As I see it, Porto is really worth a couple days stay; its bright dynamic unusual streets stand out even against the generally spectacular Portugal. Besides, shopping is simply wonderful in the second biggest city of the country (yes, pay special attention to footwear!). And to top it all, Porto is a wonderful starting point to explore the area.
What Area is the Best to Stay in Porto?
São Bento Railway Station Vicinity
If you are planning to travel by train, a hotel in the São Bento railway station (Estação Ferroviária de Porto – São Bento) vicinity is your primary choice. Trains all over Northern Portugal start from here, whereas Lisbon express train leaves from the Campanhã station (Estação Ferroviária de Porto-Campanhã) located on the outskirts of the city (however, the stations are connected to each other by a metro line and electric trains).
The São Bento railway station is an attraction on its own, and there is much more to see within a walking distance: the old Porto Cathedral is only three minutes away, the City Hall Square, where a huge Christmas tree is usually installed in the winter, only 4-5 minutes away, and it will take you mere 7–10 minutes to get to the Saint Catherine’s shopping street (Rua de Santa Catarina).
In other words, staying next to the station is very convenient in all respects, be it sightseeing, shopping or travelling the country. The proximity will save you much time and nerves, since you won’t have to get up too early to catch a possibly exclusive train in the needed direction, and risk ruining the trip altogether in case you run late. Casa dos Lóios guesthouse, Vitoria Village aparthotel or one of InterContinental network’s hotels Palacio das Cardosas might be a great choice. Speaking of which, in most countries hotels in the railroad vicinity are usually more affordable than those in downtown. However, in Porto, where life is quite affordable to begin with (for example, fruits are a real bargain, for a couple of Euros we got huge bags of pomegranates, pears and persimmons), the hotel room prices are more or less equal all over the city. It is more important to take into account people’s recommendations when choosing a location near the station and the City Hall Square, for the slums-like quarters next to the foot of the Porto Cathedral, so vivid and picturesque at daytime, can unpleasantly surprise you at night.
The Stock Exchange Palace Neighborhood
Close to the Duoro river, the building of ex-Stock Exchange Palace (Palácio da Bolsa) is situated. Now there are no trades or merchants, but there are regular wine and port wine tastings that are easy to attend: just buy a glass at the entrance for a couple of euros and try everything that is presented on the stands. The streets around the Stock Exchange Palace are very beautiful and neat: the houses are well restored, many of them are adorned in glazed balconies with forged elements, some hotels, especially those closer to the river, have rooftop terraces with picturesque views, or, say, a nice green garden, where you can wait out the summer heat.
Naturally, better view entails slightly higher price. Most Shining View apartments can boast a wonderful panoramic view; another option of accommodation near the Stock Exchange palace are Citybreak-apartments Patio and Cale Guest House. The place is very quiet, since cars are not allowed to drive through a number of streets. However, when booking a room, try to avoid hotels situated at the Duoro embankment. At night time the local homeless and beggars make it unsafe to walk or enjoy the view. If you still choose to stay at one of the hotels at the embankment, insist occupying a room on the upper floors and make sure to shut the windows at night and every time you leave the room, even be it breakfast or a short walk. Then again the main streets and the downtown are free from such nuisance and you can stay out well after midnight.
Saint Catherine’s street (Rua de Santa Catarina)
Santo Ildefonso – is yet another nice district in the center of Porto (see the corresponding list of hotels here). The main Porto shopping street Rua de Santa Catarina is located just a few blocks from the São Bento railroad station. This is a pretty lively place with numerous shops, where you can find both famous European brands and locally produced goods. As I have mentioned earlier, Portugal offers a large selection of good footwear, since it is here that many European shoe shops are located. Accordingly, it makes perfect sense to buy it here, because the prices are much lower than, say, in Germany or Austria.
In addition to the hotels around Rua de Santa Catarina, there are many flats for rent and hostels, where you can stay for a very reasonable price. Hotels own parking is yet another apparent advantage of the area. However, if you are planning to travel by rail, mind the long daily walk to the station and back, sometimes up the hill. In addition, the proximity of shopping and entertainment often means pretty noisy neighborhood, so if a review of some hotel you liked mentions loud and roaring streets, better ask for a room overlooking the courtyard in advance.
Speaking of hotels in the historic center of Porto, I cannot help but say about the features that are important for drivers. Briefly, it's better not to get into the city center by car: the local streets are narrow and confusing, and just around the corner there can be an unexpected hill or a turn where you can easily scratch the rental car (which you will agree, is rather unpleasant and does not in any way help a positive mood during the trip).
Some hotels are inaccessible by car because the streets where they are located are closed for traffic. Finally, even if the hotel has a parking (ideally an underground parking that are more spacious and a great deal safer), then the fees are outrageous: the cost can be up to 18-20 euros per day. Here and there in the center you can park the car in a public parking lot: from 8 pm to 9 am for free, the rest of the time parking will cost 1 euro for every 2 hours. Payment is made through the machine but the difficulty is that paying for a full day is not an option, every 2 hours you need to come and pay a fee for the next 2 hours, so, in my opinion, it's easier to forget about this one and get ready to spend a fortune on the hotel parking lot.
Be sure to carefully read the terms of parking in the hotel / apartment lots, and should you have any questions, contact the staff/owners, especially if you do not understand how to get to the hotel by car or if it is even allowed to drive there. All in all, sometimes it makes sense to stop at the beginning of the street where the hotel is located, and make some time to walk all the way to assess the opportunities and risks of driving further.
Outside the City Center
Finally, some may wonder whether it is better to settle somewhere in the sleeping area of Porto and thereby save on living expenses, and here I would not recommend that. The city is not so expensive in terms of housing to give up the pleasure of staying in its center with all its attractions, cafes, restaurants and shops. And if the central streets offer you the pleasure of staying out as long as you want even at night time, the sleeping areas are out of the question in this respect for security reasons. However, it is usually enough being precautious: leave valuables in the hotel safe, not to carry large sums of cash with you, not show off too much jewelry and keep an eye on your bags and cameras.