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I spent six weeks in Madeira working remotely and exploring the island with friends I’d met the previous year in Porto. We ate a LOT of fantastic food in Madeira that I can’t wait to tell you about.
Despite being part of the same country, the cuisine in Madeira is quite different to the food in Porto and also the food in Lisbon. Many of the dishes from mainland Portugal won’t be found on this volcanic island off the coast of northwest Africa and, in reverse, many of the top Madeira foods will prompt Porto and Lisbon locals to look confused.
Read next: 50 best things to do in Madeira
A bit about Madeiran food
Being an island surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean, you won’t be surprised to learn that Madeira’s cuisine is primarily influenced by its bounty. Unlike mainland Portugal where bacalhau (cod) is eaten more than in any other EU country, the typical fish enjoyed on Madeira is espada (scabbardfish) from the Atlantic.
You only need to escape Funchal to spy banana plantations everywhere. These have also made their way into the cuisine: a common way to eat espada is with fried banana!
But, of course, Madeira is part of Portugal so the cuisine is intertwined. As I’ll discuss in this Madeira food guide, several dishes are the same or similar. For example, Madeira wine is close to port wine (which I loved drinking in the Douro Valley), both fermented with grape liquor for a stronger flavour.
So, let’s get stuck into what to eat in Madeira!
Best Madeira food – meat dishes
You can’t deny that Portugal has a meat-heavy cuisine that extends to the food on Madeira Island. My vegetarian housemate (pictured below bravely smiling through a sea of meat) ended up eating a lot of cheese omelettes while accompanying us for dinner.
Espetada is a Madeiran food speciality made from juicy, well-seasoned meat cooked over hot coals. Marinated hunks of meat, traditionally beef, are cooked skewered and served hanging on bay leaf sticks.
Not only is this Madeira dish a delicious one but it’s a true dining experience! Since a meal of only meat isn’t the most nutritious option, it’s best paired with side dishes such as veggies or – to keep it authentic to Madeira – fried maize cubes and/or bolo de caco which I’ll talk about later.
Although beef is the traditional meat of choice, some restaurants will also offer chicken. At Restaurante Santo António, we tried one of each. The chicken was deliciously charred while the beef was rich and flavoursome.
Where to eat espetada?
The best places to eat espetada in Madeira are Restaurante Santo António and Restaurante O Polar. Located an 8-minute drive from one another, both require a car to reach. Charming, touristic Câmara de Lobos is their nearest town but they’re also within easy reach (a 20-minute drive) of Funchal.
You can’t go wrong with either. Restaurante Santo António has 4.7 stars on Google and over 4,300 reviews while O Polar also has 4.7 stars and over 2,000 reviews. O Polar has a more casual vibe and benefits from outdoor seating, while Santo António is bigger with a great wine list, larger tables for groups and a lively evening atmosphere.
The waiter at Santo António was great and not at all angry after we accidentally smashed a glass of wine!
Both are known to serve some of the best food in Madeira so, if you don’t have a reservation, it’s advisable to arrive early on a weekday if possible. We managed to get a table for four without too much of a wait but I’m sure this isn’t the case on weekends.
Carne vinha d’Alhos
Pork marinated in garlic and wine: what’s not to love? This typical Christmas Eve dish (now served year-round) is enriched with herbs, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper. In the Azores, it’s served as a stew while in Madeira, it’s often served with bolo de caco bread.
During colonisation, the dish made it to several Portuguese colonies. Some even say it inspired the recipe for vindaloo, but with the wine exchanged for vinegar!
Picado / picadinho
Picado (also called picadinho) is a typical dish from Madeira made from cubes of flavoursome beef, served on a bed of fries with tomatoes and sometimes other toppings.
Aside from the tomatoes, this is a hearty meal without a load of nutritional value but you can’t deny that meat and fries are a delicious combo! It’s a typical, no-frills Madeira dish found in restaurants and snack bars across the island, best shared and served with wooden toothpicks to spear and eat the meat.
Some places on the island will serve a picado with squid or octopus instead.
Cozido (meat stew)
This is a classic Portuguese meat dish also popular in Madeira. Cozido was originally a peasant’s dish using any kind of meat available. Now, the popular meats to use are salted pork and sausages such as chorizo and blood sausage. Expect it served with a side of meat or beans.
Sopa de trigo (wheat soup)
Translating as wheat soup, this is a hearty Madeira dish served for centuries. Ingredients like salted pork, potato, pumpkins and carrots are simmered in a flavoursome broth with buckwheat. It’s a winter dish most commonly made by island locals but you may spot it on restaurants menus as a starter.
Another meaty Madeira food is the simple prego: a beef steak served between slices of bread. The word prego means nail and allegedly comes from the motion of hammering garlic into meat.
I had plenty of these when living in Porto so I was excited for the Madeira upgrade of a ‘prego especial’ served in warm bolo de caco bread with garlic butter. This is typical snack bar food, sold for a couple of Euros!
Madira food – best seafood dishes
Unsurprisingly for an island, many of the typical Madeira dishes are straight out of the ocean. For seafood fans, here’s what to eat in Madeira…
Lapas (grilled limpets)
Delicious limpets are a true delicacy from Madeira, lightly grilled and served with copious amounts of fresh garlic. Since the waters around the island are clean and free from pollution, they’re often caught in the morning and served later that day.
Lapas are best eaten at a beach bar with a few beers, ideally at sunset. They’re the perfect sharing food served with wooden toothpicks to use in place of cutlery.
Where to eat lapas in Madeira
Two places I enjoyed eating limpets Barreirinha Bar Café, a cheap and cheerful snack bar beside Forte de São Tiago in Funchal with views of the ocean and locals picking fresh limpets, and Taberna do Petisco in Santa Cruz, a fantastic restaurant serving all kinds of regional seafood dishes.
I promise scabbardfish looks MUCH more appealing when served on a plate!
This alarming-looking fish found in deep waters of up to 1700m in the North Atlantic is Madeira’s answer to mainland Portugal’s beloved bacalhau (cod). Scabbardfish accounts for 50% of all catches making it an important part of the Madeira cuisine, culture and economy.
Despite its striking black scales, espada meat is white and soft with a mild flavour. There are several popular – and slightly unusual ways – to serve it…
Scabbardfish with banana (peixe espada com banana)
Fish with banana, say what?
This fruit and fish combination may sound strange but I can assure you it’s surprisingly tasty. The espada is battered and lightly fried (think British chip-shop style but 5000 times lighter!) and topped with a charred banana.
This traditional Madeira food is best served with potatoes, beans, veggies or rice.
Scabbardfish with passionfruit (peixe espada com maracujá)
Another way to experience the Madeira cuisine is by trying the other common preparation of espada: with passionfruit.
For this dish, you’ll need to enjoy salty, sweet and sharp together. Since I like contrasting flavours, I enjoyed it although I’ll admit it’s an unusual combo. If you’re not a sweet and savoury person, there are other Madeira foods you’ll prefer.
Not feeling these fruity toppings? For a classic Madeira dish, a breaded espada fillet is served inside a crusty bread roll with sauce and salad.
You won’t find this in fine-dining restaurants: it’s a casual dish served from takeaways once locals leave the bars. After a couple of drinks, I’d recommend joining them for the OG fillet of fish burger served in Madeira for decades!
Polvo (fresh octopus)
Although I think I’m going to have to give up octopus (damn you, Octopus Teacher on Netflix), I can’t deny that fresh polvo is one of the best Madeira foods to be found. Served fresh with a little olive oil, balsamic glaze and a squeeze of lime, it’s simply heavenly.
It may not be exclusive to the island like some of the typical Madeira dishes but it’s mighty popular and, due to its short journey from ocean to table, usually served fresh. None of those rubbery calamari rings!
There are many seafood restaurants on the island but a few of the best are Peixaria no Mercado and Gaviao Novo.
Best Madeira dishes for vegetarians
I’ll be honest: Madeira’s traditional food isn’t the best for veggies. However, there are plenty of tasty side dishes, a few of which combined make up a main meal.
Starting with the best…
Bolo de caco
This sublime flatbread boasts lashings of garlic, oozing from fluffy white bread with a crispy toasted crust.
Named after the stone slab it’s cooked on (caco) and the fact it’s in the shape of a cake (bolo), it’s found everywhere from takeaway counters as Madeira street food to fancy restaurants. It’s a true staple!
Tomato & onion soup with poached eggs
Another simple, tasty Madeira dish is tomato soup. But you can cast any notion of cheap canned soup from your mind: this is a fresh, flavoursome dish made with blended onion and tomato, served with a sprig of parsley and perfectly poached egg.
With a bolo de caco to dip, it’s the ideal lunch.
Fried maize (milho frito)
It may not sound particularly exciting but fried maize is a tasty addition to any meal. Crispy on the outside and gooey inside, these fried cubes remind me of ones I tried in Vietnam made with rice.
Eat them with popular Madeira foods such as espetada and meat stew.
One of the best experiences of my Madeira trip was visiting the spectacular Nun’s Valley. Named after nuns who fled from pirates and settled in this remote part of the island, there’s beautiful scenery, weather… And food!
Following a surplus of chestnuts one year, the villagers of Curral das Freiras began holding an annual chestnut festival. However, you don’t need to time your trip around this event; the restaurants in the valley serve chestnut dishes around the year.
Roasted chestnuts and rich chestnut soup are both on the menu, best washed down with a shot of the famous chestnut liquor. La Perla Restaurante is an affordable place to eat with a terrace offering spectacular views across the valley.
The island has a few typical beverages you can’t miss. Wash down the typical foods from Madeira with one of the following…
Poncha is easily the island’s most famous drink. The rum-based beverage is made with honey, sugarcane and typically citrus juice. Allegedly invented in fishing village, Câmara de Lobos, this is the best place to try it. Several modest bars like Bar Filhos D’ Mar serve it and little else.
As well as the traditional fishermen’s punch, many poncha bars serve a range of flavours such as passionfruit and tangerine. I preferred these because the OG combination of honey and lemon reminded me of something you’d drink when sick.
Whatever flavour you choose, poncha is a tasty drink that slides down easily. Possibly a little too easily…No night starting with poncha ends sensibly!
The other famous alcoholic drink is sweet Madeira wine. Records show it was being exported just a couple of decades after the island was colonised in the 1400s.
Much like port wine from Porto, the wine was fermented with grape liquor to help it survive its long journey back to mainland Europe. The sweet, strong taste became a favourite with its customers, and it remains so to this day!
The grapes that make Madeira wine are grown on the island, with the unique climate and production process contributing to the distinctive flavour. There are several varieties from sweet to dry (which is still very sweet) boasting different aromas and colours.
Book a wine tour or visit Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal.
Brisa – a popular soft drink
Grown in abundance on the island, passionfruit is a staple in Madeiran cuisine. Even the popular soft drink, Brisa Maracujá, is passionfruit-flavoured.
On a summer’s day, this sweet, carbonated drink is just the thing to quench your thirst. After the Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo hike on a hot day in July, I downed one in a matter of seconds!
Created in 1970 by Madeira Beer Company, it’s actually an alcohol-free drink. Passionfruit is the original (and best!) but you can find a couple of other fruit flavours.
A cocktail found on every Madeira bar menu is the iconic Nikita allegedly named after the Elton John song released the same year.
Made with pineapple juice and beer, it’s sweet on first sip with a fermented aftertaste. It might not please everyone’s palette but it’s worth a try when discovering the cuisine of Madeira!
Related activity: nikita and poncha tour with a local guide
If you still have room after a hearty local main dish, there are several sweet delicacies to try. No Madeira food guide would be complete without…
From passionfruit to mangosteen, guava, tamarillo and mango, the fruits that grow in Madeira are divine! I’d recommend buying them from local fruit stores for cheaper prices, however a wonderful place to browse lots of fresh produce in one go is Mercado Dos Lavradores in downtown Funchal.
Don’t miss the fish market downstairs to see some frightful-looking black scabbardfish!
Related activity: Santo da Serra farmers market adventure by 4×4
Bolo de mel (honey cake)
If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss bolo de mel AKA honey cake sweetened by sugarcane grown on the island. It’s sweet, sticky and spiced with anise, cloves, orange peel and more.
Although this traditional Madeira food is associated with Christmas, you can eat it year-round because it’s made in bulk during the festive period and keeps well. Locals will tell you it tastes even better with age.
Supermarket offerings are likely to be dry so it’s best to buy bolo de mel from a bakery or, better yet, the store beside Sociedade dos Engenhos da Calheta factory.
Pudim de Maracujá
I rarely like things that are TOO sweet so I was happy to try this delicious pudding with tangy passionfruit. This creamy dessert (like a mousse) made with cream and condensed milk can be eaten by itself or added to a biscuit base like a cheesecake.
Pastel de nata
In my opinion, pastéis de nata are better on the Portuguese mainland, as I discovered at their birthplace (Pastéis de Belém) when spending 3 days in Lisbon. However, if you’re just visiting the island, of course you should try the world-famous egg custard tarts!
With a flaky base, creamy filling and slightly charred top, they’re best served warm with a sprinkle of cinnamon (canela) and sugar.
Read next: finding the best pastel de nata in Porto
Queijadas da Madeira
Queijadas are tasty pastries found in bakeries across the island, filled with cottage cheese. Sugar, butter and eggs go into the pastry, while cheese and sugar make up the mixture inside. Like many Portuguese desserts, they were first made in convents almost 1,000 years ago.
Madeira food FAQs
Here’s what to know before you start eating and drinking…
What is the national dish of Madeira?
There’s not an official dish but espada with banana is probably the most famous thing to eat in Madeira!
What are Madeira food prices like?
If you eat at snack bars in more remote areas, you’ll find dishes from €3. In restaurants, expect to pay €10-15 for a main meal, more in touristic areas.
Do you tip waiters in Madeira?
Like most places in Europe, a tip of around 10% can optionally be left if the service was good.
Is food good in Madeira?
Yes, the food is good in Madeira because of the fresh fruits on the island and the tasty seafood caught locally.
What time is dinner in Madeira?
Around 8-9pm is a typical dinner time in Madeira but you’ll see tourists dining from 7pm.
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Thanks for reading!
Check out my Porto posts:
- The ultimate 3 day Porto itinerary
- Everything to see and do in Porto
- 16 best day trips from Porto
- Is Porto, Portugal worth visiting?
- A day trip to the Douro Valley from Porto
- What to eat in Porto – 25 typical dishes
- Finding the best pastel de nata in Porto
- The best cafes & coffee shops in Porto
- Where to eat vegan in Porto
- Area guide to Bonfim, Porto
- The best cocktail bars in Porto
- The best places for sunset in Porto
- ‘Taste Porto’ food tour review
More Portugal posts:
- 3 day Lisbon itinerary
- Solo travel guide to Lisbon
- Less touristic places to visit in Lisbon
- Lisbon food tour review
- The best things to do in Aveiro, Portugal
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TRUSTED RESOURCES FOR VISITING PORTUGAL
Getting there by air – I use Skyscanner to find the best-value flights, using the ‘search by month’ tool to find the cheapest dates. You can also use the ‘to anywhere’ feature if you’re flexible on where you’re going.
Driving in Europe – use Rentalcars.com to compare car rentals in European countries (and all around the world).
For hotels and self-catering apartments, I use Booking.com. You can filter by review score and price to find the best-rated budget places. For hostels, I use Hostelworld.com.
Browse tours and activities on GetYourGuide and Viator.
To save money on accommodation, I use Trusted Housesitters, a website that connects homeowners going away and travellers who can sit their homes & pets.
Need travel insurance? I use True Traveller (for UK & Europe residents) since it’s some of the most affordable insurance out there but still covers everything you’d need including various activities, valuables and pre-existing conditions. Unlike some companies, they insure you if you’re already travelling / don’t yet have your flight home booked. Get a quote.
For travel insurance for other nationalities, I recommend Hey Mundo and for long-term digital nomad travellers, I suggest Safety Wing.
Check out my resources page for more travel discounts and budget tips from my 10+ years on the road!