Funchal, Madeira's main city, developed as a prosperous port in the 16th century. The oldest part of town, and the starting point for many visitors, is the tangle of narrow streets and palm-lined squares of the Zona Velha, or Old Town, ideal for shopping, grabbing a bite to eat, or just watching the world go by from a pavement café. If your goals of visiting Madeira include relaxing in the sun, head to the most popular beaches along the stretch of coast to the west of the city centre. Madeira's mountainous interior is easily accessible from Funchal. A good starting point is the Funchal Ecological Park, comprising over 1,000 acres of protected mountain and parkland. Most of the city's museums and historic buildings are in the narrow streets close to the sea.
One of Funchal's most popular attractions is its cable car. Board the gondola on the seafront for a 20-minute ride over the city's rooftops up to the Monte area and the city's botanic garden. Another green space worth exploring is the Santa Catarina Park, which has subtropical plants, ponds with fountains, and great views over the Old Town and port. Funchal's most interesting museum is the Frederico de Freitas House, which showcases the prominent 19th-century merchant's sculpture, painting, and ceramic collection. A 21st-century museum worth seeing is the CR7, dedicated to the life and career of Madeira's most famous footballing hero, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Funchal is the largest city on Madeira, and the sixth-largest city in Portugal. Rent a car in Funchal from one of the many city centre depots, or collect it on arrival at the airport, 20 miles to the east. Funchal is a popular destination at any time of year – even in mid-winter, temperatures rarely drop below 19°C. The interior of Madeira is hilly, and Funchal spreads along the coast from the oldest part around the port. Unsurprisingly for an island, Madeira's cuisine is fish-based, with swordfish, tuna, clams, and octopus featuring on the menus of many local restaurants. The waters off Funchal are rich with wildlife, and whale- or dolphin-watching cruises depart from all over the island. Madeira is compact at only 35 miles long. Having access to car hire in Funchal means you can escape to a deserted beach or out into the mountains.
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Although Madeira's mountainous interior has restricted road building, it's still easy for visitors renting a car in Funchal to explore the island. The main road runs around the edge of Madeira, while a few roads cross the mountains. The VE3 motorway is modern and speedy, but has many tunnels, which makes it less than ideal for sightseeing. Driving regulations are similar to the UK's, in that drivers and all passengers must wear seatbelts, and children under 12 are not allowed to sit in the front of the car. Speed limits in built-up areas vary between 40km and 50km per hour, with higher limits of 90km per hour on the motorway. Blood-alcohol limits in Madeira are lower than in the UK, and fines can be as high as 600 euros for using your mobile behind the wheel. Although most visitors arrive on Madeira by air, there's also a monthly ferry service between the Portuguese mainland, Tenerife, and Funchal.