We are big fans of the open-top bus tours that exist in most European cities, as they are a great way of getting a feel for the layout of the city and which places are worth returning to. So, on our first trip to Porto we bought a two-day ticket which gave us unlimited access to the two routes known as ‘Historical Porto’ and ‘Porto Castles’. The buses are hop-on and hop-off at any of the 28 or so designated stops per route and while we were on the bus we were able to listen to a really informative commentary about the area through the earphones which were provided.
Day one: Historical Porto
On the first day we chose to do the Historical Porto tour, joining the bus at the stop nearest to the Baroque Clérigos Tower. The church and tower were built in the 18th century and the tower is 75 metres high, with 240 steps to the top. The climb is worth it for the aerial views of Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia and the River Douro. Nearby are two pretty gardens the Praça de Lisboa, constructed on the roof of a shopping arcade, and the Jardim da Cordoaria with its lovely sculptures. Standing at the entrance of the Praça de Lisboa is a statue of the former Bishop of Porto, António Ferreira Gomes (d.1989). The statue by Arlindo Rocha is a tribute to a man who opposed the Salazar dictatorship. Nearby is the charming bookshop, Livraria Lello & Irmão with its mixture of art nouveau and neo-gothic styles.
The bus took us down the busy Rua dos Clérigos hill and into the Avenida dos Aliados with its impressive statues and architecture, mainly from the nineteenth century. At the south end of the avenue is the Praça da Liberdade with an imposing statue of Dom Pedro IV on a horse in the centre of the square. The bus continued along the Avenida dos Aliados to the Porto City Hall building, at the north end of the avenue in the Praça do General Humberto Delgado, a building which dates from 1920 and was designed by the architect Correia da Silva.
The bus then went by São Bento station, famous for its azulejo (decorated tile) panels inside the entrance hall, and continued up to Porto Cathedral and the Paço Episcopal (the former Bishop’s Palace). The earliest parts of the cathedral date from the twelfth century and the stunning rose window is from the thirteenth century. Behind the cathedral is the Casa-Museu Guerra Junqueiro, which is the former home of the nineteenth-century poet, Guerra Junqueiro, who collected the artefacts on display.
The next stop was the Praça da Batalha, to the east of the cathedral, which houses two distinctly different, but attractive, buildings, the São João National Theatre and the Santo Idelfonso Church. The neo-classical theatre was designed by the architect José Marques da Silva and opened in 1920. It is Porto’s main theatre. The Baroque Santo Idelfonso Church has a stunning azulejo-covered façade.
The bus then went past Praça D. João I and along part of Rua de Santa Catarina and Rua de Passos Manuel, which are in Porto’s main shopping area, which includes the lovely Art Nouveau Majestic Café, and passes by the Carmo Church and the Carmelitas Church, which are separated by a very narrow house. The two churches are very different in style: the Carmo Church has distinctive azulejo panels on the façade, whereas the style of the Carmelitas Church is more restrained.
The bus passes the Santo António Hospital, a late-eighteenth-/early-nineteenth-century, neo-classical-style building designed by the British architect John Carr, which houses the Porto Hospital Centre Museum, showing the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century medicine and pharmaceuticals.
Near here is the pretty Jardim do Carregal and the Soares dos Reis National Museum, a museum and art gallery which dates back to 1833, in the former Palácio das Carrancas. The bus continued along Rua D. Manuel II to the entrance of the lovely Jardins do Palácio de Cristal and we could see the distinctive dome-shaped Rosa Mota Pavilion.
The bus then went around the Rotunda da Boavista, where we could clearly see the column with a lion crushing an eagle on the top, which was built to commemorate the Portuguese/British (represented by the lion) victory over the French (represented by the eagle) in the Peninsular War (1807-14) and the bus continued along the very long Avenida da Boavista where we passed the modern-looking Casa da Música concert hall as well as many hotels and restaurants.
As the bus turned into Avenida do Marechal Gomes da Costa we entered a very desirable part of Porto, passing the Serralves Foundation Museum of Contemporary Art set in pleasant grounds and also drove past beautiful houses on tree-lined streets. The bus came onto the sea-front at Foz do Douro, a beach area at the mouth of the River Douro. Here we saw the lovely neo-classical Pérgola da Foz, a structure built along the promenade in the 1930s, and the sixteenth-century São João da Foz do Douro Fort (also known as ‘Foz Castle’).
As we made our way back into Porto along the riverfront road we passed the pretty Passeio Alegre gardens, the Tramcar Museum, the Port Wine Museum and the Word of Discoveries. The Tramcar Museum, housed in an old tram shed, as the name suggests, tells the history of the tram and has old trams on display. The Port Wine Museum, housed in a former warehouse, tells the history of and gives information about port. The World of Discoveries is an interactive museum which re-enacts the journeys of the Portuguese navigators. As we approached the Dom Luís I Bridge we passed the gothic São Francisco Church, the Jardim do Infante Dom Henrique, with the statue of Prince Henry, the Navigator pointing out to sea and the Casa do Infante, which was possibly the birthplace of Prince Henry, the Navigator, but nowadays houses the city archives. Nearby is the Palácio da Bolsa, the former stock exchange building dating from 1842.
As we crossed the bottom deck of the Dom Luís I Bridge to the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river we got good views of the Serra do Pilar Monastery and Church at the top of the hill in front of us and the Vila Nova de Gaia quay, with its port lodges dominating the view, below, as well as great views of the Ribeira quarter of Porto and the former Bishop’s Palace behind us.
The bus climbed the hill by the Cockburn’s port lodge on Rua de Serpa Pinto and at the top passed the Casa-Museu Teixeira Lopes, an art museum dedicated to the late-nineteenth-century artist who lived in Vila Nova de Gaia. The bus made a stop at the huge popular department store, El Corte Inglés, then passed the Romantic-style Vila Nova de Gaia city hall before turning right at the Jardim do Morro so that we drove along the front entrance of the former Serra do Pilar Monastery, which is now army barracks, complete with tanks on display and a sentry on guard duty; this area was the least inspiring of the whole tour. The bus took us back into Porto along the modern Infante Bridge from which we got a good view of the Dom Luís Bridge to the left and the Maria Pia Bridge (which looks like the Dom Luís Bridge with the lower deck removed) to the right. The bus returned to the Clérigos Tower repeating part of the route from earlier in the day.
Day two: Porto Castles
The rather misleadingly named Porto Castles tour covered some of the same places that we had already seen on the Historical Porto tour, namely the Clérigos Tower, Porto Cathedral, the Praça da Batalha, Praça D. João I, the Carmo and Carmelitas Churches, the Jardim do Carregal, the Tramcar Museum, the riverfront, the São João da Foz do Douro Fort, the beach area in Foz, the Serralves Foundation Museum of Contemporary Art, Avenida da Boavista, the Casa da Música and the Rotunda da Boavista. The main difference with this tour was that it took us all the way out to the beach and port area of Matosinhos (to the north-west of the city), starting with the strangely named Castelo do Queijo (Cheese Castle), a star-shaped fort dating from the fifteenth century, whose actual name is São Francisco Xavier Fort. The nickname derives from the cheese-like boulders that it was built on.
The bus went on to the Sea Life aquarium and then past the wonderful sculpture of a huge fishing net known locally as ‘Anémona’ (‘Anemone’), but whose proper title is She Changes, a sculpture from 2005 by the American artist Janet Echelman.
We then continued into Matosinhos, past the very modern-looking Matosinhos City Hall building designed by the architect Alcino Soutinho in 1987 and then past the stunning early Baroque-style Bom Jesus de Matosinhos Church, dating from the early-eighteenth century, and the white and glass building of Matosinhos market dating from the 1930s. The market is still very much a working market and is famous for its fresh fish.
We then continued to the Porto Leixões Cruise Terminal, which on paper doesn’t sound very interesting, but is of architectural interest due to the white, tilted, spiral structure on the top of the terminal, designed by Luís Pedro Silva in 2015. We continued back towards Porto via Matosinhos’ beaches.
We then turned into Avenida da Boavista past the Parque da Cidade, which is the largest park in Porto. Opposite the Parque da Cidade is the Dr. António Cupertino Miranda Foundation, a modern white building which, among other things, contains the Paper Money Museum. We continued on to the Praça da República, a pretty square with trees and sculptures surrounded by former mansion houses. Near here is the neo-classical Nossa Senhora da Lapa Church, built between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. An interesting fact about this church is that the graveyard, which was built as a result of a serious cholera epidemic, is the oldest in Portugal. As with the Historical Porto tour, the bus returned to the Clérigos Tower via a city centre route it had covered earlier in the day. We got off the bus with a really good sense of the geography of the city and environs and set off to a bar to make a list of the places we intended to return to and spend more time at.
We went on two tours with the Yellow Bus company, but the City Sightseeing company also does similar tours.
A two-day ‘hop-on and hop-off’ ticket costs €15 (as of June 2016) and gives access to two routes: Historical Porto and Porto Castles (each tour takes 1 hour 50 minutes). There are approximately 28 stops on each route. The ticket includes a free tour and tasting at the Cockburn’s port lodge, plus discounts on entrance to certain attractions.
Historical Porto tour: runs October to May 9.30am-5.30pm and June to September 9.15am-6.15pm daily; buses run every 30 minutes.
Porto Castles tour: runs 10am-5pm daily; buses run hourly.