Why driving in Madeira is super challenging

Driving in Madeira is super challenging

What do you imagine when you think of Madeira? Although I did my research before visiting the island, little I knew this place is actually composed of massive rugged cliffs hanging over the hungry Atlantic Ocean, small sparsely populated villages, roads dotted with colourful alliums and a myriad of hiking trails taking me to paradise and back.
Madeira is a small island, with a surface area of only 459
sq miles, most of it being mountainous terrain. All points on the island are served by great road networks, however public transport is reasonably limited still.

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For the sake of having flexibility in your schedule and being able to do several trails around the island, the best way to navigate through Madeira is by car. Apart from the obvious big rental companies, there are several local shops located in Funchal and the surrounding areas, offering you much better and cheaper options.

Drive in Madeira Roads From Above

Driving in Madeira

In general, I tend to go for a rental from a local company. I research the company online to ensure it's serious and professional, then, based on reviews, website look and feel, prices and responsiveness to my messages, I pick them or move on. In Madeira, I got really lucky as I rented a car from Europcar, a really good company which I strongly recommend. They were super fun to rent from, they waited for me at the airport with all the paperwork and took me straight to the car. It was the most hassle free transaction. I got a new model Seat Ibiza in excellent condition. The car did not disappoint one bit, being diesel and with good engine size.

Now here is the trick with renting a car in Madeira: get a GOOD car. I know it’s tempting to save some money, but because of the nature of the roads in Madeira, you will really need a rental which will actually allow you to drive up some 90 degrees steep hills. I specifically asked for a car capable to do all this. The shocking part? The cars are actually ridiculously cheap. For 8 days I paid less than £200 with all-inclusive insurance as part of the deal. Yes, please!
Rent your car here. Make sure you go to Locations on the main navigation. Select "Portugal", then start writing "Funchal" and the option to select Funchal Airport will just pop up.

Drive in Madeira Empty Road

What to expect from driving in Madeira

Now here comes the fun part, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from driving around Madeira. I’ve heard here and there that you need to be a skilful driver, but I thought, hey, I love driving and after touring New Zealand and crossing the Crown Range, I will be perfectly fine. Was I fine? Yes...BUT, Madeira has the most challenging roads I’ve ever experienced. Firstly, I had to drive on the right-hand side and as a Brit, this didn't come as naturally as you may imagine. Half an hour later I got used to it, so that turned out to be ok.
Secondly, once I got off the motorway, that’s when the challenges actually started. Imagine a continuous maze of roads which take you up and down on close to 90 degrees steep (up and down) hills. Sometimes I came across lots of signs warning me of massive rocks falling on the road. Other times, I drove on the narrowest, unfenced roads revealing a massive gap, spreading all the way to the ocean (which looks astonishing btw, but that’s not the time to marvel at the landscape).

Drive in Madeira Rocks Falling

I think my worst moment was when I took on one of those ridiculously narrow roads, going up the hill at over 60 degrees steepness, when, a massive truck almost pushed me off the road. I quickly moved to the very edge of the road (heart skipped a beat) and pressed the brakes (luckily I was only going 30 miles per hour). The truck had no issues whatsoever (just another day in paradise, pushing tourists off the cliffs). I was stunned and really took me a moment to get my wits together before continuing. Sure my knees were wobbling but I kept telling myself “I love driving, I love driving, I love driving”. Horrors!
After what felt like hours later, I finally got to the destination. I parked the car and took my wobbling knees for a walk through a deep forest, leading to the Los Balcones.
The views there were amazing. I mean... AMAZING. You could say worth risking my life for.

Madeira Los Bacones

For the next week in Madeira, I got better and better at driving on those challenging roads. There a couple more incidents were I had to pull myself together. I had to do a U-turn on a narrow unfenced road, reversing into the abyss. Imagine about 50 manoeuvres to ensure I don’t fall off the cliff. I had to drive through the thickest fog, up the mountains, towards Pico Ruivo. It made me feel like I was part of some horror movie: zero visibility, dark and cold and a serious possibility to get kidnapped by forest spirits.
To top it all up, of course, there were trivial steep hills where the necessary burning of the clutch turned out to be a must. Overall I survived it. Moreover, I actually enjoyed it had the driving adventure of a lifetime.

Madeira Forest Fog

Now here is what I took away from my driving experience in Madeira and I want you to really keep in mind. Don’t take it as a joke: you can’t race on these roads, you will fall off the cliff and die. Don’t think you are a superior driver and can take on these challenges just because you had years of experience. Honestly, they can be difficult even for a great driver. Just be patient and work on those clutch skills. If you don’t feel comfortable with the clutch work, don’t rent a car in Madeira, it’s going to give you more grief than pleasure and you will end up hating it. Knowing how to manoeuvre the car is an absolute must. And finally, if you are not comfortable with parallel parking up or down the hill, you might struggle here and there.

Drive in Madeira Road Towards Pico Ruivo

Now that safety is ensured, know that driving in Madeira is actually A LOT of fun. Challenges and adventures are always great and you will be able to access some seriously remote parts of this island. Get a rental, drive around and be prepared for an epic adventure of a lifetime.

Book your Hotel in Funchal, the capital of Madeira

We have picked a couple of lovely hotels for you in the very centre of Funchal. Parking is available in all of them (fees may apply) and you are only a short walk away from the old town with its outstanding restaurants and bars. During the day, take the car for a day trip around the island.

Castanheiro Boutique Hotel
Check Castanheiro Boutique Hotel on

Castanheiro Boutique Hotel

Offering an outdoor pool and spa centre, Castanheiro Boutique Hotel is set in Funchal, 550 yards from Marina do Funchal. The hotel has a year-round outdoor pool and hot tub, and guests can enjoy a meal at the restaurant or a drink at the bar.

Compare prices and read reviews, check:

ARTS IN Hotel Conde Carvalhal

This restored Madeiran mansion is located 1,000 yards from Funchal's Old Town and has scenic views of the sea, the city and the mountains from its own botanical gardens and terraces. Free WiFi and free covered private parking are available.

Compare prices and read reviews, check:

Few tips about car rental in Madeira

Company: Europcar

What you need: You need serious clutch skills and a good car with a great engine. Make sure you go to Locations on the main navigation. Select "Portugal", then start writing "Funchal" and the option to select Funchal Airport will just pop up.

Road condition: Motorways are excellent, be prepared for tons of tunnels, many roundabouts and one lane roads. Off the motorway, the serpentine roads are very narrow and challenging. People tend to be considerate and Madeirans seem to be good drivers.

Warnings: There are rocks falling off on certain roads. Be vigilant. In Madeira, you need to drive on the right-hand side.

Drive in Madeira Roads From Above North Island

Driving licences: Madeira is part of the EU. Check with your local government if your driving licence is accepted. Alternatively, you may need to apply for an international driving licence prior to your arrival.

Necessity: You must have a sat nav, this is by far the easiest way to ensure you have a smooth journey. I bring my Tom Tom with me, which has a full European map on it. I recommend you do the same. alternatively, you can rent it with the car for a small fee.

I hope you found this useful and you are now ready to drive in Madeira. Tell about a time when you really loved driving in a new country!


06 Jun 2019

Hi Cory,
Thanks for writing such an awesome article. My partner and I are going to Madeira and will rent a car in July. Do you recommend a certain type of car/power for getting around?

22 Jul 2019

Hi TJ, have lots of fun in Madeira. I'd personally go for a medium-sized car with a good engine. The engine will help with the steep slopes :)

Eric Conijn
10 Feb 2019


Where did you take the picture of the 'bridge' downwards to a forest? Before the text "Now here is what I took away" in this post? Beautyfull

22 Feb 2019

Hi Eric,

That was on our way up towards Pico Ruivo. As we were driving up on the mountain through the fog, en route to the trail :)

04 Dec 2017

Great article, very inspiring! I'm on Madeira right now for the 4th time, first time driving though and I'm having a great time with it, although nerve wracking at times. The inclines are unreal sometimes. Just a small observation though; there are no 60° slopes on drivable roadways on Madeira or anywhere. The steepest drivable road in the world is at about 37°, and the steepest on Madeira is about 20°. At 60° your car would literally tumble backwards.

05 Dec 2017

Hi Robert, glad you are loving Madeira. Of course, I am aware there no 90degrees hills, although they sure look that way sometimes. It was written just as a bit of a warning and not as a fact. However, I'd happily change the text to make sure I don't actually mislead. Also...37degrees that's wild! Do you know where in the world? I'm really curious.

Joaquim vieira
22 Apr 2019

Hey there. I am from Madeira. Don't confuse degrees with percentage. Thera are more than 40 degrees streets here. The 37% that Robert refered, i guess he was talking about Baldween street in New Zeland ( the steepest road in the world ). 37% percent means that if you travel 100 meters, you are going 37 meters up. Aind i guess that is like almost 45 degrees. Sometimes people confuse the "%" with degrees. Anyway, i am glad you enjoyed my beautiful Island :) big hugs for you guys

Mal Evans
03 Nov 2017

Hi Cory - enjoyed your article. Thank you
My wife would love to go to Madeira (Funchal) but I suffer from vertigo. I'm sure I'd be fine in Funchal but is the drive from the airport 'scary?'
Many thanks

03 Nov 2017

Hi Mal,
Glad to hear you enjoy the article, thank you. The drive from the airport to Funchal is not that scary. It's mainly on the motorway. There is one viaduct, which I'm not going to lie, it can look a bit scary, but if you focus on the task (of driving :D) you probably won't even notice it as much. If you are really scared of heights, then it's best to get a transfer service from the airport to your hotel. This way someone else will do the driving, and when in doubt, you can just close your eyes for a few seconds.
In my opinion, travelling around the island was the best part of the trip. However, even though I'm afraid of heights, it's not that bad for me. As always, know your limits, and simply stop when it's too much for you.

Madeira is beautiful, I'm sure you and your wife will love it there. Have lots of fun.

Kind Regards,