How to Plan an Unforgettable Family Vacation to Madeira

The best places to eat, stay and play in the autonomous Portuguese archipelago with kids in tow

July 21, 2023 6:58 am
Botanical gardens in Funchal
Botanical gardens in Funchal

Madeira, the autonomous Portuguese archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa, may be best known for its namesake wine and sheer cliffs, but it’s actually an absolute dream for families. I just returned from a week-long holiday with a toddler — and it was hands-down one of our best family vacations to date! 

Parents and offspring who like adventure will love hiking, Jeep tours, swimming in natural pools, exploring the beaches and riding high-flying cable cars. The botanical gardens and parks with playgrounds in Funchal alone filled my mama heart with glee, and I was elated to experience some of the excellent kid-friendly hotels. You won’t have the battle little palates come dinnertime when traditional garlic bread and fish rice are on the menu, and it’s quite affordable compared to other European destinations, too.

If you’re on the fence about bringing LOs to Madeira, read on for the many, many, many reasons why you most definitely should.

How to Get There 

Geographically, Madeira sits off the northwest coast of Africa, not far from Morrocco. While most visitors fly through Humberto Delgado Airport (LIS) as it provides numerous connections, travelers coming from the New York area will be pleased to learn that Sata Azores Airlines operates a once-weekly direct flight between John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Madeira Airport International Cristiano Ronaldo (FNC) on the main island of Madeira.

Scenes from Savoy Palace
Scenes from Savoy Palace

Where to Stay

While there are lovely places to stay all around Madeira, I would recommend picking a home base in or around Funchal, the capital city, as it’s quite walkable and well-connected by public transport. It’s also easy to reach other areas thanks to the network of tunnels that cut through the mountains. 

My top pick for families? Savoy Palace. Part of the Leading Hotels of the World portfolio, it’s a full-blown paradise for families. It’s a huge 352-key hotel with spacious accommodations and a spate of resort-level amenities, including a clutch of excellent restaurants, multiple family-friendly pools, a kids club (might I suggest using the time LOs are occupied with crafts and games to book a rejuvenating massage at the giant spa or lounge by adults-only rooftop piscine?) and even an on-site gelato shop. We stayed in a Premium Ocean Suite on the 16th floor with separate living and sleeping spaces, a sea-view balcony and a bathroom with a soaking tub that was just perfect. I especially loved that it came with access to exclusive SPE amenities like breakfast in the lounge down the hall and an unpacking service — an absolute game changer when a jet-lagged toddler needs your undivided attention and the suitcase won’t unpack itself.  

Travelers who prefer something a bit more intimate should consider Quinta da Casa Branca, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Tucked away a bit further from downtown Funchal but still walkable (I slogged up the hills with my son Miles in the carrier and stroller multiple times), it’s an old manor house turn leafy hideaway. It definitely feels like a hidden oasis that’s romantic and perfect for couples — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great fit for families. In fact, I found the grassy lawns and flower-framed garden paths kept our toddler’s attention as well as many of the parks.

Thoughtful service was a theme of the trip. When the front desk learned we were doing a day trip to Porto Santo that required an early morning departure and evening return, they offered to have a bag breakfast waiting for us to pick up at 6:30 a.m. and some light bites delivered to our suite that evening. It’s those forward-thinking, extremely considerate touches that really make the property stand out for me. As a parent, there’s a lot to think about when traveling and knowing you have a team thinking of your needs (even those you might overlook due to jetlag and fatigue) is so reassuring. 

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Porto Santo Beach
Porto Santo Beach

What to Do

For the uninitiated, Madeira is well known for its botanical gardens. More than just pretty places to admire lush plants, these flower-shrouded spaces are great for kids to roam and explore. Some, like the Monte Palace Tropical Garden, come with the added bonus of a high-flying arrival that thrill-seekers will love. We walked over to the Funchal-Monte Cable Car around 9:30 a.m. and the line was already snaking through the entire interior. My first mistake was not purchasing tickets online in advance. But even so, the bulk of the queue was for entry to the actual funicular. Luckily, tots are VIPs in Madeira and a lovely gentleman ushered us through a side entrance and directly to a car. The whole thing took 10 minutes. (Sorry to everyone else who may have waited over an hour.) Soaring through the air and soaking in views from above Funchal is a pretty epic way to arrive at the sprawling outdoor space with multiple levels of flora from around the world, a sparkling mineral collection, ornamental sculptures, a central lake, swans, flamingos, etc. Quinta Magnólia and Santa Catarina Park are two lovely green spaces with playgrounds that don’t require a cable car to access. 

The island of Madeira is bisected by a system of historic irrigation canals known as levadas. These days, hiking along the waterways ranks among the most enjoyable activities for travelers of all ages, since the routes range in difficulty and distance. Booking a guided trek provides an opportunity to learn a bit more about the heritage of channels and the UNESCO-listed laurel forests, however, striking out solo means the chance to do things at your own pace. Both have benefits when traveling with tots.

A major highlight of the trip was the full-day private Jeep safari with Discovery Island Madeira, which brought us to scenic attractions including the Cabo Girão Skywalk, Fanal Forestry Station, Porto Moniz Natural Swimming Pools and Praia de Seixal. The company also operates canyoning, kayaking, climbing and mountain biking expeditions that’d be fun for adrenaline-chasing older kids.

The small island of Porto Santo sits a mere 27 miles northeast of Madeira and is reachable by a very comfortable ferry. The boat felt more like a cruise ship with a cafeteria, game room and movie theatre. And before I knew it, the two-and-a-half-hour ride had flown by. We picked up a rental car at the port and spent a few hours driving around the island and stopping by scenic lookouts. Though, if you plan to plop down on the golden-sand beach and stay for the day (something that sounds terrific with kids), it’s probably easier to just grab a taxi. The thing I did like about having a car was the ability to explore a bit more.

For our part, we ended up unrolling our towels on Ponta da Calheta and traipsing up to Restaurante O Calhetas (still wearing our swimsuits) for a casual lunch. We drove to Quinta das Palmeiras, a hidden gem of a bird sanctuary with sand toys and a little play house that’s very much geared toward kiddos, then hopped on a 20-minute flight operated by Binter back to Madeira at the end of the day. 

Casal da Penha
Casal da Penha

Where to Eat and Drink

The food in Madeira is amazing. Visitors can look forward to all the Portuguese hits — sizzling garlic shrimp, seafood stew and octopus rice — plus a spate of delectable regional dishes bursting with authentic flavor. Among the most traditional things you’ll want to try while in town are grilled limpets, black scabbard fish with banana, grilled meat skewers and bolo do caco — a circular flatbread that’s often served with butter and garlic. Our toddler gobbled up everything with gusto, so from that experience (and witnessing tons of other kids doing the same thing) I’d say the cuisine isn’t a hard sell for younger travelers. 

One of our favorite lunch spots was Fajã dos Padres, a casual wave-front eatery on an organic farm at the bottom of a cliff that’s accessible via cable car. Little ones will have a ball exploring the fruit-tree-edged pathways or collecting stones on the shore in between bites. If you’re ambling through downtown Funchal and hunger hits, Taberna Ruel and Peixaria no Mercado are great options. Since the latter is conveniently located next to Mercado dos Lavradores, we got to sample a yummy assortment of tropical fruit for dessert.

Another cute, sort of fancy food thing to do with kiddos who can sit still for more than five minutes is afternoon tea in the lobby lounge of the Savoy Palace. It’s a really pretty setting and the sweet and savory treats are an easy sell for little palates. Plus, there’s an impressive selection of tea and even bubbly for parents. 

For dinner, we absolutely loved Casal da Penha, a family-run restaurant that’s always booked (a very good sign). Be sure to make a reservation ahead of time or risk missing out on fresh-caught fish and giant tiger prawns served alongside an array of vegetable sides that’s sure to convert any kid.


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