; banana plantations and vineyards suspended on steep hillsides; and the beautifully preserved villages dotted around the island. The typical Portuguese houses and churches, with whitewashed walls and low tiles roofs offer a picturesque walk.
Funchal is a particular magnet at Christmas and New Year when the entire bay is lit up with what is considered to be one of the best New Year firework displays in the world. The busy harbour also frequently sees tall ships from around the world, often brightly decked out in bunting and flags. It maintains the feel of its past whilst offering a vibrant lifestyle with trendy, up-beat places.
Places to See
Avenida Arriaga (Arriaga Avenue)
Explore Funchal on foot starting at this beautiful avenue alined with jacaranda trees. From here you can easily reach the cathedral and many of this city’s cultural attractions. Don’t miss out on the Adegas de São Francisco (wine cellars) belonging to the Madeira Wine Company, the wonderful Jardins Municipais (gardens) and the monument to Prince Henry the Navigator.
Convento de Santa Clara (Saint Claire’s Convent)
This convent was built for the Santa Clara nuns at the end of the 15th Century. Its walls are decorated with stunning blue tiles (azulejos) from the 17th Century. Rumour has it that João Gonçalves Zarco (Madeira’s discoverer) and his family are buried in the church crypt.
Forte de São Lourenço (Saint Lawrence Fort)
Once part of Funchal’s extensive sea defences, this 16th Century fort is now used by the Madeira City Council. You can visit the North Bastion where there is a small but interesting exhibition about the history of the fortress.
Reid’s Palace Hotel
Sissi, Empress of Austria, Winston Churchill, Captain Scott, and Princess Stephanie of Monaco have all stayed at this opulent 19th Century hotel. Nothing is better than to spend a lazy late afternoon sipping tea, eating scones with jam and admiring the view of Funchal Bay from the terrace.
Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmer’s Market)
A truly sensual feast for the senses is to be had at this colourful market, which sells an array of exotic and mouth-watering fruits, vegetables and some locally grown flowers.
Blandy’s and Palheiro Gardens
Rare and exotic trees, shrubs, plants and flowers from all over the world thrive at these well-tended botanical gardens located 1.9 miles (3 kilometres) east of Funchal on the road to Camacha. The estate has been owned by the famous wine merchant family, the Blandy’s, since 1885.
Quinta do Bom Sucesso Botanical Gardens
These fabulous botanical gardens house some 2,000 species of tropical and sub-tropical plants in an 8.6 acre garden that used to belong to the Reid family who once owned the famous hotel of that name. Take an afternoon out to admire the exotic flowers, enjoy a coffee at the café terrace, admire the panoramic view over the Bay of Funchal from the Belvedere Terrace and finish up by visiting the aviary stocked with exotic and colourful parrots.