Madeira, Portugal, Dining Guide to the Food & Drink Scene
Madeira, Portugal, a subtropical island off the coast of northwestern Africa, has an unfortunate reputation as the domain of tourists. And, well, it’s not entirely inaccurate; as a jumping-off point for ships going as far back as the 15th century, some consider Madeira one of Europe’s oldest tourist destinations. Centuries later, many of those visiting are pensioners and package tourists from the United Kingdom and northern Europe. But all these years of visitors have done little to diminish Madeira’s pleasant weather, clear waters, and utterly dramatic scenery. And all this coming and going has left this mountainous little island with a fascinating culinary legacy.
Madeira’s vibe can be a bit hard to pin down, but a good starting point is to envision a slightly less tropical, more rugged, European-influenced Hawai‘i. Like the Pacific archipelago, Madeira offers a host of active, outdoor pursuits — especially hiking — as well as its fair share of tourist cheese. But rent a car and drive a few minutes in just about any direction from Funchal, the capital, and you’ll soon be immersed in a vineyard growing right on the edge of the sea, a centuries-old Catholic church, or the dramatic, mountainous landscape.
Seafood forms the backbone of the traditional Madeiran diet. Oily fish such as atum (tuna) and gaiado (skipjack tuna) are prized here, while the much leaner peixe espada (black scabbard fish) is ubiquitous. Lapas (limpets) served on the half shell, drizzled with garlic butter, and roasted in a special pan, are beloved and delicious.
But the island’s cuisine has also been broadly shaped by its role as a shipping outpost. For centuries, Madeira was an obligatory stopover for European ships bound for and returning from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Its cuisine has been influenced by ingredients, people, and techniques from across the world. Madeira is likely where once “exotic” items such as potatoes, chiles, and corn from the Americas, or nutmeg and clove from Asia, first landed before making their way to mainland Europe.
Sugarcane had the largest impact on the island. Transplanted from Sicily in the early 15th century, the crop flourished, and Madeira quickly became a large source of sugar for the rest of Europe. A century later, sugar production shifted to the Americas, and Madeira’s sugar industry largely died out. But sugarcane continues to shape the island’s food and drink. Today, Madeira is home to six sugarcane processing mills, including one that is steam-powered. Some of these mills distill sugarcane juice into agricultural rum, while others produce molasses that makes its way into local sweets.
These days, Madeira is also known for its tropical fruit, a novelty for Europe. The subtropical climate allows farmers to produce the type of fruit not generally seen elsewhere in Europe. Banana plantations blanket parts of the island’s south shore. Passionfruit, guava, papaya, custard apple, pitanga, tamarillo, and other fruits more familiar to those in South America are commonplace.
But if there’s one ingredient you’re likely to be familiar with, it’s the island’s namesake fortified wine, a drink that was essentially created by mistake, when fortified wine was exposed to prolonged heat during long boat voyages. Counterintuitively, this made the wine more nuanced, and nowadays winemakers pursue a number of methods to recreate this delicious accident.
Vinho da MadeiraIf you like port, you may like the fortified wine named for Madeira, with its perplexing mixture of salty, woody, varnishy, oxidized, citrusy, and spicy flavors and aromas. There are seven Madeira winehouses on the island, most of which offer visits and tastings.
EspetadaThough seafood is fundamental to the local diet, Madeira’s most famous dish takes the form of chunks of beef, marinated with garlic and bay leaf, skewered on laurel branches (or increasingly these days, metal skewers), and grilled over coals. It’s typically paired with bolo de caco (a flatbread made, in part, with sweet potatoes) that’s toasted and slathered with garlic butter, along with milho frito (polenta seasoned with local thyme and allowed to set before being cut into cubes and deep-fried). The espetadas are served on the skewer, hanging from nifty contraptions, and locals know to put slices of bolo de caco underneath to catch all the garlicky, meaty drippings.
Bolo de melThe island’s signature sweet is a dense, dark cake that blends molasses, lard, citrus juice, Madeira wine, and spices. It’s thought to have been inspired by similar English cakes that were meant to last long boat journeys. It used to be associated with Christmas, but these days it’s available year-round.
PonchaMadeira has a long-standing culture of cocktails, and the island’s most famous concoction is a blend of local white rum, citrus juice, and sugar and/or honey known as poncha. Ideally made to order, these ingredients are vigorously whipped together with a stick known cheekily as a caralhinho, or “little dick.” A glass of poncha is tiny but disproportionately strong. You’ve been warned.
Levadas and veredasMadeira’s north shore draws most of the island’s precipitation. In the 15th century, settlers began redirecting the water via a series of aqueducts known as levadas, an engineering feat recognized by UNESCO. Today, walking along levadas and veredas (a more general term for a path) has become a must-do activity for visitors to Madeira. And best of all, excursions, especially those in the island’s more rugged inland, can usually be combined with a fortifying post-hike meal at a mountaintop eatery such as Faísca (below) or the Sunday market at Santo da Serra.
Chef Júlio Pereira’s mini restaurant empire in Funchal spans two venues: Ákua, which focuses on the products of the sea, and Kampo, with an emphasis on the fruit of the land. At Kampo, walk past the dry-aging refrigerator case, pull up to the chef’s table-like counter alongside the predominantly local crowd, and take a break from seafood and beef skewers via the excellent local lamb, ideally paired with a bottle of local table wine — a relative rarity in restaurants, which often default to fortified wine.
The military-like taglines at Desarma (“Prepare yourself to surrender,” “An army of sensations”) are, like the food, rather provocative. Chef Octávio Freitas takes the most iconic ingredients and dishes of his home island and twists them in ways locals wouldn’t recognize; think the ubiquitous local bananas coaxed to look like the stones from Madeira’s rocky beaches. The result is engaging and delicious, made even tastier with the counsel of Desarma’s excellent sommelier, João Barbosa, who’s willing to experiment with pairings.
Locals and Portuguese from the mainland beeline to this homey restaurant for arroz de lapas, tomatoey rice studded with limpets. Pair this dish with just about any other seafood item from the capable kitchen. With views over “downtown” Seixal’s charming tile roofs and the azure Atlantic, you’ll have an easy, breezy lunch.
With panoramic windows looking over dreamy Câmara de Lobos Bay, Vila do Peixe could easily be written off as a tourist trap. But the restaurant takes its fish seriously. Point to whatever looks good in the iced display case, ask for it to be grilled with little more than a sprinkle of coarse salt, and close with the light-as-air passionfruit cheesecake. You’re pretty much guaranteed to leave happy.
It doesn’t get more casual than this open-air knot of plastic chairs at the top of a cliff. Fittingly, the cook here, a former construction worker, is responsible for one of the best grills on the island. Those in the know order the off-menu ventresca de atum grelhada (grilled tuna belly), while the espetada is pretty much perfect, grilled the old-school way on laurel branches. Astounding views over the island’s north shore and a colony of resident cats complete the package.
With multiple indoor and outdoor levels overlooking an attached natural swimming pool and Madeira’s highest cliff, Doca do Cavacas has it covered in terms of ambiance. Food-wise, you can’t go wrong with the grilled fish and seafood here. The limpets in particular are some of the best on the island.
Essentially a sugarcane processing factory and distillery, Engenhos de Calheta also has a reputation for making one of the island’s best versions of bolo de mel. Buy a mini one in the gift shop and pair it with a cup of coffee at the small attached cafe.
As Vides claims to be the oldest and most traditional place on Madeira for espetada, and the charmingly fussy vibe seems to confirm this. Tables are equipped with graceful wrought-metal stands to accommodate the hanging skewers, which are accompanied by slightly more refined versions of the espetada peripherals: deep-fried cubes of polenta, garlicky bread, and a crispy green salad.
About as inland as you can get in Madeira, at the top of a cool, misty mountain, you’ll find this casual and excellent restaurant. Locals know to order prego, a thin steak sandwich, served here in Madeira’s ubiquitous garlic butter-slathered bolo de caco, and to pair it with a bowl of tomato soup supplemented with a poached egg. Just about everything that comes out of the kitchen here looks tasty. Close with café cortado, hot coffee supplemented with Madeira wine, a pinch of sugar, and lemon zest. This is the perfect post-levada hike meal destination.
Located at the more casual end of the espetada spectrum, Polar boasts a short menu of skewered and grilled meats and the typical accompaniments. Give an enthusiastic “Yes” when asked if you want extra garlic butter on your beef skewer, which is applied via a clever technique that involves tying a knot of parchment paper loaded with butter around the top of the hot skewer.
This restaurant tips toward the tourist end of the spectrum, but it’s a decent place to try carne de vinha d’alhos, cubes of fatty pork belly marinated in white wine and garlic, a dish that is thought to have inspired the Indian vindaloo. A hilltop location with a panoramic view over the island’s dry, rocky east end doesn’t hurt.
Perched at the top of a mountain at the edge of one of Madeira’s only remaining old-growth forests, this bucolic lodge-like restaurant specializes in hearty, homey, meaty Portuguese dishes served in rustic clay crockery. Adega do Pomar is linked to an apple orchard, so don’t miss chef and owner Márcio Nóbrega’s delicious and boundary-pushing house-made ciders.
Borges is one of the more traditional Madeira winehouses on the island. This legacy is evident in the winery’s current space, which dates back to 1924. The company is still run by the fourth generation of the same family, who create fortified wines that are expressively salty and woody. A visit and tasting can be arranged in advance.
This is a quirky, almost chaotic, open-air bar where local beach bums and crusty fishermen cross paths with sunburnt foreign tourists. Its location on a tiny peninsula on the island’s north shore means dramatic views of towering cliffs. Pair the scene with a bottle of Coral beer and a plate of buttery, garlicky limpets, and you’ve got yourself a classic Madeira experience.
Madeira’s legacy of sugarcane production has given the island a taste for rum agrícola, rum distilled from sugarcane juice rather than from sugar or molasses. Dating back to 1927, North Mills Distillery is also one of the only remaining steam-powered factories in Europe. Guided tours of the factory are available (sugarcane pressing takes place between March and May), as well as rum tastings and a casual bar.
It feels like little has changed at A Venda do André since 1946. The corner shop-meets-rustic bar is the classic venue for poncha on Madeira. The island’s most famous cocktail is whipped to order here; enjoy one while you overlook the impossibly windy roads and wonder how the hell you’re going to drive home.
Ask any Portuguese wine snob about Madeira wine, and the first house they’ll mention is Barbeito, which produces wines that pack more vibrant acidity than the other houses on the island. Progressive-minded and quirky, Barbeito combines old and new techniques to create unique bottlings. Visits and tastings can be arranged via the website.
The Sunday market at Santo da Serra isn’t huge, but it’s a microcosm of the island’s agricultural bounty. Think European and tropical fruit, baked goods, local honey, dried herbs, and even cooking tools. A particular highlight of the market is the vendors who sell drinks — local cider, pitchers of poncha, boozy coffee drinks — all supplemented with dentinhos (“bites”), which here can range from deep-fried pork rinds to a salad of favas.
Funchal’s art deco central market is charming if outright touristy. That said, it’s an obligatory starting point to witness the scope of the island’s spectrum of tropical fruit. On days when the fishing boats have landed large catches, the seafood section (which takes up nearly half of the market) can also be impressive, with fishmongers dressing massive tuna or swordfish.
Tall and dark, the Views towers conspicuously over Funchal, Madeira’s main urban center. Rooms are sleek and feel contemporary, with balconies that boast those eponymous glimpses. The hotel is home to Desarma, one of the island’s most forward-thinking restaurants, and it’s in a convenient location just a brief walk from Funchal’s historic city center. Rooms start at 149 euros ($165) during the high season.
Want to slow down your stay in Madeira? Book a stay at this relaxing, leafy, old-school-feeling compound located just outside Funchal’s city center. The rooms, which are spread out among a series of stately manor houses, are vast, with balconies peering out over the almost jungle-like gardens. There’s a pool overlooking Funchal and tennis courts to keep you occupied, and it’s only a short drive to the restaurants of Câmara de Lobos. Rooms start at 234 euros ($259) during the high season.
Madeira’s iconic hotel charms even the most jaded guest with details from previous centuries. Perched on a cliff overlooking the bay of Funchal, the compound boasts a tropical-feeling garden and swimming area at the edge of the rocky, frothy shore, but don’t forget to check out chef Luís Pestana’s work at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, William. Rooms start at 600 euros ($664) during the high season.
Austin Bush is an American writer and photographer based in Lisbon, Portugal. He was previously based in Bangkok, Thailand, for more than 20 years, from where he contributed to just about every major food and travel publication, as well as to more than 30 guidebooks for Lonely Planet. In 2018, he wrote and photographed the James Beard Award finalist, The Food of Northern Thailand, and his next book, The Food of Southern Thailand, will be out in 2024.ShareVinho da MadeiraEspetadaBolo de melPonchaLevadas and veredasFunchal and aroundThe coastThe interiorFunchal and aroundThe coastThe interior