Decorative glass ceiling, Castle Hotel, Porto

Castle of Dreams, Santa Catarina Castle Hotel, Porto

“Are you doing anything special for Mike’s birthday?” asked a friend.

“Staying in a castle in Porto,” I replied, unable to completely wipe the smug grin off my face. Well it sounds good, doesn’t it? I’ve always wanted to live in a castle, even just for a couple of days. So when Castelo Santa Catarina Hotel (St. Catherine’s Castle Hotel) popped up in my search for a hotel in Porto, I couldn’t resist.

Santa Catarina Castle Hotel, Porto
Santa Catarina Castle Hotel, Porto, from the back

Okay, so this castle has never been home to royalty but it has got turrets and was built to impress. On returning to his home town of Porto from years of military service in Brazil, Commander António Pimento da Fonseca spared no expense in creating the house of his dreams. Sadly, not all his dreams came true; after his first wife died, his daughter and new wife didn’t get along and when he died the place was left to slowly decay.

When the current owner’s father saw the place, he had big dreams too. He envisioned a luxury hotel but before he could buy it, the 1974 revolution put a spanner in the works. By the time he was finally able to buy the property and set about converting it, the government had become keen to protect Portugal’s patrimony and heritage and slapped a preservation order on the building.

In hotel terms, this translates as no lifts, which, with the steep narrow staircases means it’s impossible to get a five star rating. A disappointment for the owner, perhaps, but fortunate for me because it means that room rates are within my price range.

Thankfully, guests aren’t expected to strain themselves; the receptionist takes charge of heaving our luggage up the several flights of internal stairs to our room. We follow him along the narrow, wood panelled corridors until they open onto a wider, brighter space with painted azulejos (tiles) between the bedroom doors.

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Closing the double doors behind us, we take time to admire the hand painted period furniture and the views over the gardens and the city. We’re both happy to be indulging my castle fantasy; this place is a like a present waiting to be unwrapped.

Excited to discover more, we set out to explore the rest of the building only to get shooed out of the beautiful glass-ceilinged dining room corridor by the cleaners. We have to wait until breakfast the following day for authorized access but the inlaid furniture and decorations are worth waiting for.

The sitting room next door is available all day so we soak up the opulent atmosphere of the carved woodwork and ceiling whilst trying not to disturb a couple of other guests who’d nodded off in the armchairs. Unable to keep quiet for too long, we venture out like a couple of kids to poke around the grounds.

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You can hardly see the castle hotel from the rather downtrodden Rua Santa Catarina but once through the gates, the realm of fantasy begins. The main building is like a tall, blue wedding cake thanks to the tiles that protect and decorate its various layers. At the top of the driveway, separated from the main house by the low boughs of a gigantic fir tree, is a private chapel. Even the underside of its curved roof tiles have been painted and, on the outer wall, a rather scary Mary is poised to destroy any threat.

Mary’s not the only painted lady to be found around the grounds; four saucy women represent the seasons and a few others look surprised by the front door. Not as surprised as I was to find a pair of Egyptian statues guarding the entrance to a grotto under the front of the building. I can only assume that Commander Fonseca spent some time in Egypt during his time at sea.

The nautical influence  is evident in the patterned cobblestones of the courtyard, in the frosted glass of the dining room and on external staircases.

After a thorough investigation of the gardens, which turns up a lion, a cheeky stone monk and some stunning views over the city, we settle into the white swirly iron chairs for a beer and begin the birthday celebrations in style.

If you fancy staying here, you can find more reviews and details about Castelo Santa Catarina Hotel on Booking.com (if you end up staying there as a result of using this link, I’ll get a small commission but it won’t cost you any extra. I use Booking.com all the time so I’m happy to recommend it to you).

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13 Comments

  1. Such a fascinating article of an awsome place!
    I would have loved to visit this castle of dreams and stay there for at least one night. Unfortunately I’m handicapped and will most probably not have a chance with my wheelchair.
    Nevertheless I’ll recommand this truly lovely place!

    1. Author

      You’re right, Alexander, It’s not suited to wheelchair access, although it might be possible to explore the gardens and ground floor – you’d have to check as I can’t remember the step situation. They have some rooms in the garden so check with the hotel to find out what’s accessible for you.

    2. Dear Mr. Alexander ! This is Castelo Santa Catarina Management Team speaking 🙂 please be informed that we will make some renovations in our facilities in order to be able to receive handicapped persons ! We want everyone to experience what we have to offer and get to know this amazing place 🙂 In 2015, if you come to Porto, come to visit us !

  2. Lovely photos Julie. I found your blog through the Abc awards. I didn´t even know you could stay in a castle in Porto, what a beautiful place. Will keep it in mind for our next trip to Portugal. I saw your photos of the Praia fluvial near Arganil. We used to live about 30 or 40kms from Arganil and I remember going to that beach a couple of times during summer, what a beautiful spot for a summer picnic.
    Have a great year!

    1. Author

      Thanks for checking out my blog. Glad you liked the photos – I love that river beach, too.

      If you do stay at the castle, be warned that the bed in the photos is probably the hardest one I’ve ever slept in. I don’t know if the ones in the other rooms are better but the reviews on booking.com suggest that other guests have had a comfortable night’s sleep. Don’t let that put you off staying there but if you’re particular about your bed, it’s worth checking that aspect out first. I don’t want to be responsible for any uncomfortable holidays!

  3. This is romantic style, just like Sintra’s castle, or the Rossio train station in Lisbon. When was that built?
    It is meant to impress, by using elements are are really dysfunctional, but grab the eye and trigger the imagination. The room shown in your photo is in 18th century rococo style. The tiles are the usual Portuguese art, which has a distant origin in Muslim art. The castle shape may have influences of English castles rather than Iberian castles.
    Depending on ones tastes, some may find it tacky, others beautiful.

    It seems that many houses in the north of Portugal with this style were built by ex-immigrants in Brazil in the 19th/beginning of 20th century, when the already independent Brazil was a magnet for the Northern Portuguese to go there and seek fortune. Many returned quite rich.
    I do not know if this is exactly the case.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the extra info about our room, JM. You’re right, there are a lot of buildings that were clearly out to impress and show off wealth. I think the Commander in this case must have had a lot of money to have built this. It’s certainly not done ‘on the cheap’.

  4. Beautiful. All of Your photos are great, but my eyes found old chandelier and painted tile (blue); they are awesome.

    I think that Your stay in a castle was an experience to be remembered.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Sartenada. You’re right, I won’t forget this in a hurry. It was an amazing place.

    1. Author

      It’s nice to make dreams come true now and again. I have other castles on my wishlist too…

Over to you. Please share your thoughts in a comment.