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On my first visit to Madeira, I had planned to explore the island of Madeira by self-driving. But then… I heard some concerning stories about the road conditions. Is driving on Madeira truly as scary as some say?
I had set my mind on renting a car formy entire Madeira trip for the most freedom and flexibility. But only days before my flight, someone told me that driving on Madeira is meant to beinsane.
Apparently: lots of twisty mountain roads,crazyinclines, andsupernarrow streets.
Surely it could not be that bad? I did a quick Google search, which landed me on several Madeira blogs with titles including ‘dangerous’, ‘super challenging’, and ‘scary’. Oh dear.
GIFs of cars flying off cliffs were now looping through my mind.
Was driving in Madeira just a really bad idea?
In this article…
Using public transport on Madeira
Not being sure about the situation, I tried using the bus network first. Sadly, in practice, the bus network is not so useful for tourists.
When looking at a map of the bus network (see PDF) it seems like you can reach pretty much anywhere on the island. Nice! There are four different bus companies, which is a bit confusing, but at least the network seemed pretty good.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll find only a few sightseeing spots are actually reachable by bus (such as the peninsula of São Lourenço). Most of the interesting sites are far away from any bus line, or buses go there only once or twice a day.
I quickly gave up trying to get around by bus. Despite a bit of trepidation,I realized thatrenting a car in Madeirais simply the best way to see the island, so I picked up a car in Funchal and set off.
Driving conditions on Madeira
Let me share my honest report on what driving is like in Madeira. Although there is some truth to the warnings, they do seem enormously exaggerated! In fact, I’m left scratching my head a bit at some of the anxious takes out there.
To be sure, Madeira is a volcanic island with very little flat land. Just take a look at a relief map and you’ll see it’s just a giant festival of peaks and valleys. Even the capital is built on hillsides with many sharp elevation changes.
Given this terrain, I was actually positively surprised by how easy to drive many of the roads are.
Around the capital the driving conditions are the most straightforward, thanks to two-lane motorways that let you easily get around the southern parts of the island.
Elsewhere I had expected only twisty mountain roads, but in fact, there is an extraordinary number of tunnels all around the island, which serve as Madeira’s main traffic arteries. Getting from A to B often involves merely going through a long series of tunnels, punctuated by small roundabouts that connect to the local destinations.
So, for like 70% of the time, I found myself either on highways or going through straight-as-nails tunnels.
It’s true therearesome pretty crazy roads in more remote locations. This includes small streets in mountain towns that can have some truly wondrous 20° inclines.
Theold coastal roadsaround the island (from before all the new tunnels were made) are not used as much anymore, but some are still there for you to drive. They’re scenic but also narrow and beside steep cliffs. These old roads are great for an adventurous road trip (and they feature often in blogs about Madeira), but they are also not required if you just want to get to a specific destination.
If you’ve driven mountain roads anywhere else in Europe, you’ll basically know what to expect. If you are a less experienced driver, then you can choose to stick to the easier main roads.
Renting a car on Madeira
I was glad I ultimately chose to book my own rental car.
I had an absolute blast driving around the island!
I loved discovering some of the hidden gems and going to hiking trails without needing to book a guided hike with a pick-up. It’s definitely the best way to explore the island.
When booking your rental car, I do recommend getting a car with at least a decent bit of horsepower. I normally get a mini to save money, but in Madeira I think a compact is a bit nicer, just so you can handle a steep road more easily.
While most roads are normal, Madeira is probably not a place where you’ll want to have 5 people crammed into a mini just to save some money.
It’s also a good idea tobook your rental car ahead of time. I almost didn’t get one because I left it so late!
WithDiscover Carsyou can search for the best rental car deals. This site will check the big brands as well as all the smaller local rental companies.
Madeira driving tips
I should probably acknowledge that every driver is different.
I’m not the world’s greatest driver and twisty mountain roads are definitely not my specialty. I learned to drive while growing up in the Netherlands and, well… have you seen the Netherlands?
Still, I survived just fine.
Then again, I’m 38 and have done a fair bit of driving in various European travel destinations. Perhaps some of the more extreme warnings on other blogs have come from younger drivers or those not accustomed to driving on the right side or driving manual.
If you’re used to automatic, be sure tobook well in advanceas there is a limited stock of automatic rentals in Madeira.
The roads are generally the most ‘adventurous’ among the high peaks in the center of the island, followed by the roads in the north around Sao Jorge and Faial and a few bits in the far west.
If you want to have an easier time, take the new roads (basically any with the designation ‘VE’) and avoid the very old coastal roads (like the remnants of ER101).
Oh, anddon’tlet Google or Apple Maps lead you down some zigzaggy recalculated route that only shaves a few minutes off your travel time.
The map apps are very good for the main point-to-point routes but they have a habit of sending you down difficult little streets when you’re in remote villages. Sometimes it’s better to ignore the GPS and just follow the road signs.
The above photo shows the craziest incline I found during my two weeks. This was a side street deep inside a village, so not the typical situation when driving in Madeira.
Hopefully, I’ve given a balanced preview of what to expect. Madeira could be a bit more stressful if you haven’t had your license very long or you’re not the most confident driver. In such a case, you could considerbooking tours on Madeiraas a more convenient way to see the sights.
Otherwise, driving in Madeira is not as extreme as I’d been led to expect; in fact, having your own rental car is a glorious way to explore every corner of this amazing island.
Note: I wrote this post after my first visit to Madeira in 2021. I’ve rented cars in Madiera many more times since, but I’ve kept this post as-is to reflect my original experience with driving in Madeira.
Madeira is all about narrow roads, u-turns, people parked in the middle of the road, and many other challenges. While roads are not in a terrible state, some could use some tarmac. Unless you are an experienced driver, if you have not driven a car recently, driving a car in Madeira will be at least, challenging.Is driving in Madeira difficult? ›
That being said, to enjoy some of those breathtaking views, you will need to tackle some of the world's steepest streets. Driving in Madeira can be challenging, especially for inexperienced drivers. However, it is the perfect way to explore the beautiful Island.Are the roads good in Madeira? ›
The roads in the mountains are also narrow so you can't drive faster than 40 km/h, sometimes only 20 km/h. Most mountain roads have good surfaces, but if you choose the wrong road, the surface may be awful. Hence, careful route planning is vital while driving in Madeira.Is Madeira doable without car? ›
Madeira is totally doable without a car, so if like me you don't drive, you're going to be pleased with how decent the bus system is for seeing plenty of the island.How difficult is it for an American to drive in Portugal? ›
Driving in Portugal is Not That Bad
The reason for this is because Portugal's roads are by and large fairly easy to navigate. The highways are exceptionally well-maintained, signage is plentiful, and outside of major cities, you'll likely encounter 20 roundabouts for every one stoplight.
Madeira is the ideal destination for walk lovers, and in order to allow everyone to contemplate the lush beauty of our trails, there is a route between Pico das Pedras and Queimadas, in the municipality of Santana, which is prepared to receive visitors with motor disabilities.Is Madeira very hilly? ›
Madeira is very hilly and the least powerful cars may not be able to climb up the highest peak of the island when they are full.What type of car do you need in Madeira? ›
If you are visiting Madeira for the first time, it is important to keep in mind that a small car is the best option on this island. There are a number of reasons that a compact vehicle will make life easier on your vacation.Is it worth renting a car in Madeira? ›
A rental car is the best way to discover the island and on top of that Madeira is a beautiful place to drive. The roads on Madeira may not be for the most faint of heart but they do lead to the most beautiful places on the island.Is Madeira left hand drive? ›
Madeirans drive on the right-hand side of the road, and all cars have the steering column on the left. Seat belts are required at all times. Children under the age of 12 are not allowed to sit in the front seats.
Madeira has steep roads and many tunnels. Drive slowly when you are off the main motorways, as the roads are narrow and winding. To avoid any life-threatening experience, slow down when the roads are too narrow, and you're next to a chasm, and allow cars to safely pass you from the opposite direction.Do I need a rental car in Madeira Portugal? ›
Madeira is a beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portugal. It is known for its stunning natural beauty with rugged mountains, lush forests, and breathtaking coastlines. By renting a car in Madeira you'll have the best experience. You'll be able to fully explore this majestic island.How many days in Madeira is enough? ›
Yes, you can see the most popular places in Madeira, but hands down, you will be rushing. If you can, we would recommend you to stay at least 10 days!Can I drive in Portugal with a US license? ›
U.S. Citizens are entitled to drive in Portugal with their U.S. issued driver's license for a period no to exceed 185 days, provided they are not legal residents.Do Americans need an international drivers license to rent a car in Portugal? ›
Americans are not required by law to obtain an international driving permit to drive a rental car in Portugal.Can I buy a car in Portugal with a US driver's license? ›
As a foreigner, you will need the following documents to buy or sell a car in Portugal: Proof of residency in Portugal (a home rental contract, proof of purchase of real estate or a resident's card); Portuguese tax number (NIF); Proof of Identification (citizen card, passport, driver's license, ...).How easy is it to get around Madeira? ›
Finding Your Way Around Madeira Island. Getting around on Madeira Island is a breeze with its well-connected network of roads, buses, and taxis. Whether you prefer to take in the scenic views along the coastline or explore the charming towns and villages inland, Madeira Island promises an unforgettable journey.Can you drive in Madeira with a US license? ›
Madeira drives on the right and you can use the photo licence of any country to drive here, providing it's written in Roman alphabet.How long does it take to drive around all of Madeira? ›
Madeira is a tiny island, approximately 35 miles at the longest point and maximum width of 14 miles, and the entire island can be driven in less than 4 hours without stopping.