The contemporary art gallery Casa de Serralves is tucked away in one of Porto’s wealthier suburbs. A bus ride away away from the bustling city centre, it would be easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there.
Opened in June 1999, the museum sits within the extensive grounds of Serralves Villa, a strikingly pink art deco delight, which was bought by the Portuguese Government in 1987 with the intention of building a contemporary art museum on the estate.
With lots to try to squeeze into our day, we didn’t plan to spend long at Casa de Serralves, so we decided to skip the gallery and focus on its more intriguing gardens. But our planned 30-minute whistle-stop tour proved so enjoyable, it turned into a two-and-a-half hour visit.
The villa’s extensive 18 hectare grounds are home to a mix of formal gardens and woods, as well as a working farm. There are around 200 species of trees and shrubs, along with many eye-catching artworks.
Having picked up a map at the museum’s reception, we started our visit in the Birch Glade, near the gallery entrance. From there, we made our way to the Beech Grove, passing Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen’s playful sculpture of a giant red trowel (above).
We continued through the manicured grounds to the Camellia Garden and the arboretum, then turned back on ourselves to the achingly cool Serralves Villa (above).
Commissioned in the 1920s by Carlos Alberto Cabral, the second Count of Vizela, the villa was completed in 1944 and is considered one of the finest art deco buildings in Portugal.
Sadly, the villa didn’t appear to be open the day of our visit, so we ambled through the complementary, picture-perfect garden instead (above).
Passing some influencer-types who were posing up a storm, we made our way down to the lake (below), which is home to a mirrored cube in which you can see your reflection (there’s a video installation inside).
From there, we strolled through the meadow to the working farm and the estate’s vegetable and herb gardens.
Then turning back towards the lake, we veered off to the left, past the tennis courts, to the Yew Glade and Olive Tree Place, and some superb brick sculptures dotted with cactii.
A short walk through the rose garden and we were back at our starting point – two hours later than planned, but thoroughly enamoured by Casa de Serralves’s park and its many unforgettable features.
Leaving Casa de Serralves, we passed a series of magnificent mansions on our way to the Atlantic coast and the Forte de São Francisco Xavier (Fort of Saint Francis Xavier).
The small 17th century fort, which was built around 1661, lies on a rocky headland that juts into the ocean and boasts an unusual nickname – the Castelo de Queijo or Castle of Cheese – because the rock it sits upon is said to resemble a chunk of cheese.
The fort seemed to be run by a group of former soldiers and inside there was a small military museum dedicated to a regiment that fought in Angola and Mozambique. The peculiar museum showcased bullets, weapons, uniforms and more, and I couldn’t help but feel it glorified violence and I was left feeling uncomfortable.
I had a far more enjoyable time on the fort’s roof. The roof, which is home to lots of turrets and cannons, boasts superb views over the choppy Atlantic Ocean and nearby beaches (above), and it was a great place from which to watch the massive waves crash onto the rocks below.
I’m glad we decided to leave the centre of Porto to venture further afield and explore some of the city’s other sights. Casa de Serralves was brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed the gardens, while the scenic Atlantic coast was a pleasant place in which to while away part of the afternoon.
The gardens enchanted you. You were there WAY longer than you thought you would be.
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