28 Mar Sao Vicente, Madeira: A Complete Travel Guide to Madeira’s Hidden Gem
Sao Vicente, Madeira was one of my travel highlights in 2017 and I still look back on my trip there and wonder how I had such an epic vacation in a place that others told me was stupid to have booked because of a lack of my research and knowledge of Madeira. They were completely right- the trip made no sense, but I am thankful I did it anyway. And even though it may not be the most practical of places to travel to, I highly encourage travelers to Madeira to go there! Especially those interested in off the path places or Madeira’s hidden gems. This is a complete travel guide to Sao Vicente, Madeira, including hotel, restaurant, transportation, and practical information for Sao Vicente.
To be honest, I had only heard about Madeira around seven years ago. I was living in Norway and a group of people I knew were taking a “Syden” vacation there. A “Syden” vacation in Scandinavia means going south to where the sun shines. Usually, these vacations involve packaged tours and charter flights, something that was not of interest to me as a fiercely independent traveler who had no children or reason to chase sunshine. I grew up somewhere pretty hot and sunny, to be honest. I loved the cold and snow as it was something that seemed so foreign to me. On the rare occasion that I did need sunlight in Norway, I fled to the Balkans or Eastern Europe, a place equally as cold but with slightly more daylight and sunshine.
Fast forward to 2017. My partner and I were planning our trip to the Azores and were looking at flying to another island besides Sao Miguel when there. The flights were expensive and we didn’t want to stay in Sao Miguel extra days, so we randomly searched flights to Madeira. We were beyond shocked to find out that a flight from Sao Miguel, Azores to Funchal, Madeira was only about $30. Before we could even think about what we were doing, we booked that one-way flight. Our route was Lisbon – Ponta Delgada (Azores) – Funchal (Madeira).
Sao Miguel is a moody place. The sun isn’t always present and it really is a cross between Hawaii and Iceland in my eyes. The greenery is spectacular and it is an adventurer’s paradise, but no one goes to Sao Miguel to sunbathe or swim in the beaches unless they failed to do their research. It is so much more than that. We understood Madeira to be the place that Europeans go for sun and beaches. I knew that Madeira had dramatic scenery, but I wasn’t quite sure what else we could get up to there. I did heaps of research for the Azores; I did none for Madeira.
We arrived at Christiano Ronaldo International Airport (yes, for real) outside of Funchal early in the morning and with a bit of a hangover. My hangover quickly dissipated after gazing out my window and seeing this view:
I knew that Christiano Ronaldo Airport had one of the most talked about runways in the world as it is short, difficult to land, and hugs the sea. It was undoubtedly one of the most incredible landings I’ve ever witnessed. The sun was shining, and I was happy to be in Madeira, no matter if it was a retiree’s paradise or not.
We grabbed our bags and had no idea what to do. We had booked a guesthouse on the other side of the island in a place called Sao Vicente. We figured it would be a quick jaunt into Funchal every day where we could take some island tours as we did not rent a car. We immediately went to the tourism office inside of the airport and chatted with a woman who laughed when we said we were staying in Sao Vicente. Apparently, the village is seaside, lacks things to do, and was going to take us over four hours to get to. Huh??
This tiny island apparently has scenery so rugged that getting around is a formidable task. We realized that we were not going to be making a daily trip to Funchal to take tours. We also realized that getting anywhere on the island without our own rental or a tour booked would be a far too difficult task. After looking to cancel our guesthouse in Sao Vicente, we ended up just deciding to stay solely in Sao Vicente and come back to Madeira later to see more of the island.
Best decision ever. It took us ages to get to Sao Vicente, as expected, but when we arrived we found one of the most naturally beautiful seaside villages I had ever laid eyes on. I still can’t believe that we got to call that village home for a few days.
We checked into our guesthouse and met our host. We had done some grocery shopping in Funchal prior to catching our bus to that side of the island, so we cooked up a tasty curry for dinner before being offered a local alcoholic, sugar cane drink called Poncha from our host. My hangover had subsided, but the smell of rum made me gag. I enjoyed it anyway and went to bed.Madeira Hidden Gems: A Complete Travel Guide to Sao Vicente, Madeira @madeira #ttot #lp Click To Tweet
The next day, we woke up early and walked into town. We barely got a glimpse of the town the day before, but it is absolutely idyllic. We found bars, restaurants, a grocery store, cafes, small shops, and plenty to do for our few days there. I was so worried that we would struggle to keep ourselves occupied but almost immediately we realized that it would be no problem and that we would have a blast.
Our time in Sao Vicente, Madeira was pretty much perfect. We lounged around, didn’t set alarms, and enjoyed photographing the pristine scenery. We hiked in the evenings and waited around to awe at the sunsets. We ate fresh fish and sipped on seaside beers. We couldn’t get enough of Sao Vicente. Looking back on it, it was one of my favorite vacations to date.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- About Sao Vicente
- Where to Eat in Sao Vicente
- Where to Drink in Sao Vicente
- What to do in Sao Vicente
- Where to Stay in Sao Vicente
- How to Get to Sao Vicente
- Madeira Tours to Sao Vicente
- Weather in Madeira
About Sao Vicente
Sao Vicente is a small municipality on the northern coast of Madeira and it sits in between Santana (known for the thatched houses) and Porto Moniz. It is known for its volcanic caves as well as the church that sits prominently atop a basalt rock at the mouth of the small river that runs through the town. There are currently around 5,800 residents.
Where to Eat in Sao Vicente
There is not an overabundance of places to eat at in Madeira, but there are enough. There is also a sizeable grocery store there that will keep you stocked with things to make for lunches and dinners if you are staying in an apartment or rental property. We also shopped for groceries before arriving in Sao Vicente because we were unsure if we would actually have a grocery store there. The shops in Funchal sold so many familiar items. The shop in Sao Vicente served fewer. Here are few places I went while there and my thoughts on them:
This restaurant was our go-to by the end of our time in Sao Vicente. We kind of shunned it at first because it overlooks the ocean, was destined to be overpriced, and seemed to just be brimming with tourists that were passing through on their Madeira road trips. But, we found it actually not like that at all. The pricing was decent and the food was pretty fresh. But that is not why we went there. We went there for the views. The staff kept trying to seat us upstairs away from the ocean view and we kept refusing. They eventually gave up. We even made this our ‘drinking spot’ merely for the ocean view.
We really wanted to love this place as it had pretty solid reviews online, but we didn’t care for it that much. The Xapa Grill sits upstairs in a shopping plaza right along the ocean. The reason we were drawn to it was that they had a buffet that got good reviews and was cheap. We were hunting for something affordable for lunch so we didn’t have to walk up the hill to our accommodation, but this missed the mark for us. On the other hand, we think it was because we went so late in the day and the food seemed old, cold, and lifeless. But, maybe worth giving a shot if you want to try some local foods at a cheap price. Just go right when they open.
Churrascaria Brasa Viva
I am so gutted that we didn’t eat here. We stumbled upon this place as we were walking around the main road on our first day in Sao Vicente. A couple of local men called us over from across the road. We walked over and chatted with them and decided to have a Coral beer on the large outdoor terrace. The men eventually left and we were there by ourselves. We didn’t know if the place had good food or not because there was no one there except us and I’m always wary of eating at place where no one is eating at (take mind, it wasn’t dinner or lunch time- I was just jet-lagged). We passed on eating there. As we were about to leave, we saw two tourists stop by on their road trip and order some meat and it looked incredible. While I’m not an avid meat eater, I can say that it looked fresh and totally appetizing. We never went back only to later read that this place gets raving reviews. Oh well, next time!
<this cute pup can be spotted barking at you on the way to and from Churrascaria Brasa Viva>
Where to Drink in Sao Vicente
We found that the best places to drink were at the restaurants mentioned above. But there were a few small places within Sao Vicente to drink and party at- most are small local bars and pubs.
What to do in Sao Vicente
There are a plethora of things to do in Madeira. And there are loads of them located in Sao Vicente. Besides the obvious beach activities and going to restaurants and bars, the activities and things listed below are other things to keep you occupied if you find yourself in this part of Madeira.
Sao Vicente Caves and Volcanism Center
The Sao Vicente Caves were the result of an eruption that happened 890 thousand years ago that occurred in Paul da Serra. On the other hand, the locals did not report the caves to officials until 1885 and they became a tourist attraction in Sao Vicente in 1996.
You can walk through the Sao Vicente lava tubes and caves and at the end of the tour, you can check out the Volcano Center that offers an educational perspective on the geological wonder. We saw a 3D movie about how the caves and Madeira formed (it was nauseating… I can’t do 3D) and had very enthusiastic guides and people explaining and answering questions.
The Sao Vicente Caves and Volcanism Center is open 7 days a week from 1000-1800. There is an entrance fee. They are located in the valley and you can’t miss them if you are based in Sao Vicente or merely visiting on a day trip. I suggest visiting if you’re basing yourself in the city or are on that day trip including other activities. I wouldn’t trek across the island just to go there, however. The address is Sitio do Pe do Passo. Check out their website for more information.
If you are actually looking at a half-day trip here from Funchal because you’re into Geology or the history of Madeira, you can check rates and availability of this highly recommended tour that will take you there.
Go Hiking in Sao Vicente (and the Surrounding Areas)
There are a few hiking opportunities in and around Sao Vicente. Unfortunately, a car is recommended to get to two of the locations mentioned below (but the last one can be done by foot from the city center!) Until you’re on Madeira, it is hard to grasp how dramatic and tantalizing the scenery is there, but trust me- it is. It will blow your mind.
Hiking to Pico Ruivo from Bocca da Encumeada: This hike takes you to the tallest peak on Madeira. There are several views along the way, but the final view is a 360-degree view of the island and it is impressive. The only problem? This hike is not for the weak. It is very demanding and is estimated at around 12-hours. This 20km hike is one of the best on Madeira, but not many people partake due to its difficulty (and most people are on a Madeira all-inclusive holiday anyway). You can read more about it here.
Hike Along a Levada near Sao Vicente: Hiking the Levadas is one of the most common things to do while on Madeira. Levadas are irrigation canals and they ubiquitously exist all across the island. This hike starts around Sao Vicente and is best reached by car. You will hike the La Levada do Norte through the dense Folhadal forest. This hike is much easier than the aforementioned one! The hike itself takes around 2.5 hours and is a little over 5km. The forest presents itself with a variety of species and breathtaking viewpoints. You can read more about it here.
Walk the Old Road from Sao Vicente to Seixal: The old road that goes from Sao Vicente to Seixal is now abandoned and hugs the rough scenery and goes right along the coast. The new road, built behind it, winds through tunnels and is quicker and more efficient. The old road is now open to people who want to walk from one village to the other. We walked a little under halfway as we ended up starting too late and were too mesmerized by the scenery to move along too quickly. The distance is fairly long at about 6km, but the views are so worth it!
When walking this, make sure you are careful going through the old tunnels as they are now covered in wet moss and can be quite slippery! Also, be sure to leave the headphones behind and listen to the sounds as there are hidden waterfalls along the way!
Watch the Sunset
It is hard to imagine a day in Sao Vicente without admiring the sunset. We made it a point to head down to the water every night to witness the spectacular colors.
Enjoy Some Local Poncha
Poncha is a local drink that is made from sugar cane, rum, limes, etc and is very special to this area of Madeira. I had it made for me at my guesthouse, Enjoy it Home, and it was really tasty despite my terrible hangover that day. I am pretty sure I appreciate it more now than I did then.
If you can’t make it to Sao Vicente but want to learn more about poncha, the local drink of the Northern Coast, you can check out this tour which will take you on a guided tour of a sugar cane factory (one of the essential ingredients in poncha). This tour goes from Funchal.
Explore the Calamar Pools and Grounds
We really don’t know the place we explored aside from that its name is Calamar Restaurant and we think it is a seasonal beach bar, but it wasn’t being used in October when we were there and was located right on the seaside. While the restaurant was closed (seasonally or permanently- we have no idea), the grounds were stunning and fun to explore. It seems as though lizards and nature have claimed this place back, so I hope that someone cleans it up before it reopens or as sold off to a new owner. The spot is so perfect.
Where to Stay in Sao Vicente
Sao Vicente has a variety of accommodation, ranging from budget options to middle/upper range. There is nothing overly luxurious in the area, but you can find some of the all-inclusive Madeira resorts or some of the best Madeira resorts in other communities on the North Coast of Madeira. Below are some hostels and hotels in Sao Vicente that I recommend.
Budget Accommodation in Sao Vicente
Budget accommodation seems to be more commonplace in Sao Vicente than upscale and luxury accommodation. Below are a couple of recommendations (including the one I stayed at).
Enjoy it Home: This is where we stayed while in Sao Vicente and we loved it. The property is more of a guesthouse than a hostel or hotel and we felt like part of the family immediately upon arrival. The property is gated and on the hill. If you have a lot of luggage and are taking public transport out this way, try to get dropped off on the hill before getting into the actual town center. Trust me! It is quite the uphill hike. The guesthouse has clean rooms, hot showers, clean kitchen, laundry options, good wifi, a lounge room, and a stunning garden area that gives some of the best views in the city (including the ocean).
Before arrival, be sure to email Pedro and the guesthouse with your arrival details so they can ensure someone will be there to let you in. If you arrive out of season, it is really not very busy.
Sao Vicente Hostel: This is priced around the same as Enjoy it Home and gets good reviews. The hosts are known for being hospitable and the place is known for having killer views. It comes equipped with parking, lockers, a fully equipped kitchen, wifi, and a BBQ area. Sao Vicente Hostel is definitely a Madeira fan favorite.
Mid-Range and Luxury Accommodation in Sao Vicente
We, unfortunately, didn’t see anywhere too luxurious or upscale in Sao Vicente, but that doesn’t mean that places weren’t high quality. In fact, many places are pretty affordable.
Estalagem Do Mar: This oceanfront (you heard me) lodging was one of our favorite spots in all of Sao Vicente. We went there every morning to the rocks around it to photograph and were jealous of the people who got to wake up to the waves there every morning. As it turns out, the hotel is super affordable. I will definitely add it to my ‘next time I’m in Sao Vicente’ file. Definitely a great hotel in Madeira for those who want to stay oceanfront.
Solar da Bica: This property is best reached by car or without a lot of luggage to carry. It is situated a bit further inland but offers beautiful views, free breakfast, an indoor pool, and an organic vegetable garden. There is also a sauna and a friendly staff to greet you upon arrival.
How to Get to Sao Vicente
Believe it or not, there are a few ways to get out to small Sao Vicente from Funchal. I listed both public transportation and private car options below. If you read further, there are some tour recommendations too. While I didn’t take any tours in Madeira, I did take two in the Azores and as someone who doesn’t like tours, I loved it. Definitely something to consider if Sao Vicente is on your list but you don’t want to drive there or spend grueling hours on a hot bus out that way from Funchal.
Getting to Sao Vicente by Public Bus
Here is where things get a bit… interesting. Sao Vicente is difficult to reach via public transportation. Not impossible by any stretch (we did it, obviously), but it is a cumbersome trip. The bus costs around 8 Euros or so per person, one way.
Rodoeste Nr. 6 from Funchal to Boaventura
You can take Rodoeste Bus 6 Funchal / Boaventura. This bus takes nearly three hours, but the scenery you will witness will blow your mind. And if you’re afraid of heights, it will scare the living shit out of you (raises hand…)
The bus departs Funchal three times a day, except Sundays, where it is only twice a day. The bus departs Funchal at 0735, 1335 (not on Sundays), and 1730. The bus will pass through four stops after Funchal and you will disembark on the fifth stop. But, double check with the bus driver. They often pick up people along the way and it can leave you pretty confused if you’re not keeping an eye out. When you’re in Sao Vicente, it is pretty obvious as you’ll be in a dramatic valley overlooking the ocean with a landmark church atop a hill.
Rodoeste Nr 139 from Funchal to Porto Moniz
The other public bus option you have to get to Sao Vicente is to take Bus 39 Funchal / Porto Moniz. This bus works daily and departs at 0900 every day. You’ll arrive in Sao Vicente at around 1130 and it is the second to last stop.
Getting Back to Funchal from Sao Vicente by Bus
Getting back is just as difficult as getting there. You have the same bus numbers returning, but at different times, naturally. We randomly found an express bus, but it was teeming with school kids for the first thirty minutes and we had to stand crammed in. I had a breakdown as I am claustrophobic, but all was settled when they got off to go to school.
Rodoeste Nr 6 from Boaventura to Funchal
This bus will leave Sao Vicente for Funchal at 0635 (not available on Sundays), 0755, and 1535. You will arrive at Funchal at 0850, 1025, and 1750, respectively.
Rodoeste Nr 139 from Santa to Funchal
This bus only leaves Sao Vicente on weekdays and Saturdays. It leaves at 0600 and arrives in Funchal at 0830.
Do double-check the schedules above before going as they may have changed or routes may have been removed or added. You can check the bus schedules for Rodoeste here.
Getting to Sao Vicente by Car
Congratulations. You have chosen the most sensible option and the one I wish I had opted for when I look back at things. Sources say that the trip from Funchal to Sao Vicente takes about 45 minutes if you take the fastest routes and tunnels. I will likely never know because I am too scared of heights to ever drive this route myself.
Madeira Tours to Sao Vicente
I completely realize that public transportation is not necessarily a feasible option for most as the route is cumbersome and much longer than it needs to be (those darn beautiful mountains). Please don’t let that put you off of visiting Sao Vicente! The area is truly stunning and unique to so many other areas of the island that it really deserves to be part of your Madeira itinerary. There are three tours that can get you to Sao Vicente from Funchal. You can learn more about each below.
Madeira North Coast Day Trip From Funchal
You will leave Funchal for the North Coast where you’ll get to check out Porto da Cruz to the east, Faial, and Cabanas de Sao Jorge.
Depart Funchal and head for the north coast of Madeira to get unprecedented views of the ocean and island from different perspectives. You will get a glimpse at the sea, mountains, and some of the most remarkable vineyards. The rest of the day, you will get to see Ponta Delgada, Sao Vicente, and then get to see the Sao Vicente caves. Your final stop will be Ribeira Brava before returning to your hotel in Funchal.
Madeira Island Full-Day Jeep Tours
This tour is brilliant and changes from day-to-day. A few of the tours put emphasis on Sao Vicente tourism, however, and other areas around its northern coast location. By visiting Madeira by Jeep, you will be able to off-road into areas you didn’t think you’d otherwise be able to see.
Madeira with a Private Guide
Another great way to see places on the island in a very bespoke manner, hiring a private guide will allow you to create your own itinerary and see exactly what interests you. This is a great option for those who don’t want to travel alongside several others and who want to focus on certain aspects of the islands as opposed to others. For me, this would have been ideal as I wouldn’t have had to worry about the crazy landscapes and driving them, yet being able to not be around others while focusing on nature and parts of Madeira that truly enthralled me.
Weather in Madeira
The weather in Madeira is just like most places and fluctuates most of the year. On the other hand, it is always a bit nicer than the average place and that fluctuation is only by around 7C or 10F, so you can basically count on enjoyable weather no matter what time of the year you go there. We went to Madeira in October. It was sunny most of the day, but clouds came through quickly when they did (creating pretty magical sunsets every single night, if I’m going to be honest). Madeira weather is very temperamental, on the other hand. It rains quite a bit during the cooler months (October until March), so just keep that in mind if you end up there!
Have you ever been to Madeira or to Sao Vicente? Is the village on your wishlist?
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