Malta vs Madeira: Which should you visit?


A sunrise view of Malta’s capital, Valletta (Dreamstime)

Population: 475,700

Size: 316 sq km

Famous for: Medieval architecture and coastal resorts

Expect: A busy events calendar, Knights Hospitaller relics and outdoor thrills


Looking towards the town of Camara de Lobos in Madeira (Dreamstime)

Population: 254,876

Size: 801 sq km

Famous for: Fortified wine and Cristiano Ronaldo

Expect: Island beauty, festivals and an adventurous feel that belies its go-slow reputation


The Blue Lagoon on Malta’s Camino Island (Shutterstock)

This middle-of-the-Med archipelago is made up of three main islands – lively Malta, laid-back Gozo (pictured) and virtually unpopulated Comino – all of which are layered with cultural influences.

Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and the British are among those to have held sway here, resulting in a uniquely Maltese mix.

A Portuguese island region that sits almost twice as close to the African coast as it does to Lisbon, Madeira is essentially a subtropical outpost of Europe in the Atlantic.

You’ll therefore find a version of Portuguese culture – great food, old-world architecture, lots of festivals – played through the prism of island life.

Day trips

At the right time of year, you can enjoy dolphin and whale watching trips from Madeira (Shutterstock)

In Malta, the UNESCO-listed city of Valletta, Europe’s smallest capital, is the noble legacy of the medieval Knights Hospitaller and has a Grand Harbour as spectacular as you’ll find anywhere.

Elsewhere, Mdina is a fortified city brimming with its own history, while over on Gozo, the Ġgantija temples date back to megalithic times.

Madeira’s capital city Funchal has bags of charm, although its flower gardens (pictured) and produce markets are perhaps best enjoyed when cruise-ship groups aren’t in town.

Elsewhere, off-road jeep trips are a great way of sampling the scenery, and there’s also dolphin- and whale-watching (at its best between April and October).


A plate of Maltese seafood (Shutterstock)

The Maltese love their food. Drawing on flavours and traditions from the Med, North Africa and beyond, Malta’s cuisine reflects its crossroads location.

Fresh seafood features heavily, as do island delicacies such as gbejna (sheep’s cheese), pastizzi (savoury stuffed pastry) and imqaret (a sweet date-filled pastry).

Madeira is synonymous with the fortified wine that’s been made here for centuries. It’s stickily lovely stuff – and the food’s pretty good, too.

Classic dishes include espetada (skewered beef prepared with garlic and salt then wood-fired) and grilled tuna, while the local bolo de mel (honey cake; pictured) hits the spot.

Outdoor activities

Hiking in Madeira (Shutterstock)

Malta has 300 annual days of sunshine to shout about, so its al fresco appeal is something of a given.

Cyclists (pictured), rock climbers, kitesurfers, kayakers and hikers all have ample excuse to book a trip here, while the scuba-dive sites are some of the best in Europe, with reefs, wrecks, caves and clear waters.

Madeira’s sumptuous landscape is arguably its top draw.

Covered in lush valleys, volcanic peaks and forested slopes, it’s also laced with some 2,000km of levadas – man-made waterways that double as walking trails.

Mountain biking and canyoning are further draws, while the Atlantic swell also attracts surfers.

The verdict

Both Malta and Madeira have suffered from rather staid reputations in years gone by – well, not any more. If you’re in search of some short-haul island adventure, both now offer superb opportunities for travellers.

True, Malta perhaps has the edge in terms of historical drama and Madeira has an altogether grander, rawer feel to its scenery, but neither of these edge-of-Europe getaways are going to leave you feeling short-changed.

Read more on Malta and Madeira:

Go now: Madeira

Shake it like a Polaroid picture!” my guide shouted as our Jeep juddered over mountainous off-road terrain on our journey from Madeira’s rural north to the equally hilly but sun-kissed south.

Each jolt from my seat was made easier by the views sweeping dramatically down the mountains to the villages below, towards the unending ocean. So high up that my ears almost pop, it becomes obvious that Madeira is far from a fly-and-flop destination. Almost everything in the island’s rural north is an assault on the senses, smacking you with just about every element.

You’ll emerge with salt-encrusted skin after several invigorating hours of often-fruitful whale- and dolphin-watching on the glowy blue waters off Machico. Hiking along any of the island’s levada trails, which together cover more than 2,000km, is likely to leave you covered calf-down in mud. And thanks to Madeira’s multiple microclimates, you never know what weather you’re going to get – but it’s practically guaranteed you’ll get drenched at some point.

It’s an intense reprieve from the monotony of lockdown, and it’s easy to let go and enjoy given that Madeira’s handled the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly. There have been few cases on the island – in part due to its rigorous approach to testing – that if it weren’t for the mandatory mask-wearing, you’d forget there was a virus at all. On arrival, you’ll be swabbed then go off to isolate until your result is emailed to you 12 hours later. At which point, the island is yours…

Madeira does health crises and adventure well, but in the island’s south, things are more relaxed, with the weather more favourable for a warm winter getaway. The underrated capital, Funchal, is known for its art, Gothic cathedral, boutique hotels and a variety of festivities along Avenida Arriaga. Lingering south, you’ll find the pretty village of Ponta do Sol, with plenty of local delicacies – try the black scabbard fish or sweet fortified wine – and tumbling coastal scenery along the way. That Polaroid camera will need more film in it.

Take a hike

Levadas form the backbone of some of the island’s finest hikes (Shutterstock)

Little seems less fascinating than a water supply system, but Madeira’s unique, open-air irrigation channels – called levadas – form the backbone of some of the island’s finest hikes. One of the best is the Levada do Rei: an 11km, four-hour trek through dense forest in the north.

You’ll encounter lily of the valley (among other native flora), tackle tight spots and tunnels (in non-slip walking boots, please), walk directly under a natural waterfall (these, surprisingly, are a fairly common roadside sight in Madeira) and turn back to your starting point after reaching the trickling Ribeiro Bonito stream.

The forest itself is unique, too: Madeira’s subtropical Laurissilva is UNESCO-protected, for it remains the largest area of laurel forest left on planet earth.

The numbers


The number of seasons you’ll experience in just one day while you’re in Madeira, as the locals will often warn you, thanks to its 20-plus microclimates. One minute: sun. Next minute: torrential downpour. Layer up!


Madeira island’s length (in km) from Ponte de São Lourenço in the east to Ponte do Pargo at its western point.


Career goals scored by local pride and joy, Cristiano Ronaldo, as of Aug ’20. Born in Funchal, the footballer went on to play for Man Utd, Real Madrid and Juventus. You’ll see ‘CR7’ all over the island, including in his own museum. Even the airport dons his name and image.

If you only do three things… Enjoy Madeira’s wonders of nature

Watch Whales

Set off from Machico Marina to spot – depending on the season – sperm, fin and pilot whales. Dolphins are also common, as are seabirds, including numerous shearwater and petrel species.

Marvel at natural lava pools

The region of Porto Moniz, in Madeira’s north-west corner, is home to Instagram-worthy saltwater pools formed over thousands of years by volcanic lava. Going for a dip is encouraged.

Look down at Lomdo do Mouro

Lombo do Mouro is perhaps the most spectacular viewpoint on the island. Hiking tours are available, though we recommend driving with a guide on a jeep safari with Adventure Land.