I had been invited to a friend's three-day party in Lisbon, a captivating city I've happily visited a few times over the years. I wanted to extend my stay in Portugal by visiting another place. Everyone pointed me to Porto, a four-hour train ride from Lisbon.
Located along the Douro River in northwest Portugal, Porto, famous for its production of Port wine, is the country's second-largest city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, adorned with colorful buildings, narrow, winding streets, and historic landmarks.
Although described in the guidebook I picked up (after booking) as "snobby," the Pestana Grand Vintage Hotel had been recommended by friends for its old-fashioned feel and its location right on the historic port. Originally built in the 19th century, the Grand Vintage reflects the opulence of that era, with intricate fretwork and many Neoclassical design elements.
The history of the Grand Vintage Hotel is intertwined with Porto's rise as a prominent trading hub. During the 19th century, Porto experienced significant economic growth due to its thriving port and wine trade. This prosperity led to the construction of magnificent buildings, including the Grand Vintage Hotel. Originally serving as a luxurious residence for wealthy merchants, the building was later transformed to welcome travelers from around the world.
Architecturally, the Grand Vintage Hotel blends Neoclassical and ornate decorative styles. Its façade is adorned with grand columns and elaborate stonework, while high ceilings and intricate moldings define its interior.
Once we were shown to our room, with a balcony view over the Douro River, we understood why friends had insisted we stay here. Our two nights here, where the beds were comfortable, the breakfast sumptuous, and the staff extremely friendly and attentive, left us feeling this was the perfect place for a relaxed city break. In the afternoon, a boat trip took us back and forth along the river to inspect the city's famous bridges.
Completed in 1886, the Dom Luís I Bridge is an iconic double-deck iron bridge that has become a symbol of Porto. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel, known for the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The bridge features a unique double-hinged arch design, making it one of the earliest examples of this type of structure. Its wrought-iron construction and arched spans demonstrate the innovative engineering of the 19th century, showcasing both strength and elegance.
The Maria Pia Bridge, completed in 1877, was also designed by Gustave Eiffel and was the first major bridge constructed over the Douro River in Porto. It was named after Queen Maria Pia of Savoy. This bridge is a prime example of the use of iron lattice trusses in bridge construction. Its innovative design and use of wrought iron represented a significant advancement in engineering during the 19th century, setting the stage for future bridge designs.
We then floated past the São João Bridge, a cable-stayed bridge that was built to alleviate traffic congestion in Porto. It is the most recent bridge constructed in the city, the Freixo Bridge.
A cable car ride across town offered spectacular views as well as the feeling of being on a theme park ride before we descended to explore the Ribeira District, located along the Douro River in Porto's historic heart. Its narrow, winding streets are lined with colorful buildings and traditional houses. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers a glimpse into Porto's medieval past.
It's worth taking a look at Livraria Lello, perhaps one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, with its neo-Gothic façade, stunning Art Nouveau interior, and grand wooden staircase.
Clerigos Tower and Church, designed by the renowned architect Nicolau Nasoni, is an iconic Porto landmark. We didn't ascend, but visitors can climb its narrow spiral staircase to the top for panoramic views of the city. Adjacent to the tower is the Clerigos Church, an impressive Baroque masterpiece.
The next day we drove out to eat at the Serralves Foundation, a contemporary art museum surrounded by lush gardens designed by Jacques Gréber. It houses a rather dreary collection of contemporary art, but the high point for me was the Pink House of Serralves, officially known as the "Casa Rosada," nestled within the picturesque grounds.
Built in the 1930s, the Pink House was originally the residence of the Counts of Vizela, a prominent Portuguese family. It showcases a harmonious blend of architectural styles, predominantly Art Deco with subtle Art Nouveau influences. The building's architecture emphasizes geometric shapes, clean lines, and decorative motifs, typical of the Art Deco movement.
Beyond its aesthetic appeal, the Pink House is also notable for its layout and functionality. Its well-planned rooms, each with a specific purpose, showcase the practicality and elegance characteristic of the Art Deco period. The house seamlessly integrates indoor and outdoor spaces, allowing natural light to illuminate the interiors and offering picturesque views of the surrounding gardens.
When we visited, the Pink House was exhibiting a wonderful show that explored the relationship between Alexander Calder and Joan Miró. Calder's mobiles, stabilizers, and tabletop sculptures seemed to activate the spatial qualities inherent in Miró's painting, just as Miró's universe of schematic figures drew out, in two dimensions, many of the themes of Calder's sculpture.
Even in September, Porto itself is full of visitors, but perhaps because they are from all over the world, the noise they make is a harmonious babble that reached us through the windows of our hotel room. The crowds did not take away from our experience of ramping up and down the steep streets of this picturesque, medieval city. As for my calf muscles, they ached for days.