I had planned to explore the island of Madeira by self-driving. Then I heard some concerning stories about the road conditions. Is driving on Madeira truly as scary as some say?

Because I love having the flexibility to go anywhere, I had set my mind on renting a car for my entire trip in Madeira. But then, just days before my flight, someone told me that driving on Madeira is meant to be insane. 

Apparently: lots of twisty mountain roads, crazy inclines, and super narrow streets. I had no idea!

My source even told me that ‘some of the houses are built with thicker walls just because cars keep crashing into them’. (Yes, I believed him. Don’t laugh.)

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 head.

Was renting a car on Madeira just a bad idea?

Using public transport on Madeira

Since I wasn’t sure about the situation, I tried using the bus network first.

When looking at a map of the bus network (see PDF) it seems like you can reach pretty much anywhere on the island. Nice! Although there are four different bus companies, which is confusing, at least the network seemed pretty good.

Sadly, in practice, the bus network is not so useful for tourists.

Only a few sightseeing spots are actually reachable by bus. These include some towns and the hiking trail at the peninsula of São Lourenço. But most of the interesting sites are far away from any public transportation, or a bus goes there only once or twice a day.

I tried getting around by bus, but quickly gave up in frustration. I realized that renting a car in Madeira is simply the best way to see the island.

Driving conditions on Madeira

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 one big 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 the good driving conditions on Madeira.

Firstly, around the capital Funchal there are two-lane motorways, which let you easily get around the urbanized areas.

Elsewhere I had expected only twisty mountain roads, but in fact, there is an extraordinary number of tunnels all around the island. These tunnels (usually single lane both ways) serve as Madeira’s main traffic arteries. Getting from A to B often involves just 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. Easy peasy.

That said…

It’s true there are some pretty crazy roads in more remote locations. This includes small streets in mountain towns that can have some wondrous 20° inclines.

The old coastal roads around the island (from before all the new tunnels were made) are not used as much anymore, but they’re still there for you to drive. They’re scenic they are also narrow and beside steep cliffs. These specific roads are actually perfect road trip material, though they are also not required if you just want to get to specific towns or points of interest.

If you’ve driven mountain roads anywhere else in Europe, you’ll roughly know what to expect. If you are not an experienced driver, you can choose to avoid some of the crazy old rural roads and stick to the main roads, which are not nearly as challenging.

On the Paúl da Serra Plateau some cows roam free

Renting a car on Madeira

I was very 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 pick-up.

When booking your rental car, I do recommend getting a type of car one step up from what you normally get. For example, if you would normally book a mini, get a compact. This will ensure you have some extra horsepower should you face a steep road. 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 a good idea to book your rental car ahead of time. I almost didn’t get one because I left it very late! When I was at a rental agency, I also witnessed an American woman desperately trying to secure the last remaining automatic car (of which there are few on Madeira). It’s worth reserving your preferred car, especially in the tourist high season.

With Discover Cars you can search for the best rental car deals. This site will check the name-brand services as well as all the local ones. Use the widget below to check availability:

As is often the case, the more days you book your car, the cheaper it gets per day. You can see the differences when you play around with the dates. Renting a car for 2 days is usually more expensive per day than renting one for 5 days.

Madeira driving tips

If like me you were worried about the roads in Madeira, I think they are actually mostly fine — and I’m not the world’s greatest driver!

Twisty mountain roads are also not my speciality; I learned to drive while growing up in the Netherlands and, well… have you seen the Netherlands?

Still, I survived just fine.

Of course, every driver is different. I’m 38 and have done a fair bit of driving in various European travel destinations. I think some of the more extreme warnings on other blogs may have come from younger drivers or those not accustomed to driving on the right or driving manual. I imagine it could be more stressful in those cases.

If you’re used to automatic, just be sure to book well in advance as there is a limited stock of automatic rentals.

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).

One of the old ER101 roads – the main roads are much nicer!

Oh, and don’t let 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. Luckily, 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, say, you haven’t had your license very long or you’re not the most confident driver. In such a case, you could consider booking tours on Madeira as 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. If you’re okay with driving through a mountainous island, I can fully recommend going on a road trip in Madeira!

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