Madeira or the Algarve: which is best for a sunny holiday in Portugal?

Daniel James Clarke

Daniel James Clarke

I've been holidaying in the Algarve since childhood. My happiest early memories are playing on cave-like beaches and hiding in Moorish castles. Over the years, I became convinced Portugal's sun-kissed south couldn't be beaten, and eventually, I moved here.

Colourful Câmara de Lobos, Madeira
Colourful Câmara de Lobos, Madeira © Christian Balate - Adobe Stock Image

But then I discovered Madeira. Wow! With its dramatic beaches and mind-boggling mountains, my childlike wonder returned. And so did I, falling more in love with the laid-back island each visit.

If you're torn between Madeira* or the Algarve* for your next getaway, it's a dilemma I understand. Both of Portugal's sunny holiday spots are fantastic. But which should you pick? Let me help you decide.

Getting to Portugal: check out the latest offers on holidays to Portugal with TUI*, which offers breaks to both the Algarve and the archipelago of Madeira.

Best for beaches

With over 125 miles of coastline, the Algarve has a shoreline for all. Get yourself to Praia da Marinha, a cliff-backed butterscotch beach and you'll understand why it's ranked one of the world's best.

The secluded shore of Praia de Coelha, Algarve
The secluded shore of Praia de Coelha, Algarve © Kazmulka - Adobe Stock Image

All along the coast, these craggy coves continue. I love Praia da Coelha and Praia da Afurada as they're a little more secluded.

Then there are more typical arcs of soft sands with beach bars and facilities. Sweeping Falésia, party-central Praia da Rocha, and forest-backed Praia Verde are fantastic. And the wild, surf-pounded west coast? That's a whole other Algarve.

Madeira's coastline isn't much shorter, but the island's volcanic nature makes sandy spots rarer. Instead, pretty pebbly bays like Ponta do Sol and spectacular Seixal's black sand beach are standard, with more elusive golden sands in Calheta or Machico.

The invitingly clear waters of Porto Moniz Natural Pools
The invitingly clear waters of Porto Moniz Natural Pools © Mike Chellini - Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But what Madeira lacks in beaches is compensated for with natural swimming pools. The most famous is Porto Moniz, splashed by foaming waves. Still, there's little debate. The Algarve triumphs for sheer sunbathing scale, although Madeira's waters can be a touch warmer.

Then there are the islands

"But isn't Madeira an island?" I hear you thinking. Of course, but it's also an archipelago. One of the best day trips is sailing by gullet to see the monk seals on the uninhabited Desertas.

Take a ferry, though, and you'll reach one of my favourite places in Portugal*, paradisiacal Porto Santo. Of this seven-mile-long island, the majority is uninterrupted sands, backed by laid-back resorts and arid hills.

In the Algarve, the Ria Formosa's barrier islands provide stiff competition. Hop on a quick boat to reach uninhabited Ilha da Barreta or low-key Ilha da Armona, and you'll soon be swimming in some of the region's warmest turquoise waters.

Wildlife & active adventures

When it comes to wildlife, it's all about the Atlantic. Whale-watching off Madeira is an unforgettable year-round spectacle. And while the Algarve competes with dolphin-spotting trips, I'd say seeing a sperm whale breaching is incomparable.

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Instead, the Algarve excels at kayaking adventures. You'll be in awe as you peer inside the sky-light-illuminated Benagil Cave or paddle around the sea-piercing rock formations at Ponta da Piedade.

Kayaking the Benagli Cave, the Algarve
Kayaking the Benagli Cave, the Algarve © Tomsickova - Adobe Stock Image

Feeling more active? Hike along the cliff-hugging Seven Hanging Valleys Trail with its hidden bays and ocean panoramas. Or head to the forested trails in the Monchique Mountains.

Great as these hikes are, I'm yet to find an Algarve adventure that can trump Madeira's mountainous terrain. The levada trails that track old irrigation channels between Laurel forests or magnificent waterfalls are jaw-dropping.

And if you're feeling brave, the Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo hike high above the clouds, reaching 6,100 ft, firmly putting Madeira on top.

However, If you're travelling with kids, the Algarve leads on family-friendly activities such as playgrounds, crazy golf, rattling tourist trains and excellent waterparks including Aquashow will entertain your little ones.

Diving into different cultures

With at least 2,000 years' more history, the Algarve has a clear advantage here. From the Roman ruins of Milreu to the 8th-century Moorish Castle of Silves, monuments to the past are plentiful.

Swatting up on the region's history is easy at Tavira's Islamic Museum and Faro's Municipal Museum, housing Roman mosaics and prehistoric discoveries in a former convent. Then there's all of the seafaring stories in Sagres Fortress.

Following the levada irrigation trails of Madeira
Following the levada irrigation trails of Madeira © Jotbe1961 - Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Madeira wasn't settled until the 15th century, making its culture almost entirely Portuguese. There's a handful of oldish buildings to admire, like São Tiago Fort and Funchal's Cathedral, but you'll likely find the typical thatched-roof houses in Santana more interesting.

Where Madeiran culture excels is folklore and festivals worth planning a holiday around. Come in February for the carnival's colourful costumes, typical Bailinho music and dancing. Late spring hosts the animated flower festival, while the New Year's Eve fireworks are top-notch for some winter sun.

How about city life?

Fishing villages turned resort towns are plentiful across both regions. My top tips include Madeira's Santa Cruz and São Vicente or the Algarve's Carvoeiro and Cabanas. But with some of these smaller resorts nearly closed in low season, how do the regions' cities stack up?

The Algarve's population gives more choice. I'm a big fan of Faro as it's well-placed for beach visits by boat or day trips to timeless, whitewashed Tavira*. Further west, easy-going Lagos*, with its compact, calçada-coated (Portuguese pavement) Old Town, gives easier beach access.

But Madeira's capital arguably wins in a battle between Faro and Funchal. Spilling down to the ocean from lush foothills, the city's Old Town basalt buildings are beautiful.

The world's most thrilling toboggan ride, Madeira
The world's most thrilling toboggan ride, Madeira © Jan Wlodarczyk - Alamy Stock Photo

The cable car will whizz you up to colourful Botanical Gardens and weathered Monte Palace, while human-powered toboggans will bring you back down. Street-art-lined lanes and Lavradores Market's overflowing tropical fruits add more colour to our city champion.

Taking a bite out of both

Both regions enjoy the Atlantic's bounty, meaning first-class seafood is abundant.

On Madeira, grilled limpets and the curious traditional dish of scabbard fish with banana are menu pleasers. However, neither can rival the Algarve's cataplana, a seafood stew cooked in the region's signature copper pot.

I'm a massive fan of Madeira's juicy, beef-skewered Espetada, but a plate of Algarve's piri piri chicken is arguably more of a crowd-pleaser.

Wines? That's harder to call. Madeira's fortified wine is more famous. But in recent years, the Algarve's vineyards have started turning heads. My advice? Get a bottle of both; you're on holiday, after all.

And the all-important weather

Although the Algarve is sunnier, especially in summer, both regions have more than five hours of sunshine a day on average every month, so chances are you'll be sunbathing smitten in either. Still, Madeira's more consistent temperatures (it's closer to Africa than Europe) are tempting year-round, especially when the Algarve scorches in summer.

For me, the Algarve is best, and quieter, in spring and autumn, while Madeira is excellent as a winter or summer escape.

Compare weather

Use the graphs below to compare weather conditions in Madeira and the Algarve. Find out more about the climate in Madeira and the climate in the Algarve as well as conditions across the country in our complete guide to the climate in Portugal.

Madeira vs Algarve

Maximum daytime temperature (°C)

Madeira, Portugal (Funchal)
Algarve, Portugal (Albufeira)
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Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
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Dec

Hours of sunshine per day

Madeira, Portugal (Funchal)
Algarve, Portugal (Albufeira)
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Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
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Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec

Days with some rainfall

Madeira, Portugal (Funchal)
Algarve, Portugal (Albufeira)
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Feb
Mar
Apr
May
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Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec

Monthly rainfall (mm)

Madeira, Portugal (Funchal)
Algarve, Portugal (Albufeira)
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Feb
Mar
Apr
May
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Jul
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Sep
Oct
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Dec

Sea temperature (°C)

Madeira, Portugal (Funchal)
Algarve, Portugal (Albufeira)
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec

Have we helped you decide? Whether you've settled on the Algarve or Madeira, be sure to browse the current offers on holidays to Portugal with TUI.

Low deposits on summer & winter sun holidays with TUI

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Portugal by month

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Daniel James Clarke

Daniel James Clarke

Posted on Wednesday 28th February 2024 in: Adventure Europe Excursions Nature Summer

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