Last updated on March 7, 2023 by Wandering our World
Whilst there are similarities between many destinations in Portugal, such as gorgeous beaches, beautiful green scenery and fantastic seafood, there is also an unusually large level of diversity in this country considering its size.
And that’s especially true when it comes to the Algarve and Madeira, two regions of Portugal that are surprisingly different…
Of course the most striking difference between the two is that Madeira archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, while the Algarve is situated in mainland Portugal.
However that in itself leads to some major differences in accessibility as well as pricing. For example, Madeira tends to be the cheaper vacation when you are on the island, but it’s more expensive to get to than the Algarve!
The geographical location of both also means there’s different kinds of activities you can do in each.
The Algarve, for example, is more popular and so offers a wider range of tourist-oriented activities. Yet the experiences you can get in quieter Madeira tend to be more nature-focused and are unique to its location – as we’ll show you later.
Of course it’s impossible to show you the many differences between the Algarve and Madeira in just a few sentences.
That’s why below we show you which is better for beaches, nature, activities, honeymoons, food and more. All so you can make the right vacation choice!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Easiest To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Has The Better Beaches?
- Which Is Better For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Nature & Hiking?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Better For A Honeymoon?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Has Better Nightlife?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
The Algarve vs Madeira: A Quick Overview
Madeira: A Quick Overview
While the Madeira archipelago is Portuguese territory, it is actually located closer to Morocco than mainland Portugal. This means that unlike the Algarve, the climate in Madeira is subtropical and warmer than the mainland.
It is an incredibly diverse island with volcanic scenery, rocky beaches, mountains, cliffs, and fantastic wine delicious enough to rival the ones you’ll find on the mainland (looking at you, port wine!). Some of this wine was even featured on the tables of the Founding Fathers of the United States!
Due to still being a relatively obscure destination, Madeira is not yet overrun with tourists either – unlike the Algarve during the summer. It also tends to offer more family-friendly, outdoorsy kind of activities too.
There’s still a large selection of resorts around the islands though, all with their own special twist. Madeira is also touted as being one of the safest destinations in the world to visit, making it a perfect place to bring your family for a holiday.
In terms of activities, many are nature based such as hiking the mountains, exploring the crystal clear waters by scuba diving, or going on fun whale and dolphin spotting safaris. We’ll have more on activities later.
The Algarve: A Quick Overview
The Algarve is a much larger destination than Madeira, which means you can tailor your vacation to how you want it.
So if you want nature activities, you can find them. But if you want a more lively city vibe throughout your vacation, you can get that too!
Like Madeira, there are many family-friendly and outdoorsy options to choose from; however if you are more of a party and nightlife kind of traveller, then the Algarve offers far more options than Madeira in that regard.
In particular, the town of Albufeira is best known for its cheap cocktails and fantastic sunset parties. If you are a solo traveler looking to mingle with both locals and tourists, then this town will be great fun – in fact we’ve even written about Albufeira’s fun nightlife previously!
Howeve,r for families you can still find several quiet beaches away from the party spots, with long stretches of sand, perfect for building sandcastles or burying your toes in.
The most famous ones being Praia de Odeceixe, Ingrina, Praia da Marinha, and Praia do Anção.
The Algarve also offers a large selection of family-friendly resorts where kids and adults alike can be easily entertained. On top of that, there are also several waterparks such as Aquashow in Quarteira, Slide and Splash in Estombar, and Aqualand in Alcantarilla.
And for the adventurers out there, there are the stunning Benagil Caves to explore, cliff walks to enjoy, several jet ski rentals, and lots more to do.
The Algarve is also a great place to surf – however it may be worth hitting the waves at more secluded beaches as the coastline can get very crowded during peak season. And be careful! The Portuguese sea is absolutely majesti,c but it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.
All in all, the Algarve can suit every holiday type. From those looking to party, to sunseekers who just want to tan on the beach, as well as families looking for bonding time. That’s one big advantage over Madeira, however the one obvious disadvantage is the Algarve’s popular spots can get extremely busy.
Which Is Easiest To Get To?
As mentioned above, the fact the Algarve is situated on the Portuguese mainland makes it much more accessible and cheaper to tourists than Madeira.
That’s because you have the option to fly into a cheaper city and then take the bus, train, or rent a car. However to get to Madeira, your only option would be to fly into Madeira Airport in Santa Cruz.
Due to the miracles of modern travel though, you should be able to get to either Madeira or the Algarve easily enough by flying from whichever destination around the world you find yourself in.
At the same time, if you are considering visiting both destinations on your journey you can! There are direct flights between the Algarve and Madeira.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
This is a tricky question to answer as both places vary so much in size!
The Algarve has many more options for public transport, as well as taxis and car rentals. However due to the fact that it is so much bigger and more touristy than Madeira, it can take time to get around.
In contrast, the islands of Madeira are less than half the size of the Algarve, and while it does have less public transport options, the public transport that does exist works really well for tourists.
And if taking public transport is not your thing, there are also plenty of minibus tours you can go on in Madeira, or you can rent a car.
Which Has The Better Beaches?
Ultimately both Madeira and the Algarve have very different beaches.
The beaches in Madeira tend to be more rocky and less sandy than the ones in the Algarve, so if you’re looking to spend more time sunbathing and swimming than hiking and exploring, then the Algarve will likely be the better choice for you.
However that’s not to say Madeira is lacking – there are a few sandy beaches on the island that still have the ability to completely knock you off your feet.
Below we look at the beaches and coastline in both destinations in more detail. That’s so you can see which one may suit your holiday preferences the most:
Madeira: The Beaches
Madeira’s most famous sandy beach is at Porto Santo (see photo below). Many affectionately call it the “Golden Isle” in English.
It is a nine kilometre long beach with bars and restaurants peppered along the coastline, and you can get there via a short (and beautiful!) ferry ride. Some people even say the volcanic nature of this beach means it has some natural healing properties, so if your 9 to 5 is giving you aches and pains, this might be the place to go!
In Calheta you can find a man-made beach where many locals go to sunbathe, so if you are looking for a proper local experience, then this could be a great spot.
Whereas Praia Formosa, which is located in the capital of Funchal, has more of that lively beach vibe experience thanks to its wide selections of bars and restaurants lining the coast.
Other beaches worth visiting include Jardim do Mar and Ribeira Brava.
Jardim do Mar, which literally translates to ‘garden of the sea’, is less a beach for swimming and more a beach for enjoying the views.
As the name suggests, instead of sand, this beach features green and flowery scenery, and it is also the host of the International Surf Competition. However it is advised you stay on the shore as the waves can get very, very wild over there.
In contrast, Ribeira Brava is a black sand beach with much calmer waves. You can can also find a variety of natural seawater swimming pools in Madeira that are perfect for the whole family.
Algarve: The Beaches
In the Algarve, there is obviously more beaches to choose from, but a little less biodiversity compared to Madeira.
The most famous beach in the Algarve is Praia da Marinha in Lagos (Portuguese language tip: praia means beach, so if you are lost and see a sign for praia, you are heading in the right direction!).
This beach is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe due to its gigantic cliffs, clear blue water, as well as its M-formation rock, which you may have seen if you have ever looked at any pictures of the Algarve region.
Another internationally-renowed beach is Praia da Falesia in Albufeira. This is a very long beach surrounded by bright orange cliffs which is perfect to spend a day at sunbathing. Just don’t forget to bring your sunscreen, as the Portuguese sun can be a menace during the hottest times of the year.
In Portimao, you will find Praia da Rocha. This is yet another popular beach in a very popular town. There is a lovely boardwalk that is loaded with bars, restaurants and resorts, which is perfect if you are looking for a balanced mix of beach and city life.
All in all, the Algarve has the sort of beaches you’d expect for any classic beach-focused vacation: soft sand, beach bars and a fun vibe.
Which Is Better For Activities?
Both Madeira and the Algarve have different activities to offer due to their own unique geography and marine life.
In the Algarve, there is a better selection of waterparks (as mentioned above), zoos, theme parks, and the like. So there’s plenty of easy ways to keep kids occupied. That’s why it’s such a popular family vacation destination.
You can also take boat and kayaking trips out to the stunning cliffs and caves in the Algarve. And if you would rather be inside the water rather than floating on top of it, you can take surfing lessons or scuba dive around one of the many available beaches.
One thing that you can do in Madeira that is not as readily possible in the Algarve is whale watching and dolphin watching!
There are several boat services that will take you out on a day trip to where whales and dolphins swim around, and you might even be lucky enough to see them jump out of the water.
If you are more the kind of person that enjoys sitting back and enjoying the local cuisine, then a visit to the wine cellars in Madeira would also not be amiss.
And for another relaxed activity, you can take a walk around the botanical gardens in Madeira or take a ride on the cable cars and enjoy the stunning views.
Finally, Madeira is also home to Monte Palace, which is a 70,000 square meter garden with a fantastic collection of exotic plants, as well as swans, ducks, and koi fish. This is a great place to bring your family for a stroll and a picnic in the warm Portuguese sun.
Which Is Better For Nature & Hiking?
Gorgeous natural landscapes are absolutely everywhere in Portugal, but especially in Madeira and the Algarve.
In the Algarve, one of the best things you can do is witness stunning ocean views by hiking along the cliff tops in Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano and in Costa Vicentina. There, you can even see otters as well as white storks.
If you are more of birdwatcher, then the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa would be the best choice for you.
Madeira is slightly more diverse when it comes to nature due to it being a volcanic island. It’s also well known for its exceptional hiking trails – more so than the Algarve – so for serious hikers it’ll be a wonderful holiday and likely a better choice than the Algarve.
If visiting, check out Parque Florestal das Queimadas (literally translated as the Burnt Ones Park). It’s nothing like its name suggests, and is instead an incredibly green, stretched out forest that you can hike in and enjoy the gorgeous nature.
And if you are not afraid of heights, then Cabo Girao is also recommended – it is the highest cliff in all of Europe and there is no better view than right at its peak.
Which Is Better For Food?
Portuguese cuisine is not only delicious and varied, but the Mediterranean diet is also touted as being one of the healthiest in the world.
In the Algarve you can find many of the most well-known Portuguese dishes – salted cod (baked, boiled, grilled, whichever your preference might be), bifanas (which is a deliciously greasy pork sandwich on a typical Portuguese bun), clams, seafood rices, stews, and sardines.
One lesser known dish that is an absolute must-try is alheira, which is a Portuguese sausage created by the Jewish community during the Inquisition. It has a soft and varied consistency and is often served with rice and a fried egg.
Portuguese pastries are also famous worldwide, so much so that you can find the pastel de nata (egg custard tart) in many countries around the globe.
However, in the Algarve, the most famous pastry by far is the bola de berlim, a soft dough ball, with or without egg cream on the inside, and sugar covering the outside.
These little calorie bombs are sold up and down the beaches in the Algarve by street vendors that walk around the coast shouting “bola, bola, bola” (meaning balls, balls, balls!). They will happily walk over to your towel and sell you some for a couple of euros.
In Madeira it is also easy to find all of these dishes; however, due to its unique location, it also has its own unique cuisine which may make it a more appealing destination for foodies.
Some traditional Madeira dishes include grilled limpets, pork stew with wine and garlic, and espetadas (beef skewers).
Desert-wise, there is a tasty sponge-cake style pastry you should try called bolo de mel which is made up of walnuts, almonds, wine, cinnamon, and cloves.
Which Is Better For A Honeymoon?
Of course every couple is different, so every honeymoon is different too.
Luckily both Madeira and the Algarve offer first-class resorts with stunning honeymoon suites, relaxing pools and world-renowned restaurants, so that part is covered.
However, there are definitely unique honeymoon experiences you can find in each place. For example if you are an active couple who enjoys hiking in beautiful mountains, surfing and kayaking, and perhaps a little bit of peace and quiet to go with it, then you may enjoy Madeira more than the Algarve.
But if you are a couple that loves the city, enjoys evening drinks by the beach and lively restaurants, then the Algarve would be more your speed.
This’s not to say you can’t get the same relaxing experience in the Algarve as you can in Madeira – after all, the Algarve is much, much bigger. But you might have to go a little out of town to experience the same level of isolation and tranquility that you can easily get in most towns on the island of Madeira.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Luxury: Set on a clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Vila Vita Parc is a gorgeous five-star resort with arguably the best views throughout the Algarve. With 10 restaurants, 6 bars, an on-site spa, a huge swimming pool and service worthy of celebrities, staying here will be an unforgettable experience. See photos and rates!
Budget: Just a few minutes walk from the beach, but right in the heart of the action, a stay at Apartments Madeira Old Town is perfect for those who want more than just sunbathing and swimming. The apartments come with balconies and great views too. See photos and rates!
Luxury: You can’t get more luxurious than the Royal Savoy in Funchal, a five-star resort with 2 heated lagoon-style pools and private Atlantic Ocean access. With spa, tennis court, restaurants, spectacular sea views from your room and more, you’ll have everything you need when staying here. See photos and rates!
Which Has Better Nightlife?
The answer to this question might be the easiest of them all – while Madeira has some fun nightlife spots, the Algarve is definitely the place to go if you are looking to party.
There is a wide array of parties to choose from in the Algarve. Want to to party at the beach? Well they have full moon parties, color parties, and sunset parties everywhere in the Algarve, all directly on the sand.
Are you more of a fan of clubbing? Well you can find clubs everywhere in the Algarve, especially in the towns of Portimao and Albufeira.
Do you want to have a pint at an Irish pub and get away from the fado for a little bit? Well this may surprise you, but Irish pubs are plentiful in the Algarve too.
In contrast, the nightlife in Madeira is much more relaxed, with most evening spots being chilled out bars and pubs by the beach.
Of course, you can still find a good party in Madeira, but they are just not as plentiful as they are in the Algarve.
Of course, that can be a good thing if you are travelling with your family and trying to get away from the chaos of city nightlife.
Which Is Cheaper?
This is another easy question to answer. The cheapest destination by some margin is actually the more isolated one: Madeira.
The Algarve is one of the most expensive regions in Portugal due to its popularity with tourists.
Madeira, on the other hand, is much less touristy and much more affordable. In fact on average, the cost of living in Madeira is 12% lower than it is in the capital, Lisbon.
However as mentioned above, the cost of getting to Madeira will always be higher, so it is definitely a good idea to take some time to plan and see which one could end up being more budget friendly when factoring in flight costs.
Madeira vs The Algarve: Which Is The Better Choice?
In the end, both destinations have lots to offer.
But if you are looking for a calmer vacation in a less tourist-orientated place with stunning nature, then you might want to look at Madeira first.
However if you are looking for a more action filled vacation with long sandy beaches, bustling towns and great nightlife, then the Algarve is hard to beat.
Whichever destination you end up choosing, we’re sure you’re going to have a good time. Warm sun, delicious seafood, and perfect views are something you will find in most places in Portugal, and that’s especially true for Madeira and the Algarve.
So get yourself a glass of wine in preparation for your Portuguese trip and book that ticket, you won’t regret it!