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Hiring a car and driving in Madeira

Hiring a car in Madeira - Shows a road under a waterfall

Are you wondering what driving in Madeira is really like? It’s no secret that the island is known as a very unique and sometimes challenging place to drive. Its mountain terrain, winding roads, endless tunnels and dramatic cliff trails are unlike anywhere else in Europe. We’ve driven around the island many times, and in this guide, we’ll share plenty of tips, traffic laws and advice for hiring a car in Madeira.

By the end of the guide you’ll have plenty of info about hiring a car in Madeira and will be confident enough to hit the roads yourself. Driving in Madeira is an experience in itself!

Should you hire a car in Madeira?

Many of Madeira’s top attractions are in remote locations, either up mountains, on far shores away from hotels or in small villages away from the tourist centres. The only part of Madeira that’s very well connected with public transport is the east coast around Funchal, plus parts of the south coast. When exploring inland and on the north coast, organized tours and car hire is the best option.

Hiring a car is not only cheaper than booking tours in Madeira, it’s also a lot of fun. The road network on the island is very good and the scenery you’ll encounter is breath-taking. It’s quite possibly one of the most scenic places to drive in the world! Aside from the cost, hiring a car in Madeira is also practical. Parking is easy to find in most areas, there isn’t much traffic and you have the freedom to explore at your own pace.

One thing to note, as we’ll cover in detail below; driving in Madeira can be a little challenging. If you’re not a confident driver or don’t have experience driving in another country, you may be more comfortable booking tours.

shows an image of a long road up in the mountains in Madeira, Portugal - Driving in Madeira

Driving in Madeira – an overview

Tight, hair-pin turns, one-way tunnels and steep mountain climbs are all part of the Madeira driving experience. Driving on the island can appear intimidating at first. However, as the road network and development is some of the best in Europe, navigating the mountainous terrain is easier than you’d think. Turns, hill-climbs and one-way roads can be challenging, but the signage, signalling, lack of traffic and many tunnels make driving in Madeira very straightforward.

One of the best things about driving in Madeira is the lack of traffic. It’s a fairly sparsely populated island outside of the main city Funchal. Local drivers have a style that’s quite fast and aggressive, but we found many drivers to be courteous and understanding to tourists.

Here are some quick points you should keep in mind:

  • Driving in Madeira is on the right side of the road.
  • Infrastructure is very good, with road barriers alongside mountain roads, very few pot holes and a lot of tunnels to pass through mountains with ease.
  • Getting around by car is fast and efficient. You can drive from one side of the island to the other, east to west, in only an hour.
  • Fuel prices are similar to that of mainland Europe.
shows an image of a winding road in the mountains of Madeira

Laws and road rules to be aware of

  • You must be at least 18 years old to drive in Madeira.
  • Some car hire companies will only hire a car to you if you’re 21+ or will charge a supplement for under 21’s. For some companies, the minimum age for rental is as high as 23.
  • Drivers with an EU licence don’t need any additional ID. Some other country driving licences are also accepted, including as the UK. Other countries will need an International Driving Licence.
  • The maximum speed limit on rural roads 90 km/h. On highways/motorways it’s 120 km/h.
  • Vehicles must use dipped headlights when driving through tunnels.
  • Seat belts are mandatory for all passengers.
  • Driving is on the right side of the road. Overtaking is on the left.
  • It’s illegal to use a mobile phone when driving (non-hands-free).
  • Children under 12 aren’t allowed in the front seats.
  • Permitted blood alcohol level is up to 0.05% when driving.
close up image of the drivers wheel and dash board - Hiring a car and driving in Madeira

Our top tips for driving in Madeira

  • Stay in the right lane when you aren’t overtaking.
  • Let faster drivers overtake you. In our experience, many locals drive fast but they’ll be patient. However, it’s courtesy and best practice to let them past.
  • Drive slow on mountain roads and areas with tight turns.
  • If you’re finding a road challenging, try to follow another driver and anticipate their movements. Just keep plenty of space behind.
  • Use Google Maps as a free Sat-nav. We use it in every country we visit and it’s very reliable in Madeira.
  • Check your wipers and dehumidifier works before heading up into the mountains. It can rain quite a lot as you increase in elevation.
  • In rural areas, parking is free in most places away from the road.
  • Feel free to stop and take pictures when driving, but do so in safe areas without much traffic. Put on your hazard lights, pull over to the side and walk away from the road. There are many amazing viewpoints and you’ll want to stop for photos at every second!
  • Choose a car with a more powerful engine to get you up those steep mountain roads. A Vauxhall Corsa is perfect. Fiat Panda’s and Fiat 500’s can be a little underpowered in our experience.
  • Smaller cars are easier to drive compared to large SUV’s. Roads can be quite narrow and cars park on either side.
  • Try to avoid driving in Funchal. The old streets are very narrow and are often one-way. In addition, parking can be difficult to find and there’s a lot more traffic than elsewhere.
shows an image of a straight road surrounded by trees - Hiring a car in Madeira

The types of roads in Madeira

Mountain roads – Madeira’s mountain roads are the most beautiful, but they’re also the most challenging. Tight hairpin turns, high elevation and some breathtaking scenery can all be experienced. These roads often have barriers so you can’t drive off the side.

Small town roads – Many of the island’s small towns aren’t very populated, so they’re easy to navigate. You’ll find both designated car parks and free off-street parking. Some towns have narrow, one-way roads so drive carefully and always read road signs.

City roads – Funchal’s roads are some of the most complicated to drive on due to the many lanes entering and exiting the city. Drive slowly and pay close attention to your sat-nav. Whilst in town, try to stick to the main roads around the centre, even if there’s heavy traffic. The narrow streets behind the city are often one way and it’s difficult to reverse if you get stuck.

Motorways/highways – The main roads often have a speed limit of 90 km/h, but are sometimes up to 120 km/h. They’re where you’ll spend most of your time on the road and are very smooth and well maintained. They’ll get you between towns and attractions quickly.

Tunnel roads – Tunnels, tunnels, everywhere. The south coast and centre of Madeira has so many tunnels that have been carved through the mountain. The sheer length of them can be cool at first, but they soon get boring when you’ve driven on the more scenic roads. Always turn on your dipped headlights or set your lights to ‘auto’ for tunnels. It’s also good practice to close your windows to avoid breathing in car fumes.

Rural roads – Away from the many motorways, you have some beautiful rural roads surrounded by nature. Mostly located in the centre of the island, these roads are some of the most scenic to drive on. Open the window, breath in the fresh air and enjoy Madeira nature at its best.

a birds eye view of the town looking down on a winding road

Our favourite Madeira driving routes

Nuns Valley – This mountain trail features winding roads that hug the hillside, some epic viewpoints and endless mountain scenery.

Boaventura north coast – The cliffside of Madeira’s north coast, near the town of Boaventura, is full of stunning coastal scenery. Waterfalls, lots of greenery and terracotta rooved towns sit inland. You then have towering cliff roads that overlook the beaches and rocks below.

Pico do Arieiro – The road up to Madeira’s third highest peak, Pico do Arieiro, is one that takes you from hot, humid and tropical forest. As you climb up to a higher altitude, you drive through woodland terrain and then ascend above the clouds. Being on a road and seeing clouds beneath you is awe inspiring.

image of a waterfall on the edge of a cliff

Good Madeira driving routes for beginners

The east coast – The east of Madeira is home to the city of Funchal, plus a few smaller towns, including Machico and Caniçal. It’s also the location of the airport. As the most developed area of the island, the road network is vast and land is fairly flat. You can explore the local towns and some excellent hiking routes without any technical mountain driving.

South Coast to Calheta Beach – Madeira’s south coast has some of the best weather! It boasts excellent beaches, lots of sunshine and relatively flat land. The majority of driving here is along one long straight road that passes through lots of tunnels. This makes for some short duration and very easy driving between attractions.

shows an image of a cliff face overlooking the sea in Madeira

A note on parking

Outside of Funchal, parking is very easy to find in Madeira. Many rural attractions have free roadside parking and some of the bigger towns, beaches and hiking spots have designated paid-for car parks. We found parking charges very cheap compared to other European destinations. In most small towns, you can find car parks by searching on Google Maps. Free street parking is almost always available but finding a car park in advance saves you the time and hassle of looking for a space.

Parking in Funchal is a completely different story. Being an old town with a large population and lots of narrow streets, parking is difficult to find and driving around can be extra challenging. There are some designated car parks near the sea-front but expect to pay higher rates.

If you plan on staying in Funchal and hiring a car, we recommend the ‘Lido’ area to the south. There are a wide range of resorts to choose from, many of which have on-site parking. Parking and driving this area is a lot easier than Funchal old town centre. You’re only a 30-minute walk or a 10-minute bus ride from Funchal centre.

shows an image of a straight road surrounded by greenery - Hiring a car and driving in Madeira

Finding the best car hire in Madeira

When it comes to hiring a car in Madeira, the choice of car rental companies and vehicles can be overwhelming. You have small local companies, but also international car hire brands that you see in most destinations. As with any country, car hire sometimes has risks of being ripped off and it’s not always the best idea to go with the cheapest option available. Here are our Madeira car hire company recommendations and things to note:

  • We recommend choosing a local car hire company over one of the franchised multi-national brands such as Enterprise, Budget and Green Motion. Reviews scores are higher, service is almost always better, there’s less chance of getting ripped off and vehicles are reliable.
  • Consider whether you want to collect your car at the airport on arrival, have it delivered to your hotel or collect it at the car rental company office during your trip. It’s often cheaper to collect it at the hire office.
  • Always check Google reviews for a car hire company before booking.
  • Compare insurance packages between hire companies and go for a company that has good coverage with no additional fees.
  • Check the small print and terms before booking. Some companies require you to pay an excess in the event of an accident or damage to the car. Others have no access and you won’t be liable at all. Always make sure you have full insurance cover.
  • Most car hire companies in Madeira are based in the Funchal area. Aim to collect your car before heading to your hotel if you’re staying outside of Funchal.
  • Book your Madeira car hire online in advance for the best prices. Cars often get fully booked in busy periods.
  • Opt for payment in credit card in person. Paying in advance gives you less options if you need to cancel your trip. Paying on credit card also gives you extra protection.
image of a girl waving next to a red car - Hiring a car and driving in Madeira

Our Madeira car hire company recommendations:

After doing lots of research, we decided on the following car hire companies. They have excellent online reviews and get a lot of ‘word of mouth’ recommendations. We’ve personally rented a car with both companies multiple times and had an excellent experience every time. Prices were competitive and vehicles were in excellent condition.

Other companies that consistently get good reviews are the following. We recommend comparing all options for your chosen dates to find the best prices.

Here are our top tips for finding affordable car hire in Madeira:

  • The more days you hire a car for, the cheaper the daily rate. Renting a car for only 1 or 2 days will cost the most euros per day.
  • If you don’t plan on driving for the entire holiday, consider only renting a car for a portion of your stay. During a one week trip, you could choose to stay local and explore Funchal the first few days. You could then hire a car for your last 3 or 4 days.
  • It’s often cheaper to pick up and drop off a car in the hire company’s local Funchal office. Airport collection and drop-off is more expensive.
  • Pick up the car and drop it off at the same location for lower rates.
  • Compare Madeira car hire companies online to find the best prices for your dates and desired car model. Price can vary wildly between companies.
  • Car hire is more expensive during the busy summer months, Easter holidays, Christmas and other seasonal breaks. Keep this in mind when booking both your holiday and car hire.
  • If full insurance cover isn’t included as standard, consider not buying insurance with the car hire company and secure your own separate excess insurance with a company such as CarHireExcess.co.uk. It’s often cheaper.
  • Opt against hiring a Sat-Nav with the rental company. You can use your Smartphone’s Google Maps app for free!
  • Look around online and on social media for discounts for your chosen Madeira car hire company. You’ll sometimes find promo codes and special offers.
  • Choose a smaller car model instead of a large SUV or luxury vehicle. It’s cheaper.
image of two people standing in front of a main road - Hiring a car and driving in Madeira

FAQs

Thanks for reading our complete guide on driving in Madeira. We hope you found some useful tips and can now put them into practice for your own road trip. The island truly is an amazing place to explore by car and we recommend Madeira car hire for anyone. We’ve never been to a place in Europe where driving is so fun!

If you have any questions about hiring a car in Madeira or any of the items we’ve mentioned, be sure to leave a comment below. 😊

Check out our other Madeira travel guides:

55 of the best things to do in Madeira

Where to stay in Funchal – The best Funchal hotels

The best places to visit in Madeira

Our complete Funchal travel guide

Ricky

By Ricky MARSHALL

Author bio:

An adventurer at heart that loves anything outdoors. Beaches, mountains and amazing scenery is everything I love about travel! I also enjoy home comforts and need a nice place to relax and re-charge after every trip.

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